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The Real Lessons of 1984

Spoiler Alert:  I’m not going to recap the whole plot of 1984, but I’ll probably mention some key points. So if you’ve never read the book and plan to (which I highly recommend), it’s probably better not to read this until you’ve finished it.

Suddenly, everyone is rediscovering Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. Actually, it’s one of those books that’s invoked whenever the government starts cracking down in some way. There are some interesting points about the current political climate, though.

First of all, 1984 is the ultimate dystopian nightmare. It’s about an all-powerful state that’s pretty much unstoppable. Big Brother is the symbol of the oppressive regime, but no one really knows who exactly controls it. Citizens live in perpetual fear. All information is controlled by the state-controlled media. There’s a constant state of warfare, with shifting alliances.

Are the 3 main states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, really at war with each other, or are they secretly controlled by the same sinister forces? No one knows, and this is never revealed. Part of the nightmare is that the control is so pervasive that it’s impossible to really know HOW pervasive it actually is.

Because Orwell’s vision was so extreme, 1984 can be seen as a myth or an archetype of totalitarianism. Some regimes, such as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and perhaps even contemporary North Korea might approach it, but even in those cases the control wasn’t total; some people at least escaped.

The  Paradoxical Idea of Contemporary America as Orwell’s 1984

The very idea of comparing 2017 America to the world of 1984 is bizarre, contradictory and absurd for several reasons, which are listed below. That said, Donald Trump IS showing definite fascistic tendencies. Another way to look at it is that he’s implementing oppressive policies that are blatant, while Hillary Clinton would have continued the more subtle (at least it’s subtle if you’re not living in a country that’s getting drone bombed!) type of oppression that’s really defined Post-World War II America. But it’s still a far cry from 1984.

  • If Donald Trump = Big Brother, he’s a Big Brother that lots of people openly hate. Including most of the mainstream media. In 1984, there’s no distinction between the media and the state. So if your favorite liberal columnist or TV commentator is telling you to beware of Big Brother, something doesn’t quite fit.
  • If we were living in 1984, you couldn’t openly post your hatred for Trump on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.
  • If we were living in 1984, discussions like this wouldn’t be possible, at least not in the open.

So there’s a kind of oxymoronic, postmodern aspect to openly talking about how we’re living in 1984.

Seeing the Nuances of 1984

The real problem with everybody getting on the 1984 bandwagon is that they’re oversimplifying Orwell’s message. If you’ve read the book, think back to what happens when the protagonist Winston Smith joins the resistance. He meets a charismatic “radical” named O’Brien – who turns out to be a government agent, leading to Smith’s capture (I warned you there’d be spoilers).

So pay attention to that. In 1984, the control was so complete that even the “opposition” was controlled. Is that true now? If it IS true if it is, then you can’t really trust what the media and others are telling you about what’s going on. On the other hand, if it’s not true, then the very fact that most of the media is anti-Trump, tells you that we’re still a long way off from 1984 type control.

1984 is also largely about the power of language. The state has invented its own language, Newspeak, in order to control everyone’s thoughts. The absurd and sinister slogan “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” reveals that words can be used to mean anything and when you repeat something often enough, the true meaning is often lost. Everyone who uses words to persuade you of something, whether a politician, religious leader, or marketers, is distorting reality with words. Arguably, since words are only symbolic, language is intrinsically deceptive. So it’s a mistake to make a simplistic equation of Newspeak with any particular person or ideology.

See the Layers

Life is seldom simple. Learn to see the layers and paradoxes. Trump IS behaving like a fascist. Many of the popular tirades against him are entirely justified. At the same time, they are largely hypocritical, given what’s been happening for the past few decades, going back at least since Vietnam. Trump, in some ways, is escalating it. But the military industrial complex and the warfare state have been steadily expanding, no matter who has been in office. So it’s way beyond a simple case of good vs. evil or “if only Hillary had won.”

Read 1984, or reread it. But look at the deeper messages. Orwell was not simply condemning one ideology. He was actually a socialist, yet the party in 1984 uses socialist rhetoric -proof that he understood some of the nuances of power and deception. He recognized how easy it is to manipulate people into false beliefs.

Trump is a master manipulator in his own right. He opposed a corrupt and criminal system by playing into people’s fears. Now that he has some power, don’t make the mistake of going to the other extreme, and assume that those who oppose Trump have your best interests at heart. Most of the time, both sides are morally bankrupt. 1984 can help you see through the b.s. but only if you take it all in and don’t try to make it fit into some narrow political narrative.