On Nov. 9, my Ignatius Seminar on utopia and dystopia in literature and film was scheduled to start discussing George Orwell’s famous novel “1984.” In the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory, many students who came to class that day said they felt as if they had suddenly awoken in a dystopia.
Apparently, many others shared this feeling. Since the presidential election, sales of “1984” have spiked, with Penguin USA reporting a 9,500 percent increase in sales in January, after Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway introduced the notion of “alternative facts.” Indeed, many readers recognized the Orwellian echo of this concept: news produced by the government to support its official narrative, and history constantly rewritten by those in power.
Social science fiction, particularly dystopian fiction, has gained special relevance in the past year. Dystopian literature studies can be viewed as an exercise in government, political analysis, sociology and ethics. Most dystopias are conceived by their ideologists as utopias, and their authorities try to persuade people that they live as such.
Thus, our task as readers and members of a community is to understand the difference between utopia and dystopia, to recognize warning signs and manipulative rhetorical strategies and to apply this knowledge to the world around us.
In his insightful article in the Guardian, Andrew Postman writes, “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 — it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s ‘Brave New World’.” Postman develops his father’s ideas, arguing that Orwell’s dark version of reality controlled by Big Brother lost its significance after the end of Cold War.
Instead, features of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” materialized. One facet is instant entertainment, which came not through a communist controller, but through “a showman” who gained power. He quotes his father Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” to illustrate his thought.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
However, focusing on the communist connotations of the Orwellian world reduces the novel’s meaning: Orwell’s target was totalitarianism at large, and many of the tools that oppressive regimes operate with go beyond the socialist-capitalist dichotomy.
One of the most worrisome means of controlling people in Orwell’s totalitarian world is finding an enemy and uniting against it, attaching connotations of fear and suspicion to particular groups inside and outside the country and blaming them for all of society’s problems.
One can recognize the amalgamated features of both Orwell’s and Huxley’s fantasies in modern political regimes, where oppression to a large extent is not obvious. Total surveillance and the use of technology to keep track of people’s thoughts and words materialize with the help of social networks.
Both writers warn against ideologists eliminating the difference between truth and lies through their control of language, and against the conditioning of citizens’ thoughts through mass media. Symptomatically, classical literature and history — powerful tools preventing such conditioning — are prohibited in Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias.
The transition to a dystopia does not happen overnight. Warning signs include crises of the humanities, the growth of anti-intellectualism, class disparity, programming of public opinion by mass-media, a society’s refusal to recognize truth and, as a result, a people’s deprivation from reality.
In our world, it is impossible to identify a single moment in the past where history went wrong, as happens in Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a traveller to the distant past steps on a butterfly and thereby changes an election result in the future.
But every moment in the present is a good time to make a responsible choice and begin the return to the world of definite values. This will include interrupting the automatic process of thinking and talking, constantly questioning the sources of our knowledge, learning history and reading literature. Why not start with rereading “1984” or “Brave New World?”
Milla Fedorova is an associate professor in the department of Slavic languages.
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