Fake News and George Orwell’s 1984

There’s a lot written lately about “fake news,” the widespread dissemination of misinformation.  This is nothing new.  Fake news has been around at least as long as gossip and probably longer.  No one can know more than her own perspective, and to presume otherwise leads to trouble.

Seven years ago, I re-read George Orwell’s classic dystopic novel, 1984, published in 1949.  In this book, history was deliberately re-written on a regular basis by the Party of the infamous Big Brother.

1984 opens with protagonist Winston Smith going home at lunch to write in the secret diary he bought on the black market.  He works at the Ministry of Truth falsifying old news accounts.

Author George Orwell gets right to the point and packs the desolation of the times into the first few pages, describing the old, worn apartment building Winston lives in, Victory Mansions, with elevator that rarely works, the smell of boiled cabbage, the leaky roof, suspicious, deadened people.  We hear about Hate Week and Two Minutes Hate being a part of the daily routine.

The telescreen in his living room transmits both ways, and you can’t turn it off.  Smith lives in the world of the eternal present, in which the past is continually re-written  People disappear, and all record of them expunged.  There is perpetual war.  Smith lives in Oceania, which is currently at war with Eurasia and at peace with Eastasia, but despite obliterated history, Winston remembers only four years ago, Eastasia was the enemy and Eurasia the friend.

Posters, stamps, coins, cigarettes and myriad other things bear Big Brother’s face and the ominous “Big Brother is watching you.”  We have Thought Police.  We have the party’s slogans:  “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”  News is so disconnected from what’s really happening that it is a farce, yet no one remembers clearly whether things have ever been different.

Language defines thought, and 1984 speaks to this more succinctly than anything I’ve ever read.  The point of Newspeak was to reduce the number of words, to constrict thought, render it homogeneous and controllable.

Midway through the novel, Smith is having an affair with Julia, a Party member who passed him a note saying “I love you,” when she fell in the hall and he helped her up.  She is 15 years his junior and content to live a double life of hating the Party while pretending to be a model member.  She is purely sensual, uninterested in politics except as it affects her life.  She believes war is frustrated sexual desire and that sexually satisfied people have no need or desire to fight.  This, she says, is why the Party outlaws it except between husband and wife, and only for the purpose of having children, and providing no one enjoys it.

Winston knows from the beginning he is doomed, just doesn’t know when his time will come.  Every move is watched, every facial expression, every sound transmitted over the telescreen.  Solitude is suspicious, as is unaccounted-for time.

Smith eventually takes Julia to meet with O’Brien, an inner party member he believes is a member of a subversive organization, the Brotherhood.  This organization is reputed to be headed by an Emanuel Goldstein, the demonized “Enemy of the People.”  O’Brian says he is indeed a member of the Brotherhood and enlists Winston’s participation, exacting promises to do whatever is necessary, on command, without asking questions, and expecting no rewards or acknowledgement.

 

Smith loses my allegiance when he says he is willing to abase himself to defeat Big Brother.  He dehumanizes himself with that commitment, and becomes no better than those he condemns.  He is willing to trade one overlord for another, perpetuating the cycle.

After meeting with O’Brien, Winston gets the forbidden Goldstein book and begins to read it, but he is then arrested in his hideaway just before reading the “Why?” of the party’s obsession.

The rest of the book is about Winston’s capture, imprisonment, torture, and re-education by O’Brien.  O’Brien says the party decides what reality is, and a lone individual like O’Brien cannot contest it.  The party is immortal.  He says the party did not make the mistake of previous dictatorships, (thereby admitting a past before the Party):  socialist governments that pretended to claim power merely long enough to establish justice and equality.  No.  The party wants power for its own sake, and it wants to use that power to crush all individuality and potential resistance. But even Winston Smith, during his interrogation, protests that such a brutal power structure as O’Brien describes could not sustain itself and would self-destruct.

In the end, of course, when O’Brien threatens to put a rat cage over Winston’s face, he commits the ultimate betrayal:  he begs to have them sick the rats on Julia, instead.

