Sunday 5 March 2017

Nineteen Eighty-Four Revisited

This essay originally appeared in Critics at Large  and is reproduced on this site  because Orwell. novel is largely inspired by the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and bears an uncanny resemblance to certain features of the Trump administration.

One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
 George Orwell, “The Politics of the English Language”
“With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth...” 
 George Orwell, in a letter from 1944 (collected in George Orwell: A Life in Letters)
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

My first impression after rereading George Orwell’s harrowing dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is how much it reminded me of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. In this bleak, repressive country named Oceania people's lives are constantly on public display through the ubiquitous two-way telescreens. The protagonist, Winston Smith, seeks privacy, itself suspicious, and keeps a diary, a transgressive act deemed by the Party as intolerable because it suggests that a person could think for himself. Add in his decision to develop a sexual relationship and soon agents of the Thought Police are dispatched to hustle him away at night to the Ministry of Love. As a political prisoner, Winston is at the whim not only of the guards, but of the privileged criminals. He, along with other captives, is disorientated by not knowing whether it is day or night and is subjected to excruciatingly painful interrogation inflicted with truncheons, electricity, and, the greatest fear in Winston’s case, rats. No one is ever really free again. Even prisoners released will eventually be re-arrested and “vaporized.” They will become “unpersons," every record of their existence being obliterated in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth which sends all relevant documents down a “memory hole,” a job that Winston performed. Substitute the Lubyanka in then-Leningrad for Orwell’s doublespeak euphemism and we have almost identical conditions that existed in the Soviet Union. Even the Thought Police are based on the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), which actually used riled-up rats in their interrogations. 

A renewed interest in the Soviet Union, of course, cannot explain the surging popularity of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The election of Donald Trump has been an impetus, yet I do not think that anyone can reasonably suggest that Americans are about to descend into the totalitarian conditions limned in the novel. But we are living in a time that does summon ominous features that derive from the novel and the former Soviet Union. Consider President Trump’s almost daily “fake news” accusations against The New York Times, his counselor Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of “alternative facts,” echoing the linguistic inventions of Orwell's Ministry of Truth and by implication Trump’s blatant contempt for objective truth and his, along with his aides’ cascade of lies – from false accusations that journalists had invented a rift between him and the intelligence community (when he had compared the intelligence agencies to Nazis) to debunked claims that millions of unauthorized immigrants robbed him of a popular-vote majority. 

Trump’s often jaw-dropping combination of dystopian jeremiads and grandiose promises echoes Orwell’s Big Brother’s diktats that carry the imprimatur of absolute truth by the citizens of Oceania. Irrational slogans take precedence over rational thought and scientific evidence: among them, Black is White, 2+2=5, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength. The Party insists on defining its own reality and propaganda permeates the lives of people too distracted by “rubbishy” tabloids (“containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology”) and sex-filled movies to care much about politics or history. News articles and books are rewritten by the Ministry of Truth whereby the past is described as a benighted time that has given way to the Party’s efforts to make Oceania great again despite the empirical evidence to the contrary: grim living conditions, shortages of decent food and clothing. Not surprisingly, the Party has largely “vaporized” anyone who lived through the earlier time or the Revolution itself so that no contrary voices can contradict the official story – again echoes of Stalinism.

Trump’s deployment of the phrase “enemy of the American people” is designed to isolate his supporters from any unpalatable reality that could damage his Presidency by stigmatizing anyone, including the media critical of him. It is an echo of “enemy of the people,” a branding that could be a death sentence under Stalin. In Nazi Germany, Propaganda Minister,Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1941 that every Jew was “a sworn enemy of the German people.” And who are the “people’? According to columnist, Roger Cohen, they are “an aroused mob imbued with some mythical essence of nationhood or goodness by a charismatic leader.” In the Soviet Union, they surrounded the courts of the trials of the enemy of the people “chanting at intervals ‘Death to the traitors!’” But I have quoted not from a historical monograph exploring the Great Terror (1936-38) but from Nineteen Eighty-Four. In every instance, the “people” are reframed according to their class, race or ethnic group and the people are pitted against the other. In Trump’s world, the “American people” are diehard ultranationalists, white supremacists and large pockets of the white working class while the enemy consists of Muslims, refugees and undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, any critical media reportage or independent judges who challenge him ignites a flurry of puerile insults.

One of the most unsettling features of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the Two Minute Hate which turns into an annual week-long festival. The denizens of Oceania are whipped into a frenzy of hatred and loathing against Oceania’s geo-political enemies: Eurasia and East Asia. These two other great powers live under similar totalitarian systems as that in Oceania. A further target is the visceral hate directed against the “primal traitor,” Emmanuel Goldstein, (read Leon Trotsky) whenever his “lean Jewish face” flashes up on the telescreen. Through his protagonist, Orwell examines the psychological fallout on the citizens:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
Orwell astutely recognizes that once this violence is activated, it can readily be redirected at other targets. The permissibility to hate coarsens society by inhibiting civility and reducing the threshold for verbal violence, attributes that resonate in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. Under the pretext of buffing away “political correctness,” a surge in crude, offensive language, that targeted among others, the former First Lady, Muslims, and Hispanics, were followed by a spike in anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic hate crimes. The President’s tardy and lackadaisical response in condemning this behaviour and criminal actions has only emboldened the haters to feel that their slurs and actions have been licensed.

