Our post-truth world of today emerged from the ashes of a barren digital wasteland, and it is a world where knowledge is no longer valued and ignorance is elevated to cultural supremacy. The question to ask, of course, is how did we come to such a pass. The rise of social media and algorithm-driven corporate profits are the fundamental culprits. The digital age has connected us in ways that were unimaginable thirty years ago. This non-stop connectivity has succeeded not only in bringing us closer together, it has also reflected and amplified our collective ignorance. Today, our irrational, conspiratorial, and superstitious view of the world is shared with millions of other people who share our intellectual shortcomings. If in the past politicians, athletes, celebrities, and other public figures used the traditional media as an intermediary, today social media has become the ultimate platform to communicate directly with the people. If politicians, for example, can communicate directly with their followers and supporters, then what you have done is open the possibility of an Orwellian worldview. The tragic irony, of course, is that people have at their disposal the means to verify the deluge of information they consume, but they don’t seem to bother, which is why the brave fact-checking of journalists falls on deaf ears.
Being exposed to a near-infinite supply of information in no way suggests that people have the necessary critical thinking skills to make sense of it. We have become passive consumers of information. We have become complacent and so bloated with information that we no longer care about the truth. It is in this environment that a charlatan like Trump found a way to dupe people into thinking he speaks for them. He used Twitter to give his followers what they wanted to hear: half-truths, outright lies, hyperbole, conspiracies, racially tinged diatribes, misogyny, gossip, sophomoric labels for his adversaries, xenophobic affirmations, all with an authoritarian voice. In a limited number of characters, Trump would send out thousands of Tweets, constantly repeating one ignorant statement after the other. It was the Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, who said, “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” This is what Trump succeeded in doing: his repeated lies have become accepted as truths. In other words, untruths have replaced truths. The foundation for an Orwellian world was constructed atop the skeletal remains of truth. Throughout this essay, I’ve used the word, Orwellian, numerous times. It is time to examine Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Shortly after Kellyanne Conway’s disturbing “alternative facts” blunder, sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four soared. Conway’s failure to distinguish something as basic as facts versus opinions unwittingly set off a cultural firestorm. Immediate comparisons were made to iconic Orwellian terms such as “doublethink,” “Big Brother,” and “newspeak.” In fact, the entire Trump presidency marked the beginning of a new Orwellian chapter in American history. The term, “Orwellian,” is embedded in our collective imagination, where it universally symbolizes totalitarianism, repression, and anything related to a post-truth reality. Part of what makes Nineteen Eighty-Four endure is its capacity to transcend the trappings of its own time. The dystopian vision is darker and more ominous than Zamyatin’s We or Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell’s frightening vision does not take place hundreds of years from now; rather the dark cloud that will descend upon humanity occurs in the year 1984. The story is centered around Oceania, one of three totalitarian states caught in a perpetual war. The citizens of Oceania have been reduced to unthinking automatons whose lives are spent in absolute devotion to their leader, Big Brother.
The function of Newspeak is to use propaganda to simultaneously shape and limit how people think about the totalitarian government that controls every aspect of their lives.
The epistemological structure — in other words, the ways by which the inhabitants of Oceania perceive and understand the world — is controlled by Newspeak. The function of Newspeak is to use propaganda to simultaneously shape and limit how people think about the totalitarian government that controls every aspect of their lives. The story centers around Winston Smith who works as a minor party functionary. Smith lives in London where reminders of the nuclear war shortly after World War II are everywhere. If we are today getting a taste of what it is like to live in a post-truth world, Smith is experiencing the full force of what it means to live in a world where truth is manufactured and spoon-fed to people who are either too scared or intellectually incapable of questioning the building blocks that make up their reality. As a member of the Outer Party, Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his time rewriting history. His unique position of manufacturing whatever truth the party wants disseminated forces Smith to question the moral implication of what he’s doing. Despite the fact that he is constantly watched, Smith pursues a relationship with Julia, who shares his contempt for Big Brother.
