The Atlantic has a thought provoking piece about lessons of George Orwell’s 1984 for today, or, more accurately, teaching 1984 today. The last few sentences captures the point poignantly:
I was asking students if, as with the Newspeak-besieged citizens of Oceania in 1984, a struggle to unravel and communicate complex ideas could result in the gradual erosion of those ideas themselves. It’s just different now, not worse, the student said. With the bell, 10 minutes later, she breezed toward the door. Over her shoulder, she shouted, sprightly and confident, that classes shouldn’t have to read 1984. It was too long, too confusing, and too full of words no one used anymore. Nothing that has happened in the past 365 days has made me more afraid and emboldened than that.
This observation dovetails nicely with recent stories about “fake news” on Facebook and the rise and persistence of “explainers” like Vox, and the contrast on the perspective of 2+2=4 between Orwell and Dostoevsky. The idea that “fake” news in social media is the central problem (and why Vox persists), I think, perpetuates the naivete of Orwell (something very rare, but very glaring in comparison of 1984 and Notes from Underground) that the truth is and ought to be self evident and ultimately liberating. So O’Brien tortures Winston to say that 2+2 = 5, not 2+2 = 4. We already “know” 2+2 = 4…and that is good, or we believe, so why should we need to be tortured to admit it. But Orwell, the English, and the readers of Vox reside in a world where things are naturally more livable and comfortable. This gave rise to Thomas Huxley’s view on evolution, that evolutionary process is mostly combat between individuals who seek exclusive use of resources for themselves–which are free for taking by whoever that can seize them. To Dostoevsky, Kropotkin, and many others around the world, the world, naturally, is not a nice place. 2+2 = 4 is a near death sentence that tells them that they are about to die, if left to the “natural” course. So the “self evident truth” is neither comforting or liberating. It is something that has to be combated, through means unnatural–like “evolution via cooperation,” a la Kropotkin.
Complicated? That’s the point, of course. The world cannot be made so simple that it can be explained in three neat graphs, with the proviso that whoever that does not buy into the simple explanation must be rejecting “the self-evident truth” that must be excluded from civilized life. From the simple-minded Orwellian perspective, (ha!) Dostoevksy and Kropotkin make no sense: how can 2+2 = 5 be “true”? Placing things in the Russian (or other, appropriate) context leads to the explanation for why not-so-sinister people might try to maintain the fiction that 2+2 = 5 other than for manipulation of the masses, for good “legitimate” reasons other than the assault on the “truth.” Maybe it’s not quite the Pontius Pilate moment–is your truth same as mine? Perhaps the mathematical, technical truth that 2+2 = 4 is not at stake, but the social construction thereof and its use thereof. Maybe 2+2 = 5 is not THAT irrational, if the perspective expands beyond simple mathematical “truth.” (Yes, this is my argument about creationism, oft-retold on this blog.)
Realizing this truth is not easy. Orwell, for all his perceptiveness, did not understand Russia, for example. Vox editors do not understand the Middle America, let alone the Middle East. Thomas Huxley did not understand the Siberian fauna. And, with possible exception of Orwell, they didn’t even really try, because, I imagine, they felt that they had the right that the world should be simple enough so that they don’t/didn’t need to broaden their mind. Academics articles are complicated enough, y’know? In this sense, I suppose the quote attributed to the high school student in the Atlantic article can be placed.
The idea that not all people care that much about socio-cultural politics, even if that may be how most people think about politics, is not too obvious to many people. It’s a bit odd, since this is how politics used to be run in United States for centuries: seemingly irrelevant policy questions being bundled into the same vote through negotiations and sealed through parliamentary procedures arranged by party leaders. “Package deals,” Tip O’Neill called them. This is how Adam Clayton Powell and Southern racist Democrats could cooperate with each other civilly, even if they didn’t see eye to eye on most issues. The perspective on these questions got increasingly muddled with the rise of unidimensional political theories, enabled through the widespread of DW-Nominate scores, until people have trouble realizing what just happened in the 2016 election. It gets a bit sobering when an article explaining the new (and very old) coalitional politics on MTV gets things far more right than any Vox explainer. But, at the same time, though, it makes you wonder, perhaps there is hope after all.