Orwell, Alternative Facts, and Cosmic Doublethink
“Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?”—George Orwell
In the wake of President Donald Trump taking office, George Orwell’s 1984 rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists in Amazon. Apparently, readers are alarmed with the Trump administration’s deployment of “alternative facts.” That citizens are turning to Orwell for intellectual insight into the Trump administration is inspiring to me.
As a college professor, I have been teaching about our 1984-like culture for over two decades. In my “Media and Society” course, we explore how surveillance and doublethink have permeated our mediated culture and electronic consciousnesses. Among the many real world parallels is that a society with more surveillance requires more doublethink to justify the dominant political regimes — in America and the world.
The internet and social media surveillance have only ramped up the doublethink. Many people may be familiar with some of the famed slogans from 1984 (”War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength”), yet they may not fully grasp the meaning and scope of what Orwell meant by “doublethink.”
“Alternative Facts” and Doublethink
What we must realize is that allegiance to “alternative facts” is not merely lying in a political context. To justify all his “executive orders” that give him so much power, President Trump must believe the crowds were large at his inauguration events. He has to believe it to justify his narcissism and megalomania. All presidents and political tyrants—from across the spectrum—must believe untrue and unreal things about their supposed greatness, not just Trump. The best politicians hide their doublethink or find their followers, voters, and nation’s media share their doublethink. American media is an orgy of doublethink.
As Orwell explained in 1984, the reliance on “alternative facts” to deflect criticism requires an entire system and method of thought, a system which knows no cognitive or cosmic limits. The name for this method of thought is “doublethink — a type of “thinking” in which people accept and believe that two opposite and antithetical propositions are both true at the same time. As Orwell explains in 1984:
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indisputably necessary. . . . [B]y a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.” [i]
Doublethink Must Feel Good
Not only must the believer accept two opposite propositions as being true — he or she must also feel good about it, even take a certain pride in standing beside such cognitive contradictions. Orwell argues that doublethink would be impossible without this contentment. Doublethink and the avoidance of critical introspection lead to a justification all exploitation, all oppression, and all propaganda. All nations and their leaders practice doublethink to rationalize their worldviews, whatever they may be. With the use of “alternative facts,” the Trump administration is merely the latest gang to deploy doublethink to attack reason, logic, and reality in justifying wars, walls, torture, and all forms of domination. And they will feel damn good about it! Since the executive orders mostly violate the Bill of Rights and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, they will have to feel high and mighty and moral!
America is the Land of Alternative Facts
So we see the simultaneous acceptance of science and superstition all across the media and cultural landscapes, including Hollywood and social media. Doublethink and dumbing down a society go hand-in-hand. The antiscience and anti-rational forces are massive and can count Hollywood and the media as largely on their side.
In America, most everyone accepts empirical science when they go to their dentist or doctor to preserve their health. But, to preserve their beliefs and worldviews, they embrace all kinds of contradictory nonsense that has no empirical basis in reality or the universe. Just turn on the TV or surf the web. There are endless shows and websites about pseudo-science, paranormalism, conspiracies, ancient aliens, and longstanding denials of evolution. To that list we can now add climate change. As shown by these tables, most Americans are down with anti-science and “alt facts” to justify their own ideologies, worldviews, and overall cosmic narcissism. It’s a lovefest of alternative facts and doublethink. Of course, this also is true in many parts of the world.
“Dual System of Astronomy”
To maintain dominant ideologies and worldviews, Orwell shows that doublethink must extend to the entire universe in keeping humans and their beliefs at the center of an imaginary universe. The following dialogue between O’Brien (the state torturer for the nation of Oceania) and Winston (the resistor being tortured) from 1984 illustrates this concept:
“Oceania is the world.”
“But the world itself is only a speck of dust. And man is tiny — helpless! How long has he been in existence? For millions of years the earth was uninhabited.”
“Nonsense. The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.”
“But the rocks are full of the bones of extinct animals — mammoths and mastodons and enormous reptiles which lived here long before man was ever heard of.”
“Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing. After man, if he could come to an end, there would be nothing. Outside man there is nothing.”
“But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach forever.”
“What are the stars?” said O’Brien indifferently. “They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and stars go round it.”
