Saturday, January 29, 2022

"On Orwell: "It isn't about the surveillance. It's about seizing control of the truth"

“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.
It was their final, most essential command.”

—George Orwell, 1984

From Mashable, December 2019:

It isn't about the surveillance. It's about seizing control of the truth. 

Saying George Orwell's 1984 is my favorite book is like saying Star Wars is my favorite movie franchise. It would be more accurate to call them obsessions. I consume both in their entirety at least once a year, and have read everything there is to read about their creators. Their styles couldn't be more opposite – naive space fantasy vs. ultimate hard-nosed dystopia — but both are exquisite examples of worldbuilding.

And both returned to our world with a bang in the 2010s, when they were needed more than ever. Star Wars topped the all-time box office charts; 2016 happened, and 1984 came back to the bestseller lists, where it has bounced around ever since. (It has also cropped up in protest signs around the world.) 

In a talk I gave mid-decade, ironically named The Lighter Side of 1984! (spoiler alert, there's no light side, not even in the tale of its creation), I noted the world Orwell built has staying power for one reason alone. It's so airtight that it puts all subsequent dystopias to shame.

There's no poking holes in the Party's control, no loose thread for any opposition to pull. If there is a Resistance, it vanishes halfway through. The book is designed to make The Party and its machinery of oppression look entirely infallible. You accept, like the protagonist Winston Smith, that it can never be overthrown. This isn't The Hunger Games. There is no cartoonish YA villain like President Snow for a defiant Katniss Everdeen to topple. Even Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, destroyed Gilead in a far-future postscript.

But 1984? So far as we know, it's boots on human faces all the way down. 

Big Brother is gaslighting you

How come? The Party doesn't get its power from spying on its citizens, or turning them into snitches, or punishing sex crimes. All were presented as mere tools of the state. How did it come to wield that control in the first place?

Orwell, aka Eric Blair, a socialist freedom fighter and a repentant former colonial officer who had a lifelong fascination with language and politics, knew that no control could be total until you colonized people's heads too. A state like his could only exist with loud, constant, and obvious lies.

To be a totalitarian, he knew from his contemporary totalitarians, you had to seize control of truth itself. You had to redefine truth as "whatever we say it is." You had to falsify memories and photos and rewrite documents. Your people could be aware that all this was going on, so long as they kept that awareness to themselves and carried on (which is what doublethink is all about).

Don't call him Winston Smith. Call him Mr. 2019.

The upshot is, Winston Smith is gaslit to hell and back. He spends the entire novel wondering exactly what the truth is. Is it even 1984? He isn't sure. Does Big Brother actually physically exist somewhere in Oceania, or is he just a symbol? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Winston is what passes for well-educated in his world; he still remembers the name "Shakespeare." He's smart enough not to believe the obvious propaganda accepted by the vast majority, but it doesn't matter. The novel is about him being worn down, metaphorically and physically, until he's just too tired and jaded to hold back the tide of screaming nonsense.

Don't call him Winston Smith. Call him Mr. 2019. Because it's looking increasingly like we live in Oceania. That fictional state was basically the British Isles, North America, and South America. Now the leaders of the largest countries in each of those regions — Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro — are men who have learned to flood the zone with obvious lies, because their opponents simply don't have the time or energy to deal them all.

As we enter 2020, all three of them look increasingly, sickeningly, like they're going to get away with it. They are protected by Party members who will endure any humiliation to trumpet loyalty to the Great Leader (big shout-out once again to Sen. Lindsay Graham) and by a media environment that actively enables political lies (thanks, Facebook).

All the Winston Smiths of our world can see what the score really is. It doesn't seem to make any difference. But hey, at least we're all finally aware of the most important line in 1984, which is now also its most quote-tweeted: 

“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.
It was their final, most essential command.”

—George Orwell, 1984


Or, as Marx said Who ya gonna believe? Me or your OWN eyes?

That's Chico Marx, not Karl or Groucho.