Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Donald Trump Helps Sales of an Old Book -- and it Ain't the Bible!

The best-selling book on Amazon, as of mid-week, was published in 1949.

Big Brother is Watching You
Before I discuss it, please take a just moment. Contemplate our times for a second, read over in your mind a few dominant headlines from recent days and months, and identify the 68-year-old book.  (Gee, it's nearly as old as I am!)  It's a mental task you ought to be able to perform without further assistance, if you just blank your mind and try.

It would be fair to offer a few clues.  First of all, it has long stood for a certain concept of an autocratic government keeping people in check partly by the abuse of language.  It has long been invoked in conversation (or newspaper columns) to comment unfavorably when governments are totalitarian (as Nazi Germany had been, vividly, just before the book was written, and as Stalin's USSR still was) and particularly when they tell particularly big and obvious lies, or use technology and complex concepts to mislead their populations.  In the novel's futuristic setting, "perpetual war" and omnipresent surveillance of the populace are facts of life.  In fact, the novel gave us such familiar terms as "Big Brother" [not the reality TV show, no], "thought police," "Newspeak," and (perhaps most notably this week) "doublethink."

Who failed to think of "doublethink" when Donald Trump's press secretary described huge crowds not apparent in photographs of the inauguration and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway then
called his comments "alternative facts"?

Winston Smith, out on a limb
It's only fair to note that sales of the novel, George Orwell's Ninteen Eighty-Four, spike a bit early each year, when spring semester is imminent, and spiked some in 2013, too, after Edward Snowden leaked zillions of details from U.S. mass surveillance.  But this spike is far beyond the normal annual surge.  Reportedly folks bought 47,000 since the election, compared with the 36,000 that's more usual for that time of year.

Certainly the book doesn't reach the top of Amazon's best-seller list most years.

But Trump's character, manner, and conduct have sparked or revived people's fears of just such a totalitarian state as Orwell described, in what was then science fiction.

Winston and Julia
Orwell's "doublethink" was a government ploy to present two contradictory facts as both true.  Sure sounds like alternative facts.  Sounds like Trump's frenetic assertions that massive and unprecedented voter fraud robbed him of a popular-vote victory, when there's no evidence of such an occurrence and plenty of evidence the party that supported him had been busy purging folks (notably poor folks and minorities) from the voter rolls and otherwise making it a little harder for such people to exercise their rights to vote.

Winston Smith, the novel's protagonist, would be hired instantly by Trump's Administration.  His job was to rewrite news articles to "correct" their mistakes.  He hated it, and dreamed of rebelling against Oceania,  He knew quite well that he's falsifying the historical record to support the current party line, not (as his instructions claimed) fixing "misquotations."

The Thought Police initiate their interrogation of Winston
With Smith's expertise, he could rewrite all the news articles (and, now, re-edit all the videotape) in which Trump attacked the Intelligence agencies (before he went to the CIA recently to tell them he loved them), mocked a physically handicapped reporter (before he "never did"), or insisted he had powerful evidence that Obama was born in Africa (before he said he no longer believed that and hadn't started (or fanned the flames of) the whole silly controversy.   Other minions could excise some of those facts from our memories, or delete from certain women's brains the cells holding memories of Trump's abuse or harassment of them.

Modern "doublethink," or use of "alternative facts," would not be nearly so troubling if  Trump were not initiating his Presidency by a sustained attack on the independent new media for reporting facts he doesn't like.  It would not be nearly so troubling if we hadn't just seen a great example of "blackwhite" in which he conned numerous voters, understandably angry at government, to believe he was their champion, when his intent was to install a cabinet uniquely full of mega-wealthy men who've opposed labor unions, workers' rights, minimum wage, social programs, and the like all their lives.  When Trump and Paul Ryan destroy social security, on which many elderly Trump voters live, they will call it "reform" and articulate why the changes are necessary, even beneficial, to the people whose food and medical care they are minimizing so as to maintain corporate profit levels.

Stripped of wrong thoughts, loved again by Big Brother, Winston joins the others celebrating Oceania's victory!

If Trump hoped to strip the media of all power to shine any objective light on his actions, or support any dissent, then his media attacks and bold assertions of flat falsehoods would be a great first step.

P.S. Everyone always describes Nineteen Eighty-four as "dystopian," one of those words I sort of understand but have to look up.   An on-line dictionary reminds me that it means "a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding."   It also points out something I don't think I knew: that the word, which dates back only to about 1865, was coined by taking the word for a perfect world, "utopia," and placing "dis" (or "dys") in front of it.  I wonder now whether slavery or our civil war contributed to the concept.  [Nope: coined by philosopher J.S. Mill in a parliamentary speech in 1868, opposing the Irish land policy.]


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