Call the Show 800-520-1234
LIVE: Mon-Fri, 6-9AM, ET
Hugh Hewitt Book Club
Call 800-520-1234 email Email Hugh
Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Dr. Arnn Begins A Look at Totalitarianism in 1984 by George Orwell

Email Email Print

HH: It is the last radio hour of the week. And before I depart from Phoenix for Florida for the start of the Decision: 2016 tour with Jon Voight, Dennis Prager and Mike Gallagher, I want to put down the political cudgels for a moment and pick up the books, because it is time for the Hillsdale Dialogue, our weekly ascent in the last radio hour to things not immediate, but to lasting. Dr. Larry Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College. All of our conversations dating back, well, now four years are collected at All things Hillsdale available at, including an absolutely free subscription to the speech digest, Imprimis. But you do have to register. You have to go to And college is back in session in Michigan, Dr. Arnn. Welcome, good to have you. How was the first week of your seminar on totalitarianism?

LA: We’ve had two classes now, and the kids are really smart, and it’s an ambitious class, so it’s too big, too. But two of them have dropped. And in the spirit of 1984, they’ve become unpersons.

HH: Unpersons. Now what time of the day does it meet?

LA: It meets 2:30-5:00, or really 5:30, Monday afternoon. And makeup classes are on Friday.

HH: And so they can grab a nap after lunch so that they don’t nod off. They should be completely alert. I used to hate afternoon classes.

LA: Yeah, we don’t, it’s funny, Hillsdale College is such a weird thing. I used to hate them, too, and I had some of my greatest classes in the afternoon, and we fought off sleep. We don’t get much of that at Hillsdale. I don’t know what it is.

HH: Do you know the work of the late, great Judith Shklar?

LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

HH: Yeah, well Judith Shklar taught me American political pamphleteering, but sadly, she taught it at 1:00 in the afternoon.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And I had a fork, and I’d put it into my leg not because, she was a great lecturer. But it was still 1:00 in the afternoon, and that’s the worst time for a class. So have you gotten to begin 1984 by Orwell, yet?

LA: We have done it. Yeah, we did Aristotle, and then we did Orwell, or we started Orwell. We’ve got one more class on Orwell.

HH: Well, we may take a few weeks on Orwell, because I began rereading 1984 myself, and thought to myself I haven’t read this in 40 years. It’s magnificent. I mean, I read it in college, and I haven’t been back. It was written in 1949 in the penultimate year of George Orwell’s life, which was short and brilliant. What do you tell people about George Orwell to begin, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, he’s, of course, one of the great authors in history, I think. And the book is a masterpiece. Orwell was born, his name is Eric Blair, and he was born in India. His father was a civil servant in India, in British India. He became a policeman, finally, in Pakistan or what was then the northeast part of India. And he turned against that. And he was a man of the left. He was a democratic socialist all his life. He was affiliated with the communists, and he fought on their side in the Spanish Civil War. And he was repelled by what he saw there. And basically what he saw was the factions changed. He was denounced, not really him personally, but him and all of his colleagues were denounced as Trotskyites. And there was danger to his life from them. And he saw that. And he just, God gave him an imagination to understand what that means, and that is the proximate reason, probably, that he wrote 1984.

HH: Now 1984, I want to do a fairly close read of the opening, because I’d like to attract our audience to it. And by next week, we can barrel through a lot more. But the opening line, against, it’s 1949, so set the stage, by the way. It’s set in London. What is London like in 1949, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, its name has changed. It’s, the country is now called Airstrip. And there have been, the history emerges alongside setting the scene. That’s what all of Part 1 is about, is what is life like and how did it become so. There are three parts in the book. How did it become so? There is a series of wars in the middle of the 20th Century. What results is catastrophe, and then the leadership of the nation by the party, led by Big Brother. And the party is divided into two groups – the Inner Party and the Outer Party. Also, there are Proles. You learn that in this polity, the Inner Party are the oligarchs, the complete tyrants, a more complete kind of tyrant, I think, than has ever been described in human history. And they work upon the Outer Party. It’s just really bad luck to be a member of the Outer Party. And what, he begins by describing Winston’s life. What’s he like? What are things like? And what you find out is everything smells bad. Everything is dingy. Everything is broken. The pots that they cook with are cheap, also scarce. And they give a metallic taste to everything they eat, and the nutrition is poor. And you can’t get razor blades, and you can’t get food enough. You’re always hungry. Medical care is terrible. Your, there’s a screen, the telescreen on in your room, and in fact, every public place just about everywhere you go, and where there’s not a telescreen, there’s likely to be microphones. And these telescreens are sensitive. They blare at you all day. They wake you in the morning with calisthenics. And they can watch you at random, but they don’t really know for sure if it’s random. Maybe they’re watching all the time. And they make you work out to get up, and they lecture you about the party. The doctrines of the party are, what…

