Sunday Musings: The Point of 1984

Like others, I too have wondered if anyone has actually read 1984. Two answers: 1st, no, not many people have read 1984; and 2nd, nothing in the experience of a conventionally educated American prepares him to understand it even if he did go through the motions of looking at the text. All required  readings are accompanied by specific questions at the back of the book, the acceptable answers to which are in teacher’s copy. If it were not so, how could you test on the text?

So, no: as Briggs points out, some small fraction of people are insane, and so truly believe men can be women if they say so 2 + 2 = 5. A much larger fraction have learned the survival value of group cohesion in school, and so just want to know the answer teacher wants. On the one hand, such folks won’t give much of a thought to whether or not what teacher wants to hear is true (“Truth? What is that?” as was famously quipped); on the other hand, anyone who dares dispute the claim is attacking the order carefully established through 12 or more years of schooling.

These people will act as crazy as the true believers when challenged, since their place in the world has been established by that same schooling that tells what the right answer is. The final irony: this exact same education has rendered them all but incapable of seeing that this reaction is what they are doing. (Example, for the thrill-seeker: try to have a rational discussion with a Marxist in which you challenge Marxism – watch the shields go up and the photon torpedoes brought online. It’s not the arguments that are being defended against – it’s the very concept of a challenge. Your interlocutor won’t even notice he’s doing it.)

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“For Heaven’s sake, did anybody not read 1984? What the purpose of torturing Winston to say 2 + 2 = 5? That the Party really believed that mathematical fiction? No! It was to subjugate and for no other reason.” William Briggs 

The use of nonsense as dogma is less critical than its use as a shibboleth – it matters much more that you say whatever everybody in the group says than what particular thing it is that you say. If you say, for example, that gender is a social construct, it’s very clear that you are a member in good standing, and, if you say there are only 2 sexes and gender is a term of grammatical art, you are excluded just as decisively.

Just as the Ministry of Truth regularly changes the shibboleths – we’ve always been at war with Eastasia! – to see who is really on board, we have politicians with their fingers in the air, declaring against, say, gay marriage right up until they declare for it.

And it’s totally out of line to notice, or to call liar. To do that is, again, proof you’re not of the tribe. That’s a price few will pay.

The schools are where this experiment is being run. I’m struck by how many dystopias include the idea that our evil overlords are experimenting on us, killing some and bending others to their wills. We are trying to resist and escape, but cannot! Why does such an idea lurk in our minds, such that it apparently rings true enough to a huge enough percentage of people to sell a lot of movie tickets and YA novels? Where, in the real world, would a cognate to such behavior be found? Dragons and sea monsters, sure, even werewolves and vampires seem like extensions of some at least marginally imaginable fear. But organizations torturing us into puppet-hood, and maybe killing us? What? Then there’s zombies, undead and lusting for brains…. Where do such ideas come from?

Then there are those who understand the latest insanity is, in fact, insane, but are unwilling to pay the price of open opposition, hoping, I suppose, that the problem will go away on its own. Finally, there are those who know exactly what they’re doing. This last group may to some degree believe this or that shibboleth, but that’s not the important part – it’s doing whatever they need to do to bring down the beast, as they see it, truth be damned! I think Alinsky and his ilk fall into this camp, as do all real Communists and some of their more self-involved useful idiots – that’s the impression I get from some feminists leaders, that they want to destroy the patriarchy more than they care about if what they say is true, let alone results in the happiness of any real women.

It’s a mess out there. As mentioned in an earlier post, things are so good in general that it’s possible to promote such anti-reality, anti-survival nonsense – and yet live. I think of the imaginary Merlin from That Hideous Strength, who was prepared to simply kill Mrs Studduck for the crime of not having the baby she was destined to have, or of real-life Charlemagne, who would have dealt with people promoting such nonsense promptly – maybe send them off to a monastery for the rest of their lives, he was merciful that way – and never given it a second thought.  But even these musings miss the point: people promoting such ideas as are common today would have been locked up, at best, by their own families or lords.

