A version of this article was published on March 31, 2017 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
April 4, 1984 is the day that Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984, commenced his revolt against Big Brother and the Party. In solidarity with this dystopian antihero and to punctuate a resistance to Pres. Trump, over 100 theaters nationally will play the film 1984 this April 4th.
But what’s the point? “The rule of the Party is for ever,” as O’Brien, a Party elite tells Winston.
We just witnessed the futility of our election system, the powerlessness of our voice, and the meaninglessness of our alleged choice between the “lesser of two evils”. For all our downtown marches’ sound and fury, for all our pink hats and cardboard signs, what does it all mean?
Are we not living in Orwell’s world, after all?
There, 3 fictional superpowers — Oceania, Eurasia, and East Asia — control the planet and are at constant pointless war with each other’s weakest allies, colonizing villagers and ostensibly vying for the cheap labor of Africans, Indians, and others in what we call the developing world. Rather than have any principled basis or aim at truly destroying the opposing “mega-state”, the continuous war is waged only to consume the time and energy of the people who create the weapons and goods needed for war so that their efforts are literally blown up in battle rather than being used for publicly enriching social services. By keeping the people poor, ignorant, sickly, and tired from working long hours, the power-elite in 1984 seek solely to maintain their own power for its own sake.
“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed.” — George Orwell 1984.
Here in 2017 USA, the billionaire class has taken control of our government and creates policies that benefit the 1% while cutting services for the 99%. We spend about a fifth of our budget on defense-related expenditures, lack universal healthcare, and our public schools and infrastructure are deeply underfunded. We’ve been involved in questionable military conflicts for decades against opponents who we demonize in the media and seemingly are never able to defeat. Thus, our wars continue without any end in sight.
In 1984’s interminable wars, the Party fabricates enemies and boasts of its indomitable power on the battlefield in order to discourage any thought of rebellion among its own denizens. Consumed by fear of the enemy as portrayed by the media, which is entirely Party-controlled, the citizens in 1984 eagerly yield to Party leaders any notions of self-determination. Independent thinking is forbidden by the Party. There is nothing to learn but Party loyalty, intense patriotism, and aggressive xenophobia, engendered in the populace through the media, regular public hate ceremonies such as “hate week” and “two minutes of hate”, and early training of children to be Party loyal even to the point of turning in their parents for “thought crimes”, meaning any disloyalty to the Party even in thought.
While the USA is not yet like Orwell’s “Oceania”, we are taking frightening steps in that direction. Remember, by way of an illegal and baseless war against Iraq in 2003, we created the power vaccum in the Middle East that led to ISIS. In 1953, we toppled the democratically elected and humanistic leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, then helped usher in a dictatorial monarchy under Shah Pahlavi, who then we replaced in the 70s by supporting the current regime of the Ayatollahs that now holds the Iranian people in its crushing fist — a regime who we view as our mortal enemy. This is the American pattern of continuous war, with all our fist-pounding, boastful red-lines in the sand, and attendant über-patriotic and racist jargon issued forth in so-called newspaper pieces, frightening 8 o’clock tv-news headlines, and terabytes of social media commentary. We too encourage our youth to see soldiers as heros and war as the place where heroes are made. What after all is Junior ROTC, the Boy Scouts, and all the war-hero movies and military recruitment commercials but the indoctrination of the youth to fight and die for the Party? Yes, surely, “God is with us”: but remember, while the WWII Allies said exactly this, the Nazi soldiers had those same words bronzed on their belt buckles: “Gott mit uns”. Today still those not touting the Party line, like Bernie Sanders, are outcasts, as revealed by the Wikileaks’ #DNCleaks email exposé last Fall. It is Mr. Trump and his supporters, with their hate tweets, that have won power.
