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Still from the 1984 movie adaptation.
Still from the 1984 movie adaptation.

BooksFebruary 9, 2017

1984 in 2017: Philip Matthews on Orwell’s masterpiece in the Age of Trump

Still from the 1984 movie adaptation.
Still from the 1984 movie adaptation.

A new edition of George Orwell’s 1984 appears just as a new ruler of doublespeak and fake news casts his shadow over the world. Philip Matthews re-examines the novel that serves as a prophecy.

Winston Smith works in a fake news factory. If you had read that sentence a year ago, you might have had trouble understanding what it meant. That in a nutshell is why George Orwell’s 1984, a book first published in 1949, is suddenly relevant and selling truckloads in 2017. In the space of 12 months, maybe more, but at an accelerating pace, the world has become strange enough that only dystopian Cold War fiction could ever hope to explain it (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has also enjoyed a boost).

Australian publisher Text put out a new edition of 1984 on November 28, 2016. What timing. Donald Trump had won the US election just 20 days earlier, but Text’s editors could have not expected or predicted that outcome when they prepared 1984 for publication. There is no opportunistic mention of the orange menace in either the publicity material or the new introduction by Australian writer Charlotte Wood. The timing was surely an unhappy accident.

The fake news factory has a proper name. It’s the Ministry of Truth. One of Orwell’s innovations in 1984 was to explain the role that language, and by extension the media, could play in a totalitarian regime. Winston Smith’s day job in the Ministry includes editing old newspapers to change the past, based on present-day directives from the ruling Party. If something said now contradicts then, you must go back and change then. One of the ironies of 1984 is that the bookish Smith enjoys this work, or is at least absorbed in it and takes pride in it. He is a language worker. Others in the Ministry are working on the 11th edition of the newspeak dictionary which should ultimately make even “thoughtcrime” impossible. The dictionary’s editors are removing words from the language, rather than adding them, and if the words no longer exist to form a dissenting thought, can a thoughtcrime even be committed?

Smith’s co-worker Syme explains cheerfully, “We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.”

This is the reverse of the Soviet-style obsession with production in 1984. Destruction of language is the aim. But there is a sad prescience in Syme’s boast to Smith because Syme himself disappears, and once he has gone, it is as though he never existed. History is wiped. No trace remains.

Still from the 1984 movie adaptation.

Language controls reality and the control over reality demonstrated in 1984 is more terrifying than anything that can be done with the usual totalitarian paraphernalia. There are helicopters and spies and there are continuous and almost arbitrary wars between the three remaining world states, Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia, but “if the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?”

The sense of unreality is in 1984 from its first, ominous sentence: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Even if you accept that “thirteen” is a way of rendering the 1300 hours of military timekeeping, the distortion immediately suggests the fabulism of something like Kafka as much as the grimy realism you might expect from a novel detailing the drab triumph of English Socialism, or Ingsoc. That and other abbreviations in 1984 (Minipax, prolefeed, joycamp) were inspired by the jargon of Nazism and Communism (comintern, agitprop, gestapo). Orwell was also a language worker.

Media confusion and mixed messages seem to apply only to the creative middle classes. The proles are distracted by porn, the weekly lottery and “primitive patriotism”. There is an uncomfortable, sneering at the chavs aspect to some of this – only now you would substitute the Murdoch tabloids and reality television. Or, if you are Meryl Streep attacking Trump’s lumpen supporters at the Golden Globes, football and mixed martial arts.

Smith struggles with the terrible realisation that he can no longer rely on his own memory. The “oranges and lemons” rhyme is a trail back to the lost London of his childhood, and as he comes out of his solipsism and sadness – 1984 is a very lonely book – others help him with pieces of his story. One of them is Julia, who shows him that sex, like dreaming, can be an act of private rebellion against the Party and there is an innocent, awkward eroticism in the book that was also caught in Michael Radford’s underrated film that starred the late John Hurt as Smith (no one could play him better). Sex has real meaning for Smith and Orwell: “What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm.”

Big Brother and the Thought Police: when you read 1984 in 2017, you notice again how many of these ideas and phrases are lodged in everyday language. See also: newspeak, doublethink, Room 101. But if the book was simply an allegory or a Totalitarianism for dummies guidebook, it would not have lasted nearly 70 years  – Orwell would be in the charity shop with Koestler and Solzhenitsyn. You can ignore Orwell’s embedded theses on language and ideology that even Charlotte Wood confesses to skipping and still be gripped by a cleanly-written, deeply humane page-turner about love, hope, betrayal and (spoiler alert!) torture. Winston Smith, hiding in the shadows and daring to come into the light, is one of mid-20th century literature’s tragic figures.

