The Real Relevance of '1984' Today
This week, George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 shot to number 1 on Amazon. I haven’t seen any sales figures, but according to a story in The New York Times, the book’s publisher just ordered a 75,000-copy reprint to meet the new demand and was considering yet further printings. Those are remarkable numbers. What happened?
I would have liked to think that the spike in sales happened in response to my essay about Orwell and the assault on free speech in the academy in this month’s New Criterion. I’ll come back to my observations about 1984 later on. First, however, candor requires that I acknowledge that it was not my essay that sparked the surprising flood of sales.
No, the reason for the book’s new success was Donald Trump. Was it just another example of the Trump Bump, his doing for the publishing industry what he has done to the Dow Jones average (up by 9% since the election), foreign investment in the U.S., and basic country-wide confidence that the country is getting back on the right track?
Not quite. When I say that “Donald Trump” was responsible for the sudden and unexpected surge in sales of 1984, what I mean is that the media seized upon a remark by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway in response to the controversy over the number of people who viewed Trump’s inauguration a week ago. Trump opined that one and a half million people attended the festivities. The media laughed at that number, claiming it was much lower. Sean Spicer, in his first appearance as the administration’s press secretary, insisted that Trump was right and that, in fact, “that was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” The media went to town on that, emitting dozens of articles with graphs, charts, statistics, and expert testimony. According to their count, what Trump, and Spicer, said was demonstrably false.
In one gleeful exchange on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd repeatedly pressed Kellyanne Conway on the issue. Why Did President Trump and then his press secretary deliberately lie about the facts of the size of the crowd at the inauguration? Conway parried that the press seemed determined to put the new administration in a bad light. For one thing, she noted, we didn’t really know what the total number of people who watched the inauguration was. For another, the press, fixated on crowd size, essentially ignored a reporter’s tweet that Trump had had the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. removed from the Oval Office when that really was demonstrably false. It was all, said Conway, part of the general effort to diminish and delegitimate the new administration. All that slid of Todd’s back, who came back to the facts about the size of the crowd. Spicer, said Conway, “gave alternative facts.”
Todd instantly jumped on the phrase, claiming that “alternative facts” are not facts but “falsehoods.”
It should go without saying that “alternative facts” by no means need be falsehoods. They might just be facts that not one has mentioned or noticed. You glance out of a window and the wall on the other side of the street looks pinky-red. In reality, it is white, something the additional and alternative fact that a blazing red sunset was occurring explains.
But the Internet was not going to be detained by that brake on presumption. No siree. It was the work of a moment for some clever people with Twitter accounts to broadcast the meme that the Trump administration is just like Big Brother in 1984, deliberately distorting reality and undermining facts with their own politicized and malevolent narrative of “alternative facts.”
Overnight, the malignant fantasy went viral (and copies of 1984 flew off the virtual shelves at Amazon). In another piece in The New York Times, the book critic Michiko Kakutani said that Conway’s invocation of “alternative facts” was “chillingly reminiscent . . . 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.”
Then there was Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker. In a column called “Orwell 1984 and Trump’s America,” Gopnik writes that he used to think that in comparison with other dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, 1984 was “too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination” to be credible. (Aside: Have you noticed that the Left refers darkly to “Reagan’s America,” “Bush’s America,” or “Trump’s America,” but never to “ Obama’s America” or “Clinton’s America”? “In Robert Bork’s America…” Ted Kennedy intoned…) In any event, the ascent of Donald Trump changed Gopnik’s mind about the pertinence of 1984: “[T]he single most striking thing about [Trump’s] matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be.”
It gets worse. “There is nothing subtle about Trump’s behavior,” Gopnik writes. “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. . . . Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation.”
Gopnik goes on to dismiss the “the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters” who Trump says voted for Hillary. No one, says Gopnik, believes that, and if Trump investigates the election for voter fraud, no one will be able to believe the results because any investigation would be conducted by “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.” Gopnik doesn’t mention the preliminary Old Dominion study which concluded that 834,000 non-citizens voted for Hillary Clinton—that’s not yet three million, to be sure, but it should give any candid observer pause.
Donald Trump, like every Republican president since Ronald Reagan, has frequently been compared to Adolf Hitler. It took Adam Gopnik to drag in the mad Emperor Caligula. While it’s crazy to think that Hillary Clinton garnered large numbers of illegal votes, that doesn’t mean that the election was fair. No, the only way it could have been a fair election is if Clinton had won. What happened on November 8, said Gopnik, was “an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology” that is now ushering in “the first truly autocratic Administration in history.” Trump’s “base,” according to Gopnik doesn’t register facts, doesn’t listen to reason. No, your avid Trump supporter “loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people [like A. Gopnik, for example] to pretend that they are superior.”
Gopnik thinks that a silver lining in all this misery (“on the positive side ...” ) was the Women’s March—not the one celebrating life that took place a couple of days ago: no, he means the one that took place the day after the inauguration, the one where thousands of females pranced around in vagina costumes uttering obscenities. According to Gopnik, that festivity “filled any sane heart with hope.” Really? Judge for yourself: Here is Madonna’s speech from the pink-hat, female-genitalia march; here is the “nasty woman” speech from Ashley Judd from that same event. And here, by contrast, is Utah Congresswoman Mia Love’s speech at the pro-life march. Which fills your sane heart with hope?
Since Gopnik mentions sanity, let me state frankly that I believe his entire column is insane. Indeed, the whole “Donald Trump is Big Brother” meme is insane, just as the “Donald Trump is Hitler” meme is insane. Donald Trump is a businessman who campaigned on certain definable issues. He won in a free, open, democratic election in a republican system and, by the evidence of his first week, he is moving with commendable dispatch to keep his campaign promises on issues from immigration, regulation, and Obamacare to strengthening the U.S. military, holding the UN to account, and, generally, “putting America First.”
The irony about George Orwell’s sudden appearance on the best-seller charts is that 1984 is indeed a fable for our time. But its relevance pertains not to the Trump administration (how they must be chuckling over the hysteria of Lilliputians like Adam Gopnik) but rather to the deliberate assault on truth and factual reality that is an everyday occurrence in our universities and many other cultural institutions. This was a point I made in the New Criterion essay I mentioned above. Winston, the unhappy hero of 1984, early on muses that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted all else follows.” But a look at life in our universities today shows that the independent operation of reason that makes the judgment “two plus two equals four” possible is everywhere under assault. As I note in The New Criterion,
The chief instrument for the enforcement of conformity—at the end of the day, it is even more potent than the constant threat of terror—is language, the perfection and dissemination of Newspeak, that insidious pseudo-language that aims to curtail rather than liberate thought and feeling. “The purpose of Newspeak,” Orwell writes, “was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism, i.e., the existing regime], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
Writing about the aim of Newspeak in the afterword to 1984, Orwell writes that
It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all . . . a heretical thought . . . should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. . . .
This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. . . . Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. . . . [I]n Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible.
That is the real Orwellian challenge we face today: not the fantasy of a brutish Donald Trump tyrannizing us but the deliberate and systematic attempt to upend reality by making “the expression of unorthodox opinions . . . impossible.” That is the aim of political correctness, and it was to disrupt that rancid, freedom-blighting process that some sixty million people in America rose up on November 8 and elected Donald J. Trump president of the United States.