The coronavirus quarantine is the scariest political event of my lifetime. It feels dystopian. So what better way to spend my time than by rereading one of the biggest dystopian classics of all time, 1984?
Yes, I pulled my dusty copy of George Orwell’s classic from my shelves. I hadn’t touched the book since 1986, when I read it as a teenager in the Reagan Era. I enjoyed the irony that I’d lived through the real year 1984 and nothing Orwell predicted seemed to have come true.
Yet. Now, trapped in my home with my family and wondering what the end of this human atomization and hyper-surveillance will be, the novel has all kinds of relevance. It’s true that Orwell didn’t foresee most of the important technology. One could quibble with his predictions because he failed to prophesy that socialism would fall first. But despite all that, his understanding of propaganda, manipulation of the human mind, mobbing, and social isolation could not have been more honed unless by a divinely inspired prophet.
Orwell really understood the role of sex and sexuality in a totalitarian culture. Early in the book he describes a woman he sees who is part of an “Anti-Sex League.” Winston Smith, the protagonist, reflects upon his feelings about the opposite sex. “He disliked nearly all women,” the novel tells us, “and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.” (pg. 12)
This might come across as misogynistic but there is another way to read it. In Chapter VI, we get more details about Winston Smith’s experiences that help to place his thoughts about women in context. Orwell’s novel does not really claim that women are inherently worse than men, but that the social system of Oceania was designed to distort male-female relations. As part of this, Winston like any man responds to the manipulations by the Ministry of Truth, etc., by doing exactly what the government would like him to do: hate women. If they can get women to hate men and men to hate women, then the state apparatus can deprive the sex act of its power and magic. And as Orwell explains in Chapter VI, by stifling the beauty of sex the state can increase its control tremendously.
The passage below in italics really rings a lot of bells:
Mere debauchery did not matter very much so long as it was furtive and joyless and only involved the women of a submerged and despised class…The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act. Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it… Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema… All children were to be begotten by artificial insemination… and brought up in public institutions. This, Winston was aware, was not meant altogether seriously, but somehow it fitted in with the general ideology of the Part. The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it… And as far as the women were concerned, the Party’s efforts were largely successful. (p. 57)
In his essay “the Male Prison” about Jean Genet, James Baldwin pointed out that much of human culture has developed its quirks because of the fact that there are two sexes. In order to gain true control over a society, a totalitarian regime must find a way to turn men and women against each other. By keeping them distrustful, repulsed, and isolated by one another, the state gets to control and surveil the private lives that would otherwise cultivate intimate and sheltered–truly private–spaces of shared social experience.
Nothing brings people together like heterosexual intercourse. Not merely the procreation, but the joy and pleasure of it. Both Christian groups and feminists today have a habit of falling into the same trap when it comes to heterosexuality; they demean it and downgrade it. Feminists tend to adore homosexual men while hating the thought of heterosexuality; in their mind they feel this way because of hetero-patriarchal oppression. I suspect something else is going on. Whatever the reason for their hostility to heterosexuality, the effect is to keep male-female bonds reduced to the level of chatty camaraderie between gay men and the women who find them amusing. The only acceptable socializing between men and women is by definition asexual, devoid of the grand crescendo of intercourse and its bountiful blessings. The electric connection and mutual knowledge that exists when a man makes love to a woman is conveniently lost: if not barred outright, then it is, to use Orwell’s words, distorted or dirty.
Christian groups suffer from multiple dynamics that cause them, ironically, to develop an antipathy to heterosexuality that can look sometimes like feminist antipathy. Many times Christian leaders are aging males who resent younger males and project “sin” onto the objects of their resentment. There may be some male chauvinism toward women that hides behind claims of chivalry and becomes expressed through a preachy condescension about old-fashioned, fun intercourse. Churchy men are often the ones who got rejected by girls when they were boys, so they channel their rage into outbursts against women deemed “dirty” and the men who show interest in affairs with them. Despite the supposedly rampant anti-gay sentiments in the church, repressed homosexuals (and some not-so-repressed homosexuals) have often gone hiding in the church, where they can camouflage their dislike of women as a prophetic opposition to society’s decadent and ungodly fornication. Then there are many church leaders who want badly to ingratiate themselves with liberal secular culture, and find it useful to piggyback feminism onto ancient Christian chivalry, virtue-signaling about sexual harassment, disrespect to women, and sexual abuse as gospel issues.
A young man going to church today will have better luck confessing homosexual tendencies than he will have, if he simply admits that he’s going through puberty and feeling normal sexual interest in girls. If he admits to being gay, a host of church members will strive to minister to him in a loving, non-judgmental way, consulting Preston Sprinkle and Andrew Walker books to educate themselves about how to proclaim gospel sexuality without becoming the Westboro Baptist Church. But if he just reveals that he’s feeling horny, he’ll be scolded and brow-beaten about lustful tendencies and made to feel dirty.
From the secular left and from the Christian right, then, we have a convergence of hostilities to heterosexuality. And we know by now that both left and right have their own “swamps,” their elites who want to exert control through propaganda and corruption. Perhaps the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements confirmed Orwell’s warnings vividly, for we saw a host of social reactions that went against the usual American traditions of due process and impartial judgment. Even as homosexual abuse was treated as something unworthy of much attention, male abuse of women assumed such larger-than-life proportions, such nuclear urgency, that all safeguards and caveats had to be set aside for swift and decisive action. To be accused was the same as to be found guilty. People who didn’t abuse anyone but simply didn’t show sufficient ferocity in investigating and prosecuting men accused of sexual abuse were met with the same mob attacks as men who raped women. Soon, too, Orwell’s famous “thoughtcrimes” appeared in the maelstrom of #MeToo. Men who simply looked or sounded as if they might not take rape of women seriously enough became targets of virulent mob rage.
Orwell’s “memory holes” and “Two Minutes of Hate” also came into play with the massive groundswell over #MeToo. There developed a social consensus that anyone guilty of committing, downplaying, or abetting abuse of women, or so “credibly accused” (to use the term that came into vogue during the rush against Roy Moore), could not be allowed to stand in history. At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, after the Karen Swallow Prior-led enfilade against Paige Patterson, soon stained glass windows had to be removed and everything had to be renamed to erase any trace that Paige Patterson was once there. People want to remove Woody Allen movies or politically incorrect books like Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the sake of not contributing to woman-hating rape culture.
Memory holes and Two-Minute Hates could arise over any number of issues but it just so happens that today sexuality seems to be a main arena for such lethal enthusiasms. And I can’t help but infer that the right-wing and left-wing swamps share an interest in doing what Orwell said the Party in 1984 wanted to do. That is, to take heterosexuality away from men and women so that they will mistrust each other, viewing the act that gave them togetherness and mutual knowledge as a dirty and shameful drudgery.
Without a truly joyful heterosexuality, we are all the more atomized and lonely. Easier to surveil. Easier to made dependent on a larger authority like Big Brother. Easier to control–and easier, when the time comes, to be thrown down the memory hole.