'1984' 60 Years Later George Orwell's dystopian novel of the future, 1984, was published six decades ago. Many of the terms Orwell coined have passed into popular usage. Christopher Hitchens, author of Why Orwell Matters, explains the novel's continued significance.
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'1984' 60 Years Later

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'1984' 60 Years Later

'1984' 60 Years Later

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Doublethink, Big Brother, Newspeak, the Thought Police - all are now retirement age. "1984," George Orwell's dystopian novel of the future was published 60 years ago on June the 8th, 1949. Many call the story of Winston Smith and the Ministry of Truth one of the most influential novels ever written.

So what did you learn from "1984"? And if you taught "1984" in high school or in college, how do you keep the book relevant? Our number is 800-989-8255. You can also email us: talk@npr.org.

Joining us now is Christopher Hitchens, author of the book "Why Orwell Matters." He's on the phone with us from his home here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program today.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Author, "Why Orwell Matters"): Very good of you to invite me.

CONAN: And what did you learned from "1984"?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I was thinking as you were talking of what people have been taught about it, and I know that for a great number of American and I think also Western European students, it was taught as a kind of Cold War parable -not completely inaccurately, because it's clearly a communist rather than a fascist form of totalitarianism. There's a blend of both that's being attacked. After all, fascism was dead by the time Orwell started to write the book.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HITCHENS: So it was much more challenging to write about the communist version of the totalitarian idea.

CONAN: Fascism was dead and discredited.

Mr. HITCHENS: And, indeed, discredited. So that would have been, as they say, flogging a dead horse. But he did issue a very strong statement when the book came out, saying please don't misinterpret this. It's not an attack on socialism. It's not an attack on the left, as such.

And he said, I've set the action of it in England to show that the British people are no better than anyone else - no worse, but no better - that it could happen here, too, that's it's a permanent danger and temptation.

I think that's one of the reasons why the book has survived, because he made sure that it could be independent of time and place.

CONAN: So it's not just about the 20th century totalitarianism?

Mr. HITCHENS: No. Orwell had three targets in his life, as I say in my book, of journey. One was - the first one that he drew his sights on, first one he experienced was actually British imperialism in Burma and elsewhere in Asia, where he realized it was a dirty secret in the racial domination of one nation by another, and the sexual temptations that came from that, that are mentioned in his book, "Burmese Days," the opportunity to exploit people, not just as workers, but as females and as objects of desire.

So he understood that awfully well at this time when these subjects were not mentionable. Then, of course, when fascism attacked Europe, he took up arms himself and went to Spain to oppose it. It's interesting, by the way. He hardly writes anything against fascism in that period.

He assumes that everyone knows that there's something pornographic and ghastly and evil about it. You don't really need to explain why you're against it.

And then, having run into the communists in Spain who pretend to be on his side but aren't really, he spends the rest of his life warning the intellectuals that if they believe in Josef Stalin and in the Russian model, they're being terribly deceived, and/or they're deceiving others.

CONAN: Nevertheless, he considered himself a socialist.

Mr. HITCHENS: Very much so. He was - he joined in the Spanish Civil War a militia that was politically, you could say, to the left of the communist party.

There was a left opposition almost Trotskyist formation. And he was a member in Britain of the Independent Labour Party, which is well to the left of the mainstream.

So, no, he died a socialist, all right, but he was absolutely convinced that therefore, if only for that reason, that it was socialist illusions that he should be exposing.

CONAN: It's interesting. You say that he assumed that everybody knew the horrors of fascism in the late 1930s. It was a time when elements of British society were very attracted to fascism.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. There were people…

CONAN: And American society, too, I have to say.

Mr. HITCHENS: Oh, yes. There was, of course, there were groups like America First, Charles Lindbergh's group that, while they pretended to be neutral early in that - anti-war, actually secretly thought that it wouldn't be at all a bad thing if the Axis powers won in Europe and in Asia.

In Britain, there were people who were even more openly sympathetic than that, many of them among the aristocracy, the Anglo-German League, and, of course, a group of people around Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who secretly hoped that they could make an ally, at least temporarily, against what they thought of as the main enemy, namely communism. Orwell was, of course, very excoriating about that kind of hypocrisy.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Christopher Hitchens. And 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org. What do we learn from "1984?"

And let's start with Jason(ph). Jason with us from Rochester, New York.

JASON (Caller): Hello.


JASON: Glad to be on the show. And, Mr. Hitchens, it's great pleasure to be on the show with you as the guest.

Mr. HITCHENS: Thank you, the same thing.

JASON: I thought I'd recount an event from my youth. When I was 13 and in the eighth grade, that was in 1984, and I went to and honors high school in Buffalo, New York, City Honors High School. And the teachers, unbeknownst to us, had, on one day, prepared an exercise called 1984 Day. And we all came to school and we noticed that the clocks in the school had all - had photocopies put over them of the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill.

