Friday, March 3, 2017

The Revelation of Saint George

Sometimes I wonder what other people get from reading Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.  What made the biggest impression on me when I first read it at the age of twelve, fifty-some years ago, was the Two Minutes' Hate.  When I first had to go to pep sessions a year or so later in junior high school, I immediately recognized the TMH mentality in Indiana basketball fans, though it's also visible in partisan politics.  Over time, other elements of Orwell's allegory have come to the fore in my mind; nowadays it's doublethink and the notion of a well-controlled memory, the ability to forget inconvenient facts on demand.

There was hilarity over Donald Trump's remark about "what's happening last night in Sweden."  Nothing had happened in Sweden last night, that was the curious incident.  Swedes reacted with indignation.  Trump then claimed he was referring to a story on Fox News the night before his rally, and tweeted "Give the public a break–The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!"  More indiion and hilarity ensued, of course.  What I noticed what was, even though Fox News is evidently becoming more critical of Trump, the President let slip that he relies on "the FAKE NEWS media" for information about what is going on in the world.  Some in Trump's base obligingly now believe that "the FAKE NEWS media" are covering up terrorist attacks in Sweden.  (Just as about half of Democrats believe that the Russians hacked American voting machines to give Trump his victory last November.  I may return to this matter in a later post.)  Then look at this dishonest post from a liberal blog on the importance of a free press; Thomas Jefferson did not limit his criticism of the press to private letters, as Throckmorton claims, he acted.
“In his second term, in response to serious criticism from the New England newspapers … he instructed the state attorney generals in New England to prosecute the newspaper editors for sedition in the same way he had opposed such behavior when it was done by the federal government,” said Ellis, the historian.

The move further alienated Jefferson from the journalists, as well as the clergy.
When I think about it, I wonder how new the supposed collapse in mainstream media credibility really is.  How long have we had "mainstream media" in the US anyway?  What that term usually refers to is elite corporate media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, along with the Associated Press, United Press International. and the national broadcast networks -- just three of them when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.  But how many Americans read the Times?  How many New Yorkers, even?  I can't imagine it was that many, surely not a majority.  So how were the "mainstream media" mainstream?  Only, I think, in the sense that elites see themselves as the real, mainstream people, and the vast majority of the population as the fringe, barely human at best.

The Internet didn't exist when I was growing up, but there were many other ways to disseminate information: local newspapers, local radio and TV, churches, unions, the American Legion and other veterans' organizations, fraternal organizations, and schools -- and most of these were illiberal in their politics, and careless about facts (to put it mildly).  If you poke around Snopes.com for a while, you'll find that many falsehoods you see in your Facebook feed go back to the pre-Internet period.  This one, for instance, still circulates long after Madalyn Murry O'Hair died, and the FCC still gets mail and phone calls about it.  You probably wouldn't hear much about it from the mainstream media, but such rumors play an important role in many, many people's political beliefs.

Think of Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest whose radio program drew 40 million listeners in the early 1930s.  He attacked President Roosevelt, who he claimed was really a Jew (a popular accusation by the Right in those days), incited violence against Jews, and was only silenced by the Cburch after the US was already at war with Nazi Germany.  He remained a priest, however, retiring in 1966, and continued to denounce Roosevelt into the 1970s.  Yesterday I saw an item linked on Facebook which called evangelical Christians "the American Taliban."  Aside from the evil of stereotyping all evangelicals, it included Rick Santorum -- a Roman Catholic, not an evangelical -- in its denunciation. 

Which reminded me of some late-night TV shows I've seen when I'm in northern Indiana, on the NBC affiliate out of Notre Dame University: they feature grim, bearded white men fulminating about the diabolical secularization of our society, with recreational abortion, unisex bathrooms, gay marriage, and the like; the only hope is return to the True Roman Catholic Church.  Sometimes I wonder if they are aware that not so long ago, people like them would have been seen as agents of the Papacy, trying to impose Canon law on America.  Which is what they are, in fact; they're just not much of a threat right now.  But when I think of candidates for the American Taliban, I think of these guys.  (Note: these programs don't appear on public-access cable at 4 in the morning, but are broadcast at 11 p.m. or so on a major-network station.)

But back to Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  The book is often called "prophetic," but it's really a kind of apocalypse, like the biblical book of Daniel or the Revelation.  A prophet, technically, is a person through whom a god speaks.  Prophets do sometimes make predictions, but very seldom about the distant future, and even their predictions are warnings of what will happen if they aren't heeded.  So, for instance, Jonah warned that Yahweh would destroy the city of Nineveh in thirty days if the Ninevites didn't repent.  They did so, from the King on down, and the city was not destroyed.  Jonah sulked about this, and Yahweh chided him for lack of humanity.  (That's how you know the book of Jonah is a fable, not actual prophecy: ordinarily Yahweh demands mass murder through his prophets, ordering his servants to set humanity aside in the name of purity and obedience.)

