I, Winston Smith… I mean, Tom Engelhardt… have not just been reading a dystopian novel but, it seems, living one—and I suspect I’ve been living one all my life.
Yes, I recently reread George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel, 1984. In it, Winston Smith, a secret opponent of the totalitarian world of Oceania, one of three great imperial superpowers left on planet Earth, goes down for the count at the hands of Big Brother. It was perhaps my third time reading it in my 75 years on this planet.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always had a certain fascination for dystopian fiction. It started, I think, with War of the Worlds, that ur alien-invasion-from-outer-space novel in which Martians land in southern England and begin tearing London apart. Its author, H.G. Wells, wrote it at the end of the 19th century, evidently to give his English readers a sense of what it might have felt like to be living in Tasmania, the island off the coast of Australia, and have the equivalent of Martians—the British, as it happened—appear in your world and begin to destroy it (and your culture with it).
I can remember, at perhaps age 13, reading that book under the covers by flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep; I can remember, that is, being all alone, chilled (and thrilled) to the bone by Wells’s grim vision of civilizational destruction. To put this in context:In 1957, I would already have known that I was living in a world of potential civilizational destruction and that the Martians were here. They were then called the Russians, the Ruskies, the Commies, the Reds. I would only later grasp that we (or we, too) were Martians on this planet.
The world I inhabited was, of course, a post-Hiroshima, post-Nagasaki one. I was born on July 20, 1944, just a year and a few days before my country dropped atomic bombs on those two Japanese cities, devastating them in blasts of a kind never before experienced and killing more than 200,000 people. Thirteen years later, I had already become inured to scenarios of the most dystopian kinds of global destruction—of a sort that would have turned those Martians into pikers—as the United States and the Soviet Union (in a distant second place) built up their nuclear arsenals at a staggering pace.
Nuclear obliteration had, by then, become part of our everyday way of life. After all, what American of a certain age who lived in a major city can’t remember, on some otherwise perfectly normal day, air-raid sirens suddenly beginning to howl outside your classroom window as the streets emptied? They instantly called up a vision of a world in ashes. Of course, we children had only a vague idea of what had happened under those mushroom clouds that rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we huddled under our desks, hands over heads, “ducking and covering” like Bert the Turtle while a radio on the teacher’s desk blared Conelrad warnings, we knew enough, however, to realize that those desks and hands were unlikely to save us from the world’s most powerful weaponry. The message being delivered wasn’t one of safety but of ultimate vulnerability to Russian nukes. After such tests, as historian Stephen Weart recalled in his book Nuclear Fear, “The press reported with ghoulish precision how many millions of Americans ‘died’ in each mock attack.”
If those drills didn’t add up to living an everyday vision of the apocalypse as a child, what would? I grew up, in other words, with a new reality: For the first time in history, humanity had in its hands Armageddon-like possibilities of a sort previously left to the gods. Consider, for instance, the US military’s Single Integrated Operational Plan of 1960 for a massive nuclear strike on the Communist world. It was, we now know, meant to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets, including at least 130 cities. Official, if then secret, estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured (and probably underestimated the longer-term effects of radiation).
In the early 1960s, a commonplace on the streets of New York where I lived was the symbol for “fallout shelters” (as they were then called), the places you would head for during just such an impending global conflagration. I still remember how visions of nuclear destruction populated my dreams (or rather nightmares) and those of my friends, as some would later admit to me. To this day, I can recall the feeling of sudden heat on one side of my body as a nuclear bomb went off on the distant horizon of one of those dreams. Similarly, I recall sneaking into a Broadway movie theater to see On the Beach with two friends—kids of our age weren’t allowed into such films without parents—and so getting a glimpse, popcorn in hand, of what a devastated, nuclearized San Francisco might look like. That afternoon at that film, I also lived through a post-nuclear-holocaust world’s end in Australia with no less than Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire for company.
An All-American Hate Week
So my life—and undoubtedly yours, too—has been lived, at least in part, as if in a dystopian novel. And certainly since November 2016—since, that is, the election of Donald Trump—the feeling (for me, at least) of being in just such a world, has only grown stronger. Worse yet, there’s nothing under the covers by flashlight about The Donald or his invasive vision of our American future. And this time around, as a nonmember of his “base,” it’s been anything but thrilling to the bone.