After renting a room with Julia in a neighborhood populated by Proles (short for proletarians), Smith becomes increasingly attracted to the ideas of a rebel group known as the Brotherhood. What Smith and Julia are not aware of is that the Inner Party has spies everywhere who hunt down “thought-criminals.” After one of them, O’Brien, infiltrates the Brotherhood, Smith and Julia are caught and sent to the Ministry of Love for a reeducation, which is a euphemism for imprisonment and torture. The purpose of re-educating those who rebel against the state is not simply to punish, but to psychologically remove any traces of individuality and destroy whatever humanity is left. One tactic, which occurs in the infamous Room 101, is to expose prisoners to their worst nightmares in order to make them submit to Big Brother. This extreme form of psychological punishment is successful. Smith breaks down and tells his tormentors that he doesn’t care what happens to Julia. There is no heroic conclusion to Nineteen Eighty-Four; rather Orwell ends the novel as a warning of what happens to us when truth is warped in such a way that we can no longer trust our senses.
Smith represented a glimmer of hope for truth, civility, openness, compassion, dignity, freedom, and all of the other noble attributes that define a culture. His defeat serves as a constant reminder of how easy it is for seemingly enlightened civilizations to lose their way and descend into nightmarish versions of themselves. Orwell’s disturbing image of what might lie ahead was directed at the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism. Whenever totalitarian regimes sacrifice the individual for ideology, the consequences are frightening to behold.
On a biographical level, the bleakness of Orwell’s vision mirrors a life of struggle, sickness, and intellectual exhaustion. Writing for Orwell was, “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.”[i] We may owe Orwell’s demons a ton of gratitude for helping him produce a work of such an enduring value.
Orwell’s disgust with Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian Revolution was crystallized in his allegorical story, Animal Farm.
Throughout much of his short life, Orwell felt a powerful sense of dislocation, isolation, and alienation. Born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, India, Orwell felt out of place. His father was a minor customs official in the opium department of the Indian Civil Service, and his mother, of French origin, was the daughter of an unsuccessful teak merchant in Burma (Myanmar). At the age of four, his family moved back to England where they settled in a village near London. From a very young age, Orwell became aware of class distinction. He would later recall, with contempt, that his family belonged to the lower middle class, “whose pretensions to social status had little relation to their income.”[ii] In 1911, he was sent to a boarding school on the Sussex coast, where he distinguished himself with his brilliance and his poverty. He grew up a morose, withdrawn, eccentric boy. Even at an early age, he rejected class systems and the artificially imposed status associated with money and power. The time he spent at St. Cyprian’s would later be remembered in his posthumous biographical essay, Such, Such Were the Joys (1953), as miserable and traumatic.
He would go on to write of his time: “As for St. Cyprian’s, for years I loathed its very name so deeply that I could not view it with enough detachment to see the significance of the things that happened to me there. In a way, it is only within the last decade that I have really thought over my schooldays, vividly though their memory has always haunted me.”[iii] After St. Cyprian’s, Orwell earned a scholarship to attend Eton College, where Aldous Huxley taught him French for a year. Following Eton, instead of attending university, Orwell followed in his parents’ footsteps and in 1922 traveled to Burma to work as a district superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police. He quickly rejected British rule over Burma. In fact, he would reject British imperial attitudes towards any subaltern people. Orwell felt an extraordinary amount of guilt for his inability to penetrate the barriers of race and caste. Upon his return to London, he went out of his way to live in some of the poorest areas in East London. His need to expiate his guilt lead him to Paris where he worked as a dishwasher. These experiences would later be captured in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). After his first book was rejected by publishers, including T.S. Eliot, he decided to change his name to George Orwell. He took the surname, Orwell, from the river Orwell, which runs through the county of Suffolk in England. Orwell would never publish under his birth name again. The following year, Orwell published his first novel, Burmese Days, which would establish his style of writing about marginalized, alienated, and sensitive characters who find themselves subsumed under the tyranny of an oppressive government.