The Two Minutes Hate scene from 1984 (1984).

The degree and intensity of visceral rage described by Orwell may have exceeded the verbiage of racist language and xenophobic outbursts that permeated Trump’s rallies, as well as the stoking of fear and division at the Republican Convention. But at the Convention, he and his acolytes demonstrated a capacity for igniting the fires of diehard anti-Clinton feeling. Anyone who watched will recall the strident, vitriolic speech by Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, former intelligence officer and now former national-security advisor after the shortest tenure in that position in American history. “Our very existence is threatened,” Flynn declared. What was needed was a President with “guts,” not a “weak spineless” one "who believes she is above the law.” When his audience responded with chants of “Lock-her up!", Flynn egged them on, “That’s right – lock her up” and a few moments later, “if I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth – a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today.” The statement is rich in irony given the reason for his recent firing.

Perhaps Orwell’s creation of Newspeak – the official language of Oceania and created to supersede Oldspeak or Standard English – is his most important legacy as it transcends totalitarian states and has gained increasing relevance in backsliding democracies. Anyone who takes a cursory glance at social media, specifically the widespread use of Twitter and Facebook, and news reports of threats to muzzle scientists if their research holds the possibility to challenge government policies, will appreciate Orwell’s prescience. Newspeak is characterized by a continually diminishing and simple vocabulary with the goal of narrowing the range of thought so that citizens will not possess the linguistic or scientific tools to formulate rational critiques and draw conclusions from experimentation since, according the Newspeak Appendix in the novel, “there was no vocabulary expressing the function of Science as a habit of mind or a method of thought.” Unsurprisingly, there is no word for science. Northrup Frye in The Educated Imagination argues that the purpose of Newspeak is to “deliberately debase our language by turning our speech into automatic gabble.” He could have been talking about Trump with his rudimentary vocabulary and his incoherent rambles or any other current demagogues who flagrantly lie.

Adam Gopnik has raised the spectre of America turning into a fascist state comparable to what Orwell depicted: “Because the single most striking thing about [Trump’s] matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to 1984 because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.” Gopnik is a compelling journalist, but on this issue I am more persuaded by Republican critic, David Frum, whose illuminating essay argues that the exemplars of strongmen illiberalism prominent in South Africa, Venezuela and Hungary could provide the model for Trump’s America. Characterized less by ideology and more by kleptocracy, these regimes are more in tune with the twenty-first century than the totalitarianism of surveillance and repression that scarred mid-twentieth century Europe. Hungary still retains the trappings of a democracy with elections and an uncensored Internet; opponents of the regime are not killed or imprisoned, though they can be harassed with tax audits or be fired if they have government contracts. The principal method of silencing critics is through intimidation. The courts are losing their independence and independent media outlooks are losing advertising revenue owing to government pressure, while supporters are financially rewarded.

America, Frum argues, is still a vibrant democracy but its vulnerability resides in the character and qualities of the individual who is President. Trump has attacked the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment and the independence of the judiciary, but his primary goal is to enrich himself, protect himself and his family with legal immunity and seek payback against his critics. True, his actions will provoke unrest, but Trump is counting on that to further polarize the country.  Frum writes,“Polarization, not persecution, enables the modern illiberal regime.” Trump will look to his allies such as Fox News to support him, as they have done, by lashing out at “fake news” in the “liberal” media, and to his Twitter supporters who fully embrace him. There is no need for Stormtroopers in the streets when his army of fans can troll online to spread the message and intimidate his critics. Frum quotes with admiration the Russian-born journalist, Masha Gessen, who compares the Russophile Trump with his doppelganger, Vladimir Putin: “Lying is the message. It’s not just that they lie, it’s that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth.” 

Gessen’s apercu pivots us back to Nineteen Eighty-Four, not the world of O'Brien violent prognostication that the future will consist of a boot kicking the face forever but one less crudely overt: the contest for power over who will determine what constitutes reality. We already live in a bubble where we doubt any photograph or narrative that challenges our views. Just as fabricated photos and bios are created or disappear down the memory hole in the novel, paper is giving way to digital data, and the process of altering reality becomes much simpler for any power base that has ownership over the data and the image. Currently, America’s Big Brother, with his direct Twitter relationship with his followers, is in an all-out struggle to control the message.  Almost daily we are bombarded with evidence of Orwell's prescience. Trump’s slogan should be “Ignorance is Strength.”


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