2 + 2 = 5
I finally decided to re-read 1984. The first time was probably when I was in high school, and devouring anything science-fictiony. Not sure I actually read the whole novel. It is a bit of a slog, and vastly more meaningful once you’ve learned something about the political history of the world. Orwell’s work is being cited frequently, of course, with the explosion of the ‘cancel culture’ of the militant Left—cited, that is, on right-wing Internet sites, where George Orwell looks increasingly like a prophet. There is reputedly a T-shirt with the slogan, “Make 1984 Fiction Again.”
But if 1984 is an operating manual, I doubt if the militant Left has read it, and if they did, it might well serve as a “Stop! Bridge Out!” sign. Victim of Big Brother’s ministrations, tormented Winston Smith certainly is an advertisement for single-minded political ruthlessness, but Winston was a loyal Party member who nursed just a quiet doubt or two. That was his undoing, and it would surely occur to any modern-day Party loyalist that what happened to Winston could as easily happen to him.
Or would it? The human capacity for self-delusion apparently has no bounds. Indeed, that is the principal lesson of 1984. I don’t think I understood, back when I first read it, that anyone could be convinced that ‘2+2 = 5’. I knew by then that you could have alternate geometries, simply by changing Euclid’s Parallel Postulate (essentially that the distance between two parallel lines was constant), but I could not imagine that there were alternatives to the arithmetic of whole numbers. It seemed to invalidate the whole premise of the book: not only could a man be tortured into saying anything, but he would ultimately believe what he had known to be a lie. Surely that pushed the tale beyond even science-fictional plausibility.
Alas, George Orwell knew more about the artifices of tyranny than I did. He knew that every man’s apprehension of reality was ultimately fragile, that it could be challenged, knocked apart, and rewritten in a different and ultimately maleable form, one that could be dictated at will by a higher authority, in 1984 by ‘The Party’.
Strange Currents of Thought
Could such a thing happen here? Not obviously, not in a country where the integrity and freedom of the individual citizen are celebrated at its foundation. But as I am only now learning, strange currents of thought have infiltrated themselves into American political discourse, most prominently via the professoriat and their students at the academies of so-called higher learning. First there was a thread of Relativism, which I remember from college days, inspired by ethnology, but harking back to the romanticism of Rousseau and the Noble Savage, which held that no culture’s values were better than anyone else’s—but also, illogically, that our own might be worse.
Relativism has been generalized to a philosophical stance called Postmodernism, which appears to hold that not only are customs or values relative, but there is no objective reality at all. “In the Postmodern world,” writes Nasrullah Mambrol, “there are no originals, only copies; no territories, only maps; no reality, only simulations.” He continues:
Postmodernism, in its denial of an objective truth or reality, forcefully advocates the theory of constructivism—the anti-essentialist argument that everything is ideologically constructed. . .
Constructivism invariably leads to relativism. Our identities are constructed and transformed every moment in relation to our social environment. Therefore there is scope for multiple and diverse identities, multiple truths, moral codes and views of reality.
Since everything is ‘constructed’, the obvious way to understand anything is to view it as a story, a ‘narrative’, an artifact of the imagination, perhaps a collage of linguistic habits, personal circumstance, social relations, or what-have-you; to analyze it is to ‘deconstruct’ it, to take it apart and reveal its components. ‘Deconstruction’ becomes the principle way to analyze any phenomenon, whether in literature or the arts, and on into history, government—maybe even the sciences?
Now can you see what Orwell foretold? If there are only ‘narratives’, and no external reality or truth, then how far are we from the idea that everything is a creation of one’s own mind, or even that you are a creation of my mind? ‘Solipsism’ is an old idea, long bandied about in college dorm bull sessions, but now by some quirk of history seems to have become a dominant mode of thinking in the academies. It’s exactly what Winston Smith is forced to confront by his master inquisitor, O’Brien, whose aim is to deconstruct his subject:
“You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. . .”