And, of course, the final two sentences—which I’ve remembered for 30 years, verbatim:  “He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother.”

Although George Orwell is uncannily prescient in some of his observations, like the muddying of language, the telescreen, and the homogenization of individuals into a mass mind where individuality is a crime, he cannot account for factors that make totalitarianism unsustainable.  We are now seeing the disintegration of the power structure that bleeds individuals to support itself.  It boils down to the simple fact that armed or violent resistance only reinforces the power structure, but non-participation and withdrawal deplete it.  Orwell is looking at an urban population dependent on infrastructure and easily controlled supply chains.

Also, while Orwell claims history is being wiped out by revisions in books, statues, streets, churches, and newspapers, he overlooks the fact that the dilapidated architecture itself bespeaks a more competent society, because those buildings were once new, with roofs and plumbing in good working order.

Orwell also deprives his characters of any curiosity outside politics or basic amenities.  In his first rendez-vous with Julia in the country, Winston is transfixed by the song of a thrush.  There is no other evidence of anyone doing anything useful, and the appreciation for the bird is an exception.

The characterization of perpetual war merely for the purpose of destroying excessive production, the three entities perpetually at odds with each other, the control of people by controlling their minds, is uncanny.  There’s a reference to 1914 as the turning point in history.

Doublethink, the ability to hold two mutually exclusive views at the same time and believe them both, is crucial.

 

But men have always thought in terms of violent revolutions that are manipulated simply to switch one power elite for another.  They do not recognize that these systems disintegrate from within because those in power can’t trust each other.  I believe the violence comes later, once people see how weak the structure has become.

I say you control by controlling the food and water supplies, and the product lines, a much more fundamental and practical method, if power is your aim.  Of course the power brokers know that, and all this talk about controlling minds is intellectual camouflage.  It’s hard to imagine Big Brother having much power in a rural area where people have more resources at their disposal.

George Orwell, pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, died a year after 1984 was published, at the age of 46.  He had lived through both world wars, the Depression, and had lived in poverty through much of his adult life.  He foresaw much of what is happening now, and he was discouraged about the future of mankind.  But in the final analysis, 1984 is a masterpiece of tight prose, excellent descriptions, good character development, and interesting plot, well worth reading.

10 thoughts on “Fake News and George Orwell’s 1984

  1. kendunning

    It was good to get a refresher on “1984”. I had not thought about the obvious contradictions to Big Brother’s intellectual agenda such as the buildings themselves. I do think though that there is such a thing as objective reality, it’s not all perspective. Math is one example of how objective reality can be measured and communicated. I’m looking forward to a time when those who realize the imperative for mutuality and cooperation outnumber and out-influence those who adhere to competition, violence and war.

    Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      I’m looking forward to that time, too. As far as objective reality is concerned, though, math is a man-made construct so subjective in that sense.

      As an aside, do you remember in 1984 when Winston Smith was required to say and to believe that 2 + 2 = 5?

      Reply
  2. Gail

    I’ve reflected on this book numerous times as our privacy has eroded in congruence with advancements in technology. But I had not considered how non-participation and withdrawal, rather than resistance, depletes the power structure. I can see the applicability of this on many levels.

    Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      I’m glad you see the potential of non-participation. Others may say it’s a cop-out, but my reading of spiritual-leaning literature says you feed whatever you focus on. This is especially true regarding the stock market. The worst eco-rapists and other predators pay the largest dividends on Wall Street. Unfortunately, so many people have life savings invested there that they become part of the problem just by having pension plans.

      Reply
  3. transmutation.me

    You feed what you focus on, well this is so true, and I can confirm this deeply after diverse (heal)hypnotic sessions which are a good training for focussing on the important matters in life.

    Reply
  4. Lawrence Morra

    This encapsulated it for me Katherine…“died a year after 1984 was published, at the age of 46. He had lived through both world wars, the Depression, and had lived in poverty through much of his adult life. He foresaw much of what is happening now, and he was discouraged about the future of mankind. But in the final analysis, 1984 is a masterpiece of tight prose, excellent descriptions, good character development, and interesting plot, well worth reading.” How ironic and from a very prolific talented writer. I wonder what he would be saying about the global scene now if he were here. He certainly had a visionary sense about mankind! Thank you, this was very interesting and helpful actually! Many years since I had read the novel.

    Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      Lawrence, Thanks for the compliment. I haven’t posted a blog in over a year, but keep contemplating one. Your comment made want to read this blog again. “1984” remains one of the best books I’ ve ever read. I also enjoyed “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley. George Orwell (Eric Blair) was Huxley’s student in boarding school.

      I remember a comment of Huxley’s about the two authors’ different versions of dystopia. Huxley commented that Orwell’s totalitarian state relied on fear, but Huxley believed a totalitarian state would be more effective by seducing the public through gratuitous pleasure. Thus, in “Brave New World,” there are the “feelies,” cinema that produces pleasurable bodily sensations, and the daily allotment of the drug “soma” that induces a pleasurable state.

      Reply
      1. Lawrence Morra

        Hi Katharine…you’re very welcome and I must thank you for the opportunity and helpful insight you offer! Frankly I find both intriguing and stunning that you haven’t posted your own writings in that long a period! You have so much sensitivity and passion that I think there is so much you can be saying about many topics but especially something that you hold dearest to your heart which could serve as a powerful positive influence upon others!

        Actually I haven’t read “Brave New World” which is what many journalists or others have said about the direction of our high tech time we’re living in with fast paced almost unreal advances occurring so rapidly, say for example what they’ve done with cataloging genomes or genetic manipulations.

        But, I do recall a film I saw many years ago on TV that had such a device in it which I think one of the actors in it was Robert Duvall; and in this film a futuristic time people were under such drug induced control like this “soma” while being properly attuned by a sort of MSM Propaganda that the people must absorb daily gazing at the TV; maybe the now Smart Phones I wonder could be it; but they were continually subjected to this conditioning in order to control their minds and hearts to be subservient! Damn, think of the Big Pharma agenda and all the commercialization of drugs for one thing or another even legalized pot, all being propagated continually on TV and the Net now and how the MSM is so conjoined to that like one Big Mind Controlling Machine along with our radicalization of our political system or In God We Trust and under God Constitutional Republic system that has been and is being subjected or perverted to become more of a communist or Marxist even totalitarian State! We might very well be on the cusp of what these more visionary writers could foresee coming! And who more than the Devil would want this “gratuitous pleasure” sort of world to be the new corrupted Way of the World System to put them all in a deeper state of rebellion from God and sin!

        You really got me thinking so look what effect you have already in some commentary here! Perhaps you should contemplate an article to submit sooner rather than later! Very interesting development as I see it!

        Keep in touch and let me know what you think further. Thank you and see you soon!

      2. katharineotto Post author

        Thank you for the encouragement, and I have been contemplating a blog for a long time, but it will probably about my chickens, and about animals and nature generally. I learn so much from observing and dealing with nature directly. If there is a god, I believe it/he/she speaks through its/his/her creations. Human beings just confuse the issue.

        Even Jesus intimated that nature talks. We need only to pay attention.

      3. Lawrence Morra

        Hey Katharine… you like hitting home runs I see today! I feed the animals all around me daily spending thousands on Feed and Grain store supplies and haven’t missed a day doing it in years as long as I’m home. Rescued local wildlife and wrote a few little articles about that which you could do for sure with yours there; all the goings on, whether pets or farm animals and the like, while wildlife are out there for sure!

        Absolutely God knows all His “Creatures Great and Small.”

        “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Matthew 10:29

        28 “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

        “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10).

        We are to be “imitators of Christ.” Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd. all-creatures.org

        And this I see as going part and parcel with our being good or just minded in God’s view when we are good to His creation, especially all living things!

        “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:1-23 ESV

        Proverbs 12:10 states, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.”

        Here is one little rescue that was wild!

        https://lawrencemorra.com/2019/12/12/the-miracle-morning-dove/

        https://lawrencemorra.com/2020/01/11/the-miracle-mourning-dove-the-miracle-continues-release-update/

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