There were two influential prophetic books of the 20th century. In some ways these books are opposite in their ideas. In others, they are the same.
“Brave New World” was a novel by Aldous Huxley written in 1931 and published in 1932. In 1999, Modern Library ranked “Brave New World” at number 5 on its list of 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. Despite the accolades, the book has been one of the most frequently banned books in America.
The alarm raised by Huxley is how technology and science, rather than serving mankind, may be used to control society and give power to totalitarian states.
The 2nd such novel is “Nineteen Eight-Four” written by George Orwell. It was published in 1949. This book examines how truth and facts can become intertwined with politics and the ways they are manipulated to control populations.
Both novels are dystopian fiction. Both result in totalitarianism with repressive regimentation of people and behavior within societies. But, like opposing semi-circles of a sphere, they have opposite paths to the same destination.
I am convinced both were correct to some degree. With passage of time, the sphere that separates the divergent paths is losing air, drawing them closer together.
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy and history. Because they give it away themselves, as people come to accept their oppression, and adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Orwell feared there would be those who would ban books. Huxley feared there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
In 1984, Orwell depicted people controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
What is the distance between a trivial culture and a captive one?
Our Founding Fathers made two things exceptionally clear. For a society to remain free, its citizens must be both virtuous and knowledgeable. Freedom cannot be maintained by a society full of passion but devoid of reason.
I believe this is the reason our political and media worlds have gone insane and are constantly extending their influence deeper into our daily lives. As a culture, we do not hold these values of virtue and knowledge, in high esteem. We denigrate them.
We do not value the pursuit of truth. We value the self-reinforcing echo chambers of our own creation. You’re never wrong if you make the rules.
We do not value knowledge. We prefer talking points and tweets.
Tyrants have always relied on censorship. Censorship is the tribute tyrants pay to the assumption that a public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment – and cares. The highest form of slavery is allowing another to control what you think. Or what is acceptable to express.
We do not value the virtue of self-control. We value the unrelenting narcissism of self-serving behavior.
We do not value history where all the treasures of the human experience are made available to grow in wisdom. We value what is new, fresh, and contemporary that will satisfy our moment-to-moment moods.
And all these tendencies help to undo our capacity to think. Electronic media is dumbing us down, transforming dialogue into mere forms of entertainment. Social media transforms adults into children with their own enthusiastic consent. This prevents us not only from speaking like adults but thinking like one. Never has America been so inundated with information but bereft of wisdom.
This is the great risk of a free society – that its people become utterly corrupted and that its government becomes a reflection of its people. We see the result in the affliction of our politics made rotten by loss of moral health and intellectual energy.
History is littered with societies who willingly and willfully looked away from the very thing that ultimately destroyed them. Each of these people chose to put their own comfort and prosperity – whatever that meant to them – ahead of other people’s basic rights and needs.
This is what hangs in the balance. While the American experiment is special, we ourselves are not. We Americans are human beings, the same as all the rest. And unless we alter our path, we may be drawing near to closing time.
What is stunning to me is that these two authors saw it so clearly nearly 100 years ago.
Tim Powell MD