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Why ‘1984’ resonates with a polarized America

I’m writing this on the day before Joe Biden’s inauguration, and despite the rhetoric about togetherness, he’s going to inherit an America that remains completely split down the middle. With the country at times resembling a dystopia, especially after the Capitol riots, it should come as no surprise that George Orwell’s classic 1984 is rocketing up the book charts. It reached the top of the Amazon overall best-selling list on 13 January (since dropping to second), and it is second on Barnes & Noble’s top 100 titles. For many, it’s hardly surprising that 1984 should be the book of the moment – but why is it resonating so much with this time in the USA?

In case you’re unfamiliar, 1984 follows a man called Winston Smith who lives in Oceania, a society controlled totally by the Party. They employ Thought Police to persecute individuality and independent thinking, and have created a brainwashed population that worships the leader, Big Brother. One of its major tools is Newspeak, a propagandistic language which limits free thought by removing and redefining words, often giving them contradictory meanings. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history to bring it in line with current political thinking, but he longs for truth and decency and so secretly rebels against the government. Winston is captured as a thought-criminal, and taken away for re-education.

Terms like ‘post-truth’ rose in popularity as descriptors of Trump’s presidency

1984 was intended in part as a rebuke of totalitarian societies with leaders interested in their own power and little else – given the common criticisms of Trump, it should come as no surprise that the book shot to success after his win in 2016. Terms like ‘post-truth’ rose in popularity as descriptors of Trump’s presidency. In January 2017, Penguin USA ordered 75,000 new copies of the book and said it was considering another reprint due to a 9,500% bump in sales.

At the time, it cited an interview by then-Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway as an example of the book’s pertinence. She defended then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claims about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowds, stating that she was offering “alternative facts”. This, it appeared, was Newspeak in action. This seems to concur with Winston’s prediction that the government would control facts, making them mean whatever they wanted: “In the end the Party would announce two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.”

The parallels between Orwell’s world and modern-day America are fascinating to consider and terrifying in reality

But this new resurgence of 1984 is about far more than just Trump – after the 2020 election, conservatives have also co-opted the language of Orwell. After Twitter permanently suspended President Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: “We are living Orwell’s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few. This is absolute insanity!” Josh Hawley, a Republican senator who challenged the results of the election, had a contract for his upcoming book cancelled as a result, a situation that he said “could not be more Orwellian”. Big tech closing down the free speech website Parler is cited as another example of this consolidation of power in favour of a single party – Parler claimed to be neutral, but it was understood as leaning conservative.

Although the focus of the 1984 parallels has been on the right, it’s fair to say that the left have been pursuing Newspeak of their own. We’ve seen statues torn down and attempts to edit people who’ve fallen out of favour from films – in this climate, defending history is a controversial position. We’ve seen words redefined. During the Amy Coney Barrett hearings for the Supreme Court, the Webster dictionary redefined the term ‘preference’ after the judge used it so they could attack her for being offensive. We’ve even seen doublethink in action, with CNN reporting that riots inspired by the shooting of Jacob Blake were “mostly peaceful protests” as they stood in front of people committing violence and setting buildings ablaze. Some people unironically started arguing that 2+2=5, and to suggest it equalled four was a sign of oppression.

Meanwhile, in an Instagram post, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the government was “going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so you can’t just spew disinformation and misinformation” – in other words, she wants the government to regulate and control truth. A Ministry of Truth, if you will. It’s one thing for random people on the internet to say these things, but AOC is an elected representative with the power to enact change. If you don’t see the 1984 vibes there, you’re deliberately not trying.

Modern US political culture has become laden with lies and alternative facts on both sides of the aisle – if you’re on the right, it’s entirely plausible that you’d understand events, history and politics in a completely different way to someone on the left. The parallels between Orwell’s world and modern-day America are fascinating to consider and terrifying in reality. As Lars Porsena wrote in an Amazon review of the book: “[This] used to be a dystopian novel. Now a user’s manual. It will probably soon be banned.”

That Orwell’s book was so prescient, and that so many of its worse predictions are now playing out in real life, should terrify us all. The success of 1984 should be a warning for US society – it needs to try and unite, to acknowledge shared truths, and to resolve its differences through dialogue rather than repression. Otherwise, the USA could be fated to go the way of Oceania, and its citizens could become Winston, only daring to remember freedom.

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