In the three days since Kellyanne Conway described White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts” on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” people around the country have been searching for ways to deal with the Trump administration’s continued willingness to deceive the American public.
One place many have landed is back in 1984. Copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel have been in high demand since Conway debuted her latest Orwellian turn of phrase. By Tuesday, the book had climbed all the way to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-sellers list, and a Penguin spokesman told CNN later that night that the publishing house had ordered 75,000 more copies of the book to keep up.
The novel, from which phrases like “Big Brother” and “doublethink” were born, is perhaps the U.K.’s most famous depiction of an authoritarian surveillance state. And much of the book, particularly its fictional thought-suppressing language, Newspeak, will seem relatable to anyone who took issue with the way Conway tried to disguise a lie as something rooted in reality. Some phrases in particular ― like, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command” ― have seemed especially relevant in the wake of Conway’s and Spicer’s attempted deception over something as indisputable as crowd size.
But whereas1984 might be Orwell’s seminal work, it is not his most relevant today. That would be “Politics and the English Language.”
Unlike 1984 and Orwell’s other famous novel, Animal Farm, “Politics and the English Language” does not dabble in symbolism-heavy social commentary. Instead, Orwell used the 5,000-word essay to offer a blunt analysis of what he saw as the inexcusable misuse of the English language by writers and politicians alike in 1946.
In the first half of the essay, Orwell identifies the many ways imprecise or unnecessary words can limit a piece of writing’s effectiveness. But it is in the second half where Orwell’s commentary becomes particularly prescient to 2017. There, he grapples with the political consequences of imprecise language wielded by people like Conway, and with the way those in power in the real world ― not a fictional other world ― can warp language for political gain.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” Orwell wrote, arguing that when “the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer” because those in power have a reluctance to own up to uncomfortable truths, both large and small. Instead, they start to lean on “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
Orwell uses some examples to get his point across, like governments referring to the bombardment of villages as “pacification” or government-sanctioned murder as “elimination of unreliable elements.” But contemporary anecdotes work just as effectively.
When President Donald Trump refers to his desire to restore “law and order” in America’s “inner cities,” for example, his vague language obscures the evidence that people of color are treated worse by police than white people. When he calls for an end to political correctness, it obscures that he is actually calling for a return to a world dominated by white men. And when Sean Spicer says, “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” he makes us question our entire sense of reality.
This sort of manipulation of language by the Trump administration is likely to continue, and it will likely get worse. But that is why the final paragraph of “Politics and the English Language” is perhaps the most important one today. In the end, Orwell argues that we must fight to keep language clear. First and foremost, by being straightforward when we speak and by embarrassing those who aren’t:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.
1984 is a classic novel that asks an important question: How far could an authoritarian state go? But “Politics and the English Language” tells us where we are right now. And that, unfortunately, is just as frightening, if not more.
Since last week’s revelations of the scope of the United States’ domestic surveillance operations, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which was published sixty-four years ago this past Saturday, has enjoyed a massive spike in sales. The book has been invoked by voices as disparate as Nicholas Kristof and Glenn Beck. Even Edward Snowden, the twenty-nine-year-old former intelligence contractor turned leaker, sounded, in the Guardian interview in which he came forward, like he’d been guided by Orwell’s pen. But what will all the new readers and rereaders of Orwell’s classic find when their copy arrives? Is Obama Big Brother, at once omnipresent and opaque? And are we doomed to either submit to the safety of unthinking orthodoxy or endure re-education and face what horrors lie within the dreaded Room 101? With Orwell once again joining a culture-wide consideration of communication, privacy, and security, it seemed worthwhile to take another look at his most influential novel.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” begins on a cold April morning in a deteriorated London, the major city of Airstrip One, a province of Oceania, where, despite advances in technology, the weather is still lousy and residents endure a seemingly endless austerity. The narrator introduces Winston, a thirty-nine-year-old man beset by the fatigue of someone older, who lives in an apartment building that smells of “boiled cabbage” and works as a drone in the Ministry of Truth, which spreads public falsehoods. The first few pages contain all the political realities of this future society: the Police Patrol snoops in people’s windows, and Thought Police, with more insidious power, linger elsewhere. Big Brother, the totalitarian figurehead, stares out from posters plastered throughout the city, and private telescreens broadcast the Party’s platform and its constant stream of infotainment. Everyone simply assumes that they are always being watched, and most no longer know to care. Except for Winston, who is different, compelled as if by muscle memory to court danger by writing longhand in a real paper journal.
