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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 2/14/17

Rethinking Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World in Trump's America

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reprinted from Ragazine
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever.
-- George Orwell
The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.

-- Aldous Huxley

George Orwell's nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society was first made visible in his great novel 1984. Orwell's dystopian world provided a prescient and stunningly prophetic image of the totalitarian machinery of the surveillance state, brought to life in 2013 by Edward Snowden's exposure of the mass spying conducted by the NSA. Orwell also made clear how language functioned in the service of violence, deception, and misuse, and he warned in exquisite detail how "totalitarian practice becomes internalized in totalitarian thinking."[1] Orwell illustrated his point by providing examples of language that undermined the critical formative culture necessary to a democracy. His most recognized examples of language designed to eliminate "thought crimes" included Ministry of Truth slogans such as: "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength."

Unfortunately, the discourse of remolding, manipulation, and distortion has gained enormous traction at the present time in American society. This is a discourse that reinforces a future in which totalitarianism thrives and democracies die. It is the discourse of a dystopian society marked by a deep-seated anti-intellectualism intensified by the incessant undermining and collapse of civic literacy and civic culture. It is also the language of expurgation, one that targets memory, dissent, and history while appealing to a notion of common sense in which facts are regarded with disdain, words reduced to slogans, and science confused with pseudo-science.

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As Orwell often remarked, historical memory is dangerous to authoritarian regimes because it has the power to both question the past andreveal it as a site of injustice. In 1984, Orwell provides a hint of the totalitarian state's view of history in an exchange that takes place between O'Brien, the antagonist, and a prominent leader in the Inner Party and Winston Smith, the protagonist. Questioning Smith about history, O'Brien lays bare the official view of memory. Responding to Smith's comment that history resides in memory, O'Brien states "In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?" In Orwell's Ministry of Truth, it is a crime to read history against the grain. In fact, history is falsified so as to render it useless as a crucial pedagogical practice both for understanding the conditions that shape the present and for learning what should never be forgotten. As Orwell makes clear, this is precisely why memory is often considered dangerous by tyrants because it offers the opportunity to learn how to remember differently.

The fear of reading history so as to remember monstrous acts that should never be repeated was made visible recently when the Trump administration issued a statement regarding the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance day. In the statement, the White house refused to mention Jewish victims, thus erasing them from a monstrous act directed against an entire race of people. The chain of events surrounding the disappearance of any statement about the Nazi extermination of the Jews are revealing. After the State Department drafted a statement that explicitly mentioned Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the White House rejected the statement and issued its own version omitting any mention of either Jewish suffering or the obvious fact that the elimination of Jews was the central organizing principle that shaped Nazi policy. Politico reported that the official White House "statement drew widespread criticism for overlooking the Jews' suffering, and was cheered by neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer."[2] This reads like a passage out of Orwell's 1984.

This act of erasure is but another example of the willingness of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice, and social responsibility. Under such circumstances, society takes on the workings of a dis-imagination machine, legitimized by an utter disregard for the truth, and often accompanied, as in Trump's case, by "primitive schoolyard taunts and threats."[3] In this instance, Orwell's "Ignorance is Strength" materializes in the Trump administration's attempt not only to put history on trial, but to rewrite and obliterate it. His contemptuous boisterous claim that he loves the uneducated and his willingness to act on that assertion by flooding the media and the American public with an endless proliferation of peddled falsehoods reveal his contempt for reason and the truth. As the master of phony stories, Trump is not only at war with historical memory, reason, science, and rationality, he also wages a demolition campaign against democratic ideals embracing without apology the discourse of bigotry, humiliation, racism, and scorn for those he labels as terrorists, losers, and disposable, especially for those citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries banned from entering the United States. This is the language of hate and demonization and as John Wight observes, "it is redolent of the demonization suffered by Jewish people in Germany in the 1930s, which echoes a warning from history."[4]

Orwell's point about duplicitous language was that all governments lie. Of course, the corrosive plague of rhetorical manipulation captured in Orwellian language is not distinctive to the Trump administration, though it has taken on an unapologetic register in defining it. The draconian use of lies, propaganda, misinformation, and falsification has a long legacy in the United States, especially as it was used under the presidency of George W. Bush. For example, under the Bush-Cheney administration, "doublethink" and "doublespeak" became normalized as state sponsored torture was shamelessly renamed as "enhanced interrogation," while laws that violated civil liberties implied their opposite with names such as the Patriot Act and the National Authorization Defense Act. Barbaric state practices such as sending prisoners to countries where there were no limits on torture were wrapped in innocent sounding deceits such as "rendition." Rather than being censored, dissenting views and damaging reports were "redacted." Educational policies that imposed pedagogies of repression, boredom, and harsh discipline were bundled together under the utterly inappropriately named policy, No Child Left Behind. Such language not only cheapened public discourse and eroded civic culture, it also contributed to a culture in which institutions that were meant to limit human suffering and misfortune, and protect the public from the excesses of the market and state violence, have been either weakened or altogether abolished. [5]

The remains of such language finds its Orwellian apogee in the Trump's endless proliferating of lies such as claiming that China is responsible for climate change or that former President Obama was not born in the United States. In moments that speak to an alarming flight from moral and social responsibility, Trump has adopted terms strongly affiliated with the legacy of anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology. For instance, historian Susan Dunn refers to his use of the phrase "America First" as a "sulfurous expression" connected historically to "the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to Appease Adolf Hitler."[6] It is also associated with its most powerful advocate, Charles Lindbergh, a notorious anti-Semite who once declared that America's greatest internal threat came from Jews who posed a danger to the United States because of their "large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."[7]

