Our Winston Smith Moment

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The appalling climax of 1984 is when Winston Smith simultaneously (1) accepts Big Brother’s proposition that two plus two equals five and (2) comes to love Big Brother.

Philosophically, we could understand (1) in one of several ways. It could be that Smith accepts the “truth” of the proposition, in some way that is not quite accessible to us in our normal frame of mind. He really does believe the factuality of this statement. This triumph of naked will seems like a long shot.

Given Smith’s career at the Ministry of Truth, which he spent eroding the very conditions for discovering facts, it is more plausible to believe Smith has done something slightly different than accepting the literal truth of 2+2=5–he has accepted the abolishment of any standards for assessing whether it is true or not. He is essentially saying, there’s no way we can check this. Let’s just call it whatever its author wishes. If that’s “true,” so be it.

John Hurt as Winston Smith. His own personal sadness helped him

This is what happens to prisoners who are tortured. They are worn down by the bright lights, the sleep deprivation, the electric shocks, the threats to their families, and they abandon their commitment to objective truth. They simply let go of the idea that the truth might make a difference anymore. And they confess. The accute need to return to a normal, pain-free life erases the distinction between truth and falsity.

But Smith goes a step further than confessing. He not only accepts the abolishment of facticity; he feels loves for Big Brother. Why? In a word, power. Smith is overawed by Big Brother’s power to perpetrate the ultimate outrage on human dignity–to make humans stop believing in truth, our capacity to discover it, or even our interest in ascertaining it. (If you wish to explore this attitude in action, see Peter Pomerantsev’s 2014 book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.)

This attitude is the basest, most abject way a person can say of life, “Ah, fuck it. Nothing really matters.”

I presume you see where I am going with this. 1984 was supposed to be a novel about something that would never really happen to us. And luckily, our situation does not exactly mirror the one Orwell depicts in bad old Oceania. We can still have private relations; we haven’t accepted the government’s legitimacy as auditor of all our thoughts and invigilator of all our decisions. We don’t have the police crashing through the door to arrest us for thought crime. Yet.

Netflix, televangelists, energy drinks, and barely legal snack foods, though, are all doing their parts to heard us toward this golden future, but I digress.

What I want to point out is that, in terms of political attitude, we have skipped to the end of 1984 and accepted, through casual assaults on our dignity, what Winston Smith only accepts after torture–that our dear leader is licensed to abolish facts. This ability is, in a way, the utlimate power, and we admire him for attaining it, just as Winston Smith loved Big Brother.

But we don’t have to. We don’t have to join the shameful consensus that says, “Ah, fuck it. There probably aren’t any observable facts connecting Trump and Russia–just partisan spin and fake news. Why bother looking?” Or, you could write your political representatives, as I have, and ask them to demand the independent investigation of Trump that has not happened yet and seems unlikely to happen.

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