22 June 2003
London: In his political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four, British author and socialist George Orwell, who would have been 100 years old on Wednesday, coined the term Big Brother to represent an oppressive all-knowing state force.
Now, more than 50 years after the writer's death, Big Brother is no longer a tool of fictional tyranny but is synonymous with a reality television show in which contestants lock themselves away to be surveilled non-stop by armchair audiences.
Times have moved on but Orwell's message remains valid, especially in an age where security fears have prompted governments to employ Big Brother-type tactics like intercepting telephone calls and monitoring e-mails.
Amnesty International and the French human rights organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres have regularly highlighted the plight of cyber dissidents who have endured torture and lengthy prison sentences.
In the United States, the homeland security and counter terrorism unit Total Information Awareness (TIA) has been established in order to build up profiles of all e-mail and Internet users.
In "Animal Farm", perhaps the greatest work of political allegory ever written, Orwell, in a thinly-veiled attack on Stalinism, describes animals taking over the running of a farm to show what happens when revolution goes astray.
In November 2002, the irony was lost on the censors when a Beijing theatre staged a version of the scathing allegory on communist dictatorship hours after a landmark Chinese Party Congress was set to end.
The potential parallels would seem plain with China's current system, where critics accuse a tiny, often corrupt elite of enriching itself in the name of communism while ordinary people suffer.
Orwell himself was a series of contradictions: a patriot who knew the dangers of nationalism; a privileged schoolboy who focused on the plight of the poor; a colonial policeman who turned against the British Empire.
Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell was his pen name) was born in Motihari in Bengal on 25th June, 1903. Humorously describing his family as "Lower-Upper-Middle-Class" -- meaning with bourgeois ideals but possessing none of the means to match -- Orwell later fled to Europe with the idea of becoming a writer.
His first book, "Down and Out in Paris and London" (1933), was a nonfictional account of several years of self-imposed poverty he had experienced in France and England after leaving Burma.
The turning point of Orwell's life came when he went to Barcelona to enter the Spanish Civil War to fight the Fascists. "It was the first time I'd ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle," he explained in his memoir, Homage to Catalonia (1938).
Shot by a sniper's bullet through the throat, Orwell was forced to fight against the Communists when they attempted to eliminate their allies on the far left, and ended up fleeing for his life.
Unable to pull the trigger on a fleeing enemy soldier who was holding up his trousers as he ran, Orwell later said: "I had come here to shoot at 'Fascists,' but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a 'Fascist,' he is visibly a fellow creature."
In 16 years Orwell wrote nine major books and 700 essays and articles. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" has been translated into 62 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies.
Although he lived most of his life in relative poverty, Orwell largely succeeded in his self-confessed aim of raising political-literary journalism to an art.
During the bombing of London in World War II, he began an article with typical lack of nonsense: "As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."
A hundred years after his birth his words and phrases live on in the English language, such as Newspeak, "Big Brother is watching you" and "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
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