Or rather, is it us who, out of fear of ISIS and “those who hate us”, have coweringly yielded power to the truncheon-wielding war-hawks by failing to foment any sort of effective opposition to the elitist electoral college system and the campaign finance laws supported by the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United which together make any notion of “free and fair elections” in our so-called Democracy seem like Orwellian “Doublethink”? How can we bring Democracy to other nations through drone wars that leave dozens of innocent villagers dead for the sake of one Yemeni or Iraqi enemy combatant? How can we give the world’s oppressed a Democracy that we don’t truly possess in the first place, being oppressed by the lack of significant choices in our politicians and by our sham elections here at home?
Seeking out “thought criminals”, the Party’s surveillance of the populace is constant, not only via Party spies, informants, and “thought police”, but also via “telescreens” which are the Party’s indomitable audio-video cameras constantly recording in every room of every house and on every street in every city. While there are certainly criminals in 1984, there is no law but loyalty, there are no Due Process rights to know the charges against you and to receive a fair trial, and punishments for any sort of disloyalty, even unconscious mutterings in your sleep caught by the telescreens, are severe. Torture, extrajudicial killings, and mass deportations to hellish lands are the Party’s modes of punishment.
This should sound terrifyingly familiar to us in a post-Snowden and post-Wikileaks world. What with video cameras on every street, in every office building, in our homes, in our cars, and in virtually every hand, on bike helmets, and on shirt lapels, we are not only being constantly monitored but monitoring and reporting on ourselves. And, like Megyn Kelley, Milo Yiannopoulos, Amy Schumer, and scores of not-famous folks, people are punished for differing opinions by public scorn, death threats, lost jobs, bullying, and the like. While we have not yet begun to outlaw thoughts and opinions in the USA, people are routinely sentenced to torturous prisons without the kind of Due Process protections that they deserve, as evidenced by the documentary phenomenon 13th. Our for-profit prisons have formed a new slave class. With over 97% of criminal defendants accepting questionable plea bargains and foregoing trials, what does a Due Process right to a fair trial really mean anymore when people cannot afford quality criminal defense representation? And Mr. Trump has stated in recent months that there’s nothing problematic about “waterboarding” and other CIA torture techniques, that we should use torture to “fight fire with fire”, that we should bring back CIA black sites, that we should fill the highly controversial prisons at Guantanamo Bay with “bad dudes”, and that we should “bomb the hell out of” ISIS-held territories despite the fact that doing so would illegally kill exponentially more innocent civilians (e.g., as regularly occurs in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and as documented in the film “The White Helmets”). Further, Mr. Trump, seemingly in lockstep with Orwell’s Party, is determined to deport millions of Mexican immigrants and keep them out with a giant border wall and to ban Muslims from entering the USA. Mr. Trump’s fans fervently love many or all of these ideas and remind one of 1984’s proles who turn out en masse to gleefully watch public executions of enemies of the state. Such killings are not simply extra-judicial, for the law is what the Party says it is. Based on his executive actions, aggressive rhetoric, and Cabinet picks, it seems clear that Mr. Trump wants exactly this level of authority. Worse, it appears that we have given it to him.
The Party creates history at whim, having elite members constantly fabricate and re-edit events in the lives of individuals and society in order to reflect the Party’s ever-changing perspective on any issue or entity at any given moment. Similarly the Party creates science itself on the premise that if we all believe something to be true, then it is: and the Party ensures that all people think what the Party wants them to think, be it that the Earth is the center of the universe, that the Earth is only as old as human beings, that there is no such thing as gravity, and that 2 + 2 = 5. “Doublethink” is a central Party tenet defined as knowing something to be a lie but believing it anyway out of Party loyalty; but when employed by enemies, it is defined simply as evil deceit. For example, the Party’s war department is called the Ministry of Peace, the torture and punishment department is the Ministry of Love, and the censorship and fake history department is The Ministry of Truth.
