Before his book "Nineteen Eighty-Four" — published in 1949 — predicted the society of surveillance and doublespeak we live in now, George Orwell tried to save the world, a University of Kansas professor has discovered.
David Smith, a sociology professor, recently found and published a lost Orwell document that called for the formation of a new international human rights league. Having seen the dangers of psychological warfare, Orwell and fellow writers Bertrand Russell and Arthur Koestler drafted a document called "The Manifesto" that proposed global transparency in communications — the opposite of psychological warfare.
"Their thought at the time was that if a policy of psychological disarmament were implemented, it would permit free exchange of ideas and facts. I don’t think even Orwell was visualizing the extent to which current social media makes psychological warfare all the more possible," Smith says.
In 1946, Orwell had noticed that the majority of Americans, in spite of having just lived through two world wars, were "largely uninterested in and even unaware of their democratic rights."
He had also observed a hazard: A portion of the intelligentsia, he wrote, "has set itself almost consciously to break down the desire for liberty and to hold totalitarian methods up to admiration."
Orwell, Russell and Koestler posited that a world filled with well-informed people would lead to a true disarmament.
"The war of ideas would take the place of armed warfare," Smith writes, "and while the result might be antagonistic, it would be a conflict of minds, not arms."
Smith says the writers aimed to circulate "The Manifesto" among about a dozen associates who "would convene a meeting to discuss the idea of founding this new human rights group. (Orwell) did share some drafts with some of his friends, but to my knowledge none of them ever wrote about it or published any part of it."
With the help of a graduate student, Smith found the document in a box of papers belonging to Austrian politician Ruth Fischer archived at Harvard University.
Orwell wrote the first draft of his manifesto seven months after the end of WWII and two months before Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.
By the end of 1946, however, the Cold War was in full swing, rendering "The Manifesto" pointless.
But "The Manifesto" is plenty applicable now, Smith says, particularly a suggestion about "psychological disarmament" included in early drafts but left out of the one Smith found.
Even people who are not heavy users of social media feel the push and pull of the various platforms' potential for destruction (such as still-mounting evidence that Russia influenced the last election via Facebook) and accomplishment (such as a $16 million fundraising campaign to help migrant families).
"We're caught in the middle of two tendencies," Smith says. "There are a great many people who make what Orwell would regard as appropriate use of the internet and all social media, that is to freely exchange sincerely held opinions and the best available facts across every border, across every line."
But, he says, the opposite is happening, too. Orwell didn't suggest how to safeguard his proposed free exchange of information and could never have anticipated current technology.
In any case, people had to want a world of free-flowing factual information devoid of weapons of mass destruction, and it appeared that most people were more apathetic toward this vision than Orwell and his cowriters.
Smith says he thinks Orwell was realistic and never grew cynical. Orwell saw that people had to work for democracy at the grassroots level, he says.
When "The Manifesto" failed, Orwell holed up in the Hebrides and wrote "Nineteen Eighty-Four," an appeal of a different sort — and one that has stuck in some ways, but still has not truly inspired society to bar Big Brother from everyday life.
"We tend to see big brothers and dictators manipulating the public as the crux of Orwell's message," Smith says.
"But he was concerned about big brothers and surveillance and the other forces that made people's lives difficult and undemocratic, because he wanted life lived on a daily basis by ordinary people to be everything it could be."