By Muertos (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In previous blogs I've dealt with the fundamental failure of most conspiracy theorists to understand science, their ignorance of the hierarchy of sources and basic epistemology, and their contempt for intellectualism and the academic process. In this blog I'm going to examine why their appreciation of literature is equally faulty, by looking into the distortions that conspiracy theorists commit when discussing their favorite novel, that being Nineteen Eighty-Four
by George Orwell. (Note: the title is usually spelled out, but for ease of writing I'm going to use the numerical title, 1984
What the Book Is
is one of the most famous pieces of literature in the English language. Originally published in 1949, it was written by George Orwell, a democratic socialist, not long before his death from tuberculosis. The novel is a classic dystopian story set in what was for Orwell the future. Depicting a grim life under a totalitarian state, ruled by a possibly nonexistent figurehead leader called Big Brother, the novel is the story of Winston Smith, with roughly the first half of the book chronicling his life in a bleak London where history is routinely rewritten to validate predictions of the ruling Party and most human emotions are discouraged. In the second half of the book Smith falls in love with a woman, Julia, and joins what he thinks is a resistance movement to the Party, but what turns out to be merely a deception to capture and brainwash him into mindless subservience to the state.
Why Conspiracy Theorists Love It
References to 1984
or the word coined after its author--Orwellian
--are ubiquitous in popular culture today, but if a conspiracy theorist throws something from 1984
at you, chances are he (or, rarely, she) is a believer in various "puppetmaster" conspiracy theories, chief among them the New World Order or Illuminati, supposedly a cabal of powerful people who are secretly trying to rule the world. CTs of this stripe are often, but not always, fans of radio talkshow host Alex Jones, who routinely decries that American society is proceeding inexorably toward a future that resembles the bleak world of Orwell's book. Conspiracy theorists love to point out things from 1984
that they assert are happening today, and most of them who cite the book believe that by successfully identifying Orwellian features of real life, that this somehow bolsters their claims about a totalitarian future looming on the horizon, usually imminently.
Why They're Wrong
Citing anything from 1984 to support a conspiratorial viewpoint is emotionally appealing, but it's based on two assumptions: first, that 1984 was intended to be a prediction of the future; and second, that proof of anything in the book coming true necessarily means it is more likely that all of the book's predictions will eventually come true. As we will see, both assumptions are baseless.
1. 1984 Was Not Intended to Predict the Future!
was not and never was intended to be predictive of the future. It's easy to understand why it is assumed to be predictive, however: even upon its original release the book was marketed as science fiction, and it took place in a time nearly forty years ahead of when Orwell wrote it. Any writer or creative artist who tries to envision the future, especially if he or she picks a specific point in the future to describe, will naturally be judged by how good those predictions turn out to be. Case in point: Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey
was not originally offered as a specific "I believe this will happen" prediction when it was made in 1968, but it contained a great deal of predictive elements, such as Pan-Am Airlines offering commercial flights to the moon and Ma Bell providing picture-phone services. 1984
, on the other hand, was offered as a cautionary tale, with Orwell saying in effect, "This is one possibility of where unregulated state power might lead."
It is also important to put this statement in context. Orwell was a socialist--something Alex Jones will not tell you--and believed heavily that Great Britain and the United States should adopt a political system based on the ideal of economic and social equality. Writing in the 1940s, when Stalin was in power in the USSR and World War II had largely decimated European leftist movements, Orwell was frustrated that an experiment that should have turned out well, the Russian Revolution, had been betrayed by totalitarian mindsets. (That's exactly what his other famous book, Animal Farm
, is also about). He was not
arguing for American-style democracy and capitalism, and he was certainly not arguing for the type of neo-conservative or Libertarian-leaning principles espoused by people like Alex Jones. If anything Orwell wanted to return socialism to its idealistic roots.
I first read 1984
the year 1984, when I was 12 years old. Of course I didn't understand it, and I thought it was
science fiction intending to predict the future. I still have my very first copy of 1984
, which I've read and loved so much it's literally falling apart. Curiously, my version--put out by Signet Paperbacks in 1959--reinforced the illusion that 1984
was predictive. Here's the write-up on the back of the book:
"Which One Will YOU Be in the Year 1984?
PROLETARIAN--Considered inferior and kept in total ignorance, you'll be fed lies from the Ministry of Truth, eliminated upon signs of promise or ability!
POLICE GUARD--Chosen for lack of intelligence but superior brawn, you'll be suspicious of everyone and be ready to give your life for Big Brother, the leader you've never even seen!
PARTY MEMBER, MALE--Faceless, mindless, a flesh-and-blood robot with a push-button brain, you're denied love by law, taught hate by the flick of a switch!
PARTY MEMBER, FEMALE--A member of the Anti-Sex League from birth, your duty will be to smother all human emotion, and your children might not be your husband's!
