“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”
“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
The man who wrote these two sentences, both of which are contained in the same timeless essay, “Politics and the English Language,” would have been amused to find that his dystopian novel 1984 is once again a bestseller thanks to Kellyanne Conway’s recent characterization of a lie as “alternative facts.”
In 1984, Orwell gave us a perfect rendering of a totalitarian state’s use of violence and language to keep a people enslaved. However, quite contrary to the spirit and intention of its author, the book has been transformed by posterity into something worse than a metaphor—a cliché—which does our thinking for us whenever we struggle to understand “something not desirable” in our politics.
How often has it been said over the years, after some elected American official lets loose an oxymoronic or self-contradictory slogan or a national security policy treads upon a civil liberty, that “Orwell is turning in his grave”? Well, no, actually. As Orwell would no doubt point out if he could, not only is that a physical impossibility and therefore a nonsense expression but it also takes leave of all sense of proportion and sound judgment. Not every political falsehood or euphemism is an example of doublespeak. Not every megalomaniac with power is Big Brother, even if Oliver Stone and Michael Moore beg to differ.
With the election of Donald Trump, we can argue with some evidence that never before has the United States veered so perilously into authoritarianism. But this still doesn’t get us anywhere near the sinister genius of O’Brien in the Ministry of Love or the intricately mapped nightmare that was Ingsoc.
Like its obvious model, the Soviet Union, Oceania’s absolutist system was a long-term experiment in human engineering that sought to abolish the very emotions and intuitions upon which a populist con artist like Trump depends and thrives. It sought to control, down the minutest detail, everything from sex to language to arithmetic and gave itself 66 years (until 2050) to perfect its method. Trump can’t even control his Twitter feed three weeks into running the free world.
Nor was the dissemination of propaganda in 1984 quite the same in design or purpose as it is with this White House, which, rather like Putin’s Kremlin, seeks not to convince you of a truth but to make you doubt the very concept of truth. Trump’s steady stream of conspiracy theories and falsifiable porkies is really an exercise in the cultivation of perpetual skepticism and paranoia, the goal being to make you angry and cynical and doubt the integrity of reliable information. But this presupposes that you have to get reliable information in the first place.
In 1984, you can’t, unless you are given a copy of Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. This samizdat is actually as accurate assessment of the political economy of Oceania and its interchangeable rivals and allies, Eurasia and Eastasia, as one can come by. But it is also a forgery written by the very functionaries of the police state it is meant to expose and help overthrow. O’Brien gives a copy of the illicit tract to Winston Smith while posing as a member of the insurgent “Brotherhood.” Later, he admits to being one of its many anonymous authors after revealing himself a dutiful Party man and Winston’s torturer. (In this respect, it isn’t quite right to see in Goldstein as a fictional reproduction of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky’s essays and polemics were authentic, although the scapegoat Stalin made of him and his vastly exaggerated following was similar.)
Nor is “fake news,” better known as disinformation, quite what Orwell had in mind when he envisaged a vast bureaucracy called the Ministry of Truth tasked with the physical construction and destruction of history. Conway’s “Bowling Green massacre,” or Sean Spicer’s Atlanta terrorist attack, are fabrications, true, but they are unmoored from any elaborate effort to make them real retroactively. It would come closer to true Orwellianism if the White House had drafted back-dated articles about these sham events after Conway and Spicer uttered them, and then proceeded to remove any trace of the Kentucky atrocity that wasn’t following Conway’s embarrassing repudiation of it. Instead, it published a list of actual terror attacks it claimed the media never covered, when the media covered all of them.
Twentieth century totalitarianisms were not opposed to truth. On the contrary, their success lay in a regime’s ability to mold and manipulate it in their own image and according to their own pseudo-scientific epistemology. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Freedom is slavery. Winston’s job is to furnish the evidence that makes lies plausible, to excise the heretical and to translate plain English into Newspeak, the only language whose vocabulary shrinks annually. The very process of revising the present to suit the inscrutable needs of the Party is not merely a safeguard against figuring out that the Party is lying; it is the principal means of rewiring your mind to preclude you from ever being able to figure out that it is lying.
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” runs the Party slogan. Winston spends his days rewriting old articles in the Times, either altering projected government statistics that were not satisfied or erasing the public record of revolutionary heroes who once existed, if not inventing ones who never did. Winston’s flaw is that he cannot truly master doublethink, the Party catechism by which the world is run and understood.
What is doublethink? Not merely the ability to go along with an absurdity or to spot a logical contradiction and carry on as if one hadn’t. It is a kind of self-devouring relativism. “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”
Alternative facts have no place in Oceania because there are no alternatives to what is deemed a fact at any given moment in time, as determined by one infallible source of information. If the Party controls all records, then, as O’Brien tells Winston, it controls all memories. And if it controls all memories, then anything is possible. O’Brien can float off the floor like a soap bubble if the Party wishes him to because by virtue of its will this superhuman feat becomes true. This is how two and two can make five.
O’Brien is the embodiment and apotheosis of the Party, a perfectly disciplined totalitarian. He has been studying Winston for seven years and can read his mind and summon Oldspeak words which Winston has forgotten, such as solipsism, in the course of mentally dismantling this thought criminal in order to build him back up again as an apparatchik who will truly, deeply love Big Brother. “There was no idea that he had ever had, or could have, that O’Brien had not long ago known, examined, and rejected. His mind contained Winston’s mind.”
Donald Trump will see you in court.
Funnily enough, if there is a figure in 1984 who does in some way represent a Trumpian archetype, then it is the antiheroine, Winston’s doomed lover, who betrays him and whom he betrays. (“Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.”)
Outwardly, Julia is the picture of conformity but secretly she is too wised-up and self-interested to even be concerned by politics. For her, too, truth doesn’t exist by virtue of its being so contorted and corrupted. She is so mistrustful of her government that she (probably correctly) believes that Oceania has been bombing itself “just to keep people frightened.” She only questions Party dogma when it has some direct bearing on her recondite and unorthodox inner life. “Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her. She believed, for instance, having learnt it at school, that the Party had invented airplanes.” She doesn’t remember when Oceania was at war with Eastasia four years ago and assumes that it has always been at war with Eurasia and then, after conceding a dim recollection of this volte-face to Winston, remarks, “Who cares. It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.”
Julia is the ideal Breitbart reader.