It's not easy to think of a book referenced more in the political world than George Orwell's 1984. Perhaps that's because the temptation is bipartisan. "That's Orwellian!" is a common accusation uttered from either the Left or the Right whenever the government does or proposes something they find underhanded.
I always found it an odd phrase, as it refers to the subject matter in the book and not the personal views of the author. While openly an avowed socialist, Orwell loathed authoritarianism. That loathing formed the basis of his 1949 classic, relying on Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany as the foundation for Orwell's fictional totalitarian state of Oceania.
The novel centers on the protagonist, Winston Smith, an employee at the Ministry of Truth, which regulates all forms of media and entertainment. It serves as one of four ministries that make up the government of Oceania, ruled by the Party — the others are the Ministry of Peace, which presides over all aspects of war, the Ministry of Love, which is a form of a judicial system, and the Ministry of Plenty, which governs economic issues.
Smith secretly hates Oceania and its dictatorial leader, Big Brother. He dreams of rebellion and secretly writes in a journal just out of view of the wall-sized television that's always watching, even in the "privacy" of his squalid flat. The journal alone could mean a death sentence from the Thought Police. Still, Winston continues, fixating on O'Brien, an influential member of the Party who Winston thinks is a secret member of the Brotherhood — a mysterious group that works to overthrow the Party.
Winston also falls in love, begins an affair with Julia, another crime punishable by death, and spends time with her in a rented room above the store where he bought his pen and journal. Soon enough, Winston and Julia get an invite to O'Brien's luxurious apartment, where he indoctrinates them into the Brotherhood and offers the couple the manifest of the Brotherhood.
Alas, it is all for naught. The proprietor who rented the room secretly worked for the Thought Police, and O'Brien was merely pretending. O'Brien tortures Winston for months until he gives up Julia. Winston meets her after his release but feels nothing for her. Instead, he learned to love Big Brother.
The novel is a cultural phenomenon. It is not unusual to find phrases created for the book in modern political essays. "Big Brother," "Thought Police," "thoughtcrime," "newspeak," and others have all made their way into the political ecosystem. When government officials get caught espousing absurdities, one will find the Party slogan, "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength," make its way into the conversation.
Despite its cultural significance, the book isn't all that much fun to read. It's not difficult to understand Orwell's point, but the book's pacing is far more about making that point than producing engaging storytelling. Nevertheless, Orwell is undoubtedly a gifted writer. His essays represent some of the finest writing of the 20th century.
Still, it's worth revisiting 1984 to get a sense of what Orwell feared more than anything else. While the subject matter is almost satirical in its presentation, it does help readers understand how politicians manage to manipulate truth and facts, much to the detriment of the very people they claim to represent.
Jay Caruso is managing editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.