I’ve often had occasion to reflect on Neil Postman’s trenchant comparison of the dystopian visions of Orwell and Huxley, as represented in their respective books 1984 and Brave New World. In 1985, the year after Orwell’s prophecies failed to materialize, Postman suggested that perhaps we should think twice before congratulating ourselves.
“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, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
Since Postman wrote those words, Orwell’s warnings have continued to capture the public mind while Huxley’s warnings have been comparatively neglected. During the ten years I spent working for a Christian lobby group, we were on constant alert to Orwell’s dark vision, which seemed imminent during Obama’s Presidency. In those days, things were clear to us; Obama could never have been mistaken as an angel of light as he aggressively pursued policies that eroded the freedom of Christians and–to the more conspiratorial minded among us–inched us closer to the Orwellian apocalypse.