In 1984, George Orwell distilled the future dystopian world in three slogans promulgated by the authoritarian government of "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength." Orwell was inspired by the Nazi slogan that stood over the gate at Auschwitz: "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free"). Adam Gopnik may look askance at the recent popularity of 1984 during the past two weeks of madness in thw swamp of authoritarianism, but people who truly love this country are sickened to paralyzing despair. Even if 1984 lacks nuance or fails to meet the standard of the best in dystopian literature, Orwell's novel mirrors the manic attempt to rewrite the history of 2009-2017 with manic behavior in the Oval Office. If this is (fair & balanced) quibbling about lunatic behavior, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Orwell's 1984 And Trump's America
By Adam Gopnik
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
I have, I’m afraid, a terrible confession to make: I have never been a huge fan of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949, 1987, 1992). It always seemed, in its extrapolations from present to future, too pat, a little lacking in the imaginative extrapolations we want from dystopian literature. As the British author Anthony Burgess pointed out a long time ago, Orwell’s modern hell was basically a reproduction of British misery in the postwar rationing years, with the malice of Stalin’s police-state style added on. That other ninth-grade classic, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932, 1946, 2013), where a permanent playground of sex and drugs persists in a fiercely inegalitarian society, seemed to me far more prescient, and so did any work of Philip K. Dick’s that extrapolated forward our bizarre American entertainment obsessions into an ever more brutal future in which Ken and Barbie might be worshipped as gods. 1984 seemed, in contrast, too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination of the relation between authoritarian state and helpless citizens.
An unbidden apology rises to the lips, as Orwell’s book duly climbs high in the Amazon rankings: it was far better and smarter than good times past allowed us to think. What it took, of course, to change this view was the Presidency of Donald Trump. Because the single most striking thing about his 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.
There is nothing subtle about Trump’s behavior. He lies, he repeats the lie, and his listeners either cower in fear, stammer in disbelief, or try to see how they can turn the lie to their own benefit. Every continental wiseguy, from Žižek to Baudrillard, insisted that when they pulled the full totalitarian wool over our eyes next time, we wouldn’t even know it was happening. Not a bit of it. Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation. They are not postmodern traps and temptations; they are primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.
The blind, blatant disregard for truth is offered without even the sugar-façade of sweetness of temper or equableness or entertainment—offered not with a sheen of condescending consensus but in an ancient tone of rage, vanity, and vengeance. Trump is pure raging authoritarian id.
And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.
When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters—a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House “staffer,” not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true—he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of. People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.
And so CNN’s Jake Tapper, to his credit, may announce boldly that the story is false from beginning to end—but then he is led by his own caution and sense of professionalism to ask Trump whether, if he sees it as true, there ought to be an investigation into it. Tapper, like everyone else, knows perfectly well that a minimally honest investigation would turn up no proof of this absurdity at all. But that, of course, is the trap, the game. Watch: there will be a “commission” consisting of experts borrowed from Breitbart; it will hold no hearings, or hold absurdly closed ones; or hold ones with testimony from frequent callers to “The Alex Jones Show”—and this clownish commission will then baldly conclude that there is, indeed, widespread evidence of voter fraud. And Trump will reassert the lie and point to his commission’s findings as his evidence.
Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress, thoroughly intimidated, fear shining from one eye and cupidity from the other, will exploit the “question” of voter fraud to pursue policies of actually suppressing minority voters. Caligula, the mad Roman emperor, infamously appointed his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, and that has been for millennia a byword for cracked authoritarian action. But we now know what would happen if Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate if the modern Republican Party happened to be in the majority there: first the Republicans would say that they didn’t want to get into disputes about the Emperor’s personnel choices, and then they’d quickly see how the presence of the horse could help justify dismantling regulations in the horse-chariot industry. (“Well, you know, he’s an unorthodox kind of Emperor, so I don’t want to get into that, Jake—but I will say that, whatever the Emperor’s beliefs, we have a very inclusive party, and, if we’re slackening regulations on the stables, I want to point out it’s with the full and welcome participation of a horse.”) The Emperor’s lunacy and the senators’ larceny match perfectly.
Starting this week, it’s vital that everyone who is trying to maintain sanity understand that this is so—that it is a myth that reason, as normally undertaken, is going to affect this process or that “consequences,” as they are normally understood, will, either. Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason. Conservative intellectuals, as a reading of the Times each day reveals, turn out to share these resentments far more deeply than they value the rational practices. Having experienced this condescension, or so they imagine, on the larger stage of universities and publishing houses, they may mistrust the demagogue, but they actively hate those who demonstrate against him. The demagogue they regard only with disdain; his critics are an ancient object of hatred and contempt. If forced to choose, they will always choose the demagogue before the demonstrators. If there’s one thing we really do know from social science, it’s that people are far more determined to see their ancient enemies made miserable than themselves made happier.
On the positive side, well, there were the women’s marches last weekend, which filled any sane heart with hope. What had seemed doubtful a short week before—that there could be unified, peaceful, indeed joyous mass action against the madness—was fully realized, and for what one hopes will be only the first of many times. It left our minds inspired with simple slogans that did not oversimplify: Community is the only cure for catastrophe. Action is the only antidote to anger. If these sound a bit like Winston’s private mutterings in 1984—when he writes secretly, for instance, that sanity is not statistical—at least they are, for the moment, still fully public truths. Pray that they remain so. ###
[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA (art history) from McGill University. Later, he received an MA (art history) from New York University. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012). In 2013, McGill University awarded a DLItt ( honoris causa) to Adam Gopnik.]
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