And we we're all - I can't remember too many of the details on what the teachers were telling us, but basically we were, you know, instructed that some totalitarian transformation had occurred during the night, that, you know, we were - this was the beginning of our reeducation. And it lasted all through the day.

Certain students, you know, were dragged away to, you know, to some sort of internment facility in the school gym. And it lasted for quite awhile until at last some of the students actually got on to the PA system and revealed that this was all a hoax.

CONAN: Jason, I hope you didn't have any classes that day in Room 101.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JASON: Well, I tell you this: I had not read "1984." I only knew that brainwashing was a significant part of it. And as soon as I realized what was taking - I didn't realize, of course, that it was a hoax until later. I was as scared as a lot of the other students. And all I kept doing was repeating over and over to myself two plus two equals four, two plus two equals four.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, of course, it's interesting they start with the clock. So that was the first thing you notice because if you remember the first…

JASON: And do you…

Mr. HITCHENS: …the opening sentence of the novel is it was a bright cold day in April, and all the clocks were striking 13 - very good way of getting the reader's attention. I mean, of course, this is a good moment for me to mention something I should have said earlier. Any fool, Orwell would have said, can write about journey and how horrible it is and how the will to power is an evil and often perverted temptation to people. But what he wouldn't do is leave it at that way.

He was interested in it. He goes, why are people so keen to obey? Why will they do as they're told, really, without being coerced or that much? Why will they drag their fellow creatures away and lock them up or torture them if they're under orders, if they want to please the authority? That's the real filthy secret at the heart of power.

The will to power is easy to understand. The will to obey is the problem we have as humans. And what he was trying to do in the novel was to teach people how to resist mentally, how not to become serfs or slaves.

JASON: Mr. Hitchens, I wonder if I could ask you a question.

Mr. HITCHENS: Please.

JASON: There has been some debate from time to time about which future was more likely to occur, the future of "1984" or the future of "Brave New World?"


JASON: And I can't help feeling that at this time in American history when I think our muscle is starting to turn to fat a little bit, if you think that there's any credibility to the idea that we are, you know, for all our…

Mr. HITCHENS: Yeah. I know - I don't mean touch your flag, I've got your drift. If you like, you can look up the introduction that I wrote to Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and "Brave New World Revisited." It's in a uniform edition, published, I think, by Harcourt Press, where I point out something that not everyone knows.

Incredibly, Aldous Huxley was George Orwell's teacher.


Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. Of French at Eton College in the - during the start of the First World War. And they sent each other copies of each other's books a few decades later to compare notes. Very few people notices, and I reprint the correspondence. And Huxley kept on saying to all, yes, I know, I know, I know. There's the whip, there's the boot, there's the jackboot, there's the truncheon and so. But I think in the future authority will be wielded by governments that offer people infinite amounts of treasure, recreation and consumer goods, and drugs. And that's how it'll be done from now on.

And you can say actually that both things are true in a way. I mean, look what the Chinese government really does now. It tries to get people to obey because of prosperity - it's given up on them on the whip of the jackboot. But look at North Korea, which is an almost exact model of what an "1984" society would look and feel like, I've been there. It's as if - and North Korea state was founded almost the same year that "1984" was published.

And you get the feeling when you're there that someone had, there's a copy of the book in Korea to Kim Il Sung, the founder, and said, do you think we could make this work? And he said, well, we can sure try.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much.

Mr. HITCHENS: So both forms of totalitarianism - both forms of the temptation are still on offer, if you follow me.

CONAN: Well, here's an email from Gabe(ph) in San Antonio, regarding the anniversary of Orwell's classic. I think it's safe to say the citizens of the world have overcome the danger of information technology being used against us at our privacy. It appears that instead we use these in technologies to ensure transparency from our government. I think the next threat posed is a much more subtle danger, the eerie world of genetic engineering and sedation described in "Brave New World." But I do believe humanity will always overcome.

But it's interesting he makes that point on a day - in fact, the Chinese government is insisting that manufactures of computers that are being imported to China includes software that bars access to certain parts of the Internet.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes, that is very, very - I was talking to a correspondent who's likely to be right in the long run, that actually governments are getting to the stage where they weren't ever be able to be sure they can control all this, as they could in the days of the plugged-in home telephone and the printing press, certainly.

CONAN: And short wave radios.

Mr. HITCHENS: I think so, yes. But - I mean, let's not be too confident. People used to say about "1984," you couldn't do it because that level of surveillance would mean that you have to employ half of the country to spy on the other half. It'd be incredibly labor intensive. It'd be so boring and frustrating.

CONAN: It would be East Germany, in fact.

