Big Brother's Beginnings

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Befitting its status as a “classic,” George Orwell’s 1984 is frequently mentioned by practitioners of the written arts, usually in a context such as, “Reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, the US government today revealed plans for more scanning of private Web traffic, email.”

Actually, the energetic referencing of Orwell’s most dystopian of works – which is saying something – has caused it to transcend the realm of a mere classic, enshrining it as a cliché.

The reason for said overuse is that the parallels between the all-powerful government so starkly envisioned in Orwell’s book and the steady growth in government power in the real world today are hard to ignore. It’s almost as if Orwell penned a script that every subsequent government, as circumstances and technology allowed, has followed as closely as a devout Amish follows the Ordnung.

But there is one aspect of 1984 that most commentators fail to mention: in the end, Big Brother wins.

It’s not even a close thing: at no point in Orwell’s book does Big Brother break even a little sweat as it goes about crushing Winston Smith and all other would-be malcontents.

Now, it may be that Orwell, seriously afflicted with tuberculosis at the time of writing his darkest book, couldn’t muster the creativity to concoct a deus ex machina to tip Big Brother over. But in my opinion, he simply came to the conclusion that once a certain threshold of power has been attained by government, there’s no way to unseat it. Minor examples for that contention are found in abundance and include, I would propose, the longevity of Robert Mugabe’s reign and North Korea’s Kim Il Sucks dynasty.

For me, then, the real message of 1984 is that once governments are allowed to get too firm a grip on the reins of power – including the judicial, the constabulary, the military, the media – they are not just imminently corruptible but super-hardened to any real change.

Which brings me to the theme of today’s musings: the chestnut from whence such grand power grows.

I, Pencil, Leonard Read’s 1958 essay, a video version of which you can watch here, explains how the free market works using the simple example of how the lowly pencil is produced and brought to market.

While I can have no hope of duplicating the success of Read’s work, I’ll try to use the same sort of simplistic example – replacing the pencil with the coca leaf – to expose the genesis of Big Brother’s steady assent to unassailable power.

That there is even a law against such a plant as this – or any plant, for that matter – seems just the right starting point for today’s musings. And so tucking a few coca leaves into the space between my cheek and jaw, which thanks to culture and tradition in this corner of Argentina is still legal, we begin.

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