HH: The big three – war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

LA: That’s right. And that’s drilled into you constantly. Every day, there’s the two minute hate. And that means that they put up this evil man named Goldstein, who is the counterrevolutionary. Of course, no one knows if he exists, but even our protagonist, Winston Smith, who is carrying on all through the novel until the very end, this rich inner life in which he is in complete rebellion against all this, in the middle of the two minute hate, he is overcome by the hate, and he has this sort of schizophrenic experience in which one, last two minutes, and there are people, people are screaming and waving their fists and shouting words of hate at Goldstein, and words of love to Big Brother. And Winston’s affections transfer from one to the other during the two minute hate. He’s carried into it, but not fully.

HH: It is, it’s a remarkable process that Winston Smith undergoes, but again, I want to trick people into reading this, because I think probably, it sits on a lot of shelves, and it’s read by a lot of high school students. And they don’t remember how powerful it is. Are you having that experience with your students?

LA: Yeah, right now, the class has become, you know, we’re reading these five really great authors, right? And they’re all very powerful. Aldous Huxley, you know, in Brave New World, and Darkness At Noon by Kessler are, and Darkness At Noon is the same kind of thing. 1984 is this totalitarian tyranny seen from the bottom by its subjects. Darkness At Noon is the same thing seen from the top, by one of the rulers. And so you get to see in those two novels comprehensively how it works. And they’re awesome. But right now, we’re partisans of 1984. We think it’s the best book of them all.

HH: Of course, because you’re in it. And I am curious how many of your students, before we take our break, how many of them have read this before?

LA: Most of them have. But now, they’re really reading it. And I just noticed, I get them to write discussion points before each class, they all write one, and they’re just superb. It’s amazing. And they’re young people’s comments, right? And one of them says how can this happen?!, you know?

HH: And but what’s spooky about this is as we look around the world, especially at Syria, yesterday on Morning Joe, Gary Johnson remarked what is Aleppo in a monumental display of ignorance of the modern tyrannical state. But we see these states everywhere around the globe. I don’t know that when Orwell wrote this in 1949 they existed comprehensively anywhere outside of the Soviet Union, and we didn’t really have a good glimpse inside of it.

LA: That’s right. Well, we got it from Solzhenitsyn and people like that, of course. But, and they had to be smuggled out. But that’s right. Our picture of it was incomplete, but that’s one of the prime points. The first thing people should notice is that 1984, the title of the book, is a time. That is to say the title is a time. And the reader will discover that there are really two key things that have to be controlled, and can be controlled – time and human reason.

HH: When we come back with Dr. Larry Arnn, the Hillsdale Dialogue continues on 1984. I urge to go and get the book. It’s very inexpensive online. You can download it and catch up with us by next week. This is part 1 of 2 on 1984.

— – — – –

HH: I must upbraid Dr. Arnn a little bit, though. The one Dennis Prager, with whom I’m sharing airplanes with for the next week, spent many hours at Hillsdale College this week, and I don’t recall ever having spent three hours broadcast on C-SPAN from Hillsdale College. I was getting letters and emails about Dennis from Hillsdale. What happened? How could you possibly allow that man onto the campus for so long a period of time?

LA: We also invited him when the weather was good.

HH: It was. It was fall. I get invited in January. What is this?

LA: Well, it all came from C-SPAN, and I’m going to confess to my great chagrin and apology that I did not see Dennis while he was here. He was only here for a few hours. But a lot of people watched him being taped. I myself taped Booknotes on C-SPAN while they were here. And gosh, those guys are good, C-SPAN.

HH: They are wonderful.

LA: C-SPAN, outside of Salem Radio, is about the only thing worth doing in the world today.

HH: Well, I will hear endlessly about it from Dennis as I’m on a G-5 with him for the next week.

LA: Ooh.

HH: And he will tell me, he will gloat over the fact that he was there at the prettiest time of the year when the students are brimming with excitement, and football is in the air. Has Hillsdale opened its football season, yet?

LA: Yeah, we had a really great victory to open the season against the preseason 16th ranked team in the country.