Here and now, we can afford (!) to let them run loose, evidently.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Musings: The Point of 1984”

  1. I think of the old tramp the bad guys thought was Merlin. Dragooned into the whole business, he is content to sit in bed and eat all the toasted cheese they will give him, keeping his mouth shut so as not to upset whatever crazy free-food-and-drink scheme he’s fallen into. Yes, these people are insane, and some are clearly wicked, but there’s a Keurig machine in the staff room, free K-pods, free poptarts, and a bag of those little clemantines in the ‘fridge. All I need to do is show up and teach my classes. The dean only cares that the paperwork be on time and in order. None of the people honking on about homonormative cisphobia can tell a partial derivative from the Anabasis of Xenophon, so I can do my job without telling any lies. Of course the whole thing may fall apart tomorrow and “Merlin” go back to being a homeless tramp, but today he can eat well with minimal exertion.

      1. After a fashion, yes! It’s funny the things one will remember from a book:

        “Before proceeding to their tour of inspection Merlin demanded robes for the tramp, and Wither finally dressed him as a Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Edgestow. Thus arrayed, walking with his eyes half shut, and as delicately as if he were treading on eggs, the bewildered tinker was led upstairs and downstairs and through the zoo and into the cells. Every now and then his face underwent a kind of spasm as if he were trying to say something; but he never succeeded in producing any words except when the real Merlin asked him a question and fixed him with his eye. Of course, all this was not to the tramp what it would have been to anyone who made an educated and wealthy man’s demands upon the universe. It was, no doubt, a “rum do” — the rummest do that had ever befallen him. The mere sensation of being clean all over would have made it that even apart from the crimson robe and the fact that his own mouth kept on uttering sounds he did not understand and without his own consent. But it was not by any means the first inexplicable thing that had been done to him.”

  2. A comment on “…people promoting such ideas as are common today would have been locked up, at best, by their own families or lords”:

    I realize that you’re not talking exclusively about human sexuality, but it seems to loom large here and that’s what I’ll focus on for the moment. And certainly, affluence affects sexual mores, and the ways that it does would make for a much longer conversation. One thinks for example of Tom Wolfe’s concept of the democratization of vice brought about by the post-war economic boom. The kinds of degenerate and frankly anti-social sexual behavior that had previously been the province of aristocrats became available to a huge class of people, because practically everyone had gotten so daggone rich.

    But these vices were indeed usually available to the rich and powerful, and that’s why I think you’re unrealistic in your nostalgia for the winnowing fan of scarcity coupled with more authoritarian and intrusive political forms (or else more tolerance for the use violence by powerful people who do not hold public authority). The proverbial winnowing fan was certainly active in the Kingdom of Buganda when St. Charles Lwanga was executed for (among other things) refusing to perform sexual favors on the king. It was working just fine when John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed. Generally speaking, promotion by the public authorities of sexual mores that Christians regard as insane and anti-human has been perfectly compatible with scarcity. I’d go so far as to say that it is the norm for the elites in a society to promote mores that allow them to gratify their own sexual desires at the expense of everyone else’s well-being. And if they are able, they are perfectly willing to use violence against people who refuse them, or who promote ideas of human sexuality or human dignity that might require them to restrain their sexual appetites.

    So sure, a king or a lesser lord with the authority to do so might lock people up for promoting same-sex marriage or the idea that a man can become a woman. But more likely, he’d lock up the Christians AND the feminists, since they both insist on the freely given consent of both parties as a precondition for marriage, and for any sexual encounter. Restrictions like that would probably cramp the style of a powerful man way more than someone’s eccentric views on pronoun usage.

    I’d say that many of the taboos in place today serve basically this function, too: they exist to make sure that no one questions the right of adults to indulge their sexual and romantic desires irrespective of the harm that may come to children, and they serve to prop up a system of sexual mores that wreaks particular havoc on the lives of the poor so that the wealthy can live the way they want. This is something that you’ve written about often and eloquently. But hey, at least violating these taboos in America today won’t get you beheaded; that’s pretty nice.

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