April 8, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) remains a brilliant shot at a future that is ours today. Its only rival here is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Debate between the admirers of these classics continues down to the present—Huxley thought that the future would be rather more like his version than Orwell’s—and my slight preference is for Huxley. He saw a world I can recognize, for it is uncannily like our own. Here is a current anecdotal case.
Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, has just been forced to resign. She had twice travelled to her second home, a coastal retreat in Earlsferry, Fife, after advising the public to stop all but essential travel. Earlsferry is more than forty miles from Edinburgh, Dr Calderwood’s workplace. She had angered locals after being seen walking her dogs with her husband and three children across the golf course towards a beach. This, after urging the public on TV and in the newspapers to stay at home. The police had twice warned her for her behaviour. When the story came out, Nicola Sturgeon first tried to defend her but then had to give way. Dr Calderwood resigned, making a grovelling apology, and said she had made a ‘mistake’.
I don’t think ‘mistake’ is an adequate term at all. If, say, one spills a glass of wine, or makes an investment that turns out badly, or enters into an injudicious liaison, that is clearly a mistake. Dr Calderwood’s behaviour is of a different order. It is the product of a condition of mind that allows her to think that she has every right to tell the little people what they must do, while having no intention of doing herself what she prescribes for others. It is the outlook of a member of the ruling caste (a term Huxley distinguishes from ‘class’), and thus thoroughly integrated into Establishment values. In the event, she came to grief because she did not take enough care to cover her car tracks. Her mistake lay in her over-confidence that she would get away with her hypocritical act.
Now consider the conversation that Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe, has with the Savage. This young man was born on a native reservation, where he was raised by his mother—an actual human being—rather than having been created in a test tube. The Savage has his reservations about civilization (so did Huckleberry Finn, come to that,) but admits that some very nice things come along with it.
“‘All that music in the air, for instance…’
‘”Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about my ears, and sometimes voices.”
“The Savage’s face lit up with a sudden pleasure. ‘Have you read it too?’ he asked. ‘I thought nobody knew about that book here, in England.’
“‘Almost nobody. I’m one of the very few. But as I make the laws here, I can also break them. With impunity…’”
And there you have it. The upper echelons of the Resident Controller’s people are in command. They are bound only by the law, which they write, interpret, and implement. Or not. If I had to choose between living under Orwell’s surveillance State and Huxley’s Brave New World—a quotation from The Tempest—I might be tempted by Orwell’s. It is oppressive but less irritating.