Mr. HITCHENS: Then we open the Stasi files.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HITCHENS: I was just going to say, we should open the Stasi files and there they are, these Germans simply did have something like a third of the population on the payroll doing nothing except piling up paper on their friends and relatives. So never think of a satire - and Orwell was a great reader of Jonathan Swift, of Defoe and the other great satirists - never think about a satire that couldn't be matched by reality.

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Hitchens on the 60th anniversary of the publication of "1984." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Peter(ph) is with us. Peter, calling from San Francisco.

PETER (Caller): Hi there. I'm a school teacher about 20 miles south of San Francisco. And I teach my kids about Burma today. And historically, one of my foils for doing that is a book called "Finding George Orwell…


PETER: …in Burma."

So in response to your - an ultimate question, how do you keep Orwell's "1984" alive today, teach the kids about Burma.


Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. The book is by Emma…

PETER: By a woman named Emma Larkin…

Mr. HITCHENS: Emma Larkin…


Mr. HITCHENS: …I knew it was Emma.

PETER: Yeah.

Mr. HITCHENS: It's a very good book. And she has a sort of sour joke that is told by Burmese oppositionists. By the way, you're quite right to not call it Myanmar as the dictatorship wants us to.

PETER: Yeah.

Mr. HITCHENS: And she says - she quotes them(ph) as saying George Orwell wrote three novels about this country, "Animal Farm," "1984" and "Burmese Days."


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: So he - they think that their country got the best of his attention. In a way, a lot of what he did learned about the different forms in which humans can be cruel to one another was from his time as a policeman, a job in Burma, a job that he threw up because I think he feared it was making him into a sadist.

PETER: Yeah. I think Emma Larkin agrees with you. Anyway, thank you so much for your time.

Mr. HITCHENS: Oh, and you.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the phone call.

And Christopher Hitchens, we know you've got another appointment and to have to run. And we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us today.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, it was very good of you to ask me. And I'm sorry, but it's also Thomas Paine's 200th - not birthday - death day today. So - Orwell was a great admirer of him as a revolutionary pamphleteer, so I have to try and uphold his reputation as well.

CONAN: And if you'd like, you can go back and listen to our interview with Christopher Hitchens about his thoughts on Thomas Paine. Appreciate your time.

Mr. HITCHENS: Oh, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. HITCHENS: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Christopher Hitchens, the author of "Why Orwell Matters," joined us today on the line from his home here in Washington. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Eric(ph). Eric with us from St. Louis.

ERIC (Caller): Hi there, Neal.


ERIC: I teach freshman composition at the University of Missouri - Kansas City, actually. And a popular, you know, a popular lesson in freshman comp is talking about Orwell's thoughts about language, specifically kind of its criticism of kind of obtuse academic language as a means of obfuscation.

And I think that "1984," one of the main things I take away from that is his ultimate extension of that theme into news, showing how you can completely control modes of thought in a society by altering what acceptable language is.

CONAN: I wonder, if you think that we teach "1984" - I read it in high school and I think it's largely a high school requirement - is that too early? Should we read it later?

ERIC: I think that a lot of the substance of "1984" probably would come out better at the college level, specifically after more historical training, you know, after everyone has gone through their high school history classes at least.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's see if we can go next to Todd(ph). Todd with us from Cincinnati.

TODD (Caller): Yes. I've had - thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TODD: I'm a student at Cincinnati State Technical College, and I actually just finished reading "1984" again. And I'm in an ethics class, and we got into some very interesting discussions there about - because there's obviously a lot of ethical questions raised in "1984," and we did a lot of discussions about, like, a lot of the fallacies involved in "1984."

And I think it's very relevant in this day and age because we, by reading it, can help you realize some of the fallacies that are used a lot in today's even - I mean, you even see it today in a lot of our national media. There's never hardly any discussion about actually substantive issues. There's a lot of talk about, you know, what famous people are doing, you know, who's getting involved in what, and not actual talk about, you know, maybe the multiple wars that we have going on and things like that.

And you need to reflect upon that. So we don't even - don't allow things to happen like that in our society. Because even though maybe the whole, entire encompassing of that is not possible, it's very possible to use some of the issues in that to help control a population.

CONAN: Well, sounds like you're talking about news-speak there.

TODD: Well, I'm sorry?

CONAN: Sounds like you're talking about news-speak.

TODD: Yes. That was definitely one of the issues that we talked about and the whole concept of doublethink, especially - I mean, you see a great example of it with the killing of the abortion doctor. You have someone who is claiming to be pro-life, but then he's taking life with his own hand, and convinced themselves that that's okay. And there's - I mean, definitely all kinds of issues that come up from "1984"…

CONAN: Not as an instrument of state policy, but I can see your point. Anyway, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

TODD: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And again, "1984" published in 1949, 60 years ago today. The author: George Orwell.

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