Privacy and Solidarity: Two Sides of the Same Coin in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”


In chapter one of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as Winston Smith concludes the first, most fateful entry in his secret journal, he acknowledges the dreadful consequences that his thoughtcrime will surely bring:

Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed–would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it.  . . . You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.

Before I get to my main theme of solidarity, I’d like to take a moment to draw out how succintly Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare mirrors religion, especially the born-again variety of Christianity prevalent in our society. Man is fallen, goes the born-again script. Even before he steps into the human drama, he is marked guilty of a crime that corrupts his every action. A human signals his inherent fallenness by refusing to admit guilt–“hardening his heart against the Lord,” and that sort of thing. This is the crime that “contain[s] all others in itself,” as Orwell put it.

Remember Jimmy Carter and his 1976 admission that he had “lusted in his heart” for women other than Rosalynn? He was pleading guilty to thoughtcrime. And if Carter could lust in private, couldn’t he be guilty of any other sin in the confines of his secret self? Can’t we all?

Anyone who has ever answered an altar call–or perhaps anyone who has sincerely confessed to a priest–knows the crime of which she is unburdening herself when she comes to kneel in the forgiving presence of the Lord: it is the crime of having an ordinary human life, replete with private thoughts.

It is easy to accuse Christopher Hitchens of overstating the case against religion (that it “poisons everything“), but Hitchens knew the same horrifying truth that Orwell reveals in the passage above. Any religion that denies people the right to privacy even inside the 1200-odd centimeters³ of their own brains is a totalitarian regime. Worse, people seem to want this kind of setup. At the root of our religious motives lies the abject desire to be overseen by secret police and to surrender ourselves to the very dictator who gave us a diseased version of privacy in the first place.

(Image: soulteachers)

At the risk of losing my thread, I must also point out that this pusillanimous desire to be ruled in one’s innermost self is closely connected to the religious idea that the world we inhabit is a mere vale of tears, something to be got past–and got rid of–en route to our celestial destinies. A world that ensconces unworthy, second-rate selves is itself unworthy and second rate. The all-too-common religious attitude that welcomes fire and deluge is an outgrowth of this sickly world view.

Anyone who exudes an angelic assurance that the only life worth having is the one beyond the grave fundamentally devalues this life and is living in bad faith all the time.

This world, they believe, is only a fraudulent version of the “proper” world to come. Correspondingly, we are only fraudulent versions of persons. We don’t count.  This attitude, I believe, is an outrage. Don’t let the religious come at you with their obsequious-sounding offers of succor and grace. Their story–a revenge fantasy–is essentially that there was once a conspiracy to ruin humanity and it worked. They, however, can sell you a path to higher consciousness about this conspiracy. You can even rise to master it, but by abasing yourself before a dictator who condmened you to wretchedness before you were born. No mainstream religions are really much better than Scientology in this regard. They all ask you to start by hating yourself.

If there is anything worse than accepting that you should hate yourelf, it is the logical corrolary that your fellows, all seven billion of them, are also worthy of self-hatred. An outlook as monstrous as this calls for solidarity in opposition. Humans must find a way to stand up to the idea that an illiterate shaman can cast us out of our tribe.

Back, now, to the action of 1984‘s first chapter. This passage continues the one started above dealing with throughtcrime. It is Orwell’s depiction of what it is like to be cast out of Oceania’s  leading tribe of Ingsoc, or English Socialism:

It was always at night–the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces round the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.

Well, if literature has ever envisioned the Biblical idea of being blotted out of the Book of Life (Ex. 31:33; Ps. 69:27) more vividly, I have not yet read it. It is not enough for the fallen to be cast out and condemned. They must be annihilated–made never to have existed. Why? Because they demonstrated in their heresy that there was another way to think, and that heresy will emerge again if it lingers in the record of the dead. The established powers cannot suffer the prospect that thoughts other than their own exist–or ever existed.

Everyone is in a predicament. It is a deeply human task to describe what your predicament is. Your situation–or at least your understanding of it–tells “how life has happened to you” (to jump a few years ahead of Orwell and put Vonnegut’s loopy spin on things). As Winston sits down to write, he asks himself who his intended audience is. For whom is he describing what life has done to him?

