Friday, January 27, 2017

Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-­Read

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI JAN. 26, 2017, New York Times

image from article

The dystopia described in George Orwell’s nearly 70­-year-­old novel “1984” suddenly
feels all too familiar. A world in which Big Brother (or maybe the National Security
Agency) is always listening in, and high­-tech devices can eavesdrop in people’s
homes. (Hey, Alexa, what’s up?) A world of endless war, where fear and hate are
drummed up against foreigners, and movies show boatloads of refugees dying at sea.
A world in which the government insists that reality is not “something objective,
external, existing in its own right” — but rather, “whatever the Party holds to be
truth is truth.”

“1984” shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s best­seller list this week, after Kellyanne
Conway, an adviser to President Trump, described demonstrable falsehoods told by
the White House press secretary Sean Spicer — regarding the size of inaugural
crowds — as “alternative facts.” It was a phrase chillingly reminiscent, for many
readers, of the Ministry of Truth’s efforts in “1984” at “reality control.” To Big
Brother and the Party, Orwell wrote, “the very existence of external reality was
tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”
Regardless of the facts, “Big Brother is omnipotent” and “the Party is infallible.”

As the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, sees it, the Party “told you to reject the
evidence of your eyes and ears,” and he vows, early in the book, to defend “the
obvious” and “the true”: “The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are
hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center.” Freedom, he
reminds himself, “is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” even though
the Party will force him to agree that “TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE” — not unlike
the way Mr. Spicer tried to insist that Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd was “the
largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” despite data and photographs to
the contrary.

In “1984,” Orwell created a harrowing picture of a dystopia named Oceania,
where the government insists on defining its own reality and where propaganda
permeates the lives of people too distracted by rubbishy tabloids (“containing almost
nothing except sport, crime and astrology”) and sex­filled movies to care much about
politics or history. News articles and books are rewritten by the Ministry of Truth
and facts and dates grow blurry — the past is described as a benighted time that has
given way to the Party’s efforts to make Oceania great again (never mind the
evidence to the contrary, like grim living conditions and shortages of decent food
and clothing).

Not surprisingly, “1984” has found a nervous readership in today’s “post-­truth”
era. It’s an era in which misinformation and fake news have proliferated on the web;
Russia is flooding the West with propaganda to affect elections and sow doubts
about the democratic process; poisonous tensions among ethnic and religious
groups are fanned by right­wing demagogues; and reporters scramble to sort out a
cascade of lies and falsehoods told by President Trump and his aides — 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 popular­vote

Orwell had been thinking about the novel that would become “1984” as early as
1944, when he wrote a letter about Stalin and Hitler, and “the horrors of emotional
nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because
all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible führer.”

Decades later, in the 1970s, “1984” would frequently be cited as holding a
mirror to the Nixon administration’s duplicitous handling of the war in Vietnam and
its linguistic, “Newspeak” ­like contortions over Watergate (like the press secretary
Ron Ziegler’s description of his earlier statements as “inoperative”).

In his 1944 letter, Orwell presciently argued that “there is no such thing as a
history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences
are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark.”
And in “1984,” the word “science” does not even exist: “the empirical method of
thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is
opposed to the most fundamental principles” of the Party.

This sort of marginalization in “1984” speaks to some of the very fears scientists
have expressed in response to reports that the Trump administration is scrutinizing
studies and data published by researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency
while placing new work on “temporary hold.” Similar concerns about an Orwellian
consolidation and centralization of government media control have been expressed
over administration efforts “to curb the flow of information from several government
agencies involved in environmental issues,” and the possibility, as Politico reported,
that the new White House might also try to put its stamp on the Voice of America,
the broadcasting arm that “has long pushed democratic ideals across the world.”

Of course, all of these developments are being constantly updated, with regular
flurries of news and denials and counter-denials — a confusing state of affairs that
itself would not have surprised Orwell, since he knew the value of such confusion to
those in power.

Another book, published two years after “1984,” also made Amazon’s list of top
100 best sellers this week: Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951).
A kind of nonfiction bookend to “1984,” the hefty philosophical volume examines the
factors that fueled the perfect storm of events leading to the rise of Hitler and Stalin
and World War II — notably, the power that centralized storytelling can exert over
anxious populations suffering from the dislocations of history, by offering
scapegoats, easy fixes and simple cohesive narratives. If such narratives are riddled
with lies, so much the better for those in power, who then succeed in redefining the
daily reality inhabited by their subjects.

“Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe
the worst,” Arendt wrote, “no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to
being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.” This mixture of
gullibility and cynicism, Arendt suggested, thrived in times rife with change and
uncertainty, and was exploited by politicians intent on creating a fictional world in
which “failures need not be recorded, admitted, and remembered.” In this world, 2 +
2 does = 5, as Orwell noted, and the acceptance of bad arithmetic simply becomes a
testament to the power of rulers to define reality and the terms of debate.

A despairing vision to be sure, though Christopher Hitchens pointed out that
Orwell’s own commitment in his life to continually seek “elusive but verifiable truth”
was a testament to human tenacity and “that tiny, irreducible core of the human
personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion.”

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