HH: Oh, wow, congratulations. Are you a follower of professional football, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Yeah, some. I’m a baseball nut, but I like football, and I usually survey the games. I like to read the sports pages, because you can read it a lot faster than you could watch.

HH: Well, I encourage you, I encourage you, this is a challenge, it will cost you $30 dollars, but join This requires very little of you. It requires that you pick one successful game a week, but that you never use the same team twice. And no one has made it more than 11 weeks in a row last year doing that. No line, no Vegas line. You just have to pick one winner, and you can’t use it. And I have enrolled many of my listeners in this thing, because I think I’m better at this than anybody, and so I’m challenging people to do that. And so I challenge you as well. Let’s go back to 1984. The opening lines read, “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” What’s that first line tell you, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, the first line is about time, isn’t it?

HH: Yup. Yup.

LA: Yeah, and 13, that’s interesting. The, I’ll make my point about time. The purpose of this tyranny is to remake everything by remaking people. One of C.S. Lewis’ most important points in Abolition Of Man is that if we seek with the tools of science to overcome nature, we can only accomplish that by destroying ourselves.

HH: Right.

LA: And so you can’t, first of all, I said time and reason. Both time and human reason are aspects of nature itself, human nature, but nature generally. And if you can destroy people’s ability to think things, first, you can destroy their ability to say things by watching everything they say and by recruiting everybody in the society, starting with the children, to be spies on everybody else. There’s a huge organization, all the children are in it, called The Spies. And they are encouraged to denounced their parents. And then you are watched constantly by the telescreen, and in addition, any comrade, there are no friends, they say, and there are no citizens. There are only comrades. And any comrade can win points for himself by denouncing you. And being denounced is surely to undergo horrors just because the charge is made.

HH: And what is interesting, and we’ll come back after the break and talk about this, the new generation watched The Hunger Games. And The Hunger Games is actually just 1984 dressed up with special effects. But the horror of it in 1949 must have broken on people with an astonishing kind of ferocity given what the Nazis had done. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – —

HH: Dr. Arnn, of course, throughout, is Big Brother. Introduced in the second paragraph by virtue of a large colored poster, “It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide, the face of a man of about 45 with a heavy black mustache, and ruggedly handsome features. It was no use trying the lift. Winston had to use the stairs. And everywhere he went up the stairs, on every landing, is this poster, and underneath it the word Big Brother is watching you.” That poster, I’m thinking of Saddam. I’m thinking of Assad. I’m thinking of all the strongmen who are everywhere in every regime from Kazakhstan to Putin’s Russia. They are always putting themselves in your face.

LA: Yeah, so when you get used to the horror of this, it’s very riveting. I mean, I encourage with you your listeners to read this book, because it’s just tremendous. What you have to get into your mind is this kind of thing is going on as this book is written.

HH: Right.

LA: This is what it is, right? It, the pictures of Stalin everywhere, the KGB, the huge population employed and paid to be informants on the rest, but all of the others encouraged. The effect of the mental kidnapping of children to turn them into weapons against their parents, all of that is, what this is, is just a perfection which becomes possible in fiction, and a compression, you know, because the Soviet Union lasted 60 years, and it took, really, 25 years to get to its worst horrors. And this all happens, you can read this book in three or four hours.

HH: And you know, I’m reminded of Stasi, because after the Wall fell, the ubiquity of Stasi, the East German intelligence agency, became known to us, they listened on everyone. We actually, I never really quite, I knew about Soviet totalitarianism. I read Solzhenitsyn. I read Bukovsky. I read the dissidents, but I never quite got the ubiquity. Every single person listened to all the time. 1984 is fiction, but it became truth.

LA: It was. It was truth by the time it was written, and see, remember about Orwell that what he is, is a genius who sees things better than we do and then can describe them. And that’s why he does such a service, why he’s worthy of honor and with gratitude. See, if you’re interested in tyranny, and my opinion is you should be, because I’m going to make this point, and we’ll make it again toward the end, it was Winston Churchill’s opinion, argued powerfully at significant moments in his life, that the tendency of the modern bureaucratic state was its socialist underpinnings would lead to this even in Britain, he said, and if in Britain, then also in America. So the reason to be interested in this is first of all, it’s a tremendous story. But second of all, look at, just take these principles, and see if you can find their echo in today, and then extend them. and you will see where we may be going.

HH: Part of that echo, you mentioned this in our first segment, the ubiquity of three slogans – war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. I am of course reminded of the sign over the entrance of Auschwitz – work will set you free, work sets you free. It’s above the gate. And it was an inversion of truth. Work did not set them free. It killed them in large numbers if they were not in fact murdered. And here, you have five years after the camps are discovered and thrown open Orwell saying that all government tends to big lies.

