Re-Learning 1984 in the Era of Trump

For the red-blooded American progressive who likes nothing more than to curl up with a good condemnation of fascist demagoguery, we finally have a modern, engaging complement to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. The author is an independent British writer, Dorian Lynskey, who had a clever idea: write the definitive “biography” of a book whose anti-authoritarian message reverberates 70 years after its first printing, Orwell’s 1984.

It takes a leap of faith to crack open a hardbound, 270-page history of a popular, classic novel that you’ve read more than once. Why not just re-absorb the message from the author’s own pen? The answer, of course, is that 1984 is not just any novel. In the 1940s, and in nearly every decade since, it helped us bring into focus the corrosive experience of political deception, the power of fear-tinged vocabulary, and the human vulnerability that allows skillful lies to upend reality.

Lynskey’s book, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, opens with a deeply researched and fascinating tour through the utopian and dystopian literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It moves on to Orwell’s wartime political education, the long shadow cast by Stalinism, and the many rejections Orwell suffered upon presenting the concept for 1984 to UK publishers. Lynskey’s tales from the post-publication era of Orwellmania is equally rich--and at times hilarious. (Remember Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl ad for the new Macintosh?).

Lynskey’s timing for his project was impeccable. “While I was planning and writing The Ministry of Truth,” he tells us in the Introduction, “the world changed.” The oozing forth of nationalist demagogues in Europe and the United States drove a resurgence of interest in the literature of authoritarianism and such writers as Arendt, Sinclair Lewis, and Margaret Atwood. In America, the phrase “alternative facts,” uttered by the White House aide Kellyanne Conway as she defended her boss’s boastful characterization of his Inaugural crowd, propelled 1984 to the top of the best-seller list in a matter of days. Words, it seems, matter.

1984 had minor roots in the writings of H.G. Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Aldous Huxley. And it had major roots in the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell came face-to-face with factions of the right and left vying for control of minds, hearts, and territory. It was in Spain that Orwell confronted cults of personality and contempt for objective truth. With Lynskey as guide, we also come to understand how Britain’s conservatives, liberals, and socialists saw conveniently useful and very different messages in Orwell’s work.

Orwell possessed a genetic hunger for truth-telling and a keen nose for fakery in all forms. With 1984, he warned us of the dangers of industrial-strength mendacity and its ability to bury the very concept of truth, even in a democracy. Early in The Ministry of Truth, Lynskey notes that the phrase “history stopped” recurs in 1984 and then explains its use in one crisp sentence: “When the only arbiter of reality was power, the victor could ensure that the lie became, for all intents and purposes, the truth.” Orwell, he writes, was obsessed with “the mass production of lies.”

Orwell’s frightening vision of Big Brother’s plunder of the truth in 1984 is gripping in any context, but in today’s America, that vision forces upon us an inescapable connection to the sickness and the cunning of Donald Trump. We feel the sting of 1984’s daily Two Minutes Hate, a metronome of scapegoating and fear. And it is here that we see how much the President of the United States has in common with the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican. In one of his most pungent descriptions, Lynskey writes: “McCarthy was one of those hot-breathed monsters who surface noisily from the depths of the American id from time to time to maul the democratic values that they claim to defend. Bombastic, narcissistic, power hungry, and pathologically dishonest, McCarthy might have been designed in a laboratory with the specific purpose of offending Orwell.” It takes little imagination to know what Orwell would have to say about America’s current Leader.

Orwell’s seeming pessimism steered his plot into a world in the grip of dehumanizing totalitarianism--not because he believed it was man’s fate but because he felt a deep need to warn us that it was possible if we allowed it. For the most part, this imagined world hasn’t come to pass (assuming we set aside China, where 1984, as Lynskey puts it, “is scrubbed from the Internet along with every other whisper of dissent.”) Instead, we face fanaticism, tribalism, and group resentment among millions who find kindred souls on social media or fall under the influence of ideological click-bait. Orwell clearly “did not appreciate the tenacity of racial and religious extremism,” Lynskey writes. But he certainly got the power of personality cults and propaganda right.

Cultism and well-crafted lies aren’t merely the work of a cruel and duplicitous autocrat or a quintessential con artist. Today, we are seeing daily confirmation that the “germ of totalitarianism,” as Lynskey puts it, lives in all of us and flourishes if we let it. Orwell, says Lynskey, believed that autocrats flourish “when the status quo has failed to satisfy citizens’ need for justice, security, and self-worth.”

The power of mass media in building paranoia and the inability of many consumers of mass media to distinguish between fact and fiction play critical roles in fueling authoritarianism. After Orson Welles’s radio play The War of the Worlds truly frightened his audience, a Princeton psychologist, Hadley Cantril, studied the phenomenon and wrote The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to our current state of affairs will find no news in Cantril’s findings. His team, writes Lynskey, “found that the people most likely to believe the broadcast without checking other sources were the intensely religious, the anxious, and the economically insecure because it confirmed the fear and lack of control that they already felt.”

Soon before his death from chronic tuberculosis in 1950, Orwell made no apologies for what he acknowledged was the “dangerous nightmare” of his novel. The moral of 1984, he wrote, is a simple one: “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”

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The book is The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, by Dorian Lynskey. Doubleday hardback lists at $28.95. 269 pages, plus a five-page precis of 1984 and copious endnotes. Lynskey is a contributor to The Guardian and The New Statesman, among others. His first book is 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs.

The author of this review, who is now and has always been a card-carrying member of the Orwell cult, has no personal or commercial relationship with Lynskey or Doubleday.

Ex-financial writer/editor; ex-newspaper journalist in US and France. Opinions are mine alone.