For the future, for the unborn. . . . For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

This, by the way, is Orwell speaking directly to the reader. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write” Orwell indicates one of his main motives is the desire to have concrete facts put down on the historical record. He wants the world of the future to know that he was in a particular kind of predicament. He wants the world to know that he was an individual. In turn, Orwell understood his individuality as a reflection of the uniqueness of every other soul in the world.

This generosity of outlook is the cardinal opposite of the authoritarian (and religious) imperative to impose conformity and, in so doing, to kill individual conscience.

Everyone in the world is a guardian of that 1200 odd centimeters³ at the core of their existence. This space must remain sacrosanct. But the abject desire to have this space policed keeps cropping up, just like Camus’s Plague. Keep a journal if the idea appeals to you at all. It will help set a watch against the plague’s recurrence. It will describe your predicament, and it will tell the unborn world of the future that you believed in the uniquness of everyone else’s predicament. The dedication page of all our journals says, in some way, “To my comrades, who are not like me.”







Privacy and the Decent Society: Keeping a Journal


In this series I am analyzing the first chapter of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of an indecent society. An indecent society, Margalit writes, is one in which institutions humiliate individuals.

Winston Smith is on lunch break in his dingy flat. Before he seeks the refuge of a small alcove just out of view of the telescreen, he looks out the window and takes in the horizon. Much of London has not yet been repaired from the bomb damage of World War 2. The cityscape that has survived is pitifully neglected: much of it consists of “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with balks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard, their roofs with corrugated iron . . . .”

In the midst of this ruin, we encounter the next object in chapter one whose purpose is to deny the people of Oceania any measure of privacy. It is the Ministry of Truth headquarters, Winston’s workplace. Orwell writes of it, “It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” That’s tall.

Let me remind you that Chicago’s Hancock Building, at just over 300 meters high, dwarfs even the midrise office buildings around it. Were it surrounded only by one-story housing stock, like the crumbling London homes Orwell describes, the Hancock Building would dominate its environment to a stupefying degree.

There are four 300-meter pyramids in Orwell’s London, which house the government’s main ministries. The last time I read 1984, I could not leave Orwell’s description of the Minitru pyramid behind without calling to mind the skyline of Astana, Kazakhstan’s rather zany capital. Dreamed up by a dictator, Astana looks like this:


One of the city’s many baubles is a glittering white pyramid, not 300 meters tall, but imposing nonetheless. Here is a picture:

astana pyramid

I see these images of Astana as reminders that authoritarians do not bother hiding their intentions. They still seek  to humilate the masses by overawing them with the physical apparatus of power (not to mention with the unaccountable expenditure of lots of money, but that’s another story). Despite the publication of Orwell’s greatest novels exposing authoritarianism; despite the publication of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz; despite the publication of practically everything by Solzhenitsyn, true authoritarians still feel no need to change their stripes. It doesn’t matter to them that their game has been given away.

The point of authoritarian architecture is to remind the individual that s/he could achieve no private life even if she wished for one. The state’s power to plan, spend, build and organize–and, of course, monitor and intervene–will always overmatch the individual’s power to cultivate a private conscience. The authoritarian city is merely the tasteless outward sign of a more dreadful institutional imperative within. Every physcial implement an authoritarian regime builds is ultimately identifiable with the boot Winston sees stamping on the human face forever.

Even in the presence of such hideous strength, though, Winston insists on rebelling. A private conscience is germinating inside him, and it demands to seek the light of day. It will be called to life. We do not yet know what Winston understands about the impulse to think and write. This is how the urge is allowed to express itself early in chapter one:

For some reason the telescreen in the living room was in an unusal position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was abe to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. . . . It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

The thing Winston does in his hiding place will ultimately bring about his death, but he can’t restrain himself. He had recently purchased a simple but graceful diary, of “creamy white paper” so beautiful it “deserved to be written on . . . .”

Orwell hardly ever insinuates anything of the sensual in his writing (Winston’s upcoming love scenes with Julia hardly rank among Orwell’s best stuff), so it is remarkable that he relates Winston’s sybarritic bond with the notebook so naturally. In the store where Winston spied the book, Orwell says he was “stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it.” Possess it? Such words bring to mind what David felt when he saw Bathsheba, not what most of us feel when we see a Moleskine.