LA: That’s it, and see, this is a scientific approach to the big lie, because if it’s true that you can control all communication, then you can effectively make a consciousness, whatever the consciousness of everybody, whatever you want. Winston’s job, introduced in Part 1 of the book, is that he rewrites history. And you have to get an understanding of the magnitude of the work. First of all, there are thousands of people, he doesn’t know how many, maybe tens of thousands, whose job is to look at old documents, mostly newspapers, and rewrite what they say to conform to the current assertions of the party. So, and after, that’s only the beginning, only the first beginning. And every piece of paper that he gets that reflects something in the past that’s inconvenient to the claims of the present, every one he gets, he puts down what’s called the memory hole, which is a place where that piece of paper is incinerated. But then after that, the really big work goes, and that is there must be millions of people. And they go find every written word that does not conform to the new assertion, and they destroy it. But they don’t just destroy it. They go to the infinitely greater labor of rewriting and republishing the orthodox account. And that’s going on all the time, because it’s always changing. And that means that an enormous effort of the regime is to preserve the past in an entirely new form not just to destroy the past, to rewrite the past. That’s why time is so important in the book. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas both say this, both write this sentence in paraphrase. This alone is denied even to God to make what has been not to have been. And so by overcoming time, they actually take on divine powers.

HH: They also destroy productivity. In this effort, which is all-consuming, there are four ministries, and again, I’m not giving anything away that you won’t learn quickly, four ministries in the Airstrip country – the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Plenty. But as you mentioned in the first segment, there isn’t plenty. Everybody is hungry, everything stinks, everything is broken, because if you absorb so much effort in suppressing and rewriting, you really do destroy the ability to create and to have joy and to have plenty.

LA: That’s right. It’s immensely counterproductive, but that’s on purpose. Aristotle writes in Book 5, Chapter 11 of the Politics that one of the tools of tyranny is impoverishment. That is to say if people are struggling constantly for a living, they don’t have time to oppose the tyrant. And so this is deliberate, right? It doesn’t matter that there’s not much, and there’s another reason why it doesn’t matter that there’s not much. The telescreen, and every public meeting, constantly proclaim that there is more than there has ever been, even more than there’s ever been last week.

HH: Yup.

LA: So at one point, they, in the novel, early in the novel, the party announces that the chocolate ration is being decreased from 30 grams to 20 grams because of the war. War is ever-present, by the way. And so it’s decreased, and people groan a little bit, but of course, they don’t groan very loud, because that would be bad. They cheer, because the sacrifice they get to make for the party. But in the following week, when there’s good news, trumpets blare over the telescreen and arrest attention. And remember, they’re everywhere and they’re loud, right? You’re never away from them. It’s like CNN in the airport, right? And they announce a week later than the chocolate rationing is being increased from 10 to 20 grams a week. And so Winston says to himself, am I the only one who has a memory? But we’ll later learn whether he is or not. His can be destroyed.

HH: The first great act of rebellion by Winston Smith is to write down a date, April 4th, 1984. It’s to actually write, to find a corner that is unobserved, privacy, and to engage in a creative act, telling us, I think, not only that Orwell has a special place for writers, but that this is the essence of freedom, the ability to create and to write down that which you are doing.

LA: It’s an important feature of the book that although 1984 is an emphatic date, and April 4th, 1984 is a definite date, Winston confesses when he’s about to begin his diary that he’s not really sure what year it is, because they, and so time, even that time, is uncertain. And when he opens the diary, he’s terrified. It so happens his little apartment is so configured, that there’s an old alcove in it. And because it’s there, he can sit out of sight of the telescreen. He can never undertake such a thing except for that accidental fact. And he thinks that fact through, and in the Prole area, he discovers this little book made to be a diary, leather-bound, and he buys it. That’s a very dangerous thing to do. And so he goes home, and when he opens the thing, he has a pen, when he opens the thing, he’s frightened to death. But the reason he goes forward is he thinks it through to purchase the diary, to sit down with it open with the pen poised, is already thought crime, and thought crime is everything. And the thought police are the most awesome force on Earth.

HH: And before he puts pen to paper, “A tremor had gone through his bowels,” indicating how scared he was to do this. When we come back with Dr. Arnn, we’ll get you on your way. If we haven’t already baited the hook, go and get 1984. Download it, go find it in a used bookstore somewhere. Grab 1984 and we will be back with Dr. Arnn in just a moment.

