As I write this, Donald Trump is in his second week as President of the United States. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has told easily-disproved lies with the boldest of faces. But then, Toronto’s The Star newspaper is now keeping a running list of the false claims Trump himself has made since becoming President. And Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway has cited a “massacre” that never happened as a defense for the travel ban against seven Muslim countries. Along with Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts”, it’s inevitable that people would be reminded of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. No surprise, then, that the 1949 novel has suddenly become a bestseller again, selling out at Amazon and elsewhere.
The totalitarian government of the country Airstrip One that Orwell describes in the novel rules with an iron fist over a mostly uneducated lower class population, and seeks power above all. But the element of the novel that resonates the most this week is Airstrip One’s Ministry of Truth which is, of course, about anything but truth. Its work is to revise history to make it match the party line, to erase troublesome figures and events from news and historical accounts. The Ministry’s “Newspeak” is official language that mostly obscures the truth and encourages “doublethink” requiring citizens to embrace opposing concepts, such as “black is white” (if the government says so). Alternative facts, indeed. The citizens of Airstrip One have no freedom and no privacy—almost all of us are familiar with the famous slogan “Big Brother is Watching You.”
In these days when the National Security Agency in the U.S. has surveillance powers that beggar belief, and even corporations know virtually everything about us and our movements thanks to reward programs, facial recognition, and our ever-present smartphones, the Big Brother concept is barely fiction anymore.
Of course, Nineteen Eighty-Four is only one of the best-known dystopian novels, but others are also disturbingly relevant to current events. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World describes the year of 632 A.F. (“After Ford”) in which humans are produced in test tubes conforming to a very rigid class structure by genetics. Citizens’ behaviour is controlled through sleep-conditioning. And the masses are pacified by an all-purpose feel-good drug called soma, so that personal freedom can be sacrificed for the cause of social stability. Huxley was pretty familiar with mind-altering drugs, but he didn’t know the distraction value of television, the internet, social media and text messaging. I feel sure he would have recognized all of those as perfect means to keep the general population from looking too deeply into their governments’ actions and motives. Modern-day leaders have certainly embraced the sleight-of-hand techniques that technology offers them to keep the voters’ attention elsewhere.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 envisioned another totalitarian world in which books are banned and even burned (along with their owners!) in a deliberate attempt to pacify and control the general populace by keeping citizens from thinking for themselves. Orwell also thought such a government would ban books, while Huxley feared people would simply lose interest in reading all on their own (a circumstance that many believe is coming true). Although there’s been no move to ban books in general, many means are being used to diminish the effectiveness of the media that are most people’s main source of information about the state of their own countries. Leaders like Trump (and before him Canada’s past-Prime Minister Stephen Harper) have very combative relationships with the media; they portray members of the media as dishonest; they try to muzzle scientists and administrators (I have to think Trump got the idea from Harper, who did it first); and “false news” sources have sprung up like bad weeds all over the internet. These all have a similar effect to banning books: keeping people uninformed and more apt to believe what they’ve been told by “official sources” (the louder, the better) rather than form their own opinions.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a fiercely right-wing Christian movement has overthrown the American government and returned all women back to the status of being the property of men. That may seem quite a distance from Trump’s attitude toward women, including his executive order banning any federal money from going to international groups that perform or provide information about abortion. But obviously the many millions of women who marched in protest in the U.S. and all around the world the day after his inauguration don’t think so.
A huge number of dystopian novels feature totalitarian governments, religious and cultural oppression, and the suppression of individual rights. They’re not far-fetched—it has happened in the past. And today’s technology—the omnipresent internet, computer hacking, electronic surveillance techniques, plus the constant distractions of smartphones, social media, and other entertainment—makes the modern world more fertile ground than ever for the rise of such movements. The desire and the means are already in place. All we have to do is to keep ourselves ignorant, apathetic, and distracted, and the rest will take care of itself.
Regimes like that can happen if we allow them to happen.
It’s interesting that novels like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent and others have been among the most popular books read by young adults. You have to wonder how many of the warning signs young readers recognize in the world around them. Far too many of their elders don’t seem to.