I’ve seen a few people talking about books that helped them understand 2016. The year is taken to have agency and personality, to have its own causal force. “Really? Really? It’s 2016.” has turned into “Stop doing this to me, 2016.” I have just read – for the very first time, I’m ashamed to say – a book that helped me understand not only the year, but the (needless to say metaphysically suspect) practice of anthropomorphizing it: George Orwell’s 1984. (I will try to avoid spoilers herein.) Now in late January 2017 (I began this post on December 31st, 2016, but left it hanging) a lot of people are talking about 1984 was a way to understand Donald Trump. They may be proven right, but they should begin by understanding themselves.
Early on in the book the protagonist Winston Smith speaks with a philologist, Syme, about the manufactured language Newspeak. Syme is explaining the inevitability of the victory of Newspeak over Oldspeak (English), the gradual achievement of “narrow[ing] the range of thought” and “mak[ing] thoughtcrime literally impossible” by making sure “there [are] no words in which to express it”. He asks: “Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very least, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?” And, though he doesn’t quite say it, our hero wants to respond: “Except the proles.”
2016 was quite a year for the proles of these United States of America!
A friend said something like: “You made good predictions this election cycle because you had a special perspective on the current moment.” Of course this was both flattering and insecurity-inducing. Just this cycle? Just this moment? When will I lose this special perspective, and how can I maintain it?
Some people made some even better predictions than I did. Many were Trump supporters, so we can’t give them too much credit. One was Scott Adams, the weird-ass hypnotist and Dilbert cartoonist who wrote a series of blog posts about Trump’s “master persuasion techniques”. Another was Salena Zito, a Pittsburgh-based commentator who was writing for I don’t even know what little paper last summer, and is now a CNN contributor. Maybe most maddening was Ann Coulter, even more rabid in her attacks on establishment Republicans than in her attacks on liberals; I’m no longer really certain whether she’s a “professional troll”, as I used to think, or a true believer in who-knows-what, or something else. They’re not sublime writers or thinkers. They rarely turn beautiful phrases. Their explanations of their observations often seem just wrong. So how do they outpace us when it comes to predictions?
In 1984, society is split into three classes: the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the proles. The Inner Party runs the show in some kind of quasi-meritocratic oligarchy, and they get a lot of nice things nobody else gets: they live in the nicest neighborhoods, they eat the best food, they easily acquire the things Outer Partiers never seem able to find, and they seem relatively exempt from Thought Police intrusion. The manual-laborer proles have the worst material conditions, but maybe spiritually are not so badly off: they don’t need to constantly hew to Party dogma in public beyond the occasional burst of patriotic fervor. On the other hand, once a prole is spotted as an independent thinker, they are usually killed. The protagonist is from the Outer Party. As far as I can tell, these are basically nine-to-five bureaucrats under constant surveillance by the police and by each other who work mainly to keep the Party running.
I am agnostic as to the existence of an Inner Party on the American political left. Nor do I need to convince you that those of us in something like the Outer Party – academics, journalists, nonprofit workers, maybe even some creative types and celebrities, and the vast majority of social media users – have been acting as our own Thought Police, though I believe that to an extent. Mainly I want you to consider: has our language and thought been narrowing? And if so, what might the proles be able to say or remember that we can’t? I don’t have anything particular in mind myself (beyond all the examples of journalistic and academic inaccuracy I’ve already discussed on this blog), but one might consider in this context the finding that the stereotypes people hold about groups are more likely to be accurate than the work of actual social scientists. Of course we needn’t buy into laypeople’s explanations of these stereotypes, and in general we can still be plenty progressive in our attributions of the causes of social phenomena. Still, we Outer Party members should be humbled by our epistemic failures. It’s not that Scott Adams is right when he says “Donald Trump won because America wanted a Dad, not a Mom,” or whatever. But he could be righter than we were. And certainly the proles en masse, under at least close to Condorcet conditions, could be righter than us, if we’re all desperate to echo at all times the same views from the same books, at least when truth is not the goal of those writing them.
O’Brien’s speeches near the end of 1984 are remarkably similar to texts one might read in any of the modern American university’s postmodern departments – English, some history, sociology, cultural studies. Nor is this so malevolent: faculty in these disciplines try to describe oppression, and activists trained in them simply try to fight fire with fire. The problem is that they often fight smoke with fire instead. Such smoke rises simply from the choochoo-chugging-along of normal, good humans trying to do their best, without hurting anyone else, to represent the world around them accurately, to standard human-animal goals like survival, reproduction, and protection of kin and community. These are the engines of human cognition and concept-formation, not “white supremacy” (or “fragility”), “patriarchy”, or even “class interest”. These engines are not without enormous flaws, of course, though these flaws were probably adaptive in the ancestral environment; and the gravitational pull of “ingroup”/”outgroup” distinctions is one such. But awareness of the biases (of all kinds) of human thought does not necessitate the wholesale abandonment of “prole” knowledge – knowledge which, in fact, is acquired using methods tested by generation upon generation, in the cities and towns and forests and caves of all our ancestors back to the primordial ooze. It is rather odd to believe that “genealogy” or “deconstruction” afford us a better chance of capturing what we want to capture about the world. (Contrast this with the exact sciences, which are testable, usually precise, and don’t make moral prescriptions…)
So, if you’re ever interested in telling the truth, here’s a good first step: Give your inner “prole” some air, or if you can’t, talk to some people who have – at length. We’re the descendants of great apes, of Neanderthals, of men and women culled to mere thousands of individuals in the Horn of Africa who fought wild beasts to survive and fought each other to reproduce. For the most part, our instincts guide us toward truth except insofar as they’re too quick to tell us we’re in danger. They are the tools of biology, not of ideology. This doesn’t make them infallible, but it does make them, to a certain degree, innocent. When the “proles” seem to disagree with us, we might start by wondering how to figure out what they actually believe, how to measure it against what we believe, and what sort of evidence either group might be missing, rather than by wondering who is brainwashing them this time – as though constant engagement in politics puts one further from, rather than nearer to, the forces that might want to shape our thoughts and stances.
2016 was indeed a crazy year. A businessman who dominated media coverage and polling all the way through the Republican primary won that primary. A fiery public speaker with strong evidence of personal integrity and unwavering commitment to his views performed decently against a historically unpopular and scandal-ridden frontrunner in the Democratic primary. Turnout was low for the least-liked general election candidates in recent memory, and in the end a few states where polling had been neck-and-neck between the two went one way rather than the other. Budweiser lost money on its Rogen-Schumer ad campaign; the NFL lost money for all sorts of reasons. Celebrities turned out not to be immortal. They also turned out not to be omnipotent, or even politically helpful. Snarky twentysomethings and talking-head pundits turned out not to be omniscient. Widely-publicized hate crimes turned out not to have occurred at all. Juries reacted against the ironic superiority and ideological motivations of Gawker and Rolling Stone. The failure of the president-elect to garner any endorsement from a single major newspaper turned out not to decide the election.
All of this, the terror wrought by a year with a will of its own, came as a great shock to everyone.
Except the proles!