For the longest time as a kid, I could never get into fiction. Occasionally a story garnered my attention, but it more often than not came from the Non-Fiction section of the bookstore. If you had asked me at the age of 7 to tell you about the characters from Captain Underpants or a Lemony Snicket’s story, I would have pulled a blank. But ask that same kid about the propaganda of Nazi Germany as headed by Joseph Goebbels pre-1939, and I would’ve said something worthy of a condensed book report.
Eventually, that changed. High school came and I graduated to penny-poetry and the magic of words-that-actually-sounded-good. But for the longest time, I held a very myopic and unfortunate belief: that the mysteries of nonfiction and history existed in a better dimension than fictional literature.
The last mirage of that unfortunate belief was shattered this past weekend.
While nursing a slight hangover in the early hours of this past Sunday morning, I heard a spokesperson for the new President say a miraculously ridiculous thing. During an argument with Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, Kellyanne Conway said the following:
“…Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What– You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts…”
I was flabbergasted, stunned, choking on the words in my throat. Where had I heard that phrase before? Alternative Facts? What the Fuck does that even mean? It only took a few moments for me and many others to connect the dots back to a novel that sat gathering dust on my shelf.
While in my hometown shortly after the grueling 2016 election, I had rummaged through a Seattle bookstore and picked up a copy of George Orwell’s 1984. I knew the gist of its message but had never gotten around to reading it. Knowing that it’s always been lauded as a literary classic, I figured that I should finally settle down and see how it matched with the praise. I was blown away.
For those that haven’t read the book before, I’ll quickly summarize the world it examines. The novel presents a universe in which ‘The State’ of a fictional country named ‘Oceania’ has repeatedly dulled the identity of its citizenry. Oceania is a totalitarian state of the highest order, at odds with two other nations: Eurasia and Eastasia. The main character of the story grows increasingly opposed to the government once he is introduced to the world outside of it by a love interest named Julia. During this time the government wages a war on language through the use of ‘Newspeak’, the official language of the ruling elite. In it words are detached from their true meaning: a truth is a lie, a lie is a truth, and violence equals passivity. It’s perfectly represented in one of the most infamous lines of the novel, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Words mean nothing, except for what the state wants them to represent. In this war against words, there are no survivors except the verbiage of society’s fringe. There is only a tiny and hunted sliver of humanity that keeps the old poetry of written thought alive.
I spent a long evening engrossed in the characters, the plot, the narrative and the scenes. Its portraiture of the undeniably dystopian society of 1984 Oceania didn’t just make for good fiction: it struck that familiar nerve of relevance that makes the goosebumps on your arms rise. When I finished the final page and sentence, I looked up in my weary state and realized that the night of my own time was far darker than I imagined.
Orwell’s 1984 is not just a literary criticism of a post-war world gripped by the prospects of nuclear annihilation (it was published in 1949 as the Cold War grew warmer). Likewise, it’s not a blanket condemnation of a totalitarianism radically different than our own Western-Style-Democracies. Instead, it’s a damning indictment of our own systems: it makes us reexamine how actors in our societies strong-arm individuals through the lingo of violence and fear. Orwell knew all too well that authoritarian tendencies survived and thrived in corners of our own communities.
This should frighten us, yet it shouldn’t surprise us either. We only have to look back to recent memory to see when governments have cleverly altered words for their own self-advancements. Modern-day Newspeak occurred when administrations branded illegal torture as ‘enhanced interrogation’, or unlawful invasions of sovereign states as ‘police actions’. Language has become a common tool of the powerful, more often than not wielded against opponents at an unfair advantage.
Which brings me back to the present. 1984’s ‘Newspeak’ is all the more relevant as it finds new life with the current Commander in Chief. Kellyanne Conway’s utterance of ‘alternative facts’ wasn’t a slip-up or a rhetorical mistake. Her advocacy of ‘alternative facts’ reveals the fundamental belief of the Trump team: that words are the playthings of men, and that facts only exist so long as they’re his. In this vein, Donald Trump mirrors the worst of the authoritarian personality: he is the source of his own truth, and nobody in the world outside that can convince him otherwise.
We can already see this mantra expanding beyond the individual man: Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been sent out in public to defend the President’s hurt feelings on inauguration crowds. Commands have been shouted from above to halt tweets from potentially subversive crowds, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Then—of course—there was Kellyanne Conway’s ‘Alternative Facts’, which when translated into English solely means ‘Lies’. The man’s fragility has latched onto poorly veiled arguments of ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Doublethink’, transporting 2017 America to the worst of 1984 Oceania. What comes next, outlets promoting fake-news to millions of people?
Of course, we don’t live in Oceania. Yet the real danger of Orwell’s negative utopia is the sheer domination of hopelessness. Vast segments of Oceania’s society don’t even know what ‘hope’ is: it’s a dead word in a dead world. All they know is a world of Newspeak. The only language that they can live through is that of the government. Orwell’s canvas of authoritarianism is—in this aspect—likely the scariest that literature has produced.
It is terrifying, then, that our society is rapidly becoming dependent on the President’s words: not of comfort—ironically—but of ridicule. Yet through the barrage of diatribes and 3:00 am tweets, Donald Trump has asserted himself as the lingual leader of the nation. American language will never be the same: we will always be saddled with the presence of Sad(!) and Bigly and the empty promises of Making (things) Great Again! All political discussions revolve around the orbit of these hollow phrases. Donald Trump has occupied a sacred space in society: that of the written word. And wherever the written word rests, so resides the soul of the people.
The objective of artists and casual observers everywhere will be to reclaim that mantle of lingual-power. I can only assume that the next four years will be a story of both fierce opposition and a devoted rebellion of language and thought, so long as Trump’s thumbs are removed from the cell phone. If writers and activists and concerned citizens can bring the plane of words back to the realm of empathy, then there is a good chance that Orwell’s fiction will stay just that: a work of fiction. But if language cannot be recovered from the abyss that it’s in now, and if words continue to be denigrated into the stone-axes of strong-men, then what can we say in defiance of 140-character demands?