I often find myself re-reading the essays of George Orwell as a palate cleanser; his moral clarity serves as a kind of vaccine that fights valiantly, if not always successfully, the sensational and repulsive nature of what is today considered the “mainstream” media — what in a rational world would be called official propaganda.
It is a remarkable achievement that, in a span of twenty-four hours, each day of the week, the major news media manage to present almost nothing of value. The frantic, nonsensical words of political demagogues are carefully considered, presidential candidates are psychoanalyzed, and a “debate” is held between two screaming pundits. Important issues are glamorized or ignored. Time must then be reserved, of course, for a quick commercial.
Today it is rather banal to state that the goal of those who disseminate “information” is not to combat ignorance; it is to combat boredom.
And the truth can be astonishingly bland. Orwell touches on this point in a review of Bertrand Russell’s book Power: A New Social Analysis. “If there are certain pages of Mr. Bertrand Russell’s book, Power, which seem rather empty,” he writes, “that is merely to say that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
We live in a time in which truth is being destroyed, often to the glee of the audience, and replaced by the vagaries of “conviction” and passion. If one simply speaks with a sense of urgency, such irrelevancies as “facts” are confined to the margins. The phenomenon of Donald Trump is the clear illustration of this point, but the destruction of truth, in some sense, pervades every inch of American political discourse.
Those who speak soberly — that is to say, without having been intoxicated by the religion of American exceptionalism — about America’s role in the world are denounced as fanatics and kooks. Those who say, for instance, that the United States has historically not been a supporter of freedom and democracy and that it has, in many cases, been a destroyer of these noble pursuits are rarely granted a hearing.
To the contrary: only those who have internalized the values of the powerful are permitted to enter the mainstream, the respectable class. Those who, as Orwell put it, know that there are some things that it simply “wouldn’t do” to mention.
In his original introduction to Animal Farm, Orwell argued this point at length.
“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
The same can be said of the United States in the age of politics-as-spectacle. Donald Trump is merely an explicit caricature of the age, and in some ways a distortion: His ability to divert attention from real issues is phenomenal, as is his willingness to make profoundly bigoted and absurd remarks for the purpose of rising in the polls. Trump spouts opinions that are highly “unfashionable,” but they aren’t genuine. And as Noam Chomsky has observed, the other Republican candidates are “not that different,” despite their objections to Trump’s divisiveness.
There are, as is the case in even the most singular of systems, exceptions. Bernie Sanders is often derided for being robotic and one-dimensional — such is the fate of one who “restates the obvious” on important matters of income and wealth inequality, labor rights, and the collapsing middle class.
Aldous Huxley — a writer who offered a different, but no less depressing, vision of society in the future than that put forth by Orwell — once wrote that “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” While this is true in a theoretical sense, it is wrong practically: Facts do cease to exist in a political system so corrupted by corporate money and a public disaffected to the point of despair.
In the vacuum left by truth, the demagoguery of Trump, and of figures like Marine Le Pen in France, thrives. Trump’s willingness to speak in terms that are “politically incorrect” is seen as refreshing by some, but he has merely replaced political correctness with factual incorrectness.
“Political language,” as Orwell wrote, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Trump’s rise is a curious spectacle, but one that is not altogether surprising given a political climate in which government has been rendered impotent in the face of corporate dominance. The fear and insecurity and hopelessness that thrive in tumultuous political environments have been fed upon by fascists throughout history. While I hesitate to slap the label on Trump, the popularity of his fascistic tendencies are indeed terrifying.
As the Editorial Board of the New York Times notes, Trump’s insane positions “were not spawned, nor have they flourished, in isolation.” They are in many ways the logical conclusions of Republicans who have been “peddling their own nativist policies for months or years.”
Trump is doing the impossible: Pushing the Republican party further to the right. This is a scary fact for the public, for the few moderates that still exist within the GOP, and for the left.
Unfortunately, one can only wonder what Orwell — a great opponent of totalitarianism —would have made of such a scenario.