In George Orwell’s 1984, Orwell’s governmental agencies are given ironic names, names that might have you think that they responsible for one thing, when in fact they do the opposite of what you would expect given the name – the very definition of irony. For example, the Ministry of Plenty is responsible for wartime rationing, which is to say, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly rationing because Oceania (the super state that is the setting of the novel) is in a state of perpetual war.
Before I go any further, let me state the obvious. If you haven’t, yet, read 1984, now would be the time, if you can find a copy given its recent surge in popularity. I can’t tell you everything about the novel, but I will tell you this: dystopian novels like 1984 are satires, satirical works that employ heavy irony to make a point. Most dystopian novels are also cautionary tales – texts that attempt to warn us about abuses of power in hopes that we’ll do something about it before it’s too late. They are novels that look at history, to what has happened, to show us what is possible, and they look forward to a future, that the author fears, is possibly looming.
Not my president’s top advisor, Kellyanne Conway is a one-woman-Ministry-of-Truth. She who coined the term ‘alternative facts,’ in an attempt to justify the presidential press secretary’s explaining away the very real fact that way more people turned out to witness Obama’s first inauguration than Trump’s. Of his assertion, Spicer later said, “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”
While it’s not stated explicitly, it was presumably Oceania’s Ministry of Truth that created concept of Doublethink. Through 1984 protagonist, Winston Smith, doublethink is described this way:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again … (Orwell 35)*
Might our current administration want the American people to do just what Winston describes here, “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic,” and that Conway and Spicer are “conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.” Could the entire Trump administration be emboldened by the fact that most Americans cannot discern real news from fake news? It sure seems that way to me. And I’m not talking about the so-called legions of ‘un-educated’ folks who voted for Trump. In “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds,” a NPR article by Camila Domonoske, a Stanford study of nearly 8000 students in twelve different US states reveals that students in middle school, high school, and college (even Stanford students) had trouble discerning a fake website from a real one, fringe sources, or the difference between a sponsored and non-sponsored site. Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are betting on the very real possibility that most Americans adults are as easily duped.
* Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classic. New York. 1950. Print.
All that said, I’m not the first person to point out how Orwellian things have gotten in American politics, but having read 1984 with my students just about every year for the past 13 years, and having the ability to recite several parts of it by memory, I feel it’s my duty not to simply make the comparison, but also to point out that Orwell’s chief concern in writing 1984 was to warn readers about authoritarian rulers and the tactics they use to manipulate, confuse, trick, and control. As a disciple of Orwell’s, I realize, all this comes a bit late bit. I should have started writing this sooner, but as a disciple of Orwell’s I also know that one must continue to resist – to keep a record, to remember, to stay focused, vigilant.
If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? (Orwell 43-44)
‘I didn’t say shut down immigration.’ Donald Trump
The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed— if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ (Orwell 44)
The day after the Brussels terrorist attack (3/22/16), Trump said in an interview with CBS “This Morning,” “I didn’t say shut it down. I said you have to be very careful. We have to be very, very strong and vigilant at the borders.”
On December 7, 2015, Trump issued a press release that begins, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He read and reaffirmed his statement at a rally that day.
Video begins at attack of the press, dictatorial behaviors displayed by the pres elect in the recent past.
Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink. (Orwell 44-45)
Jan. 28, 2016: Asking for Megyn Kelly’s removal from a debate
Trump’s war with Kelly led to him boycotting the Fox News/Google debate in Iowa. An hour before the other candidates took the stage, Trump insisted on CNN his absence was due to a mocking Fox News press release and he “never once asked that (Kelly) be removed.”
We found several instances of Trump and his campaign telling reporters and tweeting about skipping the debate because of Kelly. He went so far as to say Kelly “should not be allowed” to moderate, that she “should recuse herself,” and she “shouldn’t be in the debate.”