— – – – –

HH: I want to ask you specifically, Dr. Arnn, if I were in your class, I would have gone to this line. “Winston had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism, which is was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen,” and asked you whether or not that isn’t what is happening everywhere in academia in America for fear that the students will turn on you and make whatever you have to say a subject of controversy, and your employment a matter of evaporating time.

LA: Yeah, well, there’s a woman at a college in California, I won’t name it, but I have connections to it. And she was fired from her job because in apologizing for a political misstep, she was a dean of students, she said that the college had to be much more attentive to the needs, in paraphrase, of students who do not fit the CMC, sorry, I said it, mold, right? Well, that phrase got her fired, right? It was obvious a point she was attempting to make in kindness.

HH: As were the Yale house professors or college masters who have been driven out. And the University of Chicago struck back. I’m sure it encouraged you, in their letter to freshmen saying do not come here expecting safe spaces, and no trigger words. But I thought to myself if you’re a tenured track professor anywhere in the United States, you will, as Orwell’s protagonist does, set your features into an expression of quiet optimism which it is advisable to wear when facing not the telescreen, but your students and indeed your fellow members of the faculty.

LA: Indeed. You know, tenured professors at Marquette, that man was fired for what he said about marriage, and he was a tenured professor. And that, that’s right. So in other words, like one of the things that’s going on in America right now is that politically correct boundaries have been breached in the campaign, and that’s led to heat and a very divisive campaign. And that’s right. In other words, there are just things you can’t say, and everybody knows what they are, and everybody knows that the consequences of saying them are disastrous.

HH: Now it is, of course, the college doesn’t take positions on politics. You don’t. You come on whenever I want you to and we’ll talk individually about the campaign, but your friend, Paul Ryan, was on with me yesterday. And he denounced Secretary Clinton’s saying that ISIS was rooting for Donald Trump, and he did it, actually, in more general terms than specific, saying that the quality of the rhetoric are bottoming out in this campaign. And I actually think this takes us back to 1984. When you’ve dumbed down an entire country, the rhetoric gets worse.

LA: It does. There’s a coarsening underway. You know, it, you know, one thing colleges are supposed to do, I mean, it actually isn’t true. In my belief, the statement from the University of Chicago, although worthy, are insufficient. The purpose of a college is to pursue the truth. And that means they’re not just to advocate any opinion you want, although you can do that if you do it in a civil and academic manner. It’s to figure out what the truth of the matter is. And that means it’s not a whole bunch of discrete atoms chasing around with their own characteristics. We’re supposed to talk and learn from each other and improve our opinions and make them better. And we’re supposed to do it together. And of course, that means that a college, to undertake that activity, in addition has to encourage civil behavior. And one of the hallmarks of civil behavior is that if you want to insult somebody, you can do it artfully so it doesn’t wound so much, even if it is deeper if you do it that way.

HH: Yes, Winston Churchill being the genius of just that form.

LA: Oh, yeah. You know, he would, his hilarities in the House of Commons are often insults. But they’re hilarious, and it, in other words, it doesn’t constitute an ultimate breach between people who are opposed in politics.

HH: Now I have to make sure I ask you this before, we’ll come back to 1984 next week, but it was announced yesterday that the members of Parliament are leaving Parliament for a number of years, until 2022, in order that it be restored. They’ve only done once before during World War II. What do you make of that? We have a minute, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Tell me what it was again?

HH: They have to leave Parliament until 2022 to restore the building.

LA: Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, yeah, well, that happened, of course, in 1941 when Parliament was bombed, and they were out of it for three years. But the chamber is so important, the shape of it. Winston Churchill gave a beautiful speech, and caused it to be built back just as it had been, and it’s not big enough for all the members. So one part of the glory, according to Churchill, and I think he’s right, of the House of Commons, is the fact that the opposing parties face each other, and there’s not enough room, so it always looks full.

HH: So they’ve got to keep it exactly as it is, even as they strengthen it, right?

LA: Pretty much, yeah.

HH: All right. Dr. Larry Arnn, always a pleasure, We’ll be back on 1984 next week, America. Catch up and read the book.

End of interview.


Listen Commercial FREE  |  On-Demand
Login Join
Book Hugh Hewitt as a speaker for your meeting

Follow Hugh Hewitt

Listen to the show on your amazon echo devices

The Hugh Hewitt Show - Mobile App

Download from App Store Get it on Google play
Friends and Allies of Rome