It was with such a feeling growing in me that, all these years later, I once again picked up Orwell’s classic novel and soon began wondering whether Donald Trump wasn’t our very own idiosyncratic version of Big Brother. If you remember, when Orwell finished the book in 1948 (he seems to have flipped that year for the title), he imagined an England, which was part of Oceania, one of the three superpowers left on the planet. The other two were Eurasia (essentially the old Soviet Union) and Eastasia (think a much-expanded China). In the book, the three of them are constantly at war with each other on their borderlands (mostly in South Asia and Africa), a war that is never meant to be either decisive or to end.
In Oceania’s Airstrip One (the former England), where Winston Smith is a minor functionary in the Ministry of Truth (a ministry of lies, of course), the Party rules eternally in a world in which—a classic Orwellian formulation—war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. It’s a world of “inner” Party members (with great privilege), an outer circle like Smith who get by, and below them a vast population of impoverished “proles.”
It’s also a world in which the present is always both the future and the past, while every document, every newspaper, every bit of history is constantly being rewritten—Smith’s job—to make it so. At the same time, documentation of the actual past is tossed down “the memory hole” and incinerated. It’s a world in which a “telescreen” is in every room, invariably announcing splendid news (that might have been terrible news in another time). That screen can also spy on you at just about any moment of your life. In that, Orwell, who lived at a time when TV was just arriving, caught something essential about the future worlds of surveillance and social media.
In his dystopian world, English itself is being reformulated into something called Newspeak, so that, in a distant future, it will be impossible for anyone to express a non-Party-approved thought. Meanwhile, whichever of those other two superpowers Oceania is at war with at a given moment, as well as a possibly mythical local opposition to the Party, are regularly subjected to a mass daily “two minutes hate” session and periodic “hate weeks.” Above all, it’s a world in which, on those telescreens and posters everywhere, the mustachioed face of Big Brother, the official leader of the Party—“Big Brother is watching you!”—hovers over everything, backed up by a Ministry of Love (of, that is, imprisonment, reeducation, torture, pain, and death).
That was Orwell’s image of a kind of Stalinist Soviet Union perfected for a future of everlasting horror. Today, it might be argued, Americans have been plunged into our own bizarre version of 1984. In our world, Donald Trump has, in some sense, absorbed into his own person more or less everything dystopian in the vicinity. In some strange fashion, he and his administration already seem like a combination of the Ministry of Truth (a ministry of eternal lies), the memory hole (down which the past, especially the Obama legacy and the president’s own discarded statements, disappear daily), the two-minutes-hate sessions and hate week that are the essence of any of his rallies (“Lock her up!” “Send her back!”), and recently the “hate” slaughter of Mexicans and Hispanics in El Paso, Texas, by a gunman with a Trumpian “Hispanic invasion of Texas” engraved in his brain. And don’t forget Big Brother.
In some sense, President Trump might be thought of as Big Brother flipped. In The Donald’s version of Orwell’s novel, he isn’t watching us every moment of the day and night, it’s we who are watching him in a historically unprecedented way. In what I’ve called the White Ford Bronco presidency, nothing faintly like the media’s 24/7 focus on him has ever been matched. No human being has ever been attended to, watched, or discussed this way—his every gesture, tweet, passing comment, half-verbalized thought, slogan, plan, angry outburst, you name it. In the past, such coverage only went with, say, a presidential assassination, not everyday life in the White House (or at Bedminster, Mar-a-Lago, his rallies, on Air Force One, wherever).
Room 101 (in 2019)
Think of Donald Trump’s America as, in some sense, a satirical version of 1984 in crazed formation. Not surprisingly, however, Orwell, remarkable as he was, fell short, as we all do, in imagining the future. What he didn’t see as he rushed to finish that novel before his own life ended makes the Trumpian present far more potentially dystopian than even he might have imagined. In his book, he created a nightmare vision of something like the Communist Party of the Stalin-era Soviet Union perpetuating itself into eternity by constantly regenerating and reinforcing a present-moment of ultimate power. For him, dystopia was an accentuated version of just such a forever, a “huge, accurately planned effort to freeze history at a particular moment of time,” as a document in the book puts it, to “arrest the course of history” for “thousands of years.”
