Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Orwell and truth, today

 “The Ministry of Truth,” written by Dorian Lynskey, is a “biography” of George Orwell’s book “1984.”

It is a biography of a book, in two parts. In the first part, it explains how Orwell wrote the book in the 1940’s and which were the motivations for him at that time. The author had been in the Republican front line in the Spanish Civil War (he writes about that in “Homage to Catalonia”) and became a fierce critic of Stalinism from the left. “1984” is a dystopia of what could happen in the extreme if totalitarian regimes took over the world, with the fresh memory of Hitler and the contemporary experience of the Soviet Union in mind. Orwell focuses on how the totalitarian regime would manipulate the truth and the mind of individuals.

In the second part, the book discusses the influence of the book after the death of its author shortly after he finished writing it. That is the most interesting part of the book. Although in the real year of 1984 things did not look as Orwell had predicted, Lynskey shows then that many aspects of the current world (where nazism has been long defeated and the Soviet Union no longer exists) are not that different from what Orwell had warned about. After all, we are in the times of post-truth and intrusive social media.

The book starts and ends with a reference to Donald Trump. In January 2017, the book explains, the new president took the oath of office and his press secretary later said that it was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” He could not prove his preposterous lie and described the statement as “alternative facts”. Over the next four days, US sales of “1984” rocketted by almost 10.000 per cent, making it a number one best-seller.

The afterword of the paperback edition finishes with a reminder of the speech given by Donald Trump after the election he lost against Joe Biden, in which he alleged, without any evidence, that there was widespread election fraud and that he was, in effect, the victor. Between 2016 and 2020, Trump had told thousands of well documented lies. Those following him, believeing or not his lies, staged a coup on January 6th 2021 and are trying to put him again at the highest office in 2024, trying to learn from the mistakes that prevented them from winning in 2020.

Other examples of the manipulation of the truth are provided by China’s President, Xi, and by Vladimir Putin. Orwell was a democratic socialist who was critical of any form of totalitarianism, from the right or from the left. His most famous books are a criticism of Stalinism (“Homage to Catalonia”, “Animal Farm”). In his most important political experience, the Spanish Civil War, he sided with POUM, an anti-stalinist marxist Catalan group.

But the lesson today in democratic societies, according to the author of this great book, is that the biggest danger lies mostly with the radical right. Please, read “The Ministry of Truth”.


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