Unbelievable? You'll feel differently after you've read this best-selling book of forbidden love and terror in a world many of us will live to see!"
Somehow I doubt Orwell would have approved of this synopsis, which, much like conspiracy theorists do, totally misses the ideological context of how and why he wrote the book in the first place. In fact Orwell himself wrote this shortly after the publication of the book:
"My recent novel is not intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show-up of the perversions . . . which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism."
Add to this the fact that the nature of the world and of politics has changed radically since 1949, rendering the political criticism of the book largely moot. Socialism and classic leftist politics departed the scene for the most part in the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc, so 1984
's main point is no longer contemporary. That means that what people who read it today are most likely to get out of it are things that they think are intended as predictive.
Naturally, context and intent is totally absent in the world of conspiracy theories. For conspiracy theorists 1984
is a very simple book to understand: Orwell was gazing into a crystal ball and predicting a totalitarian future that, to conspiracy theorists, looks alarmingly like their own New World Order fantasies.
2. Pointing To Something In 1984 That You Think "Came True" Does Not Mean The Totality Of The Book's Vision Is More Likely To Happen.
Once conspiracy theorists are done mischaracterizing 1984
as a crystal ball prediction and Orwell as some sort of futurist soothsayer, the quote mining begins in earnest. Conspiracy theorists love to plumb the depths of Orwell's book and unearth gems that they claim are either true today in our society or are in the process of becoming reality, and somehow these quote-mined items are supposed to prove them correct that a New World Order is coming. The most common elements of 1984
misused by conspiracy theorists include:
- Government information control. Almost any instance of information control or "spin" by the U.S. or other governments is pointed to as "Orwellian." A good example is the Bush II administration's policy of not allowing photographs to be taken of flag-draped caskets of dead soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or even something innocuous as a White House press release spinning events in a politically advantageous way. To conspiracy theorists, this is Orwell's Ministry of Truth become real, totally censoring everything and leaving no stream of information untouched by the Party line.
- Government surveillance. In 1984, two-way televisions called telescreens spy on the population all the time, reporting their activities to government agents. Conspiracy theorists will often cite security cameras or police photo radar setups at intersections as "evidence" that Orwell's "predictions" of ubiquitous surveillance have already come true or are rapidly becoming so. The PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretapping of terrorism suspects are also often cited in this category.
- War. In 1984, the world is split between three major super-nations who are always engaged in a war of some type, though who is allied with whom frequently changes. In the book, the war is supported by the government as a means to consume industrial resources and also keep the population patriotic and united. Conspiracy theorists love to cite the Bush II administration's fervor for the Iraq War, and especially the false rationale of Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, as "evidence" that the eternal war depicted in 1984 is becoming reality. This is done totally without reference to or understanding of the true reasons either behind the fictional war in 1984 or the real ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Detention without due process and torture. Needless to say, in the world of 1984 there is no such thing as due process, and a large portion of the book details Winston Smith's brutal detention and torture at the Ministry of Truth. Conspiracy theorists will almost always cite Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding as "evidence" that this is also coming true. The denial of due process for enemy combatants is a serious political and legal issue, but the use of this example to try to "prove" that 1984 is coming true (or already is true) is totally disingenuous. There is not a single real world example of ordinary people in the street vanishing into Homeland Security dungeons or (a conspiracist favorite) "FEMA camps." Conspiracy theorists' exaggerations and intellectual dishonesty in this regard is particularly egregious.
These are by no means the only tropes claimed by conspiracy theorists to be "true" or "coming true," and I'm quite sure I'll get comments or hate mail on this blog from conspiracists saying, "Yeah, but what about this
..." and the like. This list is intended to be illustrative, not comprehensive.
The point is this: even if any item supposedly "predicted" in
1984 has become true today--which is usually not the case anyway--that does not mean that we are headed for the grim totalitarian future that Orwell describes in the book!
Believing so is absolutely absurd, but it makes sense to conspiracy theorists because they are passionate believers in the "slippery slope" argument. Any
incremental step down a particular road must and always will, by definition, lead to the most extreme consequence of that step. Conspiracy theorists never accept the possibility that if a heavy-handed law happens to be passed, that one day it might be repealed or overturned by a court decision, or, if it's left in place, that it might not be subsequently followed by more heavy-handed tactics. To them, step one of the process of totalitarian control is tantamount to the completed process itself.
Two real-world examples illustrate the idiocy of this belief. First, in 1798, four bills called the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President John Adams. The law authorized the President to deport or detain certain persons without due process, and also forbade publication of writings critical of the government. Clearly these were heavy-handed acts that scandalously violated the Bill of Rights. How come Obama isn't throwing Tea Partiers in jail today as a result of this law? Because it expired on March 3, 1801, and was never re-enacted; furthermore, the acts became a huge political issue in the elections of 1800 and would have been politically impossible to resurrect.