Burmese Days, as well as his next two novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), captured Orwell’s revulsion against imperialism and the empty materialism of bourgeois life. By 1944, Orwell turned his attention to the dangers of ideological revolutions that promise heaven and earth for the downtrodden, but deliver a nightmarish totalitarian system of absolute control. More specifically, Orwell’s disgust with Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian Revolution was crystallized in his allegorical story, Animal Farm. The literary power and resonance of Animal Farm lie in its utter simplicity. Farm animals (the proletarians) rise up and overthrow their human oppressors (bourgeoise) and set up an egalitarian society. For a while, the animals enjoy freedom and a sense of purpose. For the first time, the animals have embraced the moral virtue that all animals are equal. Over time, some of the more intelligent animals, the pigs, become hungry for power and form a more oppressive dictatorship than the humans. In the end, the message of Animal Farm is: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
In the end, the message of Animal Farm is: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
When Animal Farm was published in 1945, it catapulted Orwell to international fame and prosperity. Animal Farm, however, was only a prelude to his magnum opus. During the period of 1943–44, Orwell was already thinking of a dystopian novel. According to his adopted son, Richard, Orwell was “partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944 (the conference took place between November 28 and December 1, 1943).”[iv] The conference was attended by Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, where they discussed strategies against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan, as well as what the post-World War II geopolitical landscape would look like. Orwell was convinced that the three-headed monster of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, was plotting to divide the world, which inspired the three fictional superstates (Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia) of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For much of his life, Orwell suffered from numerous ailments, including bronchitis, bacterial pneumonia, and endless bouts of coughing episodes from his excessive smoking. In 1938, he went to a sanatorium in response to coughing up blood. He would eventually be diagnosed with tuberculosis. In 1942, Orwell worked as a book reviewer and correspondent for David Astor’s (of the famed Astor family) Observer magazine. In 1945, while on assignment for the Observer, Orwell received news that his wife, Eileen, died during a routine surgery. His wife’s death proved to be too much for him to bear. He felt guilty for not being with her and drowned his emotion by writing incessantly. Although he wrote nearly 110,000 words, none of it was for him. He wrote numerous book reviews for the Observer, and countless articles for other publications. In May of 1946, David Astor offered Orwell his family-owned estate in the remote Scottish island of Jura. Astor, of course, was hoping that Orwell would use his estate to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell accepted the offer as he was hoping to leave the oppressive world of post-war London. He also wanted to leave his newfound fame behind. He complained to his friend, Arthur Koestler, “Everyone keeps coming at me, wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc — you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.”[v] Jura was simultaneously a place to liberate his mind and a prison that magnified the difficulties of writing a book.
After settling into a comfortable routine, Orwell had to struggle through poor health to finish his most powerful work yet. In May of 1947, he wrote to his publisher, Fred Warburg: “I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in the most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.”[vi] Pressured by his publisher, Orwell pushed on and started to make progress when his health deteriorated. He was suffering from tuberculosis and the doctors could not do much about it except to prescribe some fresh air. After hearing an experimental drug, streptomycin, David Astor arranged a shipment from the United States. As a result of being given the wrong dosage, Orwell suffered horrific side effects, such as throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin, the loss of his fingernails, and the general emaciation of his body. His illness, coupled with the unimaginable side effects of his treatment, would shape the gloomy scenery of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell would later tell his friends that, “1984 would have been less gloomy had he not been so ill — it was a very dark, disturbing, and pessimistic work.”[vii] After writing 125,000 words, with endless revisions, Orwell was ready to send off his manuscript to his publisher.
We are today the living embodiment of his frightening vision.
The problem was deciding on a title. He entertained calling it either Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Last Man in Europe. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg, who suggested the final title. The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four was considered at all remains a mystery. One possible explanation, which seems to be the most popular, comes from Peter Davison, who was the editor of a 20-volume collected edition of Orwell’s work, and who suggested that the American publisher simply reversed the date, 1948. While this may be the case, there is no evidence to support this conclusion. In any event, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on June 8, 1949, and was instantly hailed as a masterpiece. One apocryphal story has it that Winston Churchill told his doctor that he read the novel twice. Orwell did not live long after the book’s publication. He died on January 21st, 1950 from a massive hemorrhage.
Although Orwell’s dystopian vision was directed at the geopolitical landscape of his time, the full force of its influence can only be understood in our own time. We are today the living embodiment of his frightening vision. Our post-truth world is setting us on a very dangerous course, one from which we may not find our way back.
[i] McCrum, R. (2009). The Masterpiece that Killed George Orwell. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell.
[ii] Woodcock, G. (2020). George Orwell. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell.
[iii] Orwell. G. (2020). Such, Such Were the Joys. Orwell.ru. https://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/joys/english/e_joys.
[iv] McCrum, R. (2009). The Masterpiece that Killed George Orwell. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell.
[vii] (2005). Study: George Orwell’s Illness Influenced ‘1984.’ Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/425-study-george-orwell-illnesses-influenced-1984.html.