Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Nineteen Eight-Four in the Age of Trump
The 2nd section of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four seems antiquated and even sexist today - as an attractive young co-worker in the Ministry of Truth literally throws herself on the protagonist, Winston Smith, sending him a note saying she loves him (they have never spoken a word to each other), and they quickly set up a secret rendez-vous where they have sex en plein air - the woman (Julia, no last name) says she's done this hundreds of times. (Smith hasn't had sex except with prostitutes for years.) OK, so we can't really buy into this ridiculous romance, but it does move the plot forward - the first section had been entirely devoted to explaining to us the bizarre nature of the autocratic government machinery - as Winston and Julia make furtive contact with an insurrectionary force - so they are now committed to working to bring down the government. It should be obvious to all readers that - it's obvious to them - that they are doomed, so the question is: Who's the double-agent? Who will betray Winston? I don't actually remember for the last time I read this novel, decades ago, but I'm betting on Julia - she's gathering all kids of private information about his life, his aspirations, he phobias, that the state will be able to use against him. So for readers today the second question is: What does this tell us about life in contemporary America, in the Age of Trump? We definitely see a counterpart of the Ministry of Truth, in everything emanating from the Trump White House: the continued spewing of lies, and antipathy to a free press, the demonizing of outsiders and of "Eurasia." Orwell didn't foresee "alternative facts" and the use of fake news (not in the perverted sense that Trump uses the term, to discredit media coverage critical of him, but in the actual sense - making up stories and posting them as if they were real - as in Breitbart, the Enquirer, numerous scurrilous alt-right publications). In a way "fake news" is even more insidious that the rewriting of past news that is the main strategy in Orwell's dystopia: It's much easier to just fake a story, put it out there, keep referring to it (i.e., Hillary's email, Benghazi, the pizza parlor scandal) and gradually it becomes "real." The scary thing is that DJT himself doesn't appear to know the difference. A careening, deranged autocrat is possible more frightful that a brutal and efficient one.