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‘1984’ Was Supposed To Be A Warning, Not A DIY Manual For Progressives


Few works of literature have bequeathed so large a stock of words and phrases to our contemporary idiom as Orwell’s “1984.” Terms like “Big Brother,” “Newspeak,” and “memory hole” have become ubiquitous in our political discourse. A boot stamping on a face has become an almost-universal symbol for the totalitarian tendency of so many modern regimes.

One of the most famous lines from the work is Winston Smith’s conviction (scribbled down clandestinely in his journal, although eventually discovered by the Thought Police) that “freedom is the freedom to say 2 + 2 = 4.” Deceptively simple, this line actually sheds a great deal of light upon the present state of politics in our own country.

One could read Winston’s declaration in a fairly straightforward way, as emphasizing the central importance of the freedom to speak the truth, against the attempts of modern regimes to stifle such expression. But Orwell’s text makes it clear the line has a rather thicker philosophical meaning than this.

It is, after all, a mathematical statement that is the truth to be told, and mathematical statements are paradigmatically objective statements; i.e., statements about a reality that has some form or degree of independence from individual interpretation, and which are subject to public concurrence. So Winston’s dictum means, in the first place, that real freedom consists in the ability to acknowledge a realm of publically accessible truth, and this in turn implies that the possibility of political freedom depends on the postulate that there is a realm of publically accessible truth in the first place.

The Truth Is Whatever the Powerful Say It Is

The reason becomes evident later in the novel. Hooked up to a machine of torture in the Ministry of Love, Winston’s interrogator O’Brien subjects him to a discourse on the perverse nature of truth in Oceania:

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.

Thus, when O’Brien grills Winston about his knowledge of history, he demands of him: “The truth, please, Winston. Your truth.” Winston is being told, “You tell me your account of history,” with O’Brien’s evident implication following, “then I will tell you mine.” What if they do not concur? How does one publically arbitrate questions of truth in world made up exclusively of viewpoints?

“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”


“And if the Party says that it is not four but five – then how many?”


The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five…The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop…

“How many fingers, Winston?”


The needle went up to sixty.

“How many fingers, Winston?”

“Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!”

The needle must have risen again, but he did not look at it. The heavy, stern face and the four fingers filled his vision. The fingers stood up before his eyes like pillars, enormous, blurry, and seeming to vibrate, but unmistakably four.

“How many fingers, Winston?”

“Four! Stop it! Stop it! How can you go on? Four, four!”

“How many fingers, Winston?”

“Five, five, five.”

In a world devoid of public reason, a world reduced to so many incommensurable viewpoints, the truth becomes whatever those in power say it is. The one who turns the dial on the torture machine gets to determine which viewpoint prevails. That is why O’Brien ends his discourse quoted earlier with a qualification:

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.

Of course, the Party can make no real claim to superior wisdom or knowledge, which would entail a thorough and consistent correspondence between its judgments and the reality of things. No such claims are possible in a society that has excluded a “reality of things” from its public deliberations. The only reason the Party’s viewpoint prevails is because it has the power to make it prevail. In a world devoid of public reason, power is the only determination of what is true.

Relativism Makes Way for Totalitarianism

So by the end of the novel, the ultimate sign of Winston’s moral dissolution at O’Brien’s hands is his own skepticism about a realm of publicly accessible truth:

Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. ‘If I wished,’ O’Brien had said, ‘I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.’ Winston worked it out. ‘If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.’

There is no feature of nature more objective, more viewpoint-independent than gravity. Let anyone jump out of a seven-story window to impose his viewpoint on this phenomenon, and he will find it impervious to such revisionary interpretations. Yet Winston is convinced that this phenomenon too is merely “in the mind.”

In such a state of mind, Winston is prepared to submit to the unquestioned rule of Big Brother—indeed, to acknowledge his love of Big Brother, as the novel famously concludes. Convinced now that the truth can only be what those in power decree that it is, he has no standard by which to question or critique the exercise of that power.

There is a long story to tell about the rise of philosophical skepticism in the West over the last six or seven centuries, and its correspondent intrusion into our political discourse. But the endpoint of this cultural trajectory is before us. The biological reality of maleness and femaleness is at least as objective, at least as viewpoint-independent as the physical reality of gravity.

Winston’s submission to Big Brother would have been no less abject had he dismissed the first as nonsense, as he did the second. Recent attempts to fashion laws explicitly denying biological reality can only be understood as the terminal state of absurdity after political discourse has been subjected to generations of absolute skepticism. They are the sort of dictates promulgated when an entire civilization becomes convinced that “reality exists in the human mind.”

Hello, Thought Police

When the reprehensible Zoe Lofgren barks down a witness, screaming “bigot” over the woman’s entirely sensible rejoinders, she is simply playing the role of O’Brien, making it clear that she and her friends have the power, and will henceforth determine what is true and what is not. No appeal to public reason will be tolerated.

Those who possess the modern forms of power are able to implement their wildest policies upon the people.

Similarly, when a judge in Oregon decrees that a person can be neither male or female, but something called “binary,” she is declaring her capacity to determine cases with absolutely zero regard for reality, the same capacity that would allow her to determine that a defendant was floating like a soap bubble all around the courtroom. These people have no torture machines at their disposal, but they have the law, they have the media, and they have the backing of corporate America, and these things provide them with the necessary implements to harry dissenters into conformity.

The parallels in this regard between Orwell’s dystopia and the latest news stories are just about exact. This should be a cause of alarm. We are still surrounded by the remnants of a viable political order, an order developed by persons who felt the need to conform their policies, however imperfectly, to a publicly discernible reality.

But that order is rapidly disintegrating, and being replaced by a portentous condition in which those who possess the modern forms of power are able to implement their wildest policies upon the people, no matter how far these stray from reality. We do not yet in this country have the rule of Big Brother—not quite. But recent trends have made it undeniably clear that we now have the climate of thought necessary for such a regime to arise.