Freethought in the Face of Totalitarianism

The first time I read George Orwell's 1984, I was in junior high. It was the first book I had read up to that point in my life where, upon reaching the final page, I went back to the first page to read it again without delay. I cannot pretend that I fully understood it then. It is one of the few books to which I have returned many times over the years and for which my appreciation seems to deepen each time I read it. I just read it again, finding it difficult to put down even though the story is quite familiar by now.

It has been more than 15 years since I last read 1984, meaning that I have not read it in all the time I have been writing Atheist Revolution. The last time I read it, I certainly wasn't thinking about the importance of defending freethought against the totalitarian left. I wasn't yet aware of any sort of totalitarian left. My focus would have been squarely on the religious right. They would have been what I recognized as Big Brother, with their intrusive attempts to legislate what happens in bedrooms across the U.S., maintain a state of perpetual war through domestic propaganda, and restrict rights as basic as reproductive freedom and contraception. I remember learning about Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative" and how it was designed to abolish many of the environmental protections contained in the Clean Air Act. It struck me at the time as an extremely clever use of language to obscure meaning and made me think of Orwell.

Things are a bit different today. Big Brother isn't necessarily a conservative Republican draped in evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. Oh sure, such threats still exist and one has to look no further than the presidential campaigns of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and others to find them. And yet, today I recognize that Big Brother can also be a progressive Democrat who wants to enforce his or her idea of tolerance, a president with a kill list and a willingness to use drones, a radical feminist who demands that we listen and believe, and/or a social justice warrior who is eager to punish dissent. The problem is totalitarianism and the "it's okay when we do it" mantra that enables hypocrisy. Whether it comes from the right or the left seems a bit less relevant now.

We in the U.S. have already allowed our country to go much too far down the road to totalitarianism (e.g., the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, our militarized police forces and status as the world's leading prison nation, our perpetual wars, or curtailment of one civil liberty after another). These events have transpired with both Democrats and Republicans in power. We have true bipartisan totalitarianism here. And what has been most depressing is just how easy it has been for us all to go down that road. We have largely bought into the lie that it is being done for us rather than to us. We have failed to heed Orwell's warning.

The high-profile abuses of power are widely known, but we seem to have decided that they are largely inevitable and have used this to excuse our apathy. "Of course politicians are power-hungry and corrupt! You aren't going to change that, and neither am I." Some of the big examples of totalitarianism and/or authoritarianism run amok manage to occupy our thoughts for a few minutes before the next bit of celebrity gossip distracts us. But we completely miss some of the smaller ways in which our freedom has disappeared. Perhaps the cumulative effect of these small things provides an important context.

Take what will seem like an extremely trivial example. When I climb into my car, I always buckle my seat belt. I do this because I recognize that it generally leads to improved safety in the event of an accident or sudden stop. I would do it regardless of whether I am legally required to do it. And yet, I am legally required to do it. I can be ticketed for not wearing my seat belt. Why? I certainly understand ticketing drivers who do things that endanger the safety of other drivers, but not wearing one's seat belt would not appear to fall into this category. And if the state is permitted to punish me for not wearing a seat belt, why should we stop there? If the rationale is that it is for my own good, then why shouldn't I also be punished for smoking, drinking, eating junk food, failing to exercise regularly, or all manner of other things that are not good for me? In fact, why should I even be able to purchase things that are not good for me?

If we allow ourselves to go down this particular rabbit hole, we seem to end up with what is sometimes referred to as "the nanny state." But isn't this just a mild euphemism for authoritarianism or totalitarianism? For some interesting thoughts on the differences between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, see this article in The Federalist. We've become used to speed cameras and surveillance of many public spaces. We've decided to give up our privacy in exchange for the perceived benefits of social media and the convenience of cell phones. Some have spoken out against this sort of thing, desperately trying to warn us before it is too late, and we have seen the price they have paid for doing so.

If the voice of reason (i.e., clear opposition to totalitarianism) is not to be found on the left because too many there are now embracing it, I'm not sure where we find it. I'd guess that it is not to be found in the mainstream. It may require us to look to the fringes where freethought might still flourish. Freethought seems like our best hope to me. We must preserve it.

In 1984, Orwell wrote:
The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.
He was right, and this is a potent reminder of what we are up against. Freethought often seems like it is a struggle against many of the unfortunate aspects of our humanity. But I am more convinced than ever that it is a struggle in which we must be willing to engage.