If there were ever a literary genre designed just for punk rockers, it would be dystopian literature. Dystopian literature is notoriously dark; for sure, it wears all black. In the 1990’s when I was playing drums in punk bands, I was naturally attracted to and read books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, two books that would provide me with important frames of reference and ideologies about dark realities of government and human nature, things like mind control, pervasive surveillance, systematic oppression of women, and propagandistic uses of war – books that I now teach to college students.
Like punk rock, dystopian literature is urban, and gritty, and gray scale, and like many punk rock bands, dystopian literature makes important critiques of society. Dystopian literature sneers satirically at social ills, inequality, hierarchical divisions, abusive power, and glib politicians – punk rock often does the same. In fact, many punk bands have referenced dystopian novels in their songs. The Dead Kennedy’s reference 1984 in their song “California Uber Alles,” an anti-Governor Jerry Brown song, a song that rails against yuppies taking over the state and making kids meditate in school:
Close your eyes, can’t happen hear
Big Bro on a white horse is near
The hippies won’t come back you say
Mellow out or you will pay
California uber alles 4x
Now it’s 1984
Knock-knock on your front door
It’s the suede-denim secret police
They have come for your uncool niece.
The majority of the Dead Kennedy’s lyrics were satirical, and satire is a device/genre that makes extra close examination of meaning especially important, for unlike what many of my students often think, author Jonathan Swift isn’t being literal when he says we should turn to cannibalism and eat babies to help the poor. Satire aside, a friend of mine once articulated something that I wondered about the “California Uber Alles” even at the age of fifteen when I was blasting this song in my room and pumping a fist in the air, or when I saw the DK’s at the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway in San Francisco: why pick on a liberal democrat? Why pick on Jerry Brown? Looking again at these lyrics now, I realize why. First off, George Orwell, author of 1984 would say all people in power, all politicians should be questioned and scrutinized, and secondly, if you look closely at what Jello Biafra, singer and lyricist of the Dead Kennedys was railing against, may seem like yuppies, but it’s also gentrification in its references to jogging, organic food, and “zen fascists.” In essence, Biafra’s fears of a “cool, hip,” read expensive, California have come true, especially in the hyper-gentrified San Francisco where the Dead Kennedy’s were based.
Growing up, I felt much like a dystopian protagonist: trapped in world that denied me my individuality. A spikey-haired, black eye-liner, ruffled Mexican rick-rack skirt, wearing teen, I noticed that many punk kids came from broken homes, or had parents who were addicts, or lived in boring go-no-where suburbs. We were kids who lived with a lot of stress, kids who were prone to depression. Our lives as we were living them didn’t fit. While some tried to make us feel like it was us, like we weren’t right, like we were messed up, like we were the problem, we had enough sense to know that there was a much larger looming problem. Angry punk rock songs and angsty literature were good outlets for these feelings. The Subhumans address some of these feelings in the song “Big Brother.”
Here we are in the a new age
Wishing we were dead
There’s a TV in my front room
And it’s screwing with my head
There’s a scanner in the toilet
Two watch you take a bath
And there’s a picture of Hiroshima
To make sure you never laugh
In 1984, the actual 1984, at the age of 14, I saw the band Reagan Youth at the Democratic Convention held that year in San Francisco with my freshly chopped hair, dyed blue black. My friend Nicole Lopez’s mom drove us three hours from our small town to San Francisco just so we could see the bands and take part in the protest. A protest site was designated in the empty lot at Mission and Howard across from the Moscone Center, which back then was simply a large slab of concrete that took up an entire city block. It was there that Reagan Youth, who had named themselves after President Reagan, played with the Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks. Given the year, 1984, and the draconian policies put in place by the outgoing president whose policies had further marginalized the lives of many, especially youth from low-income families, there was a lot to protest. Sort of unknown on the West Coast, Reagan Youth played early in the day, but they were loved by the crowd right away for their energy and aptness of a band with their name playing on the rock Against Reagan tour. Dave Insurgent with his hippie punk, white-boy dreads stood at the edge of the stage, leaned into the crowd and incited our ire. Frustrated about class hierarchies, Regan Youth wrote the song Brave New World whose lyrics are drawn straight from the book of the same name by Aldous Huxley. Many English punk bands wrote anti-Thatcher songs during the same time period, songs that often also referenced dystopian texts, or the dystopian nature of the Reagan/Thatcher era.