. . . O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:
“For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometers away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?”[ii] [Bold italics mine.]
For the state and dominant ideologies to attain total power over the minds of the populace, doublethink must be applied to the entire cosmos. Existential truths must be destroyed at all levels, especially on a grand scale with regard to our place in the universe. That’s why tribes, nations, and holy warriors are so efficient at producing endless wars and totalitarian societies, with the prophets, populace, and political leaders pretending to be channeling deities and Creators of the universe.
Here’s My Question:
Should we be surprised Trump is using “alternative facts” when he selected a creationist as a running mate: VP Mike Pence. Pence is not alone in his practice of cosmic doublethink.
A 2012 Gallup Poll found that 46% of all Americans believe in creationism, or the idea that the universe is 10,000 years old and humankind was created by God. The total was up from 40% in 2010 but still close to the 44% reported back in 1982. These percentages are significantly higher than in the 24 other nations polled, where creationists amounted to 28% — still high, given the scientific knowledge we now possess about the universe. Apparently, only about 15% of Americans believe that evolution took place without God (up from 9% in 1982).
If the VP can deny evolution and deny facts about the origins of humanity and the universe, then it is but a small step to denying climate change and a whole host of other “alternative facts.” As Orwell made clear, doublethink will be extended to the entire universe, for the state will deploy a “dual system of astronomy” to defend the regime. Rational interrogation of reality must be destroyed. And with deep pleasure.
Cosmic doublethink is the longstanding yet mistaken belief that science and theology — the “dual system[s] of astronomy” — both offer valid explanations of the universe, that the reality of the cosmos and the notion of an almighty “Creator” are intellectually compatible. It’s like believing astronomy and astrology are equally valid ways of knowing the cosmos.
It’s cosmic doublethink that allows people to pretend their personal destiny is in the hands of a Creator instead of acknowledging the scientific fact that they’re a mere arrangement of stardust in a vast and ancient universe spanning 100 billion light years. It’s this “dual system of astronomy” that permits members of a society to shut down their minds, ridicule dissent, and attack the very notion of cosmic “reality.” No doubt many people will rely on cosmic doublethink and the “dual system of astronomy” to dismiss this critique. And they will feel damn good about it, too.
We’re repeatedly told this Creator spelled out a cosmic behavioral plan 2,000 years ago to a few super-special dudes living on a tiny, rocky, watery planet orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen. Are we really supposed to believe that a Creator is responsible for the entirety of the observable cosmos — 2 trillion galaxies, 3 sextillion stars, countless numbers of planets, moons, comets, meteors, black holes, supernovas, gamma ray bursts, and other life forms, all existing in galaxy clusters that stretch across 100 billion light years in an expanding universe — and is simultaneously concerned about the happenings and achievements of one person, one tribe, or one species, which inhabits the surface of one infinitesimal planet it shares with millions of other species and individual creatures, all of which are the product of 4.5 billion years of cosmic evolution? Seriously, folks!
This is an extraordinary claim requiring equally extraordinary proof that’s completely absent. Either the Creator does not exist or it is just too busy to provide us with any empirical evidence of its cosmic existence. Apparently its hands are already full with the world’s presidential elections and military outcomes and ensuring that people of the “proper” sexes, races, and religions copulate together, all while calibrating the ratios of dark matter and dark energy to accelerate the expanding universe and mystify contemporary cosmologists peering through the Hubble Space Telescope!
Clinging to creationism and denying climate change is the only way for a huge percentage of Americans to preserve their cosmic narcissism in an expanding universe of two trillion galaxies and three sextillion stars — a cosmos in which humans are clearly not central and not significant. To continue to believe in these narratives is what I call cosmic doublethink.
Since President Trump’s VP and millions of his followers have long been double-thinking about the origins of humanity and the size of the universe, why am I supposed to be surprised or upset that Trump is double-thinking about the size of his crowds? Seriously, why?
[i] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Plume, 1984), 176–77.
[ii] Ibid., 218–19.
My new book is Specter of the Monolith: Nihilism, the Sublime, and Human Destiny in Space — From Apollo and Hubble to 2001, Star Trek and Interstellar (2017). For more information or to purchase the book in Amazon, click here.