It Can Happen Here 3: Orwell’s 1984

 

1984

This can’t be a coincidence 

 

Whoo-boy

 

Rarely do words fail me like this, but after finishing George Orwell’s 1984, I am utterly at a loss for what to say. Nothing I can put into words, other than the words Orwell uses himself, can accurately describe the depth of despair, the hopelessness, the utter nihilism bound in this book. The most tragic ending you can imagine cannot begin to prepare you for the story Orwell has written. Something along the lines of Hamlet might as well be a Disney cartoon. At least Hamlet gets his revenge, and is ultimately vindicated. Nothing of the kind can be said of 1984. In the world of the book, there is no glory, no heroism, and no possibility for happiness. You couldn’t make a heavy metal song about this, because even the darkest metal lyrics contain an element of rebelliousness, a strength fueled by rage and angst. This kind of fuck you to the world is not permitted in Orwell’s universe, because freedom of thought is not permitted. What I once regarded the ultimate expression of nihilism, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, cannot even come close to 1984, because the life of Hester Prynne, however awful, becomes a stepping a stone to a greater future for others. I am also reminded of the absurd controversy over the ending of Mass Effect 3, with its supposed “nihilistic ending,” that somehow ruined the franchise. To these people, I say, you do not know the meaning of nihilism until you’ve read 1984.

Even if the entire world were obliterated in a nuclear holocaust, I would greatly prefer it to the future imagined in 1984. Or send me to Westeros on the worst day. In the Hub of All Worlds, board up the door leading to 1984 and let’s never speak of it again. As you may have probably guessed, 1984 is a dystopian novel, the standard by which all other dystopias are judged. Having read Brave New World, The Hunger Games, Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, The Giver, The Man in the High Castle and The Plot Against America, among others, I thought I was ready for this book. I wasn’t. And yet, 1984 is of paramount importance to the literary world, serving as a warning, and a very likely prophecy we must do everything in our power to escape.

1984-movie-_1487710995418_9029259_ver1-0_1280_720

Imagine a world where you are not allowed to think, or to believe, what you want. Imagine a world where your sense of logic, your reason­—sanity itself—is torn down. To resist is to commit thoughtcrime, and thoughtcrime can be anything that contradicts Big Brother, the physical embodiment and face of “the Party.” It isn’t simply a matter of professing allegiance to a particular ideology. There is no real ideology in 1984, only total—not obedience—but agreement with the Party. Obedience is too easy, as it leaves room for hope, and for freedom within one’s own soul. Anyone can be made to obey, while sheltering rebellion in his heart. The black plantation slave could still sing about freedom while imagining a better day for himself or for his children. Under the Party, the Negro would be forced not only to work under the lash, but also to love working under the lash.

Long before the start of the novel, the Party has determined that the only way to maintain total control is to force its people into agreement. To avoid the Thought Police, you must believe, in you heart of hearts, that what you are being told is true. The Party manages this by brainwashing everyone from birth. Every book, film, newspaper, and TV channel is a carefully manufactured work of propaganda. No evidence contradicting the Party is allowed to exist, and when propaganda is the norm, it becomes impossible to separate the truth from the lies. In essence, the lies become true. Even the dictionary is used as a tool of obfuscation, as no words are permitted within the language to allow for seditious thought. In the most disturbing example of the politicization of reality, the main character, Winston Smith, is forced into believing that 2 + 2 = 5. Again, he does not have the luxury to simply state the truth of this claim. He must literally believe it. Winston is also forbidden from having basic human emotions, other than devotion to the Party. No one can love their spouse, or their children, only Big Brother. This might not be so bad if the world were composed of unfeeling robots, or if the Party was in possession of some Borg-like technology, but the price for thoughtcrime is imprisonment and torture. If you are even suspected of guilt, you are made to suffer until you sincerely believe you are in the wrong.