It gets worse. Once he was elected to the presidency, Trump took ownership of the notion of "fake news," twisting it around from a critique of his perpetual lying to applying it as a pejorative label aimed at journalists who criticized his policies. Even Trump's inaugural address was filled with lies about rising crime rates and the claim of unchecked carnage in America, though crime rates are at historical lows. His blatant disregard for the truth took another low soon afterwards with his nonsensical and false claim that the mainstream media lied about the size of his inaugural crowd. Trump's lies and his urge to tell them are more than what Adam Gopnik calls "Big Brother crude" and the expression of a "pure raging authoritarian id," they also speak to an effort to undermine freedom of speech and truthfulness as core democratic values. [8] Trump's lies represent more than a Twitter fetish aimed at invalidating the work of reason and rational assertions. His endless fabrications also point to a strategy for asserting power, while encouraging if not ennobling his followers to think the unthinkable ethically and politically.

Echoes of neo-Fascism are not only visible in Trump's rhetoric but also in his policies. For example, his white supremacist ideology and racist contempt for Muslims was on full display in his issuance of an executive order banning all Syrians and people from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States. In doing so, Trump has not only made visible, and without apology, his embrace of the frenzied lawlessness of authoritarianism, he has also put into place an additional series of repressive policies for the creation of what might be called a democracy in exile.

Not only will this executive order further threaten the security of the United States given its demagogic design and rhetoric of exclusion by serving as a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists, it also legitimates a form of state-sponsored racial and religious cleansing. Chicago Cardinal Blase' Cupich, hardly a radical, was right in stating that the design and implementation of the order was "rushed, chaotic, cruel, and oblivious" to the demands and actualities of national security, but that it had "ushered in a dark moment in U.S. history."[9] Dark, indeed, because the impetus behind the ruling signals not only a society that has stopped questioning itself, but also points to its immersion into a mode of totalitarianism in which a form of social engineering is once again being constructed around an assault on religious and racial identities. What we are witnessing under Trump and his chief ideologues is a purification ritual motivated by xenophobia and the attempt to create a white public sphere free of those who do not share the ideology of white Christian extremists.

Trump's immigration order is meant to carve out a space for the dictates of white supremacists, a space in which those considered flawed--racially and religiously defective- will be subject to terminal exclusion and exile. This war on the Other is part of a larger obsession which combines a purification ritual with the heightened, if not hysterical, demands of the national security state. Under Trump's regime of hatred, the cruelty and misery of massive exploitation associated with neoliberal capitalism merges with a spectacle of exclusion and a politics of disposability that echoes those totalitarian regimes of the 1930s that gave birth to the unimaginable horrors and intolerable acts of mass violence. [10] Racial cleansing based on generalized notions of identity echo the sordid principles of earlier policies of extermination that we saw in the past. This is not to suggest that Trump's immigration policies have risen to that standard of violence as much as to suggest that it contains elements of a past totalitarianism that "heralds as a possible model for the future."[11] What I am arguing is that this form of radical exclusion based on the denigration of Islam as a closed and timeless culture marks a terrifying entry into a political experience that suggests that older elements of totalitarianism are crystallizing into new forms.

The malleability of truth has made it easier for governments including the Trump administration to wage an ongoing and ruthless assault on the immigrants, social state, workers, unions, higher education, students, poor minorities and any vestige of the social contract. The principles of casino capitalism, a permanent war culture, the militarization of everyday life, and market-based practices emphasizing the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity will be accelerated under the Trump administration. There can be little doubt about the ideological direction of the Trump administration given the appointment of billionaires, generals, white supremacists, representatives of the corporate elite, and incompetent nominees to the highest levels of government. Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical dialogue and exchange have and will be increasingly commercialized--or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins. Orwell opened a door for all to see a "nightmarish future" in which everyday life becomes harsh, an object of state surveillance, and control--a society in which the slogan "ignorance becomes strength" morphs into a guiding principle of the highest levels of government, mainstream media, education, and the popular culture.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World adds a different and crucial register to the landscape of state oppression, one that is especially relevant with the rise of Donald Trump, a Reality TV star and a personification of a fatuous celebrity culture, to the highest office in the land. Huxley believed that social control and the propagation of ignorance would be introduced by those in power through the political tools of pleasure and distraction. For Huxley, freedom and privacy were willingly given up as part of the seductions of a soft authoritarianism, with its vast machinery of manufactured needs, desires, and identities. This new mode of persuasion seduced people into chasing commodities, and infantilized them through the mass production of easily digestible entertainment, disposable goods, and new scientific advances in which any viable sense of agency was undermined. Huxley believed that the conditions for critical thought dissolved into the limited pleasures instant gratification wrought through the use of technologies and consuming practices that dampened, if not obliterated, the very possibility of thinking itself. If Orwell's dark image is the stuff of government oppression, Huxley's is the stuff of distractions, diversions that mark late modernity and are found in the spectacles of extreme violence, representations of hyper-masculinity, the infantilization produced by consumer culture, and the power of celebrity culture dressed up in the worship of life-styles while conferring enormous authority on the likes of celebrities such as the dreadful Kardashians.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)

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