The Real Lessons Of 1984 Have Nothing To Do With Donald Trump
What a daft response to Trumpism, to go out and buy George Orwell's much-praised, less-read classic. I suspect those who have done this will lay the book down within a few minutes of opening it, never to trouble its pages again. This is a pity, because it is an interesting and thoughtful book, and nobody who counts himself civilised should fail to read and re-read it.
But it is not what most people think it is, a prediction of the future. Indeed, it is its sheer wrongness that is so instructive. The big problem with George Orwell is that he was so mistaken – especially about the fate of free speech and thought. As a prophet, he was an almost complete dud. The world never much resembled his predictions in Nineteen Eighty Four and it probably never will. Crucially, the old Communist world never did. It never achieved 1984's pitch of efficiency and completeness, and collapsed not because it told lies to its own people (who responded by making some of the best jokes ever constructed in human history) but because it told lies to itself, and so suffered economic collapse combined with military over-reach.
His most basic mistake, from which all others flowed, was to think that the enemies of free thought were also the enemies of sexual liberation. Even he couldn't quite make up his mind about this. In Nineteen Eighty-Four party members such as Winston Smith live in scrawny repressed middle-class marriages like those of 1930s suburban Britain, except that their children spy on them and that they have to have those children. Reproduction is enjoined on them as "our duty to the party". But the non-party proles, whose women also wear themselves out with childbearing, presumably to feed the Moloch of perpetual war, are also supplied with state-sponsored pornography, cheap beer and a lottery (though I suspect the Airstrip One lottery never actually pays out). But Winston's illicit girlfriend Julia, being an outer-party member, belongs to something called 'The Junior Anti-Sex League', and she and Winston sin most dangerously by furtively coupling without Party approval. It is in this sin that they are discovered by the Thought Police. The Party's greatest triumph is to get them to denounce each other and to break them utterly apart. Then they can love Big Brother.
Actually there is, as far as I know, no known connection in human history between sexual licence and the rather different freedoms of thought, speech and assembly. Rather the contrary, since most slaveholding societies permitted their slaves to breed. What they wouldn't let them do (not in any way that meant anything, anyway) was to marry. Independent lifelong marriage, truly enforced, is the toughest limit on the powers of tyrants, commerce and all other interferers in our private wishes. That is why it was a very early target of the Soviet regime (which made marriage almost instantly dissoluble at the wish of either party) , and later became one of the main targets of the new post-Christian work-and-spend societies which arose in the West during the 1960s.
What Orwell didn't get was what Aldous Huxley did get (as Neil Postman long ago pointed out). This was that the real danger to freedom was and is that not enough people will care about it, because they have come to love their own servitude, and mistake that servitude for sovereignty. "Nobody tells me what to do with my own body," they declare, while allowing all kinds of people to do all sorts of awful things with their minds. Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. ...In 1984...people are controlled by inflicting pain. In [Huxley's] Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure."
It is striking to review this passage, nearly 20 years after I first read it, in the knowledge that the current president of the USA is noted for not having read a complete book in many years.
In Trumpish America, or indeed in Theresa May's Britain, the real problem for those of us who value truth is that nobody much cares what it is. And if you do, as I do, so much the worse for you. This week's big British event, the attempt by the state to conceal the misfire of a Trident missile, combined with a laughable claim that it didn't usually discuss these things in public, has already vanished without trace beneath the waves. Nobody cares. We all believe in the deterrent nowadays, even though we don't know what it deters or how it does it, or even if it works. At least in the 1960s people cared about it, even if those who cared most were generally most wrong.
In our decade, most people contentedly believe the most tremendous tripe about NATO, Russia, the EU, terrorism and the state of the economy. Those who understand these things roll their eyes in despair as they try to explain what is actually happening. It gives me an almost physical pain to listen to what passes for expertise (particularly on the BBC) on any subject about which I am even slightly well-informed. And I am just an old popular newspaper scribbler who has knocked about a bit.
The Trump White House's ridiculous attempt to speak of 'alternative facts' wasn't a sign that the Trump White House wishes to close down free thought in America. Why should it want to? Free thought in the USA, as elsewhere in the Western world, isn't threatened. That's because hardly anybody does it and those who do think freely have very little access to mass platforms. On those mass platforms, where news has often become self-affirming storytelling, people are told what they want to believe by their chosen organ of information, and they duly believe it. They want to believe it because they don't want their contentment interrupted by awkward information which might impose obligations on them to think or act. They are cheerfully passive. They have chosen their own passivity, in which they can enjoy the personal autonomy which is now the universal goal.
Just like the recent bout of 'fake news', it was a sign that fewer and fewer people care.
Actually, I'm not even sure if 'alternative facts' is – in itself – such an outrageous formulation, comparable with Orwell's 'doublethink' . That doesn't mean I accept absurd claims on the size of the crowd at the inauguration, just that I recognise that , unless you are omniscient, your knowledge of a complex event will always be partial, and generally different from the knowledge which others possess. The Gospels, after all, contain alternative facts about several events, and I can remember when rival British newspaper accounts of the same story might often be very different, while remaining factual. As I read Donald Cameron Watt's account of How War Came (on top of all the other things I've recently read on the same subject) I feel myself understanding less about the outbreak of the Second World War than I thought I did before – because I now know too much to sustain the previous ill-informed conclusions I had come to. As always, the basis of real knowledge is knowledge of our own ignorance.