Neil Postman’s Famous Comparison of the Prophetic Insights of Orwell vs. Huxley

A good friend of mine has been pestering me to watch Boys State (2020) on Apple TV for weeks. I finally got around to starting it, but haven’t yet finished it. Seems good so far. In any case, within the first few minutes there are a couple quotations that sparked my interest. There’s one that I had heard before, probably via my dad. It’s a famous comparison of the prophetic insights of Orwell’s 1984 with that of Huxley’s Brave New World and it’s from the foreword to Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Here’s the money quote, expanded from what’s in the movie:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that 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. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

That is some powerful, convicting stuff. In the years since Postman published that passage, I think the internet and the general proliferation of recording technologies have given us a little more cause to be concerned about the kind of propaganda-infused “groupthink” and the prospect of the “surveillance state” Orwell feared than Postman predicted. The internet has certainly become a powerful tool for surveillance and the spread of propaganda and disinformation, and if you want to see a disturbing modern manifestation of Orwell’s dystopian vision, look no further than to what’s been happening in China.

That said, the overwhelming impact of modern media and communication technologies has clearly been to numb and distract the public through pleasure, rather than to forcefully deprive us of our autonomy. In that sense, I think Huxley (and by extension Postman) was spot-on. The two ideas that most stick out to me from the passage are (1) that “people will come to love their oppression [like any addiction], to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think” and (2) that we will be bombarded with so much information (most of it trivial) that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism” and “the truth would [thus] be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” Those two fears have clearly been realized to a disturbing extent.

I used to think that the way to shield against such dystopian forces was to maintain a kind of hyper-focus on politics and injustice, to take serious things seriously and treat everything else as appropriately trivial. But I’ve since come to see that hyper-politicization is not the answer in itself. It can become its own kind of distraction, and make us even more susceptible to the kind of propaganda Orwell parodied. This brings me to the second quotation that piqued my interest at the start of Boys State. It comes from George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796. I’ve again expanded it a bit below from what was in the movie:

The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

All obstructions to the execution of the laws […] are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

If that doesn’t call to mind Trump and his wild-eyed devotees hell-bent on overturning the election, I don’t know what would. But Washington’s warning applies broadly to the Republican Party now as well, to what it has become, which is clearly a political force far more interested in maintaining power than serving the common good. Washington was warning us against the power of politics for its own sake — of the danger of disproportionate devotion to political parties themselves. He was warning us against the power of politics to subvert the rule of law, to obstruct the government’s efforts to uphold the Constitution.

If we assume that the rule of law in itself broadly serves the common good, then extreme politicization, in this sense, becomes another one of Huxley’s sources of distraction from what matters most, the project of human well-being. This is not to suggest by any means that the law, as Washington allows, doesn’t need to be changed from time to time through normal democratic processes. Martin Luther King, Jr. made that point ad nauseum in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And as King suggests, unjust laws must sometimes be disobeyed first to be changed. But the law itself functions as a kind of social contract that binds us together as we move towards a more perfect union, and thus, engagement in party politics, to the extent that it can incite us to break with this social contract, is not necessarily going to move us forward. Simply being “politically engaged” therefore does not mean we are standing against the forces that would move us towards either Orwell’s or Huxley’s version of dystopia.

Politics is desperately important, but only as a means to an end. Politics is not life. It is not the meaning of life. Hanging out with people, loving people, taking care of people — that’s the meaning of life. Brotherly love and faith in a Higher Power is where true freedom lies. Politics can easily distract us from that and get in its way. Let’s keep that in mind. I know I need to. It’s one reason I keep writing about it.

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