When the “peat bog soldiers” were sent by the Nazi’s to work until they died, they took consolation in singing a song titled, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts Are Free”). The idea expressed in the title of this piece - that thought remains the outpost of human liberty – gave a measure of comfort to the prisoners who had been deprived of every other human freedom. At least they could defy their captors in this one remaining quarter: they still exercised control over their minds.
In his dysutopian classic 1984, George Orwell imagined a society in which even this final liberty had been taken away. Using omnipresent surveillance technology, Orwell’s thought police root out and punish those who engage in unapproved thinking.
For years, Orwell’s predictions seemed to bare little relevance to the free world of the West. While communist nations routinely used the Leninist notion of "false consciousness” to brainwash and control the minds of its citizens, the Western world has consistently stood as a hedge against such methods by putting a premium on intellectual freedom. As the oft-quoted maxim (falsely attributed to Voltaire) puts it, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
In recent years, however, Western society has experienced a paradigm shift...