Well, the actuation of our sensual desire is the heart of our private life, is it not? There is a close connection, I believe, between Winston’s Dionysian “strickenness” with the beautiful journal and his Apollonian compulsion to write out plain truths. They suggest the two halves of his innermost self.

When it comes time to put those plain truths down on paper, though, Winston delays. He writes out the date but can go no further. Is he straining under the burden of what he is about to confess? It might be ordinary witer’s block (already!). On the rare occasion when Orwell is funny, he is only coolly so. This may be his writerly idea of an inside joke.

winston writing
Winston begins his diary (Image: tumblr)

But after pouring out an initial passage of junk, Winston encounters a crystallized moment starting to emerge. He recalls the Two Minutes Hate–when all rise and clamorously denounce Oceania’s enemies– conducted the day before in his office. He homes in on its operative effect:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

Winston’s very first exercise in journaling takes him straight to the heart of Oceania’s worst offense against humanity. Any bully or sadist can compel a victim under torture to say or do things against their conscience or principles. A truly monstrous thing, though, is to manipulate an individual’s fears into a genuine feeling of mob mentality. This is a self-immolation of privacy.

Even as the Allies were winning Wold War 2 in Europe, Orwell pereived that the things that gave the United States and its closest European friends a decisive advantage could easily be maintained under conditions of peace–if that peace were seen as constantly under threat. And one such thing was the genuine conviction among the Allies’ societies that they were on the right side of history. If you could just constantly inculcate or regenerate that attitude, Orwell saw, you could harness an unassailable mass support of state priorities. The factories and bureaucracies would never stop humming.

At the end of World War 2, much of the world was understandably fixated on the horrible power of the atomic bomb to erase entire cities from the map. Orwell spied something much more insidious–the power of mass culture and mass communication to erase the individual mind from the collective will. It is Winston’s perception of this threat to human diginity that dooms him to be pursued and killed by the state. The wages of sin are death, after all, and he has committed thoughtcrime.

Privacy and the Decent Society: Big Brother Is Watching You


Today I’m continuing my analysis of the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m looking at it through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of decent and indecent societies.

Margalit argues that in indecent societies, institutions humiliate individuals, and in decent societies they generally do not. To draw an analytic contrast, a society whose criminal justice system aims primarily to rehabilitate would tend toward decency, since rehabilitation tries to restore criminals’ dignity, which includes a capacity for reform and redemption. A system meant primarily to incapacitate criminals or to enrich the providers of criminal justice would be more likely to be indecent. Humiliation would be an essential part of what it does.

In my first post, which looked only at the opening paragraph of 1984, we saw that Oceania’s humiliation of individuals is pervasive and thoroughgoing. Big Brother’s regime tells casual, inconsequential lies about little things–like the name of Winston Smith’s apartment building–and calculated, deeply ramified lies about large things–such as whether Oceania is winning the war against Eurasia.

By dominating the whole domain of information exchange, from the trivial to the highly significant, Big Brother’s regime means to reduce the individual to a reflexively obedient subject who adapts his whole corpus of beliefs to mass culture, relinquishing private opinion. This situation, not far from the real one in North Korea and in large parts of China today, surely would reflect an indecent society by Margalit’s definition. Any regime that simply instructs its populace what to believe rules over subjects, not citizens–humiliated, not diginified persons.

(Bookish aside: If you are interested in this idea, Hegel develops it as the “master-slave dialectic” in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Nietzsche expands on it as “master-slave morality” in On the Geneology of Morals. Hegel’s book is very tough sledding, but anyone can pick up and enjoy Nietzsche’s book.)

As Winston Smith passes through the doorway of his building and makes his way toward his apartment, we begin to see up close some of the instruments of a regime bent on humiliating its subjects in this fundamental way:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide, the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. . . . It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Notice a detail here. Size matters. Have you ever even seen a poster of anyone’s face wider than a meter? Even a face depicted twice its normal size, perhaps 20 inches wide, would qualify as large. Orwell’s meter-wide poster of Big Brother leaves conventional ideas of dimension behind. It is an instance of what we used to call giganticism when discussing the Soviet Union.

big bro
He’s gigantic

A repressive regime signals its overwhelming power, or at least tries to, by emphasizing its overwhelming size. The whole idea of a military parade, for example, is to produce a spectacle of numerical superiority. When the current U.S. president asked for a military parade two years ago, many of us in the defense establishment recoiled at the idea. I think much of our unease was based in the suspicion, acquired from watching Russia and North Korea over the years, that these kinds of penis exhibitions are humiliating for all parties involved. Decent societies don’t roll out the tanks to raise the country’s morale, still less that of its rulers.

