Why are so many immune to the impending disaster facing us? Geroge Orwell would recognise the answer.
George Orwell wrote in The Prevention Of Literature that ‘freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose’. And: ‘In the past… the idea of rebellion and the idea of intellectual integrity were mixed up. A heretic – political, moral, religious, or aesthetic – was one who refused to outrage his own conscience.’
Orwell points out that journalism and literature exist to counter lies. That they both must discover, as a condition of their existence, a way and a language to do this.
We live in an era in which the lie, the deliberate unmaking and destruction of truth, and the rebuilding of something else, is becoming an occupation.
At the same time, we are encouraged to develop a kind of false narrative for ourselves, in which we all must become paladins of something called personal truth. This truth, by definition, belongs to the individual. It cannot, therefore, be challenged. It is personal.
Donald Trump can create an entire universe of lies, and some journalist will say that we must not call them lies until we understand his state of mind. His intention. This means that we have to somehow ignore what Trump says because we can no longer label what is obvious, what is right before our eyes.
Truth, for the 45th president of the United States, the most powerful person on earth, is something to make you feel good; make you feel big. So that he can close the deal.
In The Art Of The Deal, Trump’s ghostwritten 1980s best-seller, he says: ‘The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.’
Absolute truth disappears and is replaced by something relative and mutable. Our intuition – that thing that has guided our ancient, prehistoric ancestors out of Kenya’s Rift Valley and beyond – is relegated to the weak, ie. the feminine.
We all know that something is wrong out there and we look to our newspapers, our novelists, poets and playwrights, but above all to journalists, to right the ship-of state and anchor our grasp of the reality we call our nation and our world.
But this could be slipping away. People are closing their ears, for example, to yet more news of the increasing fiasco of Brexit. This is a normal reaction. If you can no longer hear, if you can no longer disseminate what you know, what you feel, then you back off. Back away. The state of the lie becomes normal.
Orwell goes on to imagine that ‘a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.’
Orwell, as in most cases, was right.
Hannah Arendt – who created the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe Adolph Eichmann’s bookkeeper demeanour behind the glass cage he was kept in for his trial for crimes against humanity – saw what a culture of Orwell’s ‘schizophrenic system of thought’ can lead to: nothing is true. It is all relative.
Orwell also adds that: ‘The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism.’ Those of us who see the EU referendum result as a triumph of several forces – the use of Take Back Control as an all-purpose banner for everything from personal pique to political revenge, to the exaltation of ideological Euroscepticism; the harum-scarum alliances of Remain; and the EU’s own neglect of the realities of its individual members – are labelled Enemies Of The People.
This labelling can happen from the left, where some consider ‘honouring the result’ as a badge of solidarity with ‘the people’, but cannot see that leaving them to the wolves of uncertainty is without honour; and, of course, from the right, where discipline and order are the twin hallmarks of order. It is no accident that the Conservative Party is among the most successful vote-winning machines in Western Europe. Its goal from beginning to end is its own self-preservation. That self-preservation is their measure of truth.
In our increasingly desperate need now for peace and order and – for many – just ‘getting on with it’, we are beginning to lose clarity. Then we ourselves can have contributed to our era of lies, and we too can help make it impossible, in time, for literature to be written, books, plays, poems, essays and newspapers to be edited and promulgated. Because we will lose the ability to understand and break down what is being told to us, what is being sold to us.
We could retreat inside ourselves, waiting for the train that has the name of the thing that we want/believe in. We rush outside when we hear it coming, waving at it as it passes by. ‘And lose the name of action,’ as Hamlet says.
The battle is on to preserve nostalgia. The drive is gearing up to think in a certain way. All of this and more are becoming the mark of our times, as strong men rule the world and we run for places of safety.
We lose the ability to say new things; make new connections; forge new worlds. We lose our grace and our rigour; our real freedom and our taste for adventure. We just want it ‘all to be over’; knowing in ourselves that once we give up our ability to think for ourselves, to fight back, then it is all over.
Orwell ends his essay by saying: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes something totally different from what it is now.’
This sense of spontaneity, of vigour, is a kind of hallmark, to my mind, of the British press. The American press is careful, reverential, cautious, within itself.
Of itself, the British press has the power, the tradition, and the right to speak truth to power as plainly as possible. This is the ideal and the goal and the hope. When it loses this ability, new papers must be born. And so we are.