Like dystopian literature much of punk rock is a critique of societal norms or trends, but while dystopian novels are cautionary tales, political punk rock lyrics are a document of concerns and frustrations current for the band, issues that are themes common in dystopian literature, themes such as frustrations about squashed individuality under the pressure of societal norms, corporate control of our lives, and subtle and overt forms of propaganda used by democratic nations who should know better. The straight-edge band, Set It Straight, from Redding, CA, active 2004 -2007, address some of these themes in the song “Self-Deprogramming,” a song written prior to Gary Shtenyngart’s modern dystopia, Super Sad True Love Story, a novel about a nation obsessed with mobile devices, youth, hotness ratings, and group think. The novel and the song have a lot in common.
A sea of suits with empty, mindless eyes
swarming like bees amongst their platinum high rise hives, and every single one?
Yeah, they know their place.
Super latte charged electrons, androids with no face.
But only those who subconsciously want to live their lives spoon fed, subordinated, placid, incarcerated, succumb to the machine.
I’ll tear down their graphs and charts, and take back rational thought.
It’s not too late to start.
I refuse to live my life homogenized.
I refuse to just sit by with half shut eyes.
I will think… think for myself
Like Shytngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, this song rails against modern day forms of brainwashing via slick technology and the allure of power. Its references to lattes and androids are references to familiar dystopian fears regarding loss of individuality and a loss of humanity, a loss of humanity that we sadly participate in by our robotic obsession with digital technology that does our thinking for us.
I have often said that being an English teacher is a natural extension of being in a punk band without quite understanding the connection myself, but it has always felt true. And even though I don’t always only wear black and try to look tough like I did when I was in a punk band, helping students learn to think for themselves, to avoid lazy thinking and to spot fallacious arguments, to question authority is one way the two are connected, but the other way is teaching dystopian literature, a genre, that demands all those things, especially questioning authority, by its very style and content, a genre that warns us about hierarchical thinking, class privilege, and endless wars, a genre that begs us to open our eyes, to be better.
When I first started teaching 1984 in 2004, I was thirty-five and still fresh out of graduate school. Standing in front of a summer class of students shivering in their shorts, t-shirts and flip flops while the air conditioned blasted frigid air all around the room at a temperature designed to cool men in three piece suits, I asked the students about Winston Smith’s age.
“How old is Winston Smith?” I was holding a dry erase marker in the air, ready to write the correct answer on the board.
A couple of students shifted in their seats, some looked down at their books, avoiding eye-contact.
“Winston is described at length in Chapter One,” I remind them, hoping their brains hadn’t frozen over.
A blonde guy in one of the middle rows raised his hand.
“He’s really old,” he said, and the all the others around him nodded.
Now, students always find it alarming when teachers laugh out loud because they always think the teacher is laughing at them, but I didn’t know that yet, and I let out a loud, hearty laugh, the kind that I’m known for by friends.
“Really, old?” I said, once I recovered. “How old is really old?” I held up the book to remind them that it was in the book where they could find the answer.
About half of the class, looked down at their books, the high school student taking a college class in summer furrowed her brow in real concentration as she flipped the pages of Chapter one.“Thirty-nine,” the high school student said, raising her hand.
“That’s right; Winston is thirty-nine. Is that old?”
“Well, he seems old,” another student said. “He can barely walk up stairs and his face is all rough and …” The student looks down at his book.
“Sanguine,” I say. “It means like blood red. Maybe he has those red marks that old people get on their skin. I have some of those.”
“How old are you, Ms. G?” asked the student who called Winston old.
“I am thirty-five,” I say, looking right at the student. He was no more than eighteen or nineteen.
“Thirty-five, I didn’t know you were that old!”
The smart high school student jerked her head up from her book to see my reaction.
And again, I laughed, one of those loud laughs where my head goes back and my mouth opens wide.
