Alexander J. Urbelis: "1984" is a novel that people should read, not just once, but over and over again
High sales figures are just the surface of how relevant Orwell's book is for today's audiences, he writes
Editor’s Note: Alexander J. Urbelis is a lawyer and self-described hacker with more than 20 years’ experience with information security. He has worked as a graduate fellow in the Office of General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency, as a law clerk at the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and as an associate in the New York and Washington offices of Steptoe & Johnson. He was also information security counsel and chief compliance officer of one of the world’s largest luxury conglomerates. He is currently a partner in the Blackstone Law Group and CEO of a separate information security consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @aurbelis. The views expressed here are his own.
Watching me read “1984,” arguably the greatest dystopian novel ever written, in high school, my mother told me that it was a book that everyone should read not just once, but again, every 10 years. It certainly deserves a reread right now.
Indeed, dozens of news stories this week have alerted us to surging sales of George Orwell’s “1984” since the inauguration and even more so in the wake of Kellyanne Conway’s now-infamous “alternative facts” gambit. Most media outlets have reported glibly on the figures, with some going so far as to compare the Amazon best-seller list (where purchases of “1984” have gone up nearly 10,000%) to a “political barometer” before making the obvious parallel between the Orwellian concepts of newspeak and doublethink and the words of Conway and actions of White House communications director Sean Spicer.
Yet surprisingly, very few have neither unpacked the full measure of the parallels between Orwell’s dystopia and the Trump administration, nor the import of the Trump administration’s practices (so far) if left unchecked. As the protagonist of “1984,” Winston Smith, was warned:
“Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
If the sales figures tell us anything, it’s that we are right to want a fuller account of the comparisons between literature’s most infamous cautionary dystopia and a new American presidential administration.
I believe we are treading into territories more treacherous than even Orwell himself contemplated. We now have a President and an administration in power that expects its own versions of reality and events to be created for it, à la carte, after the fact.
This is not the first time in recent memory that sales of “1984” have spiked. In June 2013, Edward Snowden let the world know the machinations of the US surveillance apparatus were turned not only outward but inward on a massive scale. But this new surge in popularity has a far more pernicious cause: the linguistic assault on, and blatant disregard for, the truth and rational thought by senior Trump administration officials and the President himself.
We are now fighting a battle over who controls the very notion of what is real and fake, true and false. We cannot afford to mince words: President Trump and his staff have used and will use lies and deceit to create a false perception of reality that suits their political agenda.
They have espoused as truth unsupportable and untenable falsehoods on a daily basis, and it has become the near-full time responsibility of the media to call out the fictions of the administration. If we do not continue the struggle for basic honesty, we are warned by Orwell that uncorrected lies will be “passed into history and [become] truth.”
What “1984” tells us about ourselves
“1984” is a menacing tale about the fictional state of Oceania. It exists in a state of continuous and seemingly never-ending war, its institutions are notoriously revisionist and manipulative of public perception with no regard for historical facts or truth. Overseeing law and order and guarding against even minor rebellion is overt and omnipresent government surveillance; and in the seat of power directing all functions of state is Big Brother, a cult of personality demanding of the most intense personal and political loyalty.
For me, however, “1984” has been more than a cautionary tale of dystopia: The concepts, characters, and lessons have in a real sense guided me both personally and professionally. My teenage years were spent as a hacker, frequently sneaking into Manhattan from Long Island to attend the infamous 2600 Meetings, an underground monthly gathering of New York’s hackers in the lobby of the Citigroup building.
At the center of these meetings was the editor-in-chief of 2600, The Hacker Quarterly, “Emmanuel Goldstein,” whose nom de guerre was taken directly from the principal (and likely fictitious) enemy of the state in “1984.” Emmanuel and I have a friendship spanning nearly 25 years, and I still regularly contribute to his hacker-focused radio show and podcast, “Off the Hook,” airing weekly on WBAI in New York. As a teenager, I saw several friends from the circle of 2600 hauled off to prison; their experiences cemented my desire to become a lawyer.
In the midst of my first read of “1984,” my mother surprised my sister and me with a puppy, a beautiful little black mutt abandoned at a groomer’s office. This puppy was willful, forceful and seemed always to be plotting against all attempts to exercise authority or dominion over him. He was the embodiment of Orwell’s concept of thoughtcrime, the criminal act of opposing the ruling party, so we named him Winston after Winston Smith in “1984.”
Winston remained steadfastly contrarian and by my side for 16 years, seeing me through high school, college, law school and then real life. When Winston died in 2011, I began volunteering with a local NYC dog rescue, Mighty Mutts, and during one shift I will never forget, the most perfect beagle up for adoption jumped into my lap and refused to leave, as if pronouncing to the world that I was now hers.
When I asked for her name, I could not believe my ears when I was told “Julia,” the very name of Winston’s counterpart in “1984”, his kindred spirit, and fellow outlaw. We adopted Julia immediately, and until she joined Winston over the rainbow bridge earlier this year, she took over his role as a daily reminder of the wisdom of “1984” and the very special place that novel holds in my heart.
Orwell’s lessons, cautions and predictions have in my life never been more real and more serious than they are now. Those lessons and parallels merit serious consideration.
