The Continued Relevance of “1984”

When 45 was elected there were lots of postings on Facebook about the uptick in people purchasing and reading or re-reading George Orwell’s 1984.

I did not rush out and get a copy because I was already depressed enough and revisiting what I remembered of that grim world that Orwell first wrote about in 1950 did not appeal.  I stayed away from it until a former student reached out on Facebook, and we decided to create a two-person book club. After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, we decided we would take on 1984.

As I read, I was surprised at how straightforward the narrative was, and while I could see some parallels to the political climate that we have been plunged into since the election of 2016, it wasn’t until half-way through the book that I came across some passages that really resonated.

I’m sure that some writers and thinkers have done much more work on this than I’m willing to so I will stick to a couple of parallels that were particularly striking.

Overall, I do not believe that 2016 looks like the world envisioned in 1984.  After all, we are a vibrant and diverse culture. Personal liberties are mostly still intact.  Their is robust political discussion, conversation, and protest that seems unending. The judiciary and individual states have managed to blunt some of 45’s excesses, and many of us are counting the days until the 2018 elections when some of our diffuse outrage might be turned into significant electoral action.

However, there are a few haunting similarities.  Just as Orwell envisioned the ministries of Truth, Peace, and Love that were all dedicated to their opposites, 45’s cabinet-level nominees seemed to have been hand-picked to destroy or work in opposition to the very principles of their departments.  The department of Justice under Jess Sessions is devoted to rolling back any initiative that was dedicated to advancing civil rights, and is working hard to find ways to increase voter suppression.  The Environmental Protection agency is being gutted by Scott Pruitt, and it appears as though every effort to protect our air and water that has been implemented over the past 10 years is going to be eliminated as a sop to coal and oil interests just at a time when many states are surging forward with innovations in renewable energy.  Just today, 18 states sued Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of the Department of Education, for trying to stop regulations that would protect students and parents from being defrauded by private, for-profit colleges.

The odd part for me about all of this is that the partisan divide is so deep that even though these policies hurt everyone, the polling seems to show little change since the election. 45’s base voters are as rabidly enthusiastic as ever although there has been movement among independent voters.  There continues to be a solid majority that are unalterably apposed to the man.  Of course, that was true on election day also.

The second parallel that was most striking to me was how the government of 1984 saw the power of re-writing the past and continually revising history in order to manipulate and control the masses.  Winston, of course, knows this because he works in the Ministry of Truth where he is continually making changes to history books and historical documents to make them align with the Party’s changing positions.  He tries to impress the enormity of this mass manipulation to his lover, Julia with an impassioned explanation: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.  And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

He is disappointed when his young lover shows little interest.  She is so jaded that Winston’s news does not surprise her, just confuses and bores her a little.  Of course the government lies. Yes, people are “disappeared.” Orwell describes her condition by saying that, [o]ften she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.”

Trump and his minions unapologetically spew out lies and contradictions at such a dizzying pace that I fear the populace has become anesthetized.  The New York Times has compiled an impressive list of lies (“President Trump’s Lies, the Definitive List”) that Trump has foisted on America since his inauguration and despite the enormity of it, or maybe because of it, the populace seems to have grown numb.  Thirty-five percent of Americans believe him or believe it doesn’t matter that he lies, and sixty-five precent have come to not believe anything that he says.  All investigative reporting is quickly branded as “fake news” and the White House is always able to present “alternative facts” if asked.  The deliberate confusing of all of the narratives surrounding the enormity of the scandals that are emanating from this administration has left many people unsure of who to believe.

Winston still has the capacity for outrage and the desire to join what he perceives as the resistance while Julia has accepted the duplicitous nature of the world she lives in and rebels through hedonism and other small defiances.

Seems like such a short time ago, we had a devout interest in protecting the environment, furthering the cause of civil rights, and working to provide for the good of all Americans.  We had a president who most Americans trusted and who seemed to be trying hard to maintain a the kind of sense of dignity and decorum that we used to expect of our presidents.

We aren’t in the world of 1984 yet, but we certainly have moved closer to it.