The truly scary thing about 1984 is how plausible it all is. We will likely never be invaded by aliens, or be taken hostage by AI, but the Party feels right around the corner. Orwell paints so complete and convincing a picture, in fact, it all seems inevitable. The technology now exists, from hidden cameras to microphones, to record everything a person does, from your facial expression to the pitch of your voice, to determine what you may be thinking. Modern day computers can make the process even more efficient. We know, thanks in part to Edward Snowden, that the NSA can be watching your every move. Before Orwell, I had never fully appreciated the Right to Privacy. I had always considered, quite erroneously, that if I had nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of, privacy doesn’t matter so much. But when a political party comes into power that criminalizes the things you strongly believe in—being a nudist, an atheist, or LGBTQ+—then privacy is the only way in which you can be protected. Already, we are seeing our right to privacy being eroded. Add to this the dilution of our cherished values, the right to a fair trial and laws against torture, both of which were diminished following the Patriot Act, and 1984 edges closer to reality.

I started this series, It Can Happen Here, as a response to the Trump election. But even after comparing Trump to Hitler, I am hesitant to mention Orwell’s Party in the same breath. There is no greater evil than Big Brother, no more Hellish a place in all of literature than the world of 1984. Mitch McConnell’s wildest imaginings have yet to touch upon such a dystopia. That being said, Orwell has forced me to reevaluate and even to course correct some of my earlier assumptions. The Party is, after all, a government institution, and conservatives have long maintained that the greatest thing to fear is big government. Between the out-of-control capitalist corporatocracy in Cloud Atlas and the Party of 1984, I’ll take the former any day. No doubt, many conservatives turn to Orwell to reaffirm their ideals. But the most pressing question at the moment is whether the current administration resembles the Party in any way. To this I would answer that the parallels are too close for comfort, particularly when it comes to matters of science, history and, to a finer extent, truth itself. Consider how conservatives perpetually strive to rewrite the history books, to omit the atheist assertions of Thomas Jefferson, to refute slavery as the cause of the Civil War, to continually insist that America was founded as a white Christian nation. Consider their opposition to evolution and climate change. In 1984, the very idea of history and science, and of objective reality, has been expunged, politicized to the point of losing all meaning. What is true or not true is based on the dictates of Big Brother, which is how 2 + 2 = 5.

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party […] Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. 

p. 222

While the relative nature of truth may seem absurd, at first, Orwell’s antagonist argues the point with such twisted logic, he almost convinces the reader. After all, how can we be certain that 2 + 2 = 4? Or that George Washington was America’s first president? Or that the year is really 2017? Or that the Earth is round? Everything we know or think we know was taught to us in a school, and public schools are government institutions. The same paranoid sentiments are echoed today by the Flat Earth Society, who accuse teachers of brainwashing children with the “globe theory.” And while we can make simple observations to determine the shape of our planet for ourselves, it is easy to see how everything we believe could turn into a matter of politics, particularly if we are forced into a left or right leaning bubble, wherein lies become omnipresent.

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient […] to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies …

p. 191

Considering the book was written in 1949, it is remarkably prescient when looking at how carelessly Trump lies, and how his adherents are expected to deny or to accept objectifiable truths. We have never seen a political movement like this before. It has given rise to anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-vaxxers and the Flat Earth Society. At this very moment, the Trump administration is robbing us of our health care, our clean air and water, and every institution established to help the sick and the needy. They threaten anyone who stands beyond their control: the free press, the scientific community, any and all educated “elites” who disagree with them. All the while, those who voted the administration into office stand to lose the most, and yet they are convinced that every action taken by Trump and his cronies is for their own good, that while big government is the enemy, it also, paradoxically, represents their own interests.

All that was required of them [the lower classes] was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations.

p. 63

Orwell called this doublethink, holding two contradictory beliefs in your mind simultaneously. So while millions of the poorest Americans will lose their health care, it’s all for the best, because the government says so. In this nation, facts are ceasing to matter. You can no longer argue objective reality because reality has been politicized. Stating that a million people attended Trump’s inauguration, or that hundreds of thousands of voters were bussed-in from other states to vote illegally, is equivalent to two plus two equaling five. Evolution, climate change, even the shape of the Earth is being called into question. And so now I ask you, what year is it? Are we living in 2017? Or are we closer to 1984?

I can think of only three authors whose names have become adjectives: Shakespear(ean), Lovecraft(ian), and Orwell(ian). What greater mark on society can a writer hope to achieve? Without question, Orwell is deserving of his spot on this mantle. His brilliance is effortless, his writing without flaw. But more impressively, his insight into human nature, political philosophy and metaphysics and the interplay between them is without peer. 1984 is a timeless masterpiece. It is a story that, quite frankly, needed to be told. And it is as important today as it ever was, perhaps more so.

