It’s not 1984 anymore

The conservative direction of the US and many other Western democracies currently draws obvious comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984. The concept of safety is used to violate the right to privacy, citizens identities should be homogeneous, censorship, anti-intellectualism, the list is exhaustive. Yet, we aren’t in a world like 1984, and comparisons to this fictional dystopia can be self-congratulatory and undermine the extent to which we move toward totalitarianism. Instead, the US has much in common with the other dystopia with a number in it’s name: Fahrenheit 451. Sales of 1984 are currently spiking, but what the US is really in for is a much more dangerous and persisting dystopia that is embodied in anti-intellectualism.

The antagonist of 451 is Chief Beatty, a man who has also broken the law by reading some books, but who rejects books categorically in favor of censorship. He isn’t compelled to parrot these ideals to avoid punishment, but actually believes them: he thinks for himself, and would call himself a critical thinker. In 1984, there is no critical thinking: you believe what the government tells you on a day-to-day basis, without any thought of causality or history. Yesterday we were at war with Eurasia, today we are at war with Eastasia, and we have always been at war with Eastasia, and thank god for our longtime allies the Eurasians.

Trump says outrageous and false things on a daily basis, but it isn’t the same as the changing party line in 1984. A liberal might see Trump supporters parroting back inconsistent, incorrect nonsense, and think it is the same kind of brainwashing, but it’s much worse. Trump’s supporters are critical thinkers, or at least they think they are, and they see liberals as those who are being brainwashed. This is much different than in 1984, because everyone knew that they must just accept what they have been told is true, for fear of literal harm. In the US in 2017, everyone is a critical thinker no matter beliefs or facts you endorse.

In contrast, the government of Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t tell people what to believe and expect total compliance. Instead, books are banned because they can’t all be true. Chief Beatty tells Guy:

“What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and then they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.”

Books, by being contradictory, can’t then be true. Trumps administration use doublespeak to call false information “alternative truths,” betraying the belief that the truth is what you want to believe. But, even more so, the reluctance to accept global climate change indicates this same belief of Beatty’s: there are some reports that say climate change isn’t man-made, or even real, so why not believe those claims? Even if the studies that prove climate change vastly outnumber those that deny it, any contradiction spoils the whole debate. Instead, the truth is what you make of it.

This belief that all knowledge is equal, regardless of logic or empiricism, lead Beatty to dismiss books as contradictory and therefor all ultimately false. For those supporting Trump, it allows them to call CNN “fake news” while accepting the YouTube rants of fringe-nutjobs like those on InfoWars. This lack of discrimination of knowledge is anti-intellectual, but starts with the individual. While in 1984 the government told you what to think and policed those thoughts, the censorship in 451 is something the people want just as much as the government does. Beatty explains his support for censorship:

Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?

Books are weapons. Intellectualism is something to fear. What this quote shows is the root of jealousy and fear that is the heart of anti-intellectualism. If someone can tell me I’m wrong, not only are they seen as better then me, but they do actual violence to me; Beatty seems to imply that being judged is an attack on one’s self-image. Banning books levels the playing field, so that no one can think they’re better than me.

In 1984 the government is opaque and all seeing: they watch citizens, but the citizens don’t see the workings of the government, and are compelled to always accept what they are given for fear of punishment. We aren’t in 1984. The Trump administration is clear with it’s goals, and is carrying them out. In 451 the government punishes those found with books, but most people are happy to not have them because it makes every citizen equal with any other. It’s not difficult to connect this to the vehement rejection of restorative justice. Trump supporters are thrilled when anyone stops getting what they would call “special treatment.”

While people turn to 1984 and other dystopian fiction when censorship and totalitarianism are discussed, I would argue that more often then not these stories leave us with a sense that things aren’t so bad, that this couldn’t happen in the US because we have the internet or whatever. 451 is different because it includes the desires of the people to build the totalitarian government, the support from the citizens who want censorship. By all means, read 1984. It’s great. But it is not the world we’re headed for. We’re in for something much worse.