Winston of course objects, as most of us would, to such arrant nonsense. But O’Brien is not indulging in philosophical games, and neither, if you look deeply, are the academics in our colleges who seem to be propounding some version of solipsism or idealism. The fallacy in such excursions of thought is the individual mind, or rather, the freedom of the individual mind. So O’Brien toys with Winston by averring that “Power over matter—external reality, as you would call it—is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute. . .” To which Winston objects,
“But how can you control matter?” he burst out. “You don’t even control the climate or the law of gravity. And there are disease, pain, death—“
O’Brien silenced him by a movement of his hand. “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation—anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. . .”
There you have it. It is not solipsism but, as O’Brien admits, “Collective solipsism, if you like.” When O’Brien says that “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” he qualifies it:
“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 except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact you have got to relearn, Winston. . .”
This is is the great advantage of Collective Solipsism, for those looking to guide, to rule, for power over others. Indeed to some degree that has been the modus vivendi of all ideologues, of True Believers, throughout human history, achieved to an intense degree by the Marxist elite of the old Soviet Union, though even there not as fully as The Party of 1984. The aim is always to obliterate an individual’s apprehension of his own reality, his experience, his history, his triumphs and his failings, in favor of a collective ‘narrative’ that supersedes any pretense to individuality. Says O’Brien:
“You know the Party slogan ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Has it ever occurred to you that is is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.
In America today we have no such Party. But it is increasingly apparent that we have reared a generation of youth who have been taught its rudiments: that there is no objective reality, that we all create ‘narratives’ that are as flimsy as a house of cards. And the ’narrative’ that most needs deconstructing, say their teachers, is the one that exalts the founding and history of these United States as a unique exemplar for the rest of the world. If there is no objective reality, no Truth, then how can the words of The Declaration of Independence be more than a narrative, an invention, a tissue of lies?
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. . .
Moreover, can we not see that the history of these United States is rife with contrivance, criminality, violence, exploitation and all manner of other ills that belie any such protestations of virtue? Are there not other narratives which would suit us better? Yes, once the teachers in the schools and the professors in the colleges have succeeded in deconstructing the founding and history of America, there are plenty of other ‘narratives’ that might appeal to the young, e.g.:
• Individuals don’t matter; what’s important is what group you identify with.
• Wealth is always ill-gained, and must be distributed equally among all groups.
• Work must be devoted to the benefit of all, not for the enrichment of individuals.
And so on. You might recognize such dicta as reminiscent of the doctrines of Marxism, the ideology of the late Soviet Union, and still infecting countries like China, North Korea, and Venezuela. It is no accident that they are promulgated in the schools and academies of the United States today. An Italian Marxist of the ‘30s called Antonio Gramsci, lamenting the brutality of Stalinist Russia and its failure to inspire Marxist revolutions in the West, proposed to infiltrate liberal democracies by “a long march” through their cultural institutions: the academies and schools, the press, the unions, even entertainment. While Gramsci is not a household name, as for example Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals) has become, his road map for the Marxist conquest of the West seems to be bearing fruit, by sowing the seeds of deconstruction amongst the young, and indoctrinating them in divisive identity politics and virulent antagonism to the Judeo-Christian traditions and Enlightment philosophy of our Founding Fathers.
Just as in 1984, we are seeing historical truth repudiated and cast aside—America was not founded on just principles, but as a regime to enforce enslavement of Negros and Indians; Columbus was not an intrepid explorer, but a vicious ravager of ‘native Americans’; and we are seeing language forbidden or turned inside out—biological sex becomes ‘gender’, of which there can be dozens, and the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ must become ‘they’; indeed, what has the whole ‘political correctness’ movement been but a prelude to Orwellian ‘Wrongspeak’?
Is it too late? Have we allowed the unmoored descent of education into collective solipism and deconstruction to leave our young rootless and malleable, easily molded and remolded as the currents of Leftwing fashion dictate? Is that why so many are drawn like moths to the flames of emotional slogans like ‘Black Lives Matter’, able to throw themselves mindlessly into mobs chanting expletives and throwing firebombs? Surely these are phenomena that Winston Smith would have recognized, as when Big Brother played martial music from TV screens and the masses ran into the streets to shout destruction to the enemy Eurasia—or was it Eastasia?