****

Thelana: Feminist Icon?

It seems to me that a lot of feminists just don’t know when to celebrate. It isn’t as if the world doesn’t still have a ways to go before we reach equality between the sexes, we most certainly do. But that doesn’t mean we cannot take note of small victories along the way. What is, at times, even more aggravating is when feminists try and turn positives into negatives.

Case in point, Wonder Woman, which just released this weekend, is a fantastic film with a fantastic star, Gal Gadot, directed by a female director, Patty Jenkins. It is the first female-led superhero film since 1984’s abysmal Supergirl, and the best reviewed DC film on Rotten Tomatoes at a whopping 94%. Audiences are loving it, as the movie has already raked in 100 million. Wonder Woman is all kinds of groundbreaking, but none of that seems to matter to CNN film critic Lewis Beale. Never mind that my two daughters, 7 and 12, were utterly ecstatic leaving the theater, or that I could see in their eyes that same sense of well, wonder, that I must have had at their age watching Christopher Reeve don the cape. For so-called feminists like Beale, Wonder Woman’s virtues are invalidated because Gadot is just too damn pretty, and she shows just a bit too much thigh. It’s at these moments that I wonder (no pun intended) whether people like Beale even understand what feminism is.

Now I have given a great deal of consideration to this notion that female heroes cannot be sexy, as I have struggled to reconcile my naturist ideals with feminism. And while my own heroine, Thelana, will most definitely never come near the status of icon that Wonder Woman embodies, it is worth noting that many of the same arguments in support of a thigh-exposing heroine can be made for my all-nude hero.

the Writer's Disease

Thelana: The Nude Heroine

I can already hear the detractors, the angry feminists calling me out as a sexist. Their argument, I imagine, will go something like this,

Thelana is the lead heroine in Nick Alimonos’ fantasy epic, “Ages of Aenya,” and she has everything we love to see in a female character: strength, intelligence, and she can dish out punishment good as her male companion. She even passes the Bechdel test! So why am I up in arms about Thelana? Well, when it comes to hyper-sexualizing women, this author’s hit rock bottom. We’re not talking chainmail bikinis or skintight tights here either, because with this super hero, there is no costume. You read that right. She is utterly, unapologetically, naked. If “Aenya” was some kind of erotica, I might give it a pass. But no, this is serious fantasy, straight out of Westeros and Middle Earth. So, as a…

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Trump is a fictional character

donald-trump-election-caricatures-5824634f342d9__700“The Editor-in-Chief will see you now, Mr. Hovah.”

Jay straightened in his chair and got to his feet. He could feel the surge of excitement, tingling his extremities, energizing his limbs. Finally!

The receptionist with the short brown hair and spectacles ushered him through the hall to the editor’s office. In gold leaf lettering, a glass panel read, Jorge Orwell. RealWorld Publishing. It was mid-afternoon, and Jay could see the sun poking through the blinds, striping the back wall with shadows. Jorge was unexpectedly good-looking for a man in his fifties, with a fashion sense straight out of Mad Men. Jay expected a halo of cigarette smoke and a glass of scotch, but there was only his manuscript. The sight of his writing, in the hands of the editor-in-chief, made him feel like he was tightrope walking across the grand canyon.

“Mr. Hovah. Please sit down.”

Jay didn’t feel like sitting, but did so anyway. “Thank you for me seeing me.”

“Yes, well,” he answered, looking over the manuscript once more, to be certain. “Mr. Jay Hovah. Can I call you Jay?”

“Sure.”

“We like your book.”

Jay felt like a trapdoor had dropped from under him. Everything he had planned to say—every prepared answer for every imaginable question—flew from his mind. “Really?”

“This is certainly the kind of work we like to publish here at RealWorld. Tom Clancy. John Grisham. Political stuff. Big sellers. Your book reminds me a lot of the Manchurian Candidate. Have you read that?”

“No sir, I haven’t.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter. We didn’t publish it.” He chuckled softly to himself. “But we do have some issues to work out.”