Yes, in 1948, Orwell obviously knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the weaponry that went with them. (In 1984, he even mentions the use of such weaponry in the then-future 1950s.) What he didn’t imagine in his book was a dystopian world not of the grimmest kind of ongoingness but of endings, of ultimate destruction. He didn’t conjure up a nuclear apocalypse set off by one of his three superpowers and, of course, he had no way of imagining another kind of potential apocalypse that has become increasingly familiar to us all: climate change.
Unfortunately, on both counts, Donald Trump is proving dystopian indeed. He is, after all, the president who threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea (before falling in love with its dictator). He only recently claimed he could achieve victory in the almost 18-year-old Afghan War “in a week” by wiping that country “off the face of the Earth” and killing “10 million people.” For the first time, his generals used the “Mother of All Bombs,” the most powerful weapon in the United States conventional arsenal (with a mushroom cloud that, in a test at least, could be seen for 20 miles), in that same country, clearly to impress him.
More recently, beginning with its withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, his administration has started trashing the Cold War–era nuclear architecture of restraint that kept the great-power arsenals under some control. In the process, it’s clearly helping to launch a wildly expensive new nuclear arms race on Planet Earth. And keep in mind that this is happening at a time when we know that a relatively localized nuclear war between regional powers like India and Pakistan (whose politicians are once again at each other’s throats over Kashmir) could create a global nuclear winter and starve to death up to a billion people.
And keep in mind as well that all of the above may prove to be the lesser of Donald Trump’s dystopian acts when it comes to the ultimate future of humanity. After all, he and his administration are, in just about every way imaginable, doing their damnedest to aid and abet climate change by ensuring that ever more carbon will be released into the atmosphere, warming an already overheated planet further. That’s the very planet on which humanity has, since 1990, burned half of all the fossil fuels ever used. Despite the Paris climate accord and much talk about the necessity of getting climate change under some kind of control, carbon is still being released into the atmosphere at record levels. (Not surprisingly, US emissions began rising again in 2018.)
This summer, amid fierce heat waves in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, as well as the setting of global heat records, with parts of the Arctic literally burning (while heating twice as fast as the world average), with Greenland melting, and the Antarctic losing sea ice in record amounts, some of the predictions of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the relatively distant future already seem to be in sight. As climate scientist Marco Tedesco put it recently, speaking of the Arctic, “We are seeing ice melting now that we expected 30 to 40 years from now.”
We are, in other words, already on a dystopian planet. With threats to the world’s food supply and the swamping of coastal cities lying in our future, with the migration of previously unheard of populations in that same future, with heat rising to levels that may, in some places, become unbearable, leaving parts of the planet uninhabitable, it is at least possible now to imagine the future collapse of civilization itself.
And keep in mind as well that our own twisted version of Big Brother, that guy with the orange hair instead of the mustache, could be around to be watched for significantly longer, should he win the election of 2020. (His polling numbers have, on the whole, been slowly rising, not falling in these years.)
In other words, with the American president lending a significant hand, we may make it to 2084 far sooner than anyone expected. With that in mind, let’s return for a moment to 1984. As no one who has read Orwell’s book is likely to forget, its mildly dissident anti-hero, Winston Smith, is finally brought into the Ministry of Love by the Thought Police to have his consciousness retuned to the needs of the Party. In the process, he’s brutally tortured until he can truly agree that 2 + 2 = 5. Only when he thinks he’s readjusted his mind to fit the Party’s version of the world does he discover that his travails are anything but over.
He still has to visit Room 101. As his interrogator tells him, “You asked me once what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” And that “worst thing” is always adjusted to the specific terrors of the specific prisoner.
So here’s one way to think of where we are at this moment on Planet Earth: Americans—all of humanity, in fact—may already be in Room 101, whether we know it or not, and the truth is, by this steaming summer, that most of us should know it.
It’s obviously time to act on a global scale. Tell that to Big Brother.