Why 1984 WAS like 1984

April 4, 1984

So begins George Orwell’s nightmarish novel of future totalitarianism. That date is now long gone, 25 years past.

When Apple first released the Mac computer in 1984, they promised in an innovative Super Bowl ad that 1984 (the year) won’t be like 1984 as in the dark, well, Orwellian vision. Apple Computer 1984 ad introducing Macintosh

An excellent movie made from the book (in 1984, of course) is also available at YouTube – Movie Trailer – 1984. The book and movie portray a cruel society where police helicopters lurk overhead and children watch adults for report of possible “thought crimes” to authorities. Squads of government goons terrorize the citizens with no-knock raids followed by mass incarceration.

Although Apple’s new computer might have been liberating in 1984 (it even offered a new appendage, the mouse), other parts of America were lurching towards big government, intrusive and punitive.

  • Ronald Reagan ruled from the White House and eagerly pressed a cultural crusade. The drug war fit perfectly with his tough talking and authoritarian impulses.
  • Congress also found in the drug war an excellent way to express outrage, pass legislation, gain votes and take permission to spend more of the taxpayer’s money. In many cases, Democrats were the most enthusiastic in wishing to appear, “tough on drugs.”
  • The Supreme Court was underway rewriting the US Constitution with the “war on drugs” exemptions that would steadily whittle away the rights of Americans formerly guaranteed under their Bill of Rights.

In 1984, one of the worst new drug war laws issued from this time of congressional zealotry was the Omnibus Crime Bill. Basic provisions of this vindictive legislation took away property rights extending back to the Magna Carta.

  • The Omnibus Crime Bill greatly expanded the power of government to forfeit away the land and possession of its citizenry. Citizen property rights secure for centuries were usurped.
  • Proceeds of such government seizures of private property could go to the enforcers, from DEA to the local police. Thus policing incentives were warped from enforcing crimes with actual victims, such as rapes, to drug offenses, crimes far more lucrative to the police.
  • Even when police arrests could not secure convictions, many times the police could keep, and sell,  the  private property and land of the American citizen.
  • In some cases police took property without even making an arrest. Under this 1984 legislation, property itself could be “arrested” and confiscated by the police.

The assault on American property rights in the Omnibus Crime Bill was matched by diminished personal rights. Drug possession had now been deemed a far more serious crime, much more commonly a felony.

  • Mandatory minimum sentences befell those for petty possession “crimes.”
  • Sentencing guidelines were “enhanced,” dooming hundred of thousands of future prisoner to millenniums of person-in-prison years.
  • In the intervening 25 years, the number of Americans incarcerated has quadrupled, from 580,000 to 2,300,000, chart below.

One generation after legislation hatched in the drug war zealotry of 1984, the USA, land of the free, finds itself a bloated prison gulag, far out jailing any other country on earth. In the words of Senator Jim Webb,

  • “With so many of our of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different-and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.

As Senator Webb points out, in his introduction to pioneering legislation, the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009, Americans, in the last 25 years, have not become 4 times more evil nor in need of 4 times the rate of incarceration.

Ironically, neither have Americans become less likely to use drugs, the purported “purpose” of draconian legislation like that passed in 1984.

With nearly two and a half million prisoners in federal and state gulags, the USA 2009 is in some ways very much like 1984. If Senator Webb and brave colleagues joining him on development of the new criminal justice act succeed, perhaps 2014 will be less like 1984.

The year 1984 shared some cultural trends with another year, this one 1484, 500 years earlier. These will be covered in a future post, Why 1984 was like 1484.

10 thoughts on “Why 1984 WAS like 1984

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