Totalitarianism can also be a state of mind.
That's the important lesson of Orwell's writing,
and why he will always be relevant.


Orwell coined the term "Cold War" and made other contributions
to "the common language of despair" with
"Big Brother," "Newspeak" and "doublethink."

The lessons of George Orwell
Ian Slater says it's important to heed Orwell's warnings about totalitarianism
by Rebecca Wigod, Vancouver Sun, Jan 10, 2004

I D.J. Taylor's biography of George Orwell was shortlisted for Britain's Whitbread Prize this week, showing that the man born Eric Arthur Blair just over 100 years ago remains a focus of lively interest.

Ian Slater, a Vancouver thriller writer well versed in Orwell's ideas, says the short-lived, highly principled author is "as relevant now as he was in 1948, when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was a man who was claimed by both the left and the right," but he didn't belong to either. "He belonged to himself. He would judge every issue on the merits of the case."

Seated at a high window table in The Well, the Dunbar Street coffeeshop where he drafts his books by hand, Slater spoke over the clatter of cups about Orwell's thought, particularly his belief that totalitarianism doesn't exist only in states but can also be a state of mind.

"All his writing, including Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, points to a totalitarian state of mind," said Slater, whose 1985 study of Orwell's ideas, The Road to Airstrip One (McGill-Queen's University Press, 302 pages), was recently re-released.

"We all, as individuals, have what I might call a totalitarian gene," he began, in something of a lecturer's manner. In recent years, Slater, who is in his early 60s, has taught a University of B.C. history course called War and Society, and before that he taught in its Arts One program.

"It comes out when there's something we particularly dislike. To use myself as an example, I'm appalled when I read about how gangs have taken over so much. At three in the morning, if I happen to be thinking about that, the remedy would of course be to have a moratorium on civil liberties for three months and clean them up. The police know who they are. Go pick them up, put them in trucks, take them up to the Far North and have them work, do something useful.

"But you see, if you do that in that case, pretty soon down the road, you're included in somebody else's totalitarian view -- that's the danger ... That's the important lesson of Orwell's writing, and why he will always be relevant."

Slater said prime minister Pierre Trudeau's handling of the 1970 FLQ crisis is still being debated, partly because of Orwell. "He keeps that kind of debate alive. It's not just a historical issue that's dead and gone; that issue will be true for every generation. They'll have to weigh up individual freedom versus the need for security."

Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, that tension has been at the front of everybody's mind. Choke Point, Slater's next thriller (due out in March from Ballantine Books) has to do with terrorism and is book nine of his ominously titled WWIII series. Slater's best-known thriller is probably Firespill (1977) about an oil spill off the West Coast that catches fire. "A lot of my novels are set in the marine environment," said the Australian-born writer who was a marine geology technician before earning his PhD in political science the year Firespill came out.

In The Road to Airstrip One, a book of a different kind, Slater writes that Orwell coined the term Cold War and made other contributions to "the common language of despair" with "Big Brother," "Newspeak" and "doublethink."

Slater also writes that Orwell chose the name Winston Smith for the protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four because it neatly blends privilege (Winston, as in Churchill) with lack of privilege (Smith, as in Everyman).

Slater and his wife, Marian, gave Orwell's original last name to their son, the actor Blair Slater.

Go to 41.The Party Tells 'How' and 42.The Party Tells 'Why' and WHY ORWELL WROTE 1984

Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~