On April 4 in a fictional 1984, Winston Smith began writing in his diary. He could not be sure of the precise year, since the Party was constantly altering the past. In a time of constant surveillance and oppressive conformity, he asserted on paper that he was writing, “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone.” Smith’s creator, having spent his adult life chronicling and condemning oppression of all sorts, despaired at the state of the world, at free peoples’ acceptance of reduced freedom, and at technology’s control over more and more aspects of life. With two blocs of nations (which seemed to him the predecessors of Oceania and Eurasia) locked in an ideological and geopolitical struggle, with one superpower armed with nuclear weapons and the other about to obtain them, there were many reasons for a defender of freedom and truth like George Orwell to despair.
On April 4 in the real 1949 (the same year Orwell’s novel was published), NATO was formed. Facing down the Soviet threat, its members committed themselves to the principle that, “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” In the decades to come, the United States and the Soviet Union would face off in far-flung locations around the world, confronting each other with proxy wars, insurgencies, coups, espionage, propaganda, and public diplomacy. In 1962, they would come extremely close to destroying each other with nuclear weapons. While Americans throughout this period would rightly think of their country as leader of the free world (even as it often leant its support to ruthless dictators in the name of keeping communism at bay), it would rely heavily on allies throughout the Cold War — and none more so than its fellow members of NATO.
Today, Orwell looks prescient in many ways. Like telescreens, our computers and smartphones command our attention at all times. Like the Party’s control of the past, objectivity is under assault, both from right-wing accusations of “fake news” and from left-wing assertions that questioning people’s deeply held beliefs “invalidates [their] existence.” Hardliners on both sides reject scientific knowledge that is ideologically inconvenient. Angry mobs, both in person and on social media, enforce conformity by condemning any deviation from the true path with the vigor of a Party member condemning Emmanuel Goldstein. As Orwell foresaw a society where fear and hatred of enemies was always on the minds of obedient subjects — the Two Minutes Hate was only the most vicious and public form of this mentality — today’s fiercest partisans and puritans are constantly on the lookout for new outrages, for new reasons to incite anger and contempt. Perhaps the most significant difference is that, where Orwell foresaw totalitarian governments controlling people from the top down, today’s attacks on free thought come from multiple directions, from bottom-up mobs and Silicon Valley titans as well as political figures. It is not only the National Security Agency that can use technology to keep tabs on the activities of citizens from within their own countries.
Today, threats to solidarity among NATO members come just as much from within the alliance as from without. While the end of the Cold War threw the alliance’s very rationale into doubt, it eventually found other causes to take up, from halting ethnic violence in the Balkans to retaliating for the 9/11 attacks. But Donald Trump’s constant condemnation of America’s allies, and Vladimir Putin’s aggression on fronts from Ukraine to cyberspace, have shaken NATO like never before. While military threats to Western allies are far weaker than during the Cold War, the lack of clear commitment to collective security shown by the American president is a severe blow to allies’ confidence. When NATO was formed, the greatest threat to liberal democracy within its member states generally came from the far left, from communists and their fellow travelers. Today, as if intentionally imitating The Manchurian Candidate, the greatest internal threat comes from the hard right, from reactionary forces — both in America and in Europe — friendly to the regime in Moscow, whether their friendship stems from raw political self-interest, from a preference for Russian-style authoritarian traditionalism over liberal democratic pluralism, or from both.
In the face of these threats both foreign and domestic, believers in liberty, democracy, open-mindedness and objectivity must be constantly vigilant. We must realize when the technologies that have brought so many benefits to people around the world are abused by the forces of intolerance and repression. Resistance will be difficult, whether the people we are resisting come from governments, corporations, or uncivil society — not everyone has the courage to stand up in the face of condemnation, and we should not expect every believer in freedom to be a hero or a martyr. But even a small act of resistance to the assault on free expression and free thought — a dissenting tweet, an appeal to a friend not to make political criticisms personal, a willingness to give someone the benefit of the doubt, even a choice to put down the phone and take a break from social media — will have benefits, both for the individual and for society.
We must not allow our vigilance to devolve into a paranoia and intolerance of our own. If we are quick to condemn all who doubt the benefits of free society as advocates for Big Brother, we will sink to the level of the MAGA and SJW forces we fight against. It is always tempting to believe that we are inherently better than the people we criticize, that we are the good ones and they are the bad ones. But as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so wisely wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Just as everyone is capable of helping their fellow human beings, everyone is equally capable of harming them. We must never forget that.
Whether in 1949, 1984, or 2019, freedom does not defend itself. It only survives when men and women who realize its value stand up and defend it. We live in an age of cynicism, loneliness, harshness, and frequent despair. Forces that a generation ago seemed to be bringing us all together are today tearing us apart. The kinds of grand standoffs that seemed so recently to be things of the past have come back. Our memories, our attention spans, our consciences, our desires to learn and grow, and our senses of fairness and decency are under attack. These are our most important weapons in the struggle to keep freedom alive. We must make good use of them.