Trump and the Rewriting of History

orwell-nineteen-eighty-four-large-cover

W.J. Astore

George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom.  Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons.  You can limit how and what they think.  You can, in a major way, control the future.  Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.

Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com.  They make no apologies and take no prisoners.  They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth.  The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).

Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House.  They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.

As the Congressional Budget Office reported:

The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.

I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.

george-orwell
George Orwell

Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place.  Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.

In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):

I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.

One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.

In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.

“Unquestionably Syme Will Be Vaporized”: Lessons from Orwell’s 1984

orwell-nineteen-eighty-four-large-cover

W.J. Astore

Syme is a minor character in George Orwell’s “1984.”  A philologist, Syme works on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “the definitive edition” according to him.  What’s fascinating is Orwell’s description of the intent and main functions of Newspeak, as given by Syme in this passage:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

“Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

This brilliant passage by Orwell sends chills up my spine.  There will be no thought.  Orthodoxy means not thinking.  Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?

After Syme’s oration on Newspeak, Winston Smith, the main protagonist of “1984,” thinks to himself: “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”

A couple of pages later, Syme makes another penetrating observation:

“There is a word in Newspeak … I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”

To this observation, Winston thinks to himself: “Unquestionably Syme will be vaporized.”

Why?  Orwell notes that Syme is a Party zealot, a true believer.  But what he lacks, Orwell makes clear, is unconsciousness.  Syme is too self-aware, and speaks too plainly, therefore he must go.  And indeed later in the book he does disappear.

(As an aside, I like Orwell’s reference to some of Syme’s fatal flaws: that he “read too many books” and “frequented … [the] haunt of painters and musicians.”  Yes: books and the arts are indeed the enemy of unconscious orthodoxy in any state.)

The other day, a reader sent to me the following unattributed saying:  We build our houses out of words, then we live in them.

In “1984,” the Party sought total control over language, over words, as a way of dominating people’s consciousness.

One of my favorite sayings of Orwell, also from “1984” and one I always shared with my students, goes something like this: Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.

I think you could add to that: Who controls the language, the very words with which we communicate and think, controls the present.

Language is the key, a point Orwell brilliantly makes through the character of Syme in “1984.”

This Modern and Dystopic World

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My copy of Orwell’s 1984

W.J. Astore

The modern world is a kluge of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with screens everywhere in which people submerge themselves, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with “soma” of all sorts to keep us drugged and happy, and of course George Orwell’s 1984 with constant surveillance and the “two minutes of hate,” directed mainly at “the enemy,” especially the enemy within, known in 1984 as Goldstein (for some Americans today, “Goldstein” is Donald Trump; for others, it’s Hillary Clinton; for a few, it’s Ted Cruz or perhaps all of the above).

Dystopic elements characterize our American moment, hence the appropriateness of dystopic science fiction novels.  Bradbury was especially good at poking holes in the idea technology was in essence a liberating force.  He captured the way people might submerge their identities within screens, neglecting the real people around them, even those closest to them, for the “virtual reality” of infotainment.  Huxley was keen to debunk mass production as a liberating force, but his invention of “soma,” a mood-enhancing drug that leads to detachment and inaction, captured our overly medicated ways.  (I can’t watch network news without being bombarded by drug ads that promise me release from pain or acne or other nuisances and hence a better life, as long as I take this pill or use this inhaler.)  Finally, Orwell captured the total surveillance state, one driven by fear, obsessed by enemies created by the state to cow the masses.  Perhaps the darkest of the three, Orwell left little hope for the “little man” oppressed under the jackboot of a militaristic and totalitarian state.

The times are not quite that dark in America today, but these three classic novels offer warnings we’d do well to heed.  An aspect of these dystopias we most definitely see in America today is the degeneration of news, of information, of knowledge.  As a society, America is arguably less fact-based today than at any point in its history.  Even as we’re immersed in information via the Internet, the news itself has become shallower, or trivial, or frivolous, when it’s not out-and-out propaganda.