“Post-Truth Era”? Is That Actually A Thing?

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Ever since I read the article entitled “Search Party” by Jonathan Mahler (January 1, 2017) in the New York Times Magazine, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around his use of the phrase “the post-truth era”, a phrase I am hearing used more and more often.   His article begins with a discussion of the growing phenomena of “fake news” and of websites that promulgate specious conspiracy theories, including the one that prompted a young man to load up his car with weapons, drive 350 miles to Washington DC to “self-investigate” whether or not Hillary Clinton was indeed running a child-sex ring from a Washington pizzeria.

I’m not sure why I’m struggling with the idea that Donald Trump is having such success even though he repeatedly has been called out for telling lies, repeating assertions made by others that have been categorically debunked, and then fiercely repeating his own falsehoods and those of his minions.  I guess I’m aghast just because there seems to be no consequence for these actions, especially among his supporters.  His backers will list many reasons for their support of Trump, but what astonishes me is that when they turn to demonizing his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, they invariably list one of her most critical sins as being, “she can’t be trusted; she lies.”

We have certainly, in my lifetime, have been exposed to destructive institutional deception on a large scale.  Our entrance into the Viet Nam war, the secret bombing of Laos, the cover-up of the devastation caused by Agent Orange all prompted extensive cover-ups.  The Watergate affair and the subsequent efforts to protect the guilty certainly gave us insight into the government’s ability to create an alternate reality as did the Bush administrations efforts to cherry-pick evidence of WMDs in Iraq, sometimes from wildly unreliable sources, just to support the pre-determined narrative that would lead to the invasion of Iraq.  Outside of politics, in the 80’s we watched the Catholic church scramble to discredit and minimize the sexual abuse of children stretching back as far as 50 years.

I guess what seems different about these scandals is that eventually truth won out. Investigations persevered, detailed accounts were written, admissions were made, testimony was taken and the results were acknowledged.  In almost all of these cases, the mainstream media, the Trump administration’s biggest punching bag, was critical in exposing and bringing the truth to light.

On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times one headline read “Slamming Media, Trump Advances Two Falsehoods.”  During the first 48 hours of his presidency, Trump has been obsessed by how many people showed up to his inauguration.  His claims and the subsequent claims of his press secretary that the ceremony had drawn, “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” were quickly shown to be false by photographic evidence presented by numerous news outlets.

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Then, he took time out to mend fences with the intelligence community, appearing at the CIA, where he reassured the 300 employees that were present that he appreciated their work and that he was “so behind you.”  This was just weeks after he had scorchingly tried to discredit their work on the reports of Russian hacking of the DNC and even compared them to Nazis.  Worse than this duplicity, was the setting that he chose for his speech.  As he stood before the gold stars that represent the members of the CIA that have died in the line of duty, he quickly lost the thread of praising their work and dedication, to bemoan his treatment in the media and to go back to his complaints that they (the media) were misrepresenting the number of people that showed up to his party.

I guess this is where I’m starting to see what Mahler meant about the “post-truth era.”  How can one denigrate a professional group like the CIA, undermining their work and calling them Nazis, and then stand before them and say that “I love you, I respect you, there’s nobody I respect more” and be taken seriously?  But this isn’t some low-level hack; this is the President of the United States.  Sadly, we are are a long way from the days of John F. Kennedy, when he addressed Americans after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and said: “The President of a great democracy such as ours, and the editors of great newspapers such as yours, owe a common obligation to the people: an obligation to present the facts, to present them with candour, and to present them in perspective.”

I guess this was a time when the truth was more in vogue, just something we expected out of our presidents. It was a time where we didn’t need both the facts and “alternative facts.”

Maybe we just need to sit back and take the advice of Kellyanne Conway when she tried to defend Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter, an incident that was recorded and well-documented, when she admonished reporters that, “you always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”

I don’t know about you, but that is one heart that I don’t want to go looking around in whatsoever.  And it has always seemed to me that we, as Americans, have felt that what a president actually says is important.  I hope it won’t be long before we have a president who abides by the time-honored principle that it is important to say what you mean, and mean what you say.

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