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In 2013, Problems Are Worse Than "Orwellian"

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As this summer's PRISM revelations shattered tightly held delusions of privacy in much of the English-speaking world, sales for George Orwell's 1949 dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four skyrocketed 7000 per cent.

Riding Orwell's revived coattails, politicos and pundits across the spectrum moved quickly to fuse PRISM buzzwords with 1984's edifying lexicon. The Five Eyes became Big Brother, the NSA was twisted into the Thought Police, a whistleblower turned into an unperson and Edward Snowden was dubbed Winston Smith incarnate.

Then came a saturation of editorials. From USA Today and The New Yorker to Al Jazeera and The Guardian -- dozens of articles sloppily hijacking clever-sounding Orwellian dialect in an attempt to make the fashionable argument that our freedoms are being callously stomped out in order to pave the way for some vaguely-defined autocracy.

And yes, some of our freedoms really are being eroded -- our government is at war with critical thought, the "NSA-North" is in full swing, and terrorism is being used as a mechanism for power consolidation. But it's highly presumptuous to lump it all together as "Orwellian." Especially considering Orwell himself would have been hesitant to equate any modern political structure -- even 20th century fascism, with something as penetratingly tyrannical as Big Brother.

"There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. Always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever."

The above is Orwellian. A future devoid of all emotion -- indulgence, desolation, love, tragedy -- where even the deepest thoughts of our greatest minds are enslaved, where people are so unaware of their agency, individualism, and mortality that they exist as lifeless servants to a perpetually omnipresent and ruthlessly repressive governing body.

To be Orwellian is to be inhuman. And to throw such a solemn ideology around when referring to the practices of our current government is a disservice to the absolute and unimaginable repression that Nineteen Eighty-Four illustrates. Degenerate, devious, deceitful -- democracy is all these and more. But the fact this essay can be written without fear of serious retribution hints at the fact that we've a ways to go before the boot-to-face forever.

What's more, in Politics and the English Language, Orwell crusades relentlessly against truisms and murky political buzzwords such as, well, "Orwellian," and is at pains to point out the ways in which writers and orators tend to exploit terms that sound elusively intellectual -- using their veneer of credibility to prop up otherwise unintelligible ideas.

"Words of this kind [i.e. clichés] are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different."

For Orwell, vapid political language is the root of sensationalism. And as gaudy engagement with Nineteen Eighty-Four's vocabulary is a hackneyed debasing of our current political realities, it's time for society to move beyond that "Orwellian" crutch as an embodiment of everything from socialized medicine to fast food restaurants.

After all, in the same period of time that Nineteen Eighty-Four's sales jumped up by 7000 per cent, For What It's Worth -- a book of "business wisdom" by "Celebrity Pawnbroker" Les Gold of reality television's Hardcore Pawn fame, shot up a meteoric 66,659 per cent.

On the margins of those staunchly worded editorials decrying our governments for implementing those "Orwellian democracy-crushing measures," there were advertisements for all-inclusive Las Vegas getaways, "must-have" designer tote bags, celebrity gossip updates, the latest mobile applications and harlequin romance novels.

To increase readership publications shack hard-hitting current-affairs reporting up with cabalistic royal pregnancies, explicit Hollywood beauty countdowns, reviews of the latest mindless superhero blockbusters and trivial exposés of overly entitled superstar athletes.

As Neil Postman emphasizes in in his seminal text on media ecology, Amusing Ourselves To Death, it seems that in our frantic efforts to circumvent that abysmal Orwellian dystopia, our society has appropriated an even more chilling and increasingly realised future, that of Aldous Huxley's 1932 opus Brave New World.

"Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

In short, cries of Big Brother are but another amusement inherent within a Brave New World.

Overzealous pundits lashing out against the rise of something as inconceivable as a Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque authoritarianism are, perhaps consciously, usurping Orwell to divert from the fact it isn't just deceitful democracies that are undermining centuries of struggle for freedom and agency -- it is our mindless culture of empty consumerism and celebrity hero worship.

While we have dubious government practices like personal data mining and tar sand extracting, we also have access to more knowledge than any other time in human history, almost daily we realize advances in physics, medicine, psychology -- yet we are so engrossed in our petty worlds of frivolous false consciousness that we opt to watch reality television as opposed to engage with reality itself.

If Orwell were around, he might argue the reason we've coopted his words in order to make sense of what is happening in the world today is because we are unwilling to face the reality that the mindless media monster after which we so deeply lust is tremendously complicit in the decay of our cultural capacity for freedom and critical thought.

So instead we defraud Orwell's ideas, because it's easier to latch blame for reductions in our freedoms onto something we all agree is bad -- Orwellian surveillance via sinister governments, than it is to confront the terrifying realisation that something we love -- Huxleyan overstimulation via mindless consumerism, is the much larger problem.

For as Nineteen Eighty-Four is at pains to point out, when given the choice between a challenging freedom and a vegetated "happiness," the bulk of us always will opt for the happiness.

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