Re-Reading George Orwell’s 1984 To Understand the Cancel Culture

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“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

                                                            1984, George Orwell (1949)


The Cancel Culture is breathtaking for those of us who have studied history or have lived long enough to have seen history made. It is almost unimaginable that statues of great figures in American history like Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt would be removed, as they are not currently politically correct. It is eerily similar to the frightening totalitarian states run by Stalin and Hitler and, to some extent, still operated by President Xi Jinping in China. As was laid out so presciently by George Orwell in the above quote, the past is rewritten by those who control the present in totalitarian societies.

A good example of this phenomenon is the Great Leap Forward ushered in by Mao Zedong in Communist China from 1958 to 1961. One of the two main initiatives of the Great Leap Forward was the Chinese Communist Party’s forced collectivization of the peasants, which was responsible for the death by starvation of approximately 40 million people. In China, they call this period the Great Famine, as if the deaths resulted from natural causes.

In a similar vein, the New York Times 1619 Project promotes the wicked notion that the defining feature of American history is slavery, not freedom. Cultural elites throughout the country have rushed to change the narrative of America’s past to align with the 1619 Project, and nationwide, schools have followed in lockstep, mainstreaming this twisted history of the United States. What ever happened to America as a beacon of hope — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

Since the 1965 Immigration Act was passed, 59 million immigrants have come to America legally, not to mention that 11 million (or more) that are here currently illegally. It is hard to believe that this flood of immigrants has come to America because it treats them unjustly and harshly. No, America is still a beacon of hope, but obvious facts like this one may be destined to go down the 1984-type memory hole of the Cancel Culture.

A couple of months ago, the president of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn, wrote a brilliant essay about the similarities between Orwell’s world of 1984 and the Cancel Culture in the college’s monthly publication, Imprimis, sent to over 5 million readers. In the essay, Arnn recounts in considerable detail the story of the protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite history. Next to him at his desk is something called a memory hole into which he places items which are to be destroyed forever. Winston’s job is to fix every book, magazine, newspaper, and other form of media that reveals or refers to what used to be the truth in order to conform it to the new truth.

Wow, does that sound familiar! Some years ago, we were all taught that Thomas Jefferson was one of the greatest of the Founding Fathers, the man who wrote one of the great documents of Western civilization. Flawed, as we all are, he nevertheless contributed to the advancement of civilizations around the world. But now, down the memory hole Jefferson goes, because he was a slaveholder at a time when slavery was widespread throughout the world. And it hung on long after Jefferson’s time. After all, China, with 20 percent of the world’s population and one of the world’s great civilizations, outlawed slavery only in 1909. Saudi Arabia waited until 1962 to outlaw it. But the Woke Mob, who controls the present, has changed history to recast Jefferson, and even George Washington, the Father of His Country, to be tainted and even evil characters because they were slaveholders.

In 1984, Big Brother is the supreme ruler of the Party, which dictates what is true – both at the present moment and historically. Winston Smith rebels against the Party and is ultimately caught out – in part because of the telescreens, which are everywhere, watching and listening to what he is doing. Think of the Internet, listening devices, and telescreens produced by the modern tech giants in Silicon Valley, which know everything about your life and pattern of behavior. This data is not yet controlled by the government in the United States, but in China, it is a different story. There, data is collected, and individuals are assigned a social score, and if you don’t think or act in a politically correct way, you can lose your job, or your children can’t get into the right schools.

When Winston Smith is caught by the Thought Police for thought crimes, he is thrown into a prison run by the Ministry of Love. There he is tortured and re-educated to learn doublethink. Doublethink teaches that you can believe two opposing truths at the same time. Doublethink now in America teaches that if a woman is pregnant, she is either carrying a child or making a choice to abort part of her own body – depending on her point of view. Doublethink nowadays teaches that a man can just declare that he thinks that he is a woman, and despite all biological evidence to the contrary, he then becomes a woman. In 1984, War is Peace, and Freedom is Slavery – as historical truth has been repealed, and only the truth defined by the powers-that-be at present is the real truth.

Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949. At that time, the Cold War was coming into full force, and Orwell wrote the book to warn the West about what a full-fledged totalitarian society, such as those in the Soviet Union, China, or North Korea, would look like in the future.

The Cancel Culture in the United States today is clearly not a totalitarian society of the same degree as existed in Russia or China 50 years ago, or in North Korea now, but the Cancel Culture in the United States is, in fact, a soft totalitarian culture. It is powerful. In the Academy and the media, and in many large tech companies and law firms, in the Democrat-controlled states along the coasts, one may not say or write many things that conform to the historical Christian worldview without fear of losing one’s job. Those who are brave enough to speak out are often shamed on social media with a consequent loss of reputation. In the worst cases, left-wing fascist mobs come to one’s home to demonstrate and threaten violence.

It is time to re-read Orwell’s brilliant 1984 and make sure that the Cancel Culture does not evolve further into a 1984-type society but instead becomes a thing of the past. Those who have not read 1984 will be astonished at some of the parallels with life in the U.S. today. They, too, need to ensure the Woke mob diminishes as a force in America. After all, many of us, hopefully the great majority, still believe that America remains the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $4.8 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.