Culture

Let’s Stop Flattering Ourselves by Insisting It’s 1984

(Reuters photo: Toby Melville)
If Orwell were alive today, he’d be more concerned with the world’s genuine dictatorships than with the Trump administration.

On April 4, almost 90 art-house movie theaters across the country will show 1984, the British film starring John Hurt, as a form of protest against President Trump’s stated desire to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. The theaters say they “strongly believe in supporting the [NEA] and see any attempt to scuttle that program as an attack on free speech and creative expression through entertainment.”

The George Orwell novel on which the film is based, you’ll recall, is the classic story of a totalitarian government that controls all forms of mass media. It thus seems an odd choice for those protesting any government attempt to get out of the mass-media business.

In fact, 1984 has become something of a touchstone for the anti-Trump left. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani undoubtedly spoke for many Americans when she recommended shortly after Trump’s inauguration that readers revisit Orwell’s masterpiece post-haste:

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.”

Kakutani’s shout out to the NSA is curious, given that its infamous domestic surveillance program began under President George W. Bush and expanded under President Obama. The “world of endless war,” meanwhile, has always been with us: The war on terror that began on 9/11 hasn’t ended yet; Obama launched airstrikes or military raids in at least seven countries during his two terms. And I doubt the ruling party’s casual disregard for the truth bothered her when Obama was promising that, “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” and claiming that he “didn’t raise taxes once” and ”excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs.”

Of course, during the Obama years, it wasn’t too hard to find Republicans who insisted that Obama was bringing America closer to the dystopian world of 1984. In the New York Times in 2013, photojournalist Santiago Lyon lamented “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control.” In 2015, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens quipped, “To adapt George Orwell’s motto for Oceania: Under Mr. Obama, friends are enemies, denial is wisdom, capitulation is victory.” Yale University law professor Stephen Carter declared, “There is an eerie Orwellian cost to the Obama administration’s refusal to use the term “War on Terror” to describe its . . . war on terror.”

The point is not that Barack Obama was Big Brother. The point is that we always see the other side’s actions as foreshadowing Big Brother, while our side’s policy moves are just rational steps to take in a dangerous world.

Orwell’s 1984 is a brilliant, unforgettable warning about the dangers of an all-powerful state, cults of personality, mankind’s capacity for cognitive dissonance, and the willingness to believe what is obviously false in order to preserve a fatally flawed worldview. But the book’s memorable phrases and concepts are also now so chronically overused as a criticism of political leaders that they’re clichéd and, I suspect, easy to tune out if you don’t already agree that Leader X is a power-mad, ruthlessly manipulative tyrant-in-waiting.

We always see the other side’s actions as foreshadowing Big Brother, while our side’s policy moves are just rational steps to take in a dangerous world.

The America of 2017 is the same as America has always been: a mix of good and bad, noble and selfish, exercised liberties and runaway politicians and bureaucrats. Of course we have problems, but overheated comparisons to dystopian novels obscure more than they illuminate and conveniently forget that we’ve seen much worse.

Maybe Fox News strikes you as a modern day Ministry of Truth, airbrushing away any criticism of the regime. But it’s worth remembering that there was a time when such criticism was criminalized in America by Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act.

If you believe Trump’s private security guards have the potential to become a force of unaccountable loyalist thugs, I’d like to introduce you to Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Police Department of 1968.

Perhaps you feel the new administration’s discussion of Muslims and terrorism is scaremongering, and like Representative Keith Ellison, you argue against it by quoting Franklin Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Of course, Roosevelt later rounded up Japanese-Americans and put them into internment camps.

It’s not hard to find people who insist Trump is authoritarian because of the things he says. But authoritarians are not defined by the things they say; they’re defined by the things they do. The judicial branch already struck down Trump’s executive order on refugees. Despite Trump’s hyperbolic denunciations of the media, America’s press remains as free and vibrant as ever. The first weeks of the new presidency have not been marked by a meek and obedient Congress but by one that can’t unify behind a single legislative agenda.

When Orwell’s novel was published in 1949, the Third Reich had only been gone for four years, Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist and far-reaching brutality, Mao Zedong was seizing control of China and preparing to kill millions in the name of suppressing counter-revolutionaries, and Pol Pot was just getting intrigued by the ideas of French Communists. That is what the novel was intended to warn against; not a democratically elected president who pursues policies you don’t like.

Today, the world has plenty of governments who are uncomfortably close to the tyrannical regime of Oceania. They’re just not in America. Vladimir Putin’s critics have a strange habit of dying in not-so-random crimes and accidents. China still has forced-labor camps. The city that most resembles the London of 1984 is Pyongyang, North Korea. Iran encompasses it all: complete media control, arrests for thought crimes, and executions for nonviolent offenses such as insulting the Prophet, apostasy, same-sex relations, and adultery.

It’s popular in many circles to claim Orwell would look at the United States of today and shudder. But I suspect he would probably be content to mock President Trump on Twitter, while keeping his attention focused on the real threats to freedom, far from a free and democratic America where constitutional checks and balances remain in place.

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