Have you ever read George Orwell’s classic book “1984”? I find that fewer and fewer people have, although many more people are aware of the iconic theme of “Big Brother” and its connotations. Once published, “1984” quickly became the essential warning to a society evolving toward the complete regulation of personal lives by an all-powerful government not regulated by laws but by fear. I began thinking once again of Winston Smith and his struggle of self-awareness and liberation. It’s a pity that “1984” is no longer mandatory reading in high schools, because what Orwell outlined in his novel is what we are living today, not in a cliché or hyperbole, but in a quite literal sense.
I began thinking again about Orwell’s classic as I reflected on the unfolding scandals involving the IRS and AP investigations, although these incidents are only the most recent and comparatively minor manifestations of our “Big Brother” society. What Orwell wrote about so eloquently was the process and maintenance of a totalitarian society that lacked any privacy or personal liberties. In Smith’s society there was a constant state of war, a fear of external and internal threats of violence and disorder. It was the fear of this vague but ubiquitous enemy (terrorists) that justified the government’s constant and limitless monitoring of personal lives. Fear was what maintained the willingness of people to accept the loss of any privacy or personal liberties.
Orwell could not have written a more prophetic introduction to the Patriot Act or the various defense bills passed by our elected representatives (including Democrats like our own Levin and Stabenow) permitting the virtual monitoring of our lives. Our phone calls, our e-mails, even our travels to and from places are subject to cameras, listening devices and other methods of surveillance. The budget for domestic spying is rumored to be over 70% of the defense budget, although what is being spent remains a secret. The Boston Marathon murderers were caught because of cameras which tracked them literally from the home to the bomb site. Most of us were impressed by the investigative acumen, but consider this: someone in government has access to the same information about you and can monitor you in and out of your home at any time without a warrant. That’s the state of the law today.
Unlike Smith’s society where someone is always monitoring someone else, we like to think that the government has a good reason to monitor us. The AP and IRS scandals are yet another reminder that our trust in government is more often misplaced.