By sheer coincidence, while President Trump and First Lady Melania were being feted by Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan at the Forbidden City, I was re-reading George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984. It was written, of course, in 1949, the very year in which Mao Zedong brought the People’s Republic of China into existence.
Orwell’s book was and is considered a fantastic fiction of foresight so eerily prescient of current events that it feels close to prophetic. And, in fact, every time I looked up from my reading I felt and saw 1984 all around me.
In the end I don’t believe that Orwell was looking forward in time so much as he was looking back. There are many powerful themes in the book, from the permanence of a three-tiered society of the powerful, the want-to-be-powerful, and the 85% of every population that struggles in drudgery to serve the first two segments, to the need for continuous war to consume the inevitable over-production inherent to the post-industrial era.
The primary theme of the book, however, is the power and potential treachery of language and its inherent propensity to be deceptively stripped of meaning in the interest of mass oppression. It was a power that both Stalin and Hitler, who had dominated the news during much of Orwell’s own life, understood and cleverly manipulated to extreme and horrific effect.
Language, of course, is a human convention. It is not natural to the world like sunshine or the animals of the Savannah. We made it up to help us communicate. In so doing, however, we created the world’s most powerful oppressive weapon, a tool that can be turned on us as creator and master. Words have meaning but are not, by themselves, inherently truthful.
The Chinese understand this quite instinctively. In part this mirrors the inductive worldview in which personal obligation trumps everything, including language, and because they converse in a language that is, by its very nature, conceptual and pictographic.
Orwell’s warning, however, is of paramount application to Americans today, both because of our deductive world view which has given us political correctness, but also because the paramount tenets of our culture are not tangibles like filial piety, but intangible concepts, like honor, freedom, and liberty, that can only be understood proximately through words.
Never before, in fact, although I can’t believe Orwell truly foresaw this given that he penned this book forty years before the Internet, has Orwell’s warning been so relevant and so urgent. American culture, politics, and the economy turn on the importance of words more than ever before. Face to face communication among family and friends has declined greatly, our social institutions have steadily lost membership, our politicians communicate in 140 character (now 280 character) Tweets, and our economy is controlled by digital platforms driven by the two-dimensional language of algorithms and analytics.
The backbone of Orwell’s dystopia is the Thought Police, the role of which is “not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects…” Variations of the Thought Police have been around since the beginning of social organization. The difference in Orwell’s 1984 was the existence of the “telescreen,” a variation of television that supported 24/7 bidirectional communication controlled by the government.
Today, of course, we have the Internet. On the surface it is not as organized as Orwell’s Thought Police but it is equally powerful. It draws its strength from the collective consciousness of shamers, critics, and newsfeeds and content farms intent to achieve eyeballs and to disseminate their often virulent propaganda. It harnesses the hysteria of the crowd and the spite of the anonymous.
It is ironic that most Americans would equate Orwell’s dystopia more with China than with America itself. Western media coverage of China is inevitably pre-occupied with the lack of American style elections and the alleged suppression of political dissent, despite the reality that American political correctness suppresses more dissent than the Chinese censors could ever hope to.
United States Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, both Republicans, and the Chair and Co-chair, respectively, of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, issued a letter prior to Trump’s trip, which CNN entitled, US should hold China accountable on human rights. In it they complain that China “continues to strengthen the world’s most sophisticated system of internet control and press censorship and forges ahead with what it calls ‘internet sovereignty.'” (They seem particularly concerned about China’s decision to block the WhatsApp platform in anticipation of the Communist Party Congress in October.)
This criticism was leveled, of course, in the middle of a US news barrage concerning the mass murder of American citizens by other citizens armed with military assault weapons, the long-tolerated predatory and misogynist behavior of powerful US men, the opioid epidemic, widespread civil rights abuses, travel bans, the suppression of immigration, and a growing income and wealth divide that is both categorically immoral and threatens economic and social stability.
But Orwell, in his prescience, would not have been at all surprised that this was all happening in America were he still alive. One of the lingual weapons of the oppressors in Orwell’s dystopia is blackwhite, a powerful piece of jargon with two contradictory meanings. “Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts…But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”
The blackwhite of America’s attitude toward China, of course, is that China is the oppressor and America is the guardian of liberty, justice, and the equality of all men and women. And, of course, the reality is the reverse. While the Chinese government is indeed sensitive to the negative collective impact of social disruption in a large, diverse, and heavily populated country, the Chinese have far greater freedom than Americans are allowed by the American Thought Police who control, through political groupthink, the dissemination of knowledge and truth.
As Orwell so darkly prophesized, the control of knowledge does not require censorship in an era where all thought and expression is transparent to all. Crimestop, another Orwellian addition to the oppressors’ lexicon, is simple enough to teach to children and can be used by the collective mob not to eradicate distasteful thought, but to preclude it from ever occurring in the first place. “It means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, or failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc [the ruling doctrine of the Orwellian state], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.”
We have gone so far to promote crimestop in America, in fact, that we have created safe spaces on our campuses of higher learning so that students don’t run any risk of being forced to hear something that somehow got by the censors. Lenin himself could not have imagined such a wonderful and empowering accommodation of his ideology.
And while trigger warnings may not carry the direct impact of censorship, they can be more broadly deployed since they do not require any degree of government authority. They represent, in fact, the Thought Police writ democratic, the American mainstream stomping about in Orwell’s symbolic iron-shod boots.
And what is Orwell’s prediction for our future?
“It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly. The so-called “abolition of private property” which took place in the middle years of the century meant, in effect, the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before; but with this difference, that the new owners were a group instead of a mass of individuals.”
But is Orwell describing the future of China or the United States? The Communist Party of China or the American political, economic, and Hollywood elite?
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