Opinion: The WWII writer who forecast 2022

A mural in Belgrade in May 2018 depicts novelist George Orwell with the phrase, "Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University, where she teaches a seminar on George Orwell and the making of the modern world. She is the author of "Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party" and "Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist." The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)Scrolling through my social media feed recently, I came across a tweet with a meme of an old monkey in a rocking chair and the caption, "This reminds me of the book '1984' by George Orwell. No, I haven't read it, but I imagine that this is what the book is like."

Laura Beers
"1984" and the term "Orwellian" have been used (and abused) for decades, but our current moment arguably is genuinely "Orwellian." Much of Orwell's writing, and particularly his final novel "1984," was preoccupied with the importance of speaking the truth and the risk to both individuals and societies when states attempt to censor and manipulate speech.
    Truth, Orwell worried, could not exist in a vacuum. If the state were able to completely control what could be said and written, it could effectively control reality.
      "1984" is a totalitarian dystopia in which Big Brother's ruling party controls reality through their complete control of language. Through a combination of propaganda and censorship, the party remolds what truth means for the citizens of Oceania.
        People come to believe things that are objectively false -- as Orwell phrased it, "'Reality control', they called it: in Newspeak, 'doublethink'." In the world of "1984," "Anything could be true."
        George Orwell
        The past few months have witnessed the return of "1984" to the mass market best seller lists. Looking at the both the domestic and foreign news, it is not hard to see why.
          We can clearly see the risks of "reality control" or "doublethink" in Russian president Vladimir Putin's efforts to reconstruct his country's invasion of Ukraine as a liberating "special operation."
          If you cannot say Russia invaded Ukraine, did it?
          Elsewhere, we see attempts to control reality, a threat to many Americans' own truths, in Florida's newly passed "Don't Say Gay" law, prohibiting the discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through the third grade (and discouraging its discussion in middle and high school classrooms). A similar threat exists in Oklahoma's HB 1775, which, among other things, proscribes the teaching of any curriculum which might cause a student to "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex." More than a dozen other states have introduced similar legislation to outlaw discussion of systemic racism or sexism in classrooms.
          Each of these represents an effort at controlling reality by controlling speech. If you cannot discuss alternate sexual identities in schools, are there queer school children or children with LGBTQ family members? If you cannot identify systemic racism, does it exist or has it ever existed?
          Most readers will presumably say, of course. Truth is an objective fact that exists outside of state censorship. Orwell himself was a strong believer in the concept of objective truth. His journalistic writing is peppered with phrases such as, "This was true enough." The truth was that..." "It would be true to say..." "I believe this was true." Yet, he was acutely conscious of the existential threat to truth, and thereby to freedom, posed by censorship.
          While "1984" was a dystopian novel, it was informed by Orwell's own experiences, not only during World War II, but as a police officer in the British empire, and later as a volunteer fighting on behalf of the republic in the Spanish Civil War.
          In each arena, Orwell encountered regimes brutally committed to the suppression of truth, and those experiences convinced him of the "fallacy" of believing that, "under a dictatorial regime you can be free inside. Take away freedom of speech and the creative faculties dry up."
          Freedom of expression was the bedrock on which all other freedoms were built. "The essence of freedom" as Orwell wrote in "1984," is "the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."
          How does this apply to our own political moment? In the case of Russia, the mechanism of repression is fairly self-evident. Putin has already taken a firm hand against political opposition, including the arrest and alleged poisoning of Alexey Navalny.
          Now, through a level of censorship and state propaganda unseen since the Soviet era, Putin is attempting to quash opposition before it even forms. If it becomes impossible even to say that Russia should not have invaded Ukraine, internal political opposition to the war ceases to be a viable proposition.
          Closer to home, the mechanisms of repression are less heavy-handed, but no less invidious in their intent. In Florida, and in neighboring Alabama where similar legislation is working its way through the legislature, the intent of suppressing discussion of LGBTQ identities in elementary schools is to erase those identities from the youth population.
          Scientists and politicians are currently contesting whether gender dysphoria can emerge before puberty, a debate with significant implications for access to medical care, and other forms of protection and support for children who identify as trans. Prohibiting young people from discussing, or even knowing about the existence of such identities, is an attempt to place a finger on the scale in that debate.
          Similarly, the attempt to suppress any discussions of systemic oppression on the basis of race or sexual identity is intended not only to avoid "discomfort" on the part of those who might perceive themselves as complicit in perpetuating such systems. Rather, by proscribing discussion of historic and contemporary discrimination, states such as Oklahoma seek to shut down movements to reform those systems. If systemic racism cannot even be identified, how can social change occur?
          For most of the Cold War and after, "1984" has been read as an indictment of Soviet totalitarianism, but, as Orwell's other writing makes clear, it was intended as much as a caution against the potential threat of state censorship at home as an indictment of tyranny abroad.
          Orwell's preoccupation with censorship began with his career as a police officer in Burma (now Myanmar), then part of the British empire in India. During his five years in British India, Orwell grew to hate the empire, which he saw as a despotic regime which abused the colonized and corrupted the colonizers.
          After quitting the Indian civil service, Orwell wrote his first novel, "Burmese Days," a story of a cowardly and contemptible Englishman who knows the empire he serves is evil but who is too weak and alienated from both his colleagues and the native population to take any stand against the system.
          Orwell describes the empire in "Burmese Days" as "a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored....Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you."
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          It's a description that could easily have been written by Winston Smith of his life in Oceania in "1984," and underscores the fact that Orwell did not simply perceive fascist or Soviet totalitarianism as a threat to truth. His own empire was capable of such manipulations.
            As we consider our current political moment, it is incumbent on us to push back against efforts by those in our government seeking to control language and manipulate truth, even while we condemn Putin's propaganda and lies.
            We should defend the truth at home, and must be clear-eyed in understanding that laws that proscribe discussion of racism, sexism or homosexuality are intended to erase those truths, to whitewash history and reshape current reality. As Orwell wrote in "1984," "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."