“Yes, I’m that old,” I say still laughing.
The next time I taught the book, a year older, I warned the students not to call Winston old, knowing that before long, I’d be the same age, and then older like I am now.
I started teaching 1984 in freshman composition because in addition to being a college level writing course, it’s also a course designed to develop critical thinking, which is, really, what the book 1984 is all about. The book also addresses fears about writing. There’s that great moment where Winston faces the blank page of his journal and has no idea what to say, even though the ideas had been roaming around in his head.
For some time he sat gazing stupidly at the paper. It seemed curious that he seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally intended to say. For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. (Orwell 7)
Over the years, students have expressed a similar idea. Most commonly, they report having the ideas in their head where they sound great, but not being able to get the ideas the way they sound in the their heads onto the paper. This of course has to do with the fact that writing is one of the few activities in which both sides of the brain must work together, and doing that takes a lot of practice, and because it’s so hard, it takes a lot of courage too. However, in 1984, once Winston gets going, his ideas begin to form in front of him, showing how the act of writing can help us work out how we feel about things, revealing or helping us form our opinions about things we didn’t know we even had opinions about.
Students like discussing these aspects of the book, but they have over the years got hung up on things that I never expected them to get hung up on or to not find humor in the things I find funny, passages that Orwell wrote for the intention getting people to think and laugh all at the same time.
Until I started warning them against it, it was inevitable for some student to raise his hand and call Julia, Winson’s formerly promiscuous lover, a slut. Now that I teach the book in a higher level English course, a course that teaches logical fallacies, I can point out that such a comment is a double standard fallacy, but back when I was teaching it comp, I had to work hard to explain that one read of the text, that Julia’s sexuality is her rebellion, her response to the oppression she must live under. But after hearing the comment for several years in a row, I heard myself say, “If it wasn’t for girls like Julia, some guys would never get laid.”
This time it wasn’t I who laughed out loud, but an older student, the mom, in fact, of another student in the class; they were taking the class together. She let out one of those little laughs that she choked back, then nodded her head and smiled. Her son, sitting right next to her at the long table in the front of the class, stared straight ahead, maybe hoping that majority of the class still hadn’t figured out that they were related in spite of the fact that they had the same last name.
I continue to teach 1984 for all of it’s important messages, in spite of how dark it is and how depressed it can make some students, but some students might not find it so depressing if they recognized Orwell’s humor. In particular, Orwell likes potty humor or humor about body odor, things that an old lady like me can still appreciate. The punchlines to this humor often comes at the expense of Parson, or characters like him who are stupid or don’t care to think deeply about anything, like in this description:
He was a fattish but active man of paralysing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms — one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom, more even than on the Thought Police, the stability of the Party depended. At thirty- five he had just been unwillingly evicted from the Youth League, and before graduating into the Youth League he had managed to stay on in the Spies for a year beyond the statutory age. At the Ministry he was employed in some subordinate post for which intelligence was not required, but on the other hand he was a leading figure on the Sports Committee and all the other committees engaged in organizing community hikes, spontaneous demonstrations, savings campaigns, and voluntary activities generally. He would inform you with quiet pride, between whiffs of his pipe, that he had put in an appearance at the Community Centre every evening for the past four years. An overpowering smell of sweat, a sort of unconscious testimony to the strenuousness of his life, followed him about wherever he went, and even remained behind him after he had gone. (Orwell 22)
And then there’s the scene in Part Three of the novel, the scene in the Ministry of Love when Parsons is arrested for thoughtcrime and is in the same cell as Winston and uses the toilet in the cell “loudly and abundantly” only to find that the toilet does not flush. Some students are too subsumed by the darkness of the situation or the coldness of the novel to find anything funny, even if that’s Orwell’s intention, and others sadly, just don’t read closely, or well enough to get it, but I’ve been told that my enthusiasm for the novel and my youthfulness, in spite of my chronological age, helps them to get it, become better readers, and better critical thinkers in the end, after all, which is a good thing because, while we’ll all get old, we don’t have to wind up like Winston.