Second: during World War II the administration of Franklin Roosevelt interned thousands of people of Japanese descent, many of them American citizens, in internment camps on the West Coast. The Japanese internment was one of the most egregious and shameful actions ever undertaken by the U.S. government and remains a serious blight on the historical record of Roosevelt, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the detentions legal in the decision Korematsu v. United States.
(323 U.S. 214 (1944)). Why didn't the Japanese internment lead to totalitarianism across the board? Because the practice was discontinued in 1945 when the war ended. In fact, the U.S. government has paid reparations to people who were interned and their families--ironically a process begun (albeit shamefully late) by the first President Bush, who conspiracy theorists universally identify as an architect of the "New World Order" mainly because of his use of those words in a speech in 1991.
In a democratic society--and even in non-democratic ones--government power and the relationship of the populace to its government is constantly changing. In the United States, despite the frequent and loud cries to the contrary, the Constitution is still law, and the government still respects it; every single day, federal courts decide against the government in multitudes of criminal and civil actions. In a few minutes I'll post this blog without having to vet it through any government (or non-governmental) process whatsoever, and the conspiracy theorists who will reply angrily to it and send me hate mail about it (my address is email@example.com) will not have to have their incendiary comments approved either. Even in highly repressive societies, such as Iran, political discourse and checks and balances against government power occur all the time, sometimes violently. The "slippery slope to totalitarianism" argument is, like nearly all arguments made by conspiracy theorists, totally and willfully ignorant of how the world really works. It's insultingly simplistic, as well as offensively shallow. But, because it's easy and has emotional appeal, conspiracy theorists continue to resort to it.
Have They Even Read It?
Conspiracy theorists are usually very lazy when it comes to real learning and knowledge. They cut and paste their arguments from conspiracist websites, they parrot Alex Jones reflexively, and they think YouTube is a reliable source to back up their claims
. It's not surprising, then, that many conspiracy theorists who are out there claiming "1984
is coming true!" haven't actually read
the book, or, if they have, didn't understand what they read.
Case in point: the ConspiracyScience forum was, a few months ago, visited by a young person who was obviously a firm believer in the New World Order conspiracy theories, and he occasionally mentioned 1984
or Orwellian concepts in his arguments that these theories are true or are coming true. When questioned as to how he got his conspiratorial mindset, the young man replied that he was heavily influenced by his older brother, who he claimed watched the movie version of 1984
every day. (There have been two movie versions of the book, but I assume he means the one directed by Michael Radford which starred John Hurt and Richard Burton, which was released in the actual year 1984). I don't know whether the brother had actually read 1984
or just seen the movie, but it's a fair assumption that a lot of people who claim "1984
is coming true!" are familiar only with adaptations or excerpts from the book, and haven't actually read the real thing.
is not an easy read. I didn't get it when I first read it at age 12, and it was not until years later and repeated readings that I began to understand what the real message of the book is and why Orwell wrote it. It's a lot more subtle than just "totalitarianism is bad." Like all good literature, 1984
is very deep and rich with meaning, and a full understanding of it is not possible without delving beneath the superficial qualities to which our popular culture has reduced it. The simple truth is, many of the people citing 1984
don't really understand it.
Another example: do you remember this famous ad from the 2008 Presidential campaign, created by an Obama supporter while he and Hillary Clinton were dueling for the Democratic nomination?
That ad was a cultural phenomenon, but even many of the people who enjoyed it probably didn't realize that it was a mashup of a real
TV commercial for Apple's Macintosh computer. This was a very famous commercial, directed by Alien
director Ridley Scott (here it is
) which is clearly intended to evoke Orwell's book. (It was also actually produced in the real year 1984). When you hear 1984
, it is probably these
images, or ones like them, that spring immediately to mind, not the intricacies of the novel itself. So here we have Orwell's original complicated message being diluted as a tool to sell a computer, and then diluted again
as a campaign stunt to support a political candidate. What is it that you think you remember about 1984
: the original, or the various dilutions?
Conspiracy theorists love to cite 1984
as supposed "proof" that their predictions of a grim totalitarian future are either already true or are likely to become true. However, their use of Orwell's novel betrays a grotesque misunderstanding of the book, a complete ignorance of its true context and purpose, and a fundamental abortion of logic in the form of the "slippery slope to totalitarianism" argument. As with everything else conspiracy theorists do, it's a botched job from start to finish.
So the next time a conspiracy theorist tries to throw 1984
at you, ask them first, "Have you actually read it, or did you just see the Apple commercial?", and then ask them to back up their assertions with fact and with logic. As the conspiracy theorist tries and utterly fails to provide fact and logic, you may hear a rhythmic pounding sound in the background, which is undoubtedly the sound of a horrified George Orwell hammering on his coffin in outrage.
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