I recently reread George Orwell’s 1984 for our church book club. We choose it together as it has surged to the top of the best-selling book list on Amazon.com since the presidential election last November. I hadn’t read it for some time, and struggled to slog through the book. It felt too close to home, from the get-go in my a priori opening of the book through the ending words of “He loved Big Brother.” I couldn’t not picture President Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, President Vladimir Putin. The faces that seem responsible for the traumatic world in which we live now, or more accurately are symptoms of it.
In this season of Easter when we reread the resurrection testimonies about Jesus of Nazareth, it’s common on a yearly basis (for me at least) to have more conversations than usual about historical truth, the veracity of written documents, subjective perspective, the often binding power of reason, and the trouble to trust the testimony of others. These conversations aren’t sprinkled with these words so much as populated by the deeper questions they pose: can we trust the Bible accounts of Jesus?; how can I assume the truth in written testimony that’s not historically and scientifically preserved like we would do now?; How can I trust a truth I can’t verify with my own senses of touch, observation and recorded audible testimony? How can I believe in, or trust something that cannot be scientifically proved, or tangibly demonstrated?
And yet our society and culture today are bullet-ridden with animosity, division, blame and violence which are self-justified by notions of alt truth, fake news, and partisan propaganda. It’s both a justification and a symptom of the fear-full ways in which we are responding to the new world emerging from our fractured sense of authority, hyper-diversified globalized economy, incessantly encouraged self-promotion (and self-validation) via social media and the inebriating inundation of information made available through the internet. We can’t understand, let alone begin to fathom, how to feel more stable and secure so we do so by rallying our tribe (like-minded and similar folks) together in demonizing other tribes: the immigrants are taking our jobs, the gays are destroying my marriage, the trans-claimers are endangering my children in the bathroom, the Muslims are intent on eliminating Christianity, the liberals hate America and Western Culture, the conservatives hate diversity.
It seems to me in all of that the real search is not safety, stability, or security, but rather power. Absolute power over the world, over the other, over ourselves in order to feel safe, secure and stable. I don’t disagree with the chaos-inducing disruption of our changing world order and how it impacts us as individuals and as societies. I don’t want to minimize it in any way. But it’s beyond our understanding, surpasses description with the vocabulary of our quotidian vernacular, exceeds the containers of our historic world-views with which we try to make sense of everything.
In our nation it seems that the encouraged response to our destabilizing confusion is to seek power as both and ends and a means, in particular power over. Language, doublethink, or black white speak (both words created by Orwell in 1984 in Newspeak: the created language used by Big Brother to curate order, power, and nationalism) don’t actually seem that foreign. When I observe official statements about immigrants, gays, NATO, the media, ICE agents, Muslims, Christians, police, supporters of Black Lives Matters; the language doesn’t seem that far from the doublethink and thoughtcrimes that Winston Smith struggles with in the world of Airstrip One curated by the Ministries of Love, Peace, Truth and Plenty. What seems to be nonsensical forced together contradictory notions are repeated and replenished in our national dialogue. I hear people say things that go against their own self-interest as well as the world-views and religious convictions upon which they have founded their lives.
In his revelatory reading of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, Winston discovers the means and ends of authoritarian rule and the worship of power as God.
The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son-inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-views and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors. The Party is not concerned with perpetuating its blood but with perpetuating itself. Who wield power is not important, provided the the hierarchical structure remains always the same. All the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived.
This research and holding of power extends beyond institutions to embrace the thoughts and mental structures through which one experiences the world:
“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” repeated Winston obediently.
“Who controls the present controls the past,” said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?”
… “But I tell you , Winston that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human ind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality elect by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruct, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.”
… “We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”
This will-to-power (as Nietzsche called it) is the means by which safety, stability and security are obtained and maintained by those who continue in power.
Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. …
The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy. … Already we are breaking down the habits of that which have survived from before the Revolution…
There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, o science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no employment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. 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 stamping on a human face – forever.
When I’d read this before it seemed like a critique of those societies that has less freedom than my own, such as the USSR which I was raised to fear; the genocide of the Tutsi committed by the inflamed Hutu majority in Rwanda, the blind obedience with which the Nazi Shoah was carried out by everyday people against their neighbors. And yet today, it’s not that foreign. It’s not that far from the words of hatred and disgust I heard vomited about the Black Lives Matter from a neighbor, the demonization of immigrant workers, the gunning down of a doctor who performed abortions while he welcomed people as an usher at his church, the violence erupting at political rallies in Berkeley public spaces, and the burning of churches.
Our hyper-partisan use of language, divisive employment of claims of truth, truthiness and altTruth, and intellectual intolerance of other ideas and perspectives are used to create a different reality among us. A reality that, even if merely internal, is used to justify life-denying actions, words and policies. This happens not just on the right but on the left, as I’ve heard people from all perspectives (including myself) reduce the social discourse to obscenities and disparaging insults about the ones they oppose. It seems to be a vicious circle, like the one that Winston Smith is unable to escape in 1984.
As I reflect on the novel, and the current state of our nation and culture, while meditating on the Easter story of resurrection and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth I’m struck by the idea that how we talk about reality shapes how we see it, and maybe even what can come to be… Our national discourse highlighted with slogans of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” create a reality which greatly contrasts with that potrayed by Jesus in his sermon on the Mount, commonly called the Beatitudes:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Salt and Light
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.