27 April 2017
My latest book review is of a cutting-edge new novel that describes our current political dystopia in excruciating detail… Just kidding!
Seriously: I was spurred to re-read Orwell”s 1984 after last November’s election, and the counterfactual customs of our new commander in chief. ‘Alternative facts’ have many precedents in history, but perhaps none are so purely crystallized as the fictional ones that appear in this novel. Orwell wrote 1984 in response to Stalinism in the Soviet Union, but it has lessons that could be applied to many times and places. It’s sort of timeless (ironic, consider the title is a date) for that reason. Much of 1984‘s Oceania setting isn’t a “perfect match” for modern day America, but I found a few threads the two have in common. First is surveillance – which we are almost always under in urban public places these days, and even in rural settings, there are satellite eyes watching from above. The road system is another network of digital observation. You could also throw in our computers and Smartphones, which access the internet and now thanks to the passage of Senate joint resolution 34 by the 115th Congress, your internet service provider is free to sell that information to interested buyers. I wonder what Orwell would think of this distinctly capitalist perversion of ‘Big Brother’ invading our privacy.
The aspect of the book which more clearly (p)reflects our current situation is the Trumpian habit of saying one thing, then turning around and saying the opposite, and denying the first statement exists at all. The current revisionism was anticipated by Orwell in a clever way, wherein once a fact is decided to be the “Party Line,” then it is deemed to have always been the Party Line, since the party is clearly perfect and has never been otherwise.
Oceania is at war with East Asia.
Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.
This switching and denying the switch is distinct from another strain of lying, which is the GOP’s favored strain of denying the existence of that which can be measured. That we have now installed this anti-empirical approach in a position of near-absolute power was my main motivation for marching for science last week.
Finally, there’s the “Two Minutes’ Hate” that party members in Orwell’s book are subjected to each morning, like a coffee break, but instead they are whipped into a frenzy of hatred by a propaganda film, driving them into an altered state of consciousness where they are almost insane with rage. It reminds me of the baiting and fomenting practiced by Alex Jones (Infowars), Breitbart, and the constantly-shifting medley of fake news websites. Delirious with anger, one character throws a book at the screen in 1984. In real life, someone shows up at a pizzeria with a semiautomatic rifle.
All in all, I didn’t find re-reading 1984 to be as apropos as I suspected it would be for the current situation. We don’t have “thoughtcrime” yet. But I’m glad I re-read it anyhow. It’s a classic for good reason.