Five Books for the Times We're In
- Alex Johnston
- 26 January 2017
With sales of Orwell's 1984 skyrocketing, we suggest some less sensational and more helpful reading
The 45th President of the United States of America, and his staffers' uniquely creative approach to reality, has led a number of people to draw comparisons to a 1949 novel written by a crotchety English socialist with a fondness for tea and long walks in the countryside. Yes, for one reason or another, sales of George Orwell's 1984 have been going through the roof. It got a boost when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the crowd at the recent presidential inauguration had got 'the largest audience ever' for such an event. When NBC's Chuck Todd pointed out to senior White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway that, based on photographic evidence alone, this was obviously not true, Conway responded that Spicer 'gave alternative facts to that'.
And so, 'alternative facts' has Become A Thing. In 1984, George Orwell invented a version of the English language called Newspeak, which is designed to inhibit critical thought. As such, there is a Newspeak concept, 'doublethink', which consists of the ability to hold in one's mind two conflicting ideas about reality and not have a problem with that. In the book, doublethink is an essential trait of Party members, who know that the war being waged is largely fictional because they're engaged in a constant struggle to inflate casualty numbers and rewrite incorrect predictions to make them seem more accurate, but who are nevertheless obliged to behave as though they are fervent believers in the cause. Doublethink is more than just the capacity to believe lies: it's the ability to vilify your enemies because they are heartless and inhuman, but also excuse slaughter of civilians and torture if it's done by your own side, because war is hell and we can't afford to show weakness.
Here's the thing, though. 1984 was written by a dedicated socialist as a warning to his own comrades to not get seduced by totalitarian habits of thought, but almost as soon as it was published, it's been used by the right as a stick to beat the left. (It didn't help that Orwell called the doctrine of Oceania 'Ingsoc', i.e. 'English Socialism'; it was an obvious reference to the Nazis' 'National Socialism', but still, thanks for that, George.) The internet Q&A site Quora, a sort of Yahoo Answers for people who know what they're talking about, recently hosted the spectacularly inane question 'How do liberals feel about the book 1984 accurately describing their desired government?' Yes, some people think that 1984 just tells it how it is about Obama's America.
Part of the problem is that Orwell had demons of his own, and he let them off the leash in this book. The famous passage in which O'Brien tells Winston that 'If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--for ever' is just the prelude to O'Brien's ecstatic, quasi-religious rant about the joy of sadism, which came from a very dark place inside the author, but which is hardly an accurate picture of how and why tyranny happens in the real world. But, ever since then, historically uninformed readers who've just noticed the resemblance between inner city CCTV and Orwell's telescreens have been picking up 1984 and gasping 'So true!'
Still, people are looking around for guidebooks to the crazyland that we're currently in, and such books exist, although dystopian fantasies such as Orwell's (or Sinclair Lewis's much-re-read It Can't Happen Here) aren't very helpful when the worst is already happening. Here are five books to help orient yourself in the shadowlands:
Harry G. Frankfurt: On Bullshit
In 1986, a Princeton professor of philosophy wrote a closely reasoned article which outlined, tongue nowhere near the cheek, a theory of bullshit. Frankfurt defines bullshit as being different in kind from both truth and lies; the liar seeks to conceal truth, but the bullshitter is far more toxic, being indifferent to the truth or falsehood of his own speech. Bullshitters speak purely for the effect their words will have on their listeners: even if they say something that happens to be true, it's still bullshit. Not surprisingly, many philosophy-literate journalists brought up Frankfurt's essay during the 2016 election, and Frankfurt himself wrote a robust article about the Republican candidate for Time magazine, noting that the candidate repeatedly lied and just as often indulged himself in 'farcically unalloyed bullshit' claims, such as the one that he had the world's greatest memory. On Bullshit has the power to explain the president's incessant bullshitting and Twitter-trolling: don't waste time worrying whether or not he means what he says, because that's exactly what he wants you to do.
Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark
Writer, scholar and activist Rebecca Solnit is credited with having codified the concept of mansplaining in her classic article 'Men Explain Things To Me', and we apologise if you already knew that. Her handbook for activists, Hope in the Dark, was first published in 2004, deep in the gloom of the first Bush administration, and it's no surprise that it's got a second edition under the man who makes Dubya seem like a model of responsible statesmanship. Her statement 'Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope' is a worthy reminder that in order to make a better world, you have to actively work for one.
George Orwell: Orwell and Politics
If you absolutely have to read Orwell in search of enlightenment, best to stick with the non-fiction. Orwell and Politics contains an intelligent selection of his writings on politics, including such classic essays as 'Politics and the English Language' and considerably more sober reflections on totalitarianism than the nightmares of 1984. For a bonus, it has his beautifully written if profoundly depressing Animal Farm.
Richard Hofstadter: The American Political Tradition
This highly readable collection of essays on political history was published as long ago as 1948, but it goes a long way to explaining just why the mainstream of American politics is so bizarrely skewed to the right: because it's always been like that. Hofstadter also wrote a classic 1964 essay, 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics', collected in a separate book of that title, which skilfully lays out the long-enduring thread of vengeful craziness in American political life.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: An Indigenous People's History of the United States
Dunbar-Ortiz's 2014 book won a National Book Award, and it may come as a surprise that it's the first history of the USA told from the point of view of the people who lived there before the arrival of European colonists. Books like this enable us to be more honest about history, and change the way we think about the world we live in.
And so what if it'll never be on the president's reading list? If his contrite ghostwriter Tony Schwartz is to be believed, not only does the president not write his own books, he may not even have read them.