1984 in 2017

Originally read live at The Paper Machete in Chicago in February 2017

“1984” is three main things in popular culture: 1) The title of George Orwell’s famous cautionary tale of futuristic authoritarianism, perhaps the most popular piece of dystopian fiction ever. 2) A series of films, made-for-TV-movies, and even an Opera, all of which are adaptations of George Orwell’s famous cautionary tale of futuristic authoritarianism. 3) Van Halen’s third best album. And that’s not a dig. It’s got “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher,” so it’s good. It also gets points for being the last album before “Van Hagar” happened, so, there’s that.

Anyway. The “I984” that was number one on this list, has also recently become number one on some other lists, namely the Amazon Best Sellers List. Updated hourly, the Amazon Best Sellers List has had 1984 comfortably seated at #1 for the majority of the week, even though it was published 68 years ago. A spokesperson for Signet Classics, which currently publishes 1984 said that since the inauguration the book’s sales have increased by—and this is a real number—10,000%. If you can do the math on that, you certainly are not in the current Administration. 

Now, to be fair, 1984 spiking in sales happens every now and again. For example: Amidst the NSA scandal in 2013, sales of the novel rose sharply, moving its Amazon ranking from 6,750 to 194 in just 24 hours. During the surveillance scandal, politicians were even actively referencing Orwell’s works and words. At the time, a much-less-famous Bernie Sanders called the NSA program “Orwellian,” and President Barack Obama defended the program by insisting it wasn’t “Big Brother.”

These references were in regard to over-surveillance by the NSA, because in 1984 the government is always watching the people, or as the book puts it, “Big Brother is Watching You,” which is funny now, because no one is watching Big Brother.

But 1984’s resurgence in popularity this time is not based around the real-life issue of government spying to gain information, but instead the real-life issue of the government creating and spreading misinformation. “Fake News” is one of those phrases that’s gotten thrown around lately, like “woke” or “McConaissance,” and while “Fake News” used to be pretty clear-cut, when the government deliberately doesn’t use the term accurately, people are going to believe lies. If the President calls news that fact-checks “FAKE,” but praises news that fits his agenda, then all of a sudden we’ve got millions of potential voters thinking that Fox News is the truth, and that “Failure To Launch” is McConaughey’s best.

Even though Orwell’s works are required reading for almost every 10th grader in the nation, apparently a lot of former students missed that unit. So for anyone who might read Breitbart, or who might've voted for Gary Johnson, or did anything else to throw us into this living episode of Black Mirror, here’s why the alarmingly relevant 1984 is being revisited:

The plot surrounds Winston Smith, who works for his country’s authoritarian government, known as “The Party,” at a place called the Ministry of Truth. This name is ironic, because Winston’s job is to rewrite history in order to adapt it to The Party’s needs. So our protagonist’s career is to identify something that indisputably happened, and people remember, and replace it with something that didn’t happen, but seems plausible, so it fits the agenda of making the government look perpetually correct. This should already sound familiar. Because that’s a career in 2017 too. Except instead of bland and sexless Winston Smith, there’s bland and sexless Sean “Does He Have Pinkeye Or Is That Just His Face” Spicer. Sean Spicer, the only person in government today who might know less about Frederick Douglass than the President, has the unenviable role of trying to justify falsehoods, policy inconsistencies, and ethical lapses from the Administration every day. And when he isn’t enough, there’s Kellyanne “Is She Always Seeing The Monster From ‘It Follows’ Walking Towards Her, or Is That Just Her Face” Conway. Any time Sean is in over his chins, Kellyanne is there to remind us of the the nonevents we could have never not remembered on our own. But where were you on the day of the Bowling Green Massacre?

1984 also introduces premises like “NewSpeak,” which is the official language of the authoritarian country. NewSpeak is a language that is constantly being refined in order to limit the speaker’s ability to be creative or defiant. And every word of this language is in service to making The Party sound positive. So nothing is “bad” it’s merely “ungood,” just like there are no “lies,” there’s only “alternative facts.”

Also, there’s “DoubleThink”: the ability to hold two contradictory ideas as true in one’s mind at the same time. You have things like, “War is Peace,” and “Ignorance is Strength,” and “I’m Pro-Life, but also Pro-Torture,” and “I’m not racist, but do you want to hear a racist joke?”

And don’t forget “ThoughtCrime,” which is just thinking about opposing or questioning the ruling party. This is like when Winston writes his unhinged thoughts in a diary, or how our President said he would “open up libel laws” to more easily sue unfavorable journalists, or how Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation in five states that would criminalize nonviolent protests. It’s almost as if they suspect an upswing in people contemplating resistance.

Obama wasn’t perfect, but science was respected, rights were being gained, transparency was…usually apparent. But switching from our previous President to our current President is like going from Van Halen with David Lee Roth to…not Van Hagar…but when Van Halen was fronted by Gary Cherone for that album in 1998. That was bad. .Worse than the Bowling Green Massacre.

In one of Orwell’s final interviews, he insisted that you, the people, must be the resistance. One of his famous quotes is: “In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Or to quote Mr. Roth: “Hot shoe, burning down the avenue/ Model citizen, zero discipline”