In other words, it is a story first and an allegory second. Its usefulness as an allegory has come and gone in the West. To read Wood’s already dated introduction to the Text edition is to see how we thought Orwell’s ideas might be relevant before we had Trump to worry about. Wood is reminded of propaganda posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the small rooms where artist Ai Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days. She thinks of the sewn lips of refugees and hooded torture victims. The “two minutes hate”, when group anger is directed towards the common enemy, the revolutionary traitor Goldstein, puts Wood in mind of the “outrage churn of social media”.

Is the Twitter pile-on the new two minutes hate? Maybe that was true last year. They already seem more like carefree times. Since November 8, it feels like reality has gone off the rails and is running on a parallel track. The clocks have struck thirteen. Trump and his minions – Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway – seem alternately incompetent and sinister, or both at once. Like the Party in 1984, but more clumsily and more brazenly, they are at war with reality.

The examples are multiplying. Conway invents a massacre during an interview – the Bowling Green Massacre – and claims she made a simple mistake, until we learn she made the same “mistake” in an earlier interview with Cosmopolitan. The President sulks when photographic evidence shows that his inauguration crowd was smaller than Barack Obama’s inauguration crowd, so he orders his National Park Service to find different photos. When the question of crowd size comes up at a press conference, Conway explains that obvious lies are really “alternative facts”. That phrase soon replaces “fake news” as the most emblematic line in the regime’s communications because “fake news” had already been rendered meaningless by Trump’s use of it. When Trump says “fake news”, you should interpret that to mean a true story he dislikes.

Does this mean his use of “fake news” is itself fake? These are the kinds of rabbit holes we are now falling down. There are many more. The Trump regime claims that some terrorist attacks have gone unreported and circulates a list of 78 such attacks, which of course have been widely reported. Trump tells a meeting of county sheriffs that the US murder rate is the highest it has been in 47 years when in fact, says the Washington Post, it is almost at its lowest. A spokesperson denies that the Muslim ban is a “ban” even though Trump uses that exact word. Even when non-facts are acknowledged by Kellyanne Conway, she asks, “Are they more important than the many things that he says that are true that are making a difference in people’s lives?”

Keeping up with the false claims and contradictions could drive you crazy and so could trying to debunk them. Practising and consuming journalism has become hazardous to your mental health. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” Orwell wrote in 1984. “It was their final, most essential command.”

This to me is the centre of the book, the nightmare that follows when the rules of reality can no longer be agreed upon. Here is Winston Smith doubting his own sanity: “He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun: today, to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him: the horror was that he might also be wrong.”

Orwell knew that propaganda is not intended to convince but to confuse. The blizzard of mass communication helps. Chess champion and human rights activist Garry Kasparov said a similar thing on, of course, Twitter in December: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” The Russians are past masters. BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis has detected the influence of Vladislav Surkov, a shadowy advisor to President Vladimir Putin, who took ideas from the conceptual art world into politics. His “aim is to undermine people’s perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening”. Orwell’s word for that was “doublethink”.

There are other ways that Trump and his government resemble a debased version of Big Brother and the Party. Big Brother is really a master of branding, from the famous, contradictory slogans (“War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery”, “Ignorance is strength”) to the naming of Victory Mansions and Victory Gin. Those references keep reminding me of Trump Tower and Trump Steaks. Trump’s short, unpredictable Twitter messages identifying common enemies, distorting the record, attaching blame, exaggerating personal triumphs read like dictatorial slogans. The anti-Semitism in the Party’s targeting of the scapegoat Goldstein, a version of Trotsky with his “lean Jewish face”, is mirrored in the anti-Semitism of Trump, Bannon and media cheerleaders like Alex Jones.

When Trump declared a North Korean-sounding “National Day of Patriotic Devotion” in January, the proclamation began, “A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart. We are one people, united by a common destiny and a shared purpose.”

That seemed familiar. It sounds a lot like a public announcement from 1984, when some fake good news about war or production is transmitted to the masses: “The phrase ‘our new, happy life’ recurred several times. It had been a favourite of late with the Ministry of Plenty.”

1984 (Text, $15.99) by George Orwell, with an introduction by Charlotte Wood, is available at Unity Books. 

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