Is this not the same upside-down logic that accompanies Mr. Trump’s Cabinet picks, where our federal departments will now be led by billionaires who have made it their life’s work to oppose the very laws and principles of such departments? Is doublethink not what Mr. Spicer and Ms. Conway call “Alternative Facts”, such as the notion that Mr. Trump won the popular vote if you discount the alleged 3 million illegal votes, that Mr. Trump’s inauguration was the most attended in history, that Climate Change is a myth, that Planned Parenthood kills scores of fetuses days before they’re born, that he has “a lot of respect” for the Clintons, that he is not violating the US Constitution’s “emoluments” clause, that the Muslim world and Mexicans wish Americans ill, that the Keystone Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline will create tens of thousands of jobs, that he’s the most compassionate, least racist, least sexist, and least anti-Semitic person you’ll ever meet, and so on? Is this propaganda machine not precisely why Mr. Bannon, the masterful media manipulator of the fascistic movement euphemistically known as the “Alt Right”, has become Mr. Trump’s chief strategist? What’s happening here, people? We’re not what we tell ourselves that we are: the “land of the free” is doublethink.
A Nation Divided
In 1984’s cold, grey, and loveless world, Winston Smith’s main act of revolt is falling in love with a woman. The Party forbids passion, love, and even a sense of community. The Party sees sex as being solely for procreation for the Party’s exclusive benefit. In Orwell’s fictional hellscape, women are largely submissive, used for birthing, and hold seemingly no positions of power. Compounding such sexism, there is a clear caste system. Class distinctions are stark with only 2% of the people belonging to the ruling “Inner Party”, 13% to the “Outer Party”, and 85% to the “Proletariat” class. While people are given the impression via exams they take at 16 years-old that they may move upwards from one class to the other, there is no real upward mobility possible.
“For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High. Presently a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins over again. Of the three groups, only the Low are never even temporarily successful in achieving their aims.” — George Orwell 1984.
In 2017, we are halfway there. Love is still a revolutionary act. Our dating apps, porn sites, and social media apps are separating us, making face-to-face interactions feel awkward, and challenging long-term loving relationships. Unethical social behaviorisms such as flaking, radio silence, no-shows, infidelity, and ghosting are now entirely common. People still manage to get together long enough to procreate, partly motivated by the corporate media’s materialistic hoopla of wedding culture magazines, Rom-Coms, party planners, ecstatic birth celebrations, and the related retail smörgåsbord. But imminent separations and child custody disputes are just as much a common albeit shame-ridden way of American life.
And yes in 2017 we are dealing with gender disparity, glass ceilings, and obstacles to parenting time, planned pregnancies, and prenatal care, especially now with Mr. Trump’s attacks on abortion, Planned Parenthood, and women in general. The January 21st Women’s March on Washington underscores this problem. It’s deeply disturbing to say so, but the evidence of our President’s sexism is ample. Consider his ghastly performance in/after the GOP debate moderated by Megyn Kelly, his nearly all-male Cabinet poised and ready to cut back on gender-equity policies, and his self-confessed predilection for sexual assault. Mr. Trump is a 1984-era boor.
As for 1984’s stark class distinctions, remember Occupy? We are the 99%. And before you claim that upward mobility is a cornerstone of the American Dream, dream on. Not only is it rare for people to climb the socio-economic ladder, but even worse the poor in the USA have become poorer over the last several decades while the rich have become ever wealthier.
The Boot on the Face, Forever
As an Inner Party member tells Winston, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.” It is this militant boot that movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March on Washington are struggling to throw off. Without regard to mass protests, Mr. Trump advances, and we appear powerless. We abide, despite ephemeral acts of civil disobedience. We acquiesce, though half of us cast a ballot every few years for the lesser of evils. Mainly, we’re tired, we work to pay off our mounting bills, we drink, we buy guns, we cheer over new marijuana laws, we watch our “telescreens”, and we type out messages on our phones to each other that ultimately fall into the oblivion of the “memory hole”, as do we.
“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength,” wrote George Orwell in 1948, pointing out the absurd hypocrisy that the Party uses to dupe the people and to which almost all of them patriotically succumb. Go see 1984 this April 4th, if only to honor the memory of a revolutionary forbear who, surviving the era of Messrs. Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, knew too well what the likes of Brother Trump, Brother Tillerson, Brother Bannon, Brother Sessions, Brother Kushner, and Sister DeVos are up to. Who knows, it might even make a difference.