In high school 40 years ago, we read 1984, by George Orwell. Is that book still required reading for students? In my day, we were just three decades past World War II, a little over a decade past the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War dominated the news.
At that time it did not seem so far-fetched, the concept of a diabolical government taking over and tyrannizing the earth, monitoring the lives of its citizens and manipulating their thoughts with seemingly irresistible omnipotence. The term “one-world government” brought real shudders among people who had personally suffered loss because of tyrants. No, we would never allow that – we would wisely be on our guard. We would remember the lessons of history.
So today I rode down an historical side street in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the official landing site of the Pilgrim Separatists. I considered how they had risked absolutely everything to come here, specifically to get away from oppressive rulers who claimed authority over even their opinions and their faith, as well as their bodies. More than half of them died the first winter in the New World. When spring came, bringing the opportunity to return to Europe, they readily and firmly said, “No.” Freedom of conscience was more important. It was better to die free than go back.
So here I was in the car in Plymouth, in October of 2014, and in the window of a retail sales place I saw a banner. It showed a stick figure with a big white grin and little round black sunglasses, having just finished swinging a golf club, and the caption of the picture was, “Life is good.” I notice a little trademark on the caption.
Oh. Life being good now has a trademark. Someone realizes this simple remark could gain income. And there he is, the grinning stick figure dressed in baggy shorts with a beret – at ease with his shades on, vacationing or such, no worries. Life is good for you, stick figure. For whom else is life good? Is it good for everyone? Since life is good for you, stick figure, will you share your good life with others? What makes up a “good” life, anyway?
For me, this banner raises question after question. The stick figure is appealing in a simple way, like Smiley Face who made his debut around the time I was reading 1984 and won the hearts of millions ever after (even when he started making other faces). Smiley has gone into the autonomic nervous system of successive generations, a bosom friend to all.
And now, many people drive by and look at the banner with the stick figure’s big grin, and they read the catchy phrase. Little children ride by and can read it – even very young ones.
“See, Mom! Life is good!” They can notice it everywhere printed on all kinds of items. They will want it printed on their T-shirt souvenir, and hung on their bed-room wall. It is such a nice, non-complaining kind of thing to say: Life is good. We all want to be at ease and enjoy the good life, don’t we? Surely that is what the Pilgrim Separatists, and the boys who died on the beaches of Normandy, intended for us. Isn’t it?
Yes we will honor our founding fathers. We will never allow ourselves to be brainwashed into mindlessness. We are the deep thinkers for whom 1984 was required reading. Along with Catch 22 and Johnny Got His Gun which, interestingly, gave us pacifist leanings. We came to simultaneously hate Big Brother and the machine of war, but not want to pay anything for freedom of conscience. We were programmed by hours of Saturday morning programming, and school programming, and after-school programming, and religious programming.
Somehow we came to view ourselves as independent American citizens founded on Plymouth Rock – descendants of revolutionaries and stalwart pioneers, and of the Yanks who saved the world in the mid-1940s – who would not be taken in (no, not ever) by degradingly simple-minded propaganda. Life must stay good, and become as good for all as it is for us.
The following quote is copied from a college-student-type study summary of 1984:
"Unlike a utopian novel, in which the writer aims to portray the perfect human society, a novel of negative utopia does the exact opposite: it shows the worst human society imaginable, in an effort to convince readers to avoid any path that might lead toward such societal degradation. In 1949, at the dawn of the nuclear age and before the television had become a fixture in the family home, Orwell’s vision of a post-atomic dictatorship in which every individual would be monitored ceaselessly by means of the telescreen seemed terrifyingly possible. That Orwell postulated such a society a mere thirty-five years into the future compounded this fear.
"Of course, the world that Orwell envisioned in 1984 did not materialize. Rather than being overwhelmed by totalitarianism, democracy ultimately won out in the Cold War, as seen in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Yet 1984 remains an important novel, in part for the alarm it sounds against the abusive nature of authoritarian governments, but even more so for its penetrating analysis of the psychology of power and the ways that manipulations of language and history can be used as mechanisms of control."
If you think that 1984 should now be valued as a “penetrating analysis” and that “the world that Orwell envisioned in 1984 did not materialize,” then I urge you to continue reading the blog at news.twelvetribes.org.
Let us notice the world around us, and dare to think a little deeper. Perhaps Big Brother will not be wearing a mean face, when he arrives.