2 + 2 = 4

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George Orwell’s 1984 grabbed a hold of me when I read it in high school back in the 1980s, and it hasn’t let go since. But never did I think I’d actually be living through it, the way it appears all of us are today.

Near the end of the book, after Winston’s secret life with Julia has been discovered and rubbed out, the pace of Orwell’s writing becomes frantic. Everything is gone, nothing matters anymore, and Winston is holding fast to the idea that some things are objectively true.

“2+2 =4. Remember that!” Orwell admonishes us all. The powers that be –IngSoc in the novel itself–will tell you that 2+2 =5, but we must always be ready to assert that the truth is not what someone else decides it is. 2+2 has to equal four, because if we ever give up and allow it to equal five, they win and the rest of us lose.

At the Golden Globes the other night, Meryl Streep gave a speech about Trump mocking a reporter with a disability. Trump (and that’s all he’ll ever be to me–no titles will be appended to his name on January 20th) responded with his typical bluster and buffoonery, first by calling her overrated (which is demonstrably not true) and stating that he did not mock the reporter.

I know what mocking looks like. It’s impossible to find someone who hasn’t actively been mocked, or mocked someone else, or stood by as another was being mocked. Mockery is the fruit of the bad side of human nature, and we’ve all seen it. For Trump to say he didn’t mock the reporter is the same thing as trying to tell us that 2+2 =5. The question is are we willing to cast aside that which we know (2+2=4) and allow others to define it for us, instead?

I’m hereby calling bullshit on that. Orwell tells us to hold fast to what we know, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Trump could very easily offer an apology for what he did, even though it wouldn’t be the tiniest bit sincere. He could use the old “I apologize if anyone was offended” line that gets used all the time in statements like this. But no, that’s not who he is. The four years ahead of us all are scarier than anything I’ve ever contemplated. But 2+2 is always going to equal 4 to me, no matter what Donald Trump says to the contrary.

 

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Years in the life

Orwell A few days ago, I made a discovery that I didn’t want to make. I found a website listing ages and the names of well-known people who died at each of them. Curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to see who else had died at my current age of whatever-it-is (I know the number, but I don’t want to put it down for posterity here).

My favorite author is George Orwell, and it turns out that he died at the same age that I am now. If I can make it to my next birthday, I’ll have outlived him, in the way that I already have with Elvis and Thoreau and Jimi Hendrix. Each of them lived a whole lot more than I have (and that’s why we remember them still), but in reducing life down to one number, I have them beat.

My next birthday is still four months away, and until it gets here I’ll think of George Orwell often. Here’s hoping I’ll get to leave him behind soon.

He loved Big Brother

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George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. I first read it back in high school–and it might actually have been in 1984–because a teacher assigned it to me. In fact, I still have the paperback copy that I acquired in the bookstore of a high school that no longer exists. It followed me to college, and has remained in my book collection ever since. It’s not the longest-standing book I have, but it’s certainly one of them.

I read the book again in the mid-1990s, because I was tutoring a high school student who was also reading it at the time. The book had more meaning to me in my 20s than it did in high school. I found that it was still an engaging read.

Yesterday I finished reading the book for a third time, in preparation for a book club discussion at work. I think of this as a perk of working in the publishing industry. The bound version that I have also includes Animal Farm, and I intend to read that shortly, as well. But 1984 was the title at hand, and I re-re-read it, with twenty years of life experience that I didn’t have the last time around.

The funny thing is that I relate to the book’s principal character, Winston Smith, in a way that I never could before. He seemed like a broken-down old man the first times that I read it, and now I’m closer to being him myself. And I found myself frightened of the world Orwell describes, in a way I had never been before.

A world where love and independent thought and departure from social norms aren’t allowed to exist–and the impulses for these things are stomped out through physical torture–is completely abhorrent to me. And yet, as I was reading the book, I found that human apathy and passiveness are the conditions which would allow such a state to take hold. And there’s plenty of those to go around.

Things like science and literature were anathema to the world of Ingsoc, and the ruling Party that Winston upholds before straying from it. The Thought Police was the mechanism that was used to rule society, by any and all means necessary. Winston and his girlfriend Julia hated the Party, and they hated Big Brother, but the Party could not allow them to stray from the societal herd. It’s a vision of society which every single dystopian novel, from The Giver to Divergent, owes an enormous debt.

The book is divided into three parts, and I devoured the final part over the course of a few hours yesterday. I hurtled through the last few chapters, reading of the extreme cruelty inflicted upon Winston in the Ministry of Love. And the final few pages, when the story comes to its heartbreaking conclusion, were read amid the tumult of intermission at a high school talent performance. The bedlam of teenagers greeting the friends and family who had come to watch them perform was exactly the sonic background needed to bring such a compelling read to its conclusion.

At one point in the book, before things go bad for Winston, he states that “Truisms are true, hold onto that!” The book uses the example of “2+2=4” over and over again to impress it’s point on the reader. If the Party says that 2+2=5, loyalty demands that this point be believed. 2+2 could also equal 3, if that’s what the Party decides. And nobody is allowed to think any differently, lest they be tortured as Winston was.

The book broke my heart, particularly when Winston and his former love Julia meet near the end of the book. The Party did a number on both of them, and the result is the type of a numbed existence that no one would ever want to experience for themselves.

Truisms are true, and independent thought–even if it means deviating from what the rest of society believes–is essential. A dying George Orwell posited this many decades ago, and we would do well to keep his words close to our hearts today.