Thinking about Edward Snowden on Sunday, it wasn’t much of a leap to imagine him and his colleagues working in some version of Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, gliding through banal office gigs whose veneer of nine-to-five technocratic normality helped to hide their more sinister reality. Holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Snowden seemed, if you squinted a bit, like Orwell’s protagonist-hero Winston, had he been a bit more ambitious, and considerably more lucky, and managed to defect from Oceania to its enemy Eastasia and sneak a message to the telescreens back home. In fact, at one point in his interview with the Guardian, Snowden could be channelling the novel’s narrator, or at least delivering a spirited synopsis of the book:
If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept, and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature, you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that’s the world that you helped create, and it’s going to get worse with the next generation, and the next generation, who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk, and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is, so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.
Are we living in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”? The technological possibilities of surveillance and data collection and storage surely surpass what Orwell imagined. Oceania’s surveillance state operates out in the open, since total power has removed any need for subterfuge: “As for sending a letter through the mails, it was out of the question. By a routine that was not even secret, all letters were opened in transit,” the narrator explains. This sounds like an analogue version of what Snowden describes: “The N.S.A., specifically, targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default.” That seems like a safe operating assumption about e-mails, texts, or telephone calls—even if a person is not saying anything interesting or controversial, and even if no one is actually monitoring our communication, the notion that one’s personal digital messages would remain inviolably private forever, or that they would not be saved or stored, was probably naïve. Regardless of the actual scope of the government’s snooping programs, the notion of digital privacy must now, finally and forever, seem a mostly quaint one.
Meanwhile, words, as Amy Davidson points out, are manipulated by the three branches of government to make what might seem illegal legal—leading to something of a parallel language that rivals Orwell’s Newspeak for its soulless, obfuscated meaning. And, indeed, there has been a hint of something vaguely Big Brotherian in Obama’s response to the public outcry about domestic surveillance, as though, by his calm manner and clear intelligence, the President is asking the people to merely trust his beneficence—which many of us might be inclined to do. Even Winston, after all, learns to love Big Brother in the end.
Still, all but the most outré of political thinkers would have to grant that we are far from the crushing, violent, single-party totalitarian regime of Orwell’s imagination. In one of the more chilling passages in the novel, the evil Party hack O’Brien explains, “We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about.” The N.S.A., on the other hand, is primarily interested in overt acts, of terrorism and its threats, and presumably—or at least hopefully—less so in the thoughts themselves. The war on terror has been compared to Orwell’s critique of “the special mental atmosphere” created by perpetual war, but recently Obama made gestures toward bringing it to an end. That is not to say, of course, that we should not be troubled by the government’s means, nor is it clear that the ends will remain as generally benevolent as they seem today. But Orwell’s central image of unrestrained political power, a “boot stamping on a human face—forever,” is not the reality of our age.
While it’s tempting to hold the present moment up beside Orwell’s 1984, the book is more than a political totem, and overlooking its profound expressions of emotion robs it of most of its real power. Some novels have both the good and bad fortune of being given over to wider history, inspiring idiomatic phrases that instantly communicate a commonly understood idea. Through this transformation, books become blunt and unsubtle, losing something of their art. We might call it the Catch-22 of “Catch-22,” or, in this case, of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not simply a cold counterfactual. Instead, it is a love story between Winston and Julia, a younger member of the civil service, and, like many great novels, some of its high points can be found in the minor moments shared between these two characters. Their first real meeting, because of its implicit danger, is one of the more breathtakingly romantic scenes in modern literature—a mixture of lust and decorum like something out of Austen. In the office hallway, Julia slips Winston a piece of paper, a dangerous act. Filled with nervous excitement, he returns to his desk and waits a full eight minutes to look at it. When he does, the words appear as a jolt: “I love you.” They arrange to meet in a crowd in order to remain anonymous. Among a mass of people, standing close, their hands touch. A love affair follows—they go to the countryside, like Adam and Eve attempting to push their way back into Eden. Later, they keep a small flat. The Party’s stamping out of sex is an essential mode of control. But love, it seems, may exist in a place beyond the government’s reach:
They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.
But, in the end, even that place can be found—love is also a political act, and so it must be destroyed, and Orwell uses its dissolution as final, terrible evidence of the scope of oppression. Winston and Julia are broken by the Party, forced to inform on each other and, later, made to live on with the memory of having done so. The two meet a final time, and share a muted exchange, akin to one of the clipped, inarticulate breakup scenes from Hemingway, in which, bruised by heartache, no one can quite think of the right thing to say. Julia explains that by denouncing Winston, she has somehow obliterated him:
“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”
Were this just a novel, rather than an ideological novel with an aim to warn and instruct, it might have ended here, in ambivalence, leaving out the clever and rather heavy-handed turn of Winston’s final conversion. If so, its political utility might be less clear, but we would be left instead with its artistic force and mysterious inner workings.