There isn't a sharp dividing line between classical prophecy and apocalyptic, but one of the characteristics of the latter is that its "predictions" are generally backdated, ascribed to someone who lived in the more or less distant past.  You can tell when the "revelation" was written by noticing the point at which the "predictions" stop being true.  Producing repentance isn't the intention, because God planned everything before the creation of the world; the destruction will come, with only a faithful remnant saved, no matter what people do.

It has often been pointed out that in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell wasn't predicting.  Except for the telescreens, almost everything he wrote about was already present in 1940s England during and immediately after the war: the rationing, the missiles raining random death and destruction, the surveillance, even the ability to forget what had happened minutes before for political purposes.  (The occasion was the way the Soviet Union went from being an ally of Hitler to an enemy of Hitler, pretty much overnight -- and the Enemy of Your Enemy Is Your Friend, in wartime anyway.)  There has been a lot of criticism of Orwell's relationship to the Left, much of it apparently justified, but to my mind the important thing was his attempt, however inadequate and biased, to criticize his own side.   Attacking the Other is always safe; attacking Your Own is not.  That, too, is still with us.

So seeing Nineteen Eighty-Four as a prophecy or prediction, and praising Saint George for his anticipation of things to come, is as mistaken as praising Daniel for predicting what would happen to Israel centuries in the future.  The "predictions" in Daniel were written after the fact, with 20/20 hindsight; once the book's future history catches up with its present, the predictions fail.  In the New Testament Revelation, the predictions fail immediately; the author was avowedly writing about his own present, and the End did not come.  Whatever strikes a reader now about Orwell's imagined future is most likely the things he saw in his present.  Which doesn't mean I don't value the book, or his criticisms of political culture; Orwell could be called a prophet in the original sense, one who addresses the present to pronounce judgment.  Except that Orwell, an atheist, didn't claim to speak in the name of a god.  He used other conventions.

What led me to write this post, however, was something else.  I began thinking about the ways that people use the past, and famous people from the past, to borrow authority for their beliefs and prescriptions.  This isn't necessarily invalid; history is important to human beings.  If you're going to talk about the Constitution, you're talking about past authorities.  What I'm talking about is the invention of history, as in the blogger who elided Thomas Jefferson's overt actions against the freedom of the press.  This tactic appears to me to be as popular an approach on the Left, broadly defined, as on the Right; among secularists and atheists, no less than among the religious.  Quotations from illustrious historical figures, modified to fit the present better or simply invented altogether, are more compact versions of apocalyptic thinking.  Our Founding Fathers foresaw the future in every detail, and we need only recover the true meaning of their words to conduct ourselves rightly, according to their wisdom.

I was also moved to write this post by someone's reference to Nineteen Eighty-Four as a "political allegory," which it is, but the context made me suspect that the person thought of an allegory as something like Scripture as fundamentalists think of it: all Truth and Wisdom is encoded there, and it is up to us to interpret it rightly.  If we can, we can save ourselves, and so on.  But an allegory is a conscious construction, and Nineteen Eighty-Four is no exception.  (Nor is Atlas Shrugged, or Stranger in a Strange Land, among other novels which have been used by some of their readers to guide their lives.)  Orwell had no special mystical knowledge; he wrote the book out of what he knew, or thought he knew, and out of what he saw.  He threw in plenty of sex and violence, just as you'll find in the New Testament Revelation, and made it a good read, with enough ideas to provoke some thought.

What this suggests to me is that, as I've long thought, much of what people (including me) think of as religious is not specific to religion.  The use of quotations -- often invented or taken out of context -- from long-dead authorities, usually called "proof-texting" in a religious context, looks to be as popular among the non-religious and anti-religious as it is among the devoutly religious.  Stories, allegories, fables too; officially we secularists know that our stories are fictional, but that knowledge often falls by the wayside.  Or the use of monumental, hushed spaces intended to humble and awe mere humans before the greatness of the geniuses who brought us the wisdom of Heaven.  To say nothing of Us/Them and scapegoating the Other. These are all human tendencies and (sometimes) failings.  They come naturally to most of us, and it takes work to learn to depersonalize and abstract ideas for thought -- though that, too, is part of religion, its philosophical and theological arm.  People who draw on books like Nineteen Eighty-Four for thought are not different in kind from people who draw on the Bible, the Quran, the Sutras; nor do they differ in the ways they use these authorities, only in the specific authorities they use and interpret.