It’s a pity Orwell didn’t live long enough to see the Jumbotron, or even the “humble” roadside billboard (standard size in America: 14′ by 48′). He would have appreciated their dimensions, and he might have quailed at how listlessly (and sometimes enthusiastically!) we accept these monsters in everyday life. If you wanted to hold a Two Minutes Hate in real life today, the Jumbotron just might be your tool of choice.

It is when we enter Smith’s apartment that we encounter the summum malum of Big Brother’s ability to monitor and repress–the telescreen:

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.

We will come to learn a list of horrors, many of them prefiguring our own internet, about the telescreen. It is always on, for example. The feature I want to dwell on today is its physical setup as an integral part of the wall.

Integrating the telescreen with the wall removes any visual signs that screens were once ancilliary fixtures in our homes. A TV was once an appliance that you could take or leave (although how many of us would leave it?). The telescreen is part of the very walls around you. Whatever unsettling things Freud may have said about your mother or your libido, he was on to something solid, I believe, when he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams that the home represents the mind itself. Whatever belongs to the home is part of you.

Some of our most formative assumptions have to do with what we consider normal and what we don’t. This is the point of the telescreen being built into the wall: it’s as normal to have a telescreen as to have a home.

Much of any goverment’s propaganda aims to condition the citizens to think of extraordinary circumstances as normal. Before 1947, for example, the United States had, when necessary, a Department of War. In 1947 Washington created its replacement, the Department of Defense. Today we simply accept the DoD as a permanent part of our government. And that’s because of a word. “Defense” is a consitutional duty which must be attended to all the time. It is a normal part of living in a dangerous world.

Before 1947, it would have been more evident to the casual oberver that we hadn’t always thought of ” defense” in this way. Raising an army to defend the nation’s interests had always been something we improvised in response to war, which is more or less the paradigm of extraordinary circumstances.

Recall how long it took Lincoln to generate the forces of the Union Army. The Army that became an unstoppable behemoth began with pathetically haphazard, unprofessional, poorly informed efforts. To take another case, the image we have of American industry during World War 2 is one of factories humming at an insuprable capacity. This, though, was the result of an astonishingly quick adaptation to new circumstances. The factories that won the war mostly stayed in place and became the core of the military industrial complex, a phrase that now sounds slightly conspiratorial to breathe aloud. Why? Because “defense” is such big business, it must be thought of as normal. There is no industrialized country on earth than can afford to let arms sales be thought of as unusual. Military-grade weapons are a vital sector of a “normal” economy.

I am not quite at the point where I want to draw a direct connection between a militarized society and one that accepts a government mandate to ignore history, but I believe Chapter One will pull me toward this connection soon enough.

I will close for today by noting the main commonality between the poster of Big Brother that Winston passes in the hall and the telescreen that forms part of a wall in his apartment. In the poster, Big Brother’s eyes are “contrived” to hold the viewer in their gaze no matter where the viewer goes. The telescreen does the same. These are both achievements in surveillance that recall Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon–a phsyical space whose setup enables a watcher to monitor all the inhabitants from a single vantage point. If it ever came about, Bentham thought, the panopticon would become a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

In my next post we will watch Winston Smith try to rebel against this horrible power. He does it by writing.


Privacy and the Decent Society: A Close Look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four


In his 1998 book The Decent Society, the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes, “The institutions in a decent society must not encroach upon personal privacy. There is a close connection between encroachment upon personal privacy and humiliation. This connection is especially close when the encroachment is institutional.”

As someone who likes to have my lunchbreaks to myself, at home if possible, I have always thrilled to the action in the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty Four. Although quiet, it throbs with the menace of a monstrous institutional encroachment on individual privacy–Winston’s Smith’s lunchbreak to be precise. Away from his office at midday, Smith is determined to be left alone and feel he has a life of his own despite the whole setup of Oceania, which is designed to abolish privacy. Margalit might say Oceania’s abolition of privacy debases and humiliates the individual. This humiliation is the crux of 1984‘s first chapter.

