Truth kicks the bucket: George Orwell is not the right tool for understanding Trumpism | The Monthly

George Orwell is not the right tool for understanding Trumpism

TIRED of WINNING

American Dispatches by Richard Cooke


American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.


July 25, 2018

Truth kicks the bucket

By Richard Cooke
George Orwell is not the right tool for understanding Trumpism

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Where were you when you heard that truth was dead? I must admit I’ve forgotten, but it feels like it was during the first George W. Bush administration, or maybe earlier, when Bill Clinton, said, under oath, that “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” I do remember that by the mid 2000s liberals had decided a plastic Thanksgiving turkey was the perfect symbol of the Bush presidency (the fact that the fake turkey turned out to be real only made it more apposite). Not long after, a shell-shocked Al Gore wrote a book called The Assault on Reason. Perhaps it was Rush Limbaugh, or the internet, or the decline of teaching civics, but sometime between the World Book Encyclopedia era and the Wikipedia era, factual reality in America went out of whack and never went back.

This concern has prompted The New York Times’s former chief book critic Michiko Kakutani to try authorship for the first time. Perhaps too slim to be called her “first full-length book”, The Death of Truth is at any rate her first half-length book, instigated by a sensation of “losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines”. Her mission is to “examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the very value of truth, and what that means for America and the world”. George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, “The Second Coming” and Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, though battle weary, are all called on for another tour of duty.

Kakutani is big on Orwell’s “prescience”, especially in Nineteen Eighty-Four and the essay “Politics and the English Language”. She is not the only one. These pieces of writing must surely now rank as the most widely referenced political texts of the 20th century, influential to the point of perniciousness. As Louis Menand has pointed out, if everyone from “ex-Communists, Socialists, left-wing anarchists, right-wing libertarians, liberals, conservatives, doves, hawks, the Partisan Review editorial board, and the John Birch Society” can lay claim to Orwell’s legacy, then perhaps some of his explanatory power is limited or vague, especially 70 years on.

Orwell is, I think, especially unprescient about Trump. The authority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is sexless, socialist, parsimonious and bureaucratic, while Trump is promiscuous, mercantile, exuberant and vernacular. When he prolifically generates untruths, they come from boastfulness and ignorance more so than Machiavellian scheming – Big Brother wasn’t watching morning telescreen shows and then railing to his aides about Goldstein. It’s hard to think of a less Orwellian statement about America’s history of violence than “You think our country’s so innocent?”, but this vulgar restatement of plain fact in plain language does not improve the situation.

The idea that corrupt language creates corrupt politics wasn’t invented by Orwell: Edward Gibbon, for example, thought that bad Latin grammar contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Like many aesthetically appealing ideas, it feels intuitively correct, but beyond the symmetry is less convincing. It’s especially unpersuasive in the aftermath of High Obamaism. Even allowing for the amnesiac nature of American political culture, it’s astonishing how quickly liberals have erased the lessons of the post-Bush years, when all the civil centrism, conciliation and PG-13 rhetorical style they dream of was actually enacted – and spat back in their faces.

For Kakutani and her ilk, this repudiation is only temporary, one turn in a dialectical ballet. No one can pretend America was always rational; instead, the thinking goes, it has Apollonian and Dionysian periods (or fluctuations of superego and id, you can take your pick). There are seasons of popular excitement when reason goes to the canvas, science is ignored, experts are repudiated, idiots rise etc., we’re just living through a particularly bad one. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is offered as a guide to this tendency, but incautiously, as Hofstadter’s essay does not contain this dichotomy. Three of the paranoiacs the essay cites most prominently are the inventor Samuel Morse, the eminent scientist John Robison, and Lyman Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe – rationalists, not rubes advancing the conspiracies.

The trouble with this theory of politics is that it doesn’t allow for the high folly of high minds. When titles like The Best and the Brightest and The Smartest Guys in the Room denote elite failure – and an elite failure that stretches from Vietnam to Iraq to Wall Street to the penurious condition of the flyover states – even the upper echelons have to concede that they might be part of the problem. This doesn’t stop them proposing antidotes in the wrong places, though. Kakutani notes that

liberals and conservatives, worried about the rise of nativism and the politics of prejudice, warned that democratic institutions were coming under growing threat. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” … experienced a huge revival in 2016 – quoted, in news articles, more in the first half of that year than it had been in three decades as commentators of all political persuasions invoked its famous lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The Second Coming” can only be invoked so frequently if it is misunderstood. It is not a warning about the “danger flags” of fascism at all, but a totalitarian-curious piece of pageantry for fascism, from a self-declared aristocratic fascist. When Orwell was fighting with anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, Yeats was writing marching songs for the other side – he was one of the people Orwell was talking about when he said “I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere”. This symbiosis is now less common, but still one the Apollonians have no real explanation for. Why should we “heed” this warning, if it didn’t even work on its author?

Fears about the death of truth are not dissimilar to Yeatsian laments for the diminishment of high culture, and spring from some of the same anxieties about the unwashed. This nostalgia for pipe-type intellectuals explains why a particular brand of liberal critic blames postmodernism for Trump: even if he has “never plowed through the works of Derrida, Baudrillard or Lyotard … some dumbed down corollaries of their thinking have seeped into popular culture and been hijacked by the president’s defenders, who want to use their relativistic arguments to excuse his lies, and by right-wingers who want to question evolution or deny the reality of climate change”, writes Kakutani. This is, to put it bluntly, not true.

It is an argument she has been running on various issues since at least 1993, and has not become any more convincing in the meantime, especially when it is applied to intelligent design or even Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial not only predates postmodernism, but is careful to copy the rationalist, empirical, scientific habits of cool inquiry, even as it degrades them. Intelligent design is a pseudo-scientific belief too, not a counter to rationalism but a partial concession to it, brought about by a legal and social framework that makes untrammelled belief in a young Earth more difficult. Kakutani’s proposed mechanism of universal “deconstruction” is not one that can be traced geographically: Holocaust denial is most prevalent in the Middle East, and a belief in intelligent design in the American South. Not locations where Derrida enjoys a wide readership.

The fact that intelligent design flourishes in the same places where “people with college degrees were gravitating towards cities, while rural areas slipped behind economically” is offered in the book as one precursor agent to Trump in passing, when it really needs more attention. The divide between city and country, localists and globalists, “somewheres” and “anywheres” has been theorised as the great cultural clash of our time. It is also a clash where – and I think this is under-appreciated – language is one of the key battlegrounds. When the knowledge economy and its adjuncts take the spoils and the dignity of labour disappears, it makes sense that a revolt against this state of affairs is an unlettered one, the linguistic equivalent of a dirty protest, crass and deliberately offensive, wilfully ignorant, and aimed right at the mores of, say, the chief book critic of The New York Times.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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