“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print,” George Orwell once wisely admonished his fellow writers. So you have to wonder what Orwell would make of all these commentators who have worn out the term “Orwellian” during these first weeks of the Trump administration, leading to a spike in sales of “1984” and “Animal Farm.”
I’m glad for this boomlet, since Orwell was a singular voice on 20th century authoritarianism and how we write about it; the brilliant essay from which I took the above quote, “Politics and the English Language,” is something every aspiring writer should study. (“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell observed, which is probably the most essential insight into political debate — or the craft of writing generally — that you will ever hear.)
But Orwell’s dark prophecy isn’t actually the one that best explains the moment we’re living through right now. And to the extent that we focus on fears of statist mind control and mass disinformation, we may miss the subtler thing that’s really going on.
Here I turn again to the late Neil Postman, whose classic critique of mid-’80s culture, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” is as relevant today as it was then. In his foreword, Postman compared Orwell’s vision of fascist repression with the trivial, substanceless society envisioned by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel “Brave New World.”
In Huxley’s vision, Postman wrote, “no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
It’s worth hearing a bit more of Postman’s comparison: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. … Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
As it happens, in 1949, just after the publication of “1984,” Huxley drew much the same contrast in a letter to his countryman Orwell. Much as he liked Orwell’s book, he suggested that tyrannical governments would soon abandon “boot-on-the-face” tactics in favor of “animal magnetism and hypnotism.” Cable TV had yet to be invented.
“Brave New World,” which I went back and reread last week, is a trippy little book, and Huxley was a more transparent polemicist — and less of a storyteller — than Orwell. His vision of a genetically engineered populace sedated by sex, movies, drugs and golf, to the point where no one can focus on anything long enough to be alarmed by the soulless state of society, is a bit too fantastical even now.
And yet there’s something bracing, given today’s political debate, about the way Mustapha Mond, the state controller, warns his charge: “Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy.” Or about the way he defends inequality: “The optimum population is modeled on the iceberg — eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.”
Substitute YouTube and smartphones and the Real Housewives of Wherever for the free love and free narcotics Huxley envisioned, and his parable seems disturbingly relevant. Mustapha Mond would not feel horribly out of place in an administration stocked with climate-change deniers and billionaires.
President Trump doesn’t strike me as a very convincing Big Brother. You don’t go out of your way to alienate security services if you’re considering the imposition of a police state. You don’t put Reince Priebus in charge of the White House if you’re ramping up for world domination.
In some ways, though, Trump is the perfect embodiment of a Huxleyan culture, endlessly distracted by the superficial or the spectacular. He doesn’t want to control what you think — only what you think about, which is him. He cares that you’re watching the performance, and it doesn’t matter whether you watch because you love it or because you find it too grossly compelling to look away.
I’ve written before that Trump is an emotional extremist, not an ideological one. His gift is for channeling the passion in an audience, for provoking adoration or outrage or whatever’s most visceral.
Why does the president of the United States stoop to accusing Chuck Schumer of faking his tears? Because low is entertaining, and entertaining is the way he maintains control. Changing the conversation before you can even remember what the last conversation was about — this is what Trump does better than anyone alive.
And the danger here is that the constant trivia can too easily distract us from decisions that have deadly serious consequences. Like Huxley’s Alphas and Betas, we can be lulled into thinking that the ephemeral is all there is.
Since Trump took office less than two weeks ago, we’ve been mesmerized by spectacle. There was the attack on the Park Service for not backing up the president on the size of his inauguration crowds … and the unprompted allegations over voter fraud … and the dramatic rollout of his crackdown on Muslim immigrants, which even the White House didn’t seem to understand.
Somehow Trump managed to manufacture controversy by pointedly leaving Jews out of a statement about the Holocaust. Somehow he figured out how to turn a Supreme Court nomination into a primetime special more like the NFL draft.
It’s not as if the immigration ban and a seat on the high court aren’t important — they really are. But at the same time, the public is less focused on Trump’s decision, made with no theatrical flourish, to give Steve Bannon, his liaison to the world of white nationalists, a permanent seat on the National Security Council’s principals committee — rather than allotting it to, say, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
There’s not so much discussion about Trump’s prompt withdrawal from the Asian trade pact, which a lot of Democrats applauded but which has grave implications for our economic power in the region. Likewise on Trump’s proposed tariffs on exports, which could lead us quickly into an all-out trade war.
There’s not much focus on what’s happening now in the Middle East, where Israel, emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, is about to vastly accelerate settlements in the occupied territories. The public isn’t buzzing about the imminent dismantling of the EPA.
The challenge for all of us — and especially those of us in the media — is to differentiate between distraction and the more permanent reality. We can’t let ourselves be perpetually amused into economic or global crisis.
A performer as talented as Trump can do that, and there might be nothing Orwellian about it.