NSA spy scandal boosts sales of Orwell's '1984' – here's why

Novel that gave us Big Brother and doublespeak is full of eerie similarities to US intelligence debacle, writes Richard Jinman


THE National Security Agency spying scandal has had an unusual side effect – sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 are going through the roof.

Two editions of the 1949 book, which depicts a nightmarish world where citizens are subjected to constant surveillance, have rocketed onto Amazon’s Movers & Shakers page thanks to a whopping 6000 per cent increase in sales.

IT website The Register says “people are buying it up either to learn about what could be, or simply because recent events reminded them to read the classic”. Whatever the reason for its dramatic resurgence, there are certainly some eerie similarities between Orwell’s book and the recent revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance operations.

The setting: Orwell’s 1984 is set in Oceania, a world of “perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance and public mind control”. The NSA scandal is set in the United States during the Obama administration’s second term. America’s perpetual ‘War on Terror’ has been used to justify omnipresent government surveillance of phone and internet usage.

The charismatic leaders: Oceania is controlled by a “quasi-divine” moustachioed leader called Big Brother. He enjoys an intense cult of personality, but it’s whispered he may not even exist. America is controlled by Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. He enjoys a cult of personality despite whispers from Donald Trump and other right-wingers that his US birth certificate doesn’t exist. Obama does not wear a moustache – in public at least – but he enjoyed quasi-divine status when he first came to power in 2009. Now his liberal credentials are looking distinctly tattered. In recent days it has been suggested that his campaign slogan, ‘Yes, we can,’ may have referred to his government’s ability to monitor Americans’ phone conversations.

The anti-heroes: Orwell’s protagonist is Winston Smith, a worker at the sinister Ministry of Truth. He is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism – re-writing old newspaper articles so that they support the party line. Smith is described as a “diligent and skilful” worker, but he secretly dreams of rebelling against Big Brother. The NSA scandal’s protagonist is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor. Snowden is paid $200,000 a year for his diligent and skilful work at the sinister agency, but is secretly appalled by its “massive surveillance machine”. He dreams of rebelling against the NSA by leaking its secrets to journalists.

The beautiful heroines: In 1984, Winston falls in love with Julia, a beautiful 26-year-old party worker. As their illicit affair gathers pace she acknowledges that they will eventually be detected and arrested, because “everybody always confesses”. Edward Snowden’s girlfriend is Lindsay Mills, a beautiful 28-year-old performance artist he left behind in Hawaii. Devastated by her boyfriend’s sudden departure, she confesses on her blog: “I don’t know what will happen from here. I don’t know how to feel normal.”

The sinister technology: The citizens of Oceania are kept under surveillance by telescreens, electronic devices in every room which “eliminate the chance of secret conspiracies” against the state. Citizens in every country in the world – excluding the US – are kept under surveillance by computer screens attached to the internet. The NSA hopes its ability to monitor internet use will eliminate the chance of secret conspiracies against America.

The sinister language: Orwell’s 1984 introduced the phrase ‘doublespeak’ – language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. The website TechCrunch accuses the heads of Facebook and Google of using doublespeak to obfuscate the companies’ role in the spying scandal. “You didn’t spell out your denials of the NSA’s data spying program in plain English, and now we know why,” says TechCrunch. “You were obligated to help the government in its spying, but were muzzled.”

Richard Jinman is Deputy Editor of The Week.co.uk. He has worked for The Guardian, The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald

Disclaimer: The Orwell Society exists to promote the widest possible range of debate about the ideas and works of George Orwell. It promotes no particular views on Orwell nor on particular political/social/cultural/economic issues. All articles, then, appearing on the site should be considered the views of the particular writer (who takes full responsibility for them) rather than the Orwell Society as a whole.

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