A sick feeling came over him. He expected something like this would happen, that they would want to mess with his work, his baby, what he’d sweated over for ten years. But Jay could only sit and smile, like an idiot waiting for his girlfriend to say ‘yes’ to a marriage proposal.

“Don’t get me wrong, we love the concept. This Trump character, really great stuff, really interesting.”

“So, what’s wrong with it?” Jay managed.

“Nothing too hard to fix, really. We see this a lot with first-time authors. You’re trying to write too many books at once.”

“I don’t—I don’t understand.”

Jorge leaned in his chair, picked up the ring-binder containing Jay’s life work, and dropped it again. “Let me get straight to it. You’re writing a book about a terrible president. Great. But, this Trump character, in one chapter you have him groping women, grabbing them by their, um, private areas, without consent. He’s very crude. Sexist. Reminds me of that book about President Clinton. Have you read that?”

“Not really. No.”

“Well, anyway, the Clinton book sold millions.”

“Are you saying it isn’t original?”

“Nobody in the business cares about what’s original. Have you counted the vampire novels lately?” He waved the idea away. “No, the problem is you’ve given your antagonist too many flaws.”

“Are you saying Trump’s unrealistic?”

“I am saying it beggars credibility. You can have a novel about a sexist president who assaults women, or a racist president who is supported by the KKK and puts white supremacists in his cabinet, or you can have a president in the pocket of the coal industry who cuts environmental regulations . . .”

“I still don’t see—”

Jorge touched his fingers together, and took in a deep breath. “Is there anything good about Trump?”

Jay found that an odd question. He paused for a moment to think, answering finally, “Not really. No.”

“Can’t you see how that’s a problem? You’ve made Trump a narcissist who only talks about himself. A billionaire who cheats his workers and is continually filing for bankruptcy, but is somehow still a billionaire. He has no personality. No charisma. He’s also an idiot. Who’s going to vote for the guy?”

Jay started to feel small, and embarrassed. Whatever elation he had felt coming into the publishing house was turning into despair. Still, he tried to defend what he had spent a decade writing. “Racists. A lot of racists voted for him.”

“But how many racists are there in America? And what about women? Half the country are women. That’s half the vote right there.”

“Oh, well, a lot of women voted for him too, I guess.”

Jorge sighed. “OK. Look at the Clinton book. That president was good looking, charming, spoke eloquently and—here’s the important part—his affair with Monica didn’t happen until after he became president.”

“So what you’re saying is, people shouldn’t find out how bad Trump is until after the election?”

“Well, you could at least leave out some of the details. And give him some good qualities. Make him attractive. Or a clever speaker. A fat guy in his sixties with a bad comb over becomes president? And he tweets insults at celebrities late at night? No way that’s happening in the real world.”

“He’s seventy, actually, and I did leave out the stuff about Russia.”

“Right. That’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about. You’ve written a book about a sexist, racist, idiot, who is secretly working with Russia to subvert the government, and who, somehow, is elected president. Is there anything you’ve left out? Maybe you could make him mean to puppies. Or a cannibal.”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

“Mr. Hovah, I was joking.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“All I am saying is, pick a plot and stick with it. This Trump character, he’s not believable. He’s a a comic book villain, a two-dimensional caricature, every American’s worst fears rolled into one. A believable hero has flaws, things that make them relatable, and for a villain to be believable, you’ve got to do the opposite. Nobody can be all bad.”

“Trump is all bad,” Jay said quietly.

“That’s not good writing.”

“So, does that mean you’re not going to publish my book?”

“Here’s what I am going to do, Mr Hovah. I’ll have some of my interns get in touch with you, after they write up some suggestions, and you can decide whether you want to implement the changes. Sound fair?”

Jay felt a mixture of hope and despair churning in his stomach. Did he really want to cut so much out of his book? Choosing between plot threads was like picking which limbs he’d like to keep. “Thank you, Mr. Orwell. I’ll definitely consider it.” Finding the strength to stand, he started for the door.

“Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Hovah. About the name. Trump. Really?”

Jay felt a tinge of irritation. What was it now?

“Was Victor Von Doom taken? I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound rude. But, well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word trump as to invent a false accusation or excuse. I looked it up just before you came in. It’s a clever play on words, I’ll grant you, but we don’t do that here. At RealWorld, we’re looking for credible, not clever. Consider changing it.”