I grew up watching the news.  Before going to school, I used to watch the “Today” show in the morning in the 1970s.  It was a decent show.  Some real and serious news made the cut.  Now it’s largely a laugh-fest featuring celebrities making sales-pitches.  The news as soap opera; the news as vanity.

To state the obvious: The network “news” has been dumbed down.  Image is nearly everything.  Stories are far shorter and without context.  Designed for people with limited attention spans, they’re also designed to keep people watching, so they feature sensationalism and “quick hits” — nothing too taxing or disturbing.

Of course, the real news is still out there, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest probing article at TomDispatch.com.  It’s just much harder to find on the network “news”:

What’s left out?  Well, more or less everything that truly matters much of the time: any large, generally unphotogenic process, for instance, like the crumbling of America’s infrastructure (unless cameras can fortuitously zoom in on a bridge collapsing or a natural gas pipeline in the process of blowing up in a neighborhood — all so much more likely in an age in which no imaginable situation lacks its amateur video); poverty (who the hell cares?); the growing inequality gap locally or globally (a no-interest barrier the WikiLeaks-style Panama Papers recently managed to break through); almost anything that happens in the places where most of the people on this planet actually live (Asia and Africa); the rise of the national security state and of militarism in an era of permanent war and permanent (in)security in the “homeland”; and don’t even get me started on climate change…

Coming to grips with the real news would require thought and necessitate action – changes, radical ones, to the status quo.  And what powerbroker wants that?

Focus instead, America, on your screens.  Take your soma.  Hate your Goldstein.  That’s the method driving our madness.  Dystopia, anyone?

 

War is Peace

W.J. Astore

Out shopping today at my local used bookstore and came across an early paperback copy (from 1952) of George Orwell’s 1984.  A little overpriced at $15.00, but the cover called to me.  What a classic!

My "new" old copy of Orwell's 1984
My “new” old copy of Orwell’s 1984

If you click on the picture, you can just make out, if you look closely, the slogans on the Ministry of Truth in the upper left: War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength.

The reverse of the cover is also quite well done:

Which one will you be in 2014?
Which one will you be in 2014?

That tag line haunts me: “in a world many of us may live to see!”  Hype, reader?  Or prophecy?

I haven’t read Orwell since college, circa 1984 in fact.  Time to get crackin’ before my old copy is confiscated and sent down the memory hole.

 

The Winners of Putin’s Aggression: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex and Big Oil

There's a bear in the woods ...
There’s a bear in the woods …

W.J. Astore

There’s a new bear in the woods and his name is Vladimir Putin. Remember that Reagan campaign ad from 1984 that showed a menacing, obviously Soviet, bear patrolling the woods, with ominous music in the background? Fast-forward thirty years and a bare-chested Putin is that new bear, marauding in the Crimea and threatening Ukraine.

Our mainstream media has entered a time warp and we’re back to 1984.  No, not the 1984 of George Orwell and of constant monitoring by Big Brother – our media is not concerned by that.  Instead, they’re concerned with a revived Soviet Union, a new Cold War, and the notion that America is unprepared and weak.

The big winner of this collective (and selective) exercise in time travel is obvious: the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex as well as Big Oil and Gas.  We can’t make significant cuts to “defense” spending now that the Russian bear is on the loose again.  Right?  And the best way to neutralize the bear’s threats of cutting off gas shipments to Europe is by surging oil and gas drilling in the U.S., chiefly by hydro-fracturing or fracking.  Right?

Never mind concerns about rising CO2 levels and global warming.  It’s 1984 again, not 2014.  We need to corral that Russian bear before he emasculates us.  Deploy our military!  Drill baby drill!  Show the Russkies who’s boss!  Before they go all “Red Dawn” on us.

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And when was the cheesy “Red Dawn” originally released? You guessed it: 1984.