Politics & Policy

Big Brother, My Butt

Variations on the fictional phrase come up all of the time.

Out of intellectual and moral necessity, conservatives must respect the concept of the cautionary tale. “Example is the school of mankind,” noted Edmund Burke, “and they will learn at no other.” In other words, individual humans — and humanity as a whole — learn by doing. You don’t necessarily have to do a thing yourself to understand it (see Experience Not Required), but it often helps. This is why the study and understanding of history is more important than any social science, if not all the social sciences combined. The past illuminates the path to the future better than intellect alone ever could. Every single important conservative thinker and classical liberal has subscribed and contributed to this, the most universal principle of intellectual conservatism.

I bring this up to make a simple observation: Big Brother never existed. The book 1984, in which the phrase was coined, was a work of fiction. I say again: Big Brother = Not Real. 1984 was a n-o-v-e-l.

I don’t mean to talk to you like you’re idiots or uneducated, but there are a lot of people who seem to think that during the 1950s or 1960s, there was some government agency or maybe even a real person named “Big Brother” who intruded on everybody’s life. Just last week the Denver Post ran an editorial titled, “Is Big Brother Back?” Again: He was never here!

Or take this report on CBS’s The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel a few weeks ago. A reporter named Tracy Smith is describing how a school in Boston is putting security cameras in its hallways:

Good morning, Bryant. All right, you can’t keep an eye on kids every minute, or can you? A high school in suburban Boston has installed cameras that can be monitored by the principal and the police. It’s the first system of its kind in the country and, while some may see it as the return of Big Brother, the police see it as insurance against the unthinkable. [Emphasis mine.]

These are just two recent examples. I could go on for pages. Variations on the phrase come up all of the time, in congressional testimony, editorials, news reports, press releases, political debates. But nobody sees the irony. Not only was Big Brother never here in the first place, but the knee-jerk belief that he was here reflects precisely the sort of ideological brainwashing 1984 was supposed to be warning us against. It is a popular myth, a bit of self-reinforcing hysteria that civil libertarians and the simply unthinking buy into without even knowing it. To ask “Is this return of Big Brother?” is only slightly more reasonable than to ask “Are we looking at the rebirth of Narnia?” or “Is the Bush administration concerned that when Superman returns, he might handle Saddam Hussein without consulting the White House?”

The roots of this Big Brother mythology are deep and intricate, but surely it arises in part because of the general liberal conviction that the past is bad and Big Brother is bad, thus — since we don’t have Big Brother now — he must have existed in the past. I’m sure there are kids in Ivy League English classes right now who think that Big Brother existed in 1984 (the year) because that was the name of the book.

Obviously, some of the people who say “Big Brother is back” think “he” was in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany when “he” was here the first time. Fair enough. Those states did practice the Orwellian newspeak, they did invade people’s privacy and so on. But, they didn’t do that here.

And then there are some who believe that Big Brother was here — when the FBI spied on activists and protestors, for example. Whether the FBI went too far in certain circumstances is certainly a reasonable debate. But, even if things were as bad as the ACLU’s historians allege, that still wouldn’t be Big Brother in the way Orwell meant it. In the fictional 1984 the state penetrated every nook and cranny of everyday life. The investigating of a few thousand radicals and activists is not the same thing as the totalitarian debasement of language and morality that occurred in 1984. Railing against the nattering nabobs of negativism is not the same thing as declaring that War is Peace, or that Freedom is Slavery.

The suggestion that, say, cameras in traffic lights or on the Mall in Washington are a “return” to, or even just the first arrival of, Big Brother is something of a slander. You can be for or against cameras on highways, or up Lincoln’s nose at his memorial — I really don’t care much about the issue. But saying that they’re being installed for the same reasons that we used to ascribe to Big Brother societies like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany (or the phantasm police state of the 1960s) is patently goofy and more than a little offensive.

The British have had cameras in train stations for over a decade in order to combat IRA terrorism. Is the United Kingdom a police state? When you go over there and hang out in a pub, are you worried that some pockmarked dude with a black leather trench coat might be eavesdropping? Okay, maybe you are, but that’s probably because he’s gay and cruising for a good time (the leather coat is a dead giveaway).

There are Marxists, postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, and people who just like to sound clever who insist that everything we do as a society is intended, in one way or another, to impose an oppressive patriarchal (or some other flavor of sexist that Guy in Leather Coat subscribes to), or capitalist, or racist system on one minority or another. There is an assumption that all of our institutions soak daily in the Palmolive of some hateful ideology (“Where’s the racism? You’re soaking in it!”). So, of course, street cameras have to be the tools of Big Brother — why else would the Man put them up?

Um, maybe to write a few thousand more traffic tickets?

Orwell, a brilliant and beautiful writer, was a slayer of monstrous cliches. He despised not just hackneyed writing, but the two-dimensional thinking such writing represents (see Orwell’s Orphans). That’s why it’s such a tragedy that the phrase he coined has become a totem to poor thinking. As a matter of course, people on both right and left invoke the specter of Big Brother as if he’s lurking behind every new law and every new gadget.

I don’t like slippery-slope arguments. I especially don’t like them when they are ahistorical — as when people simultaneously make slippery-slope arguments and denounce past transgressions. If the slippery slope is the rule, why have civil liberties become more secure since the internment of the Japanese or the isolated abuses of the 1960s — or the suspension of habeas corpus by Abraham Lincoln, for that matter? If we are going to use slippery-slope arguments, let us at least use the real-life examples Edmund Burke spoke of rather than invoke the fictitious apparition of a past that never was.


I’m going to do a full corrections column soon. But there is one thing I would like to make known here and now (actually, I made it known in the Corner on Wednesday). In my last column I used words like “monkey” and “simian” in association with the students who applauded Alec Baldwin at Florida A&M. I did not know or realize that FAMU, as it is called, was a traditionally black college. Dozens of readers pointed this out to me after the column ran and I am pleased to say that pretty much everybody understood that I didn’t intend any racial slander by my comments. I regret any offense along those lines I may have inadvertently caused. I’ve only gotten one complaint from someone who thought I was trying to be cleverly bigoted. I stand by that column, which I am quite fond of. But, I wouldn’t want people to infer something I did not imply.

That, at least, is how it seems to me, here in Pendleton.


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