With ever more of our lives falling under surveillance, either by the government or the businesses that seek to monopolize government power, we would do well to go back and reread 1984, if for no other reason than to see what kind of humiliations we are willingly walking into.

Here are the clear, astringent words that open Orwell’s greatest novel:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

I recently read 1984 for the tenth time. I keyed in on three things that jump out of the first paragraph.

First, the clocks strike thirteen, not one. Oceania has normalized the militarization of everyday life. Clocks no longer register the flow of an ordinary, peaceful day. By putting the people of Oceania on military time, clocks cultivate a mindset of permanent war.


Orwell believed that ordinary things like units of measurement said something meaningful about who we are and could be manipulated by a sufficiently cunning authority to warp our self image. Most of us (Americans) dislike the metric system simply for ist foreignness. In 1984 Orwell imposes metric measurements on Oceania because he sees in the perfect divisibility of meters and liters and so forth a sinister regimentation of units that could have been left alone to express a tradition. This is why he liked pints of beer, for example. They were marks of a past world made up of folksy, unregulated habits of mind that didn’t need to be rectified in the laboratory or focus group.

In other words, Orwell thought that not just humans, but even our artifacts could be made to speak a new language that serves the interests of a hidden authority. This would be a kind of Newspeak for non-human speakers. In our age, where artificial intelligence devices such as Alexa help us run our (“private”) households, it is worth bearing in mind that these AIs are capable of conditioning us to favor certain words, concepts and thought routines over others. This technology has been fashioned by corporations whose job is to addict us to spending money on them. The goal of making our lives easier or more glamorous or more intersting is subordinate to the goal of influencing our patterns of consumption.

The second thing that jumps out is the name of Smith’s home, Victory Mansions. It is an official lie. To be more precise, it is two lies in one. We find out shortly that Smith’s home is no mansion. It is a dreary, dilapidated midrise apartment, like every other party member’s home in midtown London. A little later we learn that victory does not exist  as a verifiable fact in Oceania. “Victories” are always events of official propaganda, with no empirical ties to reality. They are signals to the masses to acclaim Oceania’s military might.

By giving a false name to an individual’s home, Oceania’s government poisons the idea of home as a refuge where the world can be made right, if only privately. Big Brother has invigilated his belief-forming power into the one place where the individual was supposed to rule her own thoughts.

Big Brother’s most awful power to control the home rests in the telescreen, of course. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her short 1970 book On Violence, an authoritarian regime  relies crucially on implements to rule through force. But the power of the Victory Mansions lie is that it prepares the individual to accept even casual mendacity about the inconsequential as a typical feature of government power.

I live in a new section of suburbs, so I see this kind of casual mendacity at work all around me in the names of new neighborhoods under development. One new neighborhood might be called Fox Hills. There is not a fox or hill in sight, but we are meant to associate whatever appealing images that name calls up with the new homes for sale there. Other neighborhoods have (ridiculously) aristocractic sounding names, formulated to heighten feelings of class difference. If you’re even in the slightest cowed by the name of Westin Estates, for example, good, you probably don’t belong there. It matters not one whit that there never was a Lord Westin. The imaginary version of him has done its job.

A person conditioned to accept such thoroughgoing dishonesty, even in matters that seem inconsequential, is postured to accept the humiliation of being ruled by a government and by corporations that lie flagrantly and systematically.

The third thing that jumps out of 1984‘s opening paragraph is a whisp of foreboding symbolism. That swirl of gritty dust that Smith tries but fails to keep out of his home? It is a sign that some things take on the power to overwhelm the individual despite our best efforts. An ordinary wind might be acceptble to most of us. Most of us can live with the prospect that there are large, impersonal forces in the world, such as nature. But by making that swirling wind vile with grit, Orwell warns us that men, who desire ruling power over all things, will seek ways to ride the coattails of nature into our private lives.

In my next posts, I’d like to observe Winston Smith further along into chapter one as he commits the thoughtcrime of writing in his journal. This is the tragic-heroic act that sets Smith on the path to destruction. Simply trying to be an individual defies real powers in the world whose imperative is to extinguish individuality.