Why “1984” Is a 2017 Must-Read

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Michio Kakutani featured in The New York Times (January 26, 2017), one of the media sources reviled daily by the current occupant of the Oval Office. To read the complete article and check out others as well as obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The dystopia described in George Orwell’s nearly 70-year-old novel 1984 suddenly feels all too familiar. A world in which Big Brother (or maybe the National Security Agency) is always listening in, and high-tech devices can eavesdrop in people’s homes. (Hey, Alexa, what’s up?) A world of endless war, where fear and hate are drummed up against foreigners, and movies show boatloads of refugees dying at sea. A world in which the government insists that reality is not “something objective, external, existing in its own right” — but rather, “whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.”

1984 shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list this week, after Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to President Trump, described demonstrable falsehoods told by the White House press secretary Sean Spicer — regarding the size of inaugural crowds — as “alternative facts.” It was a phrase chillingly reminiscent, for many readers, of the Ministry of Truth’s efforts in 1984 at “reality control.” To Big Brother and the Party, Orwell wrote, “the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.” Regardless of the facts, “Big Brother is omnipotent” and “the Party is infallible.”

As the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, sees it, the Party “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” and he vows, early in the book, to defend “the obvious” and “the true”: “The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center.” Freedom, he reminds himself, “is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” even though the Party will force him to agree that “TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE” — not unlike the way Mr. Spicer tried to insist that Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” despite data and photographs to the contrary.

In 1984, Orwell created a harrowing picture of a dystopia named Oceania, where the government insists on defining its own reality and where propaganda permeates the lives of people too distracted by rubbishy tabloids (“containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology”) and sex-filled movies to care much about politics or history. News articles and books are rewritten by the Ministry of Truth and facts and dates grow blurry — the past is described as a benighted time that has given way to the Party’s efforts to make Oceania great again (never mind the evidence to the contrary, like grim living conditions and shortages of decent food and clothing).

Not surprisingly, 1984 has found a nervous readership in today’s “post-truth” era. It’s an era in which misinformation and fake news have proliferated on the web; Russia is flooding the West with propaganda to affect elections and sow doubts about the democratic process; poisonous tensions among ethnic and religious groups are fanned by right-wing demagogues; and reporters scramble to sort out a cascade of lies and falsehoods told by President Trump and his aides — from false accusations that journalists had invented a rift between him and the intelligence community (when he had compared the intelligence agencies to Nazis) to debunked claims that millions of unauthorized immigrants robbed him of a popular-vote majority.

Orwell had been thinking about the novel that would become 1984 as early as 1944, when he wrote a letter about Stalin and Hitler, and “the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible führer.”

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A despairing vision to be sure, though Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Orwell’s own commitment in his life to continually seek “elusive but verifiable truth” was a testament to human tenacity and “that tiny, irreducible core of the human personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion.”

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Michio Kakutani is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic for The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

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