By Loren Glass and Kathrina Litchfield
After Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts” in January, George Orwell’s 1984 shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list and has remained a bestseller ever since. Apparently, bookstore clerks weren’t joking when they moved dystopian fiction to current events. Like the Ministry of Truth, the Trump administration wants to control information and eliminate contradiction. Surely “Ignorance is Strength” is a fitting motto for their attitude toward facts. But to (re)read 1984 in 2017 is to realize that there are at least as many differences as there are similarities between Orwell’s fiction and today’s reality.
1984 was a Cold War vision of totalitarianism based on Stalin’s Soviet Union, and much of that vision vanished with the fall of the system on which it was based. Indeed, if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, one is tempted to conclude that the tragedy that was Stalin is now being repeated as the farce that is Trump. The more he tries to dictate the truth, the more he seems to parody a dictator.
But the Trump era has only begun, and it is worth comparing our contemporary reality to Orwell’s past dystopia in order to explore and prepare for our possible futures. Dystopian novels (and their utopian twins) are thought experiments about the future intended to help readers understand the present, and for that purpose they are a renewable resource enabling an ongoing compare-and-contrast exercise in which differences are as important as similarities.
We can start out by noting that there is nothing comparable to The Party in Trump’s America. We have a ruling elite, but its personnel structure and political philosophy (not to mention its dress code!) bear little resemblance to The Party that rules Oceania, and indeed America’s oligarchy is not firmly united behind Donald Trump as its leader.
But all dictatorships, both real and imagined, pose similar threats, and Orwell’s novel provides an urgent reminder of the consequences of overt human rights violations, such as the use of torture as an interrogation tool or the immediate ‘disappearing’ of subjects who display suspicious behavior, as well as more subtle acts that work to erase both global and personal histories and therefore threaten our very humanity. For instance, Orwell’s character Syme highlights the political motivation behind The Party’s effort to reduce and simplify the vocabulary. Doing so inhibits the ability to think through language, therefore inhibiting the ability to think at all. While overt censorship works to control the dissemination of ideas, an attack on language itself sterilizes thought before it generates, rendering literature unreadable and irrelevant, nothing more than lines of meaningless ink on a page.
Other attempts, from Jack London’s The Iron Heel to Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, come closer to approximating the ways in which Orwell’s vision might be adapted to American conditions, and provide us with useful models against which to compare our current moment. Fascism takes many forms, and it is crucial that we maintain our sense of nuance and complexity in a world of soundbites and slogans. Indeed, one thing all dictatorships, both imagined and real, share is the desire to suppress and regulate the reading habits of their citizenry. Under these conditions, reading itself becomes a political act.
Please join us in extending this conversation across disciplines and communities for a day-long event organized under the auspices of the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights and designed to provide a forum for discussion of Orwell’s novel and other dystopic visions that speak to this political moment. 1984 in 2017: A Symposium will take place on Friday, April 14 at the Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A, beginning at 10 a.m. Panel topics include Newspeak, Women Writers’ Dystopian Visions, Utopia and Surveillance. Presenters include UI faculty and students from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, and additional sponsors include the UNESCO City of Literature, the Iowa Program for Public Life and the UI English Department. In the evening (8-10 p.m.) the symposium will reconvene at Public Space One for a series of performance art pieces. The symposium and all related events are free and open to the public. Please go to https://uichr.uiowa.edu/news/1984-in-2017-a-symposium for more information.
All titles to be discussed at the symposium are available at Prairie Lights. To enrich our discussion, please read as many as you can in advance.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 218.