“Big Brother is watching you.”
That was the pervasive punch line in British writer George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Developments in business and government give fresh currency to the classic.
Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was a committed socialist. Unlike many on the left today, however, he had personal involvement with working people because he was one. He stressed egalitarianism, while warning about dangers of concentrated power in government as well as corporations.
Technologies today provide unprecedented opportunities to gather personal information about, while curtailing freedom of, individuals.
Colorful capitalist Elon Musk has been a magnet for controversy throughout his remarkable, successful business career. Currently he is fighting to buy social media giant Twitter, while complaining about the behemoth’s heavy-handed censorship practices.
Twitter representatives react to such criticism with shock, and not in the cynical “Casablanca” sense. In that classic movie, Capt. Renault expresses artificial outrage about gambling going on in Rick’s Café.
Twitter’s arbitrary censors sanctimoniously believe in their bullying. People they deem “inappropriate” include former President Donald Trump, who, though now out of office, remains Public Enemy No. 1 for much of our “news” and infotainment media.
Simultaneously, Twitter ignores truly evil hate speech. As one prominent example, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei regularly calls for the destruction of Israel, which he terms “a cancerous growth.” In Twitter Land, that is acceptable “political” expression while President Trump’s statements “inspire harm.”
Apple co-founder — and rescuer — Steve Jobs advocated both free speech and privacy. Not long before Mr. Jobs’ 2011 death, he strongly emphasized protecting customer privacy in announcing a new version of the iPhone.
In 2016, Apple strenuously resisted U.S. government efforts to force cooperation to secure cell phone data. A married couple who carried out a horrific mass murder in San Bernardino had the phone. The murderers personally supported Islamic terrorist groups.
President Barack Obama publicly endorsed FBI efforts to force Apple to cooperate in breaking encryption on that phone. He transformed a gruesome local crime into a major international incident by discussing the matter in a formal speech from the Oval Office. He then traveled to Southern California.
President Obama opened the door for the Islamic State plausibly to take credit for the killings. The terror group immediately did so. There is no evidence the killers had ties to terrorist groups.
Apple loyalty to Mr. Jobs’ important legacy involved taking tremendous, threatening heat from the Feds. The FBI eventually broke the encryption, with outside tech help. That agency should focus on improving internal skills, not harassment.
A wit quipped that “1984” was really about 1948, a reference to the Stalinist Soviet Union. In the late 1940s and well into the 1950s, intense anti-communism seriously distorted U.S. domestic politics and our wider society.
Leftwing and other intellectuals found their careers damaged and in some cases destroyed. Blacklisting of writers became a feature of this intimidation. That era passed, but ominous concentrated power remains.
In our fascinating, fantastic global information revolution, institutions committed to following the law and protecting personal privacy deserve our support. Here, nonprofits are particularly important.
Mr. Jobs, Mr. Musk and other entrepreneurs who resist concentrated arrogant power also deserve support.
Government and corporate snoops pry, corporate and government bullies try to intimidate, today as through history. Today, these powerful entities control unprecedented technologies, but our U.S. Constitution provides essential protections.
You have a right to privacy.
Big Brother has not abolished that,
But he’d like to.
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.