Much has been written about newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania, with its deliberately limited and constantly diminishing vocabulary, and how its assaults on truth and reason parallel Trump administration practices. The idea behind newspeak is that by reducing vocabulary it is also possible to constrict personal thought and the freedom of expression.
In Orwell’s world, there is no such thing as the word “bad,” it is instead “ungood.” But could this very surface-level comparison between newspeak and Conway’s characterization of Spicer’s blatant lies as “alternative facts” really be spurring such a resurgence in interest in the “1984”? Of course not. There is more.
Donald Trump and doublethink
In everything from his Cabinet appointments to the rationale for destabilizing executive orders, President Trump appears to have taken a cue directly from “1984’s” fictional ministries, whose purposes are diametrically opposed to their names. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (“Minitrue” in newspeak), for example, had nothing to do with truth but was responsible for the fabrication of historical facts.
In that vein, President Trump has provided us, in the name of security, with a travel ban on immigrants and refugees from countries whose citizens have caused the terrorism deaths of no Americans, while leaving out countries whose citizens have caused the terrorism deaths of thousands of Americans.
He has provided us with Betsy DeVos, a secretary of education nominee who is widely believed to oppose public education, and who promotes the truly Orwellian-sounding concept of “school choice,” a plan that seems well-intentioned but which critics complain actually siphons much-needed funds from public to private education institutions.
Andy Pudzer – named to head the Labor Department, which is charged with promoting and protecting the welfare of wage earners – has a checkered past with workers’ rights and has actually praised the efficiency of robots over humans on account of automatons’ inability to take vacation and file discrimination complaints.
And we cannot fail to mention that Scott Pruitt – nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which has responsibility to protect health and the environment – as Oklahoma attorney general devoted his office to battling the EPA, actively sought deregulation of air pollution requirements, and spearheaded the attack on Obama’s efforts to reduce global warming, the Clean Power Plan.
What is truly terrifying is that President Trump and his people refuse to recognize the contradictory nature of their positions, which is the condition perfectly described in “1984” as doublethink. “[T]o hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing both of them,” is doublethink. And most germane: “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed,” is doublethink.
Going hand-in-hand with the concept of doublethink was the notion of blackwhite: “a loyal willingness to say that black is white when party discipline demands.” Blackwhite, however, is more sinister, in that it “means also the ability to believe that black is white … to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed to the contrary.”
We saw this firsthand when President Trump addressed staff members at the CIA. As he recalled his mental impressions of the inauguration crowd, he said, “I looked out, the field was – it looked like a million, million and a half people.” And I do not think he was lying. I believe that President Trump believed this because he had to believe it: The revision of events one day prior to his speech was necessary because it was the only way he could assert legitimacy to control the present moment. The worst, however, is not that Conway and Spicer so easily and willingly followed suit with their own acts of blackwhite, but that they really believed that we – the media and the people – would in turn do the same.
In a famous passage of “1984,” large crowds gather to denounce Oceania’s longstanding rival, Eurasia. Mid-speech, a slip of paper is passed to the speaker, and midsentence, without batting an eyelid, the speaker changes the name of the enemy to Oceania’s long-time ally, Eastasia. With a simple act of blackwhite, foe was changed to friend, and friend to foe.
Why we all need to read - and reread - ‘1984’
We are living in this state of flux in real life. Russia was and likely is our nation’s fiercest rival, yet as a candidate, President Trump famously stated, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing.” He praises Putin but states that perhaps he may not actually like him when they meet. WikiLeaks published DNC data alleged to have been obtained by Russian operatives, but the election was not “rigged.” A recount would be “ridiculous,” yet voter fraud was rampant. Trusted sources of information are “fake news,” and somehow Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks’ most notable whistleblower, is now an “ungrateful traitor.”
Flying in the face of bipartisan condemnation of his delusional theory of voter fraud, President Trump has now vowed to launch a “major investigation” into the fictional fraudsters that “cost him” the popular vote. With such an Orwellian twist, perhaps we will soon learn that the millions of elusive mystery voters all registered under the name “Emmanuel Goldstein.”
One week into Trump’s presidency, the parallels with “1984” are more than surface-level, and this portends an ominous future for the United States, regardless of your political persuasion. We among all the species are gifted with language, with thought, with the ability to freely express every singular emotion we experience with sincerity and honesty. We have today what Winston and Julia of Orwell’s dystopia lost, fought so hard to reclaim, and failed to achieve: free speech.
At once cautionary and foreboding, certain passages of “1984” eloquently remind us to hold onto the ideals of truth and equality, because simple truths that bind us are stronger than complex lies that divide us:
Get our free weekly newsletter
“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same – a people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.”
Before Winston, my dog, passed away, I promised him that my firstborn son would carry his name. Loving that dog as much as I did, my kind wife allowed me to make good on that promise. Our son’s middle name is Winston, and like the Winston and Julia who came before him, for me his name is symbolic of the constant struggle against tyranny and for truth.
I sincerely hope that every newly bought copy of “1984” is read through and through, and, as my mother admonished, read again and again, because that novel shows us that what is at stake right now is nothing short of the legitimacy, confidence and honesty of our republic.