Maybe it is too late. Maybe the Experiment in the American Republic is too mired in Oldspeak and Wrongthink to survive. Maybe, as Ben Franklin warned when asked what the Constitutional Convention had given us (“a Republic, if you can keep it”), we can’t. But not all Americans have been infected by the virus of collective solipsism spread by the colleges. There is an antidote, or more properly, a vaccination. It is called the Dignity of the Individual.
You see, the Party has no control over the individual. As O’Brien made perfectly clear in his deconstruction of Winston’s personality, there are no individuals in the Party. There are no rights, except those conferred by the Party, which is also the source of all obligations, all duties. Indeed, as O’Brien might say, the only freedom that can exist is the freedom to fulfill one’s duty to the Party. The very idea of liberty, of individual will and freedom, flies in the face of the doctrine that the Party (or, as the Marxists might say, the State) is the raison d’être of all existence.
But if all of society has no foundation except for the doctrine of the Party, which it can change at will, on what basis can we argue that the Individual has any value or importance at all? The Founders derived their belief in the individual from a conception of Natural Law, hence “endowed by their Creator.” So is ‘Natural Law’ tied to religion, to the belief in a divine God? Is it then easily deconstructed in our day as merely an artifact of the organized imaginings of our ignorant ancestors?
No, because the Natural Law doctrine of the unalienable rights of Man can be construed by theist and agnostic alike as axiomatic, as an underlying principle from which can be deduced the best, most amenable, principles for the organization of society and government. It is fundamental in the same way that the postulates of geometry are fundamental. Yes, as mentioned earlier, those are mutable, but when modified they describe very different spaces: change Euclid’s Fifth Postulate, so parallel lines meet, and you have the geometry of the surface of a sphere; make the difference between them always increasing, and you have a saddle-shaped surface extending to infinity. In neither case do you have the most useful geometry of our everyday world.
So it is with the Natural Law of Individual Rights: Negate any, and you end up with nightmarish societies inimicable to basic human nature. True enough, throughout human history one tyranny after another has succeeded, for a time, in denying those rights, and in one circumstance or another men have been forced to put up with the oppression. Often as not poverty of means and awareness have led to a measure of contentment; as cattle confined to their fields are ignorant of any life beyond them, so men too often have had to make do with a limited life, many indeed as little more than slaves.
In fact, all successful tyrannies depend on keeping the masses of humanity in ignorance and bereft of the means to rebel or assert themselves. Royalty, nobility, aristocracy, and later, under the guise of egalitarian doctrine, the elites of one Party or another, all keep both feet on the necks of the serfs, the peasants, or the proletariat—in 1984 the ‘proles’. The real revolution of our Founding Fathers was to liberate the Individual, to make him a Citizen of the Republic, with all the rights and duties of every other Citizen, equal under the Law but not under the heel of any other man, because (contrary to what is taught in the schools today) the Law sees only individuals, not groups or classes.
The Ultimate Lesson
Only one thing is certain: You cannot subscribe to Collective Solipsism and still remain free. You must decide that there is indeed an objective reality, and that there are better and worse ways to organize and govern men in societies. You can argue in favor of one or another, but the question in the end is an empirical one, and empirical questions cannot be decided by a Party that determines what the Truth will be today or what it might have been yesterday. In a nation of individuals who hold to the Natural Law principles of the Rights of Man, the Party cannot take root and find rootless minds to mold and co-opt. We can never get to 1984.
This is the ultimate lesson of Orwell’s chilling novel. You must remain, for want of a better word, Empiricists. You must understand that there are better and worse ways of doing things, of living in a society of your fellows, and you must understand why the Founders argued as they did for the Natural Law that makes the Liberty of the Individual under the Law the foundation of the society they worked to create.
You must further ensure that the young in your charge are taught to understand and appreciate this history of the country into which they will mature to become Citizens. Yes, some may come to doubt you and to question the rationale of the Founders, but so long as they do not empty their minds to solipsistic enticements, so long as they do not fall prey to the blandishments of ideologues who rely not on reason and evidence but on emotion and slogans to entice the unwary into blind obedience, they will never be trapped in the cults of tyranny that infest our world today. It will be their task to preserve an America based on Natural Law and the principle of the Dignity of the Individual, which will continue to serve as a model for the rest of humanity. /LEJ