In a crowd looking at four lights

>> Tuesday, February 14, 2017

With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.
- Andrew Sullivan, "The Madness of King Donald"
New York Magazine, February 10th, 2017.

Except this isn't the real source of trepidation.  At some point, the shock and wonder that Big Brother is constantly dominating the news with lie after lie after lie wears off; you no longer are provoked and surprised, you roll your eyes and you laugh and shoot knowing looks at your neighbors--

And that is when the trepidation sets in.  Because some of your neighbors shoot knowing looks back, are rolling their eyes and laughing right along with you... but not all of them.  And you look around and realize that a number of people--a surprising number of people, aren't rolling their eyes and laughing and shooting knowing looks: a surprising number of people are nodding in agreement, are looking grim and serious.

None of that is necessarily literal, of course: it's reading the comment threads on articles about the latest round of lies, it's reading Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, it's stumbling into a conversation with a friend or relative who shocks you by repeating some new lie or old bit of gaslighting.  It seems self-evident, doesn't it, that there aren't five lights and the proper response to anyone saying that there are five lights is to shout back that there are only four--or maybe even to giggle, because even a small child can count to four and stop.  But there are people all around who are saying "Five," yes of course, there were always five.

And they don't even appear to be under duress, is the thing, you know.

You think to yourself, "Anyone who believes this has got to be stupid," and you look around again... and, again, no.  No, not really.  You see people nodding and affirming--there are five lights and three million illegal voters and seventy-eight unreported terrorist attacks on U.S. soil--and among them are people who have educations and careers and whose opinions you might have valued yesterday if you'd asked them for advice about buying a car or who to call about a leaking water heater or to suggest a good restaurant to take out-of-towners to.  People you'd listen to, or would have thought you'd have listened to, and now look at them.

You wonder, have you stumbled into an Asch conformity experiment?  Or did you lose your mind?  Or did they?  Who are these people?  Where did they come from?  And how did you get in here with them?

And this is when the existential horror sets in, because, really, there are only two possibilities, and they're both just awful.  The first is that you're right, but the world is crazier and far less stable and safe than you believed.  You are surrounded by people who are untrustworthy on a very fundamental level, the level of agreeing to a consensual reality.  Or, the second possibility, they're right and you've lost your mind if you ever had it, you're delusional, and you're crazier and far less stable and safe than you believed, and you are untrustworthy on a very fundamental level of being a part of a consensual reality.

An Asch conformity experiment?  Nevermind: you've wandered into a Philip K. Dick novel.

It's easy to forget that this is one of the real horrors of Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (since Sullivan alluded to Orwell).  The superficial horror is the one everyone remembers, Big Brother looking down from everywhere, but this isn't unlike thinking the monster is named Frankenstein.  Big Brother's surveillance state doesn't extend to the proles, it only covers those who are in the party, and not all the time, and a party rank-and-filer like Winston is frequently able to find a nook here or there to maintain a diary or conduct an illicit affair (even if, spoiler, those things might ultimately turn out to have been dangled in front of him to provoke him into thoughtcrime for the party's unfathomable purposes).  No, the real horror is the Memory Hole, the real horror is that Winston is facing a world that changes day by day and his own recollection of the pre-war, pre-Oceania world is constantly being eroded by the party's daily rewrites of what he knows to be true; and rather than being able to depend on other human beings to support his recall, he is surrounded by Two-Minute Haters who go along with the erosion of objectivity, sadistic cynics who don't care whether there's a reality or not so long as they get theirs, and a few like-minded people who will inevitably let him down and betray him.

I think we forget sometimes, that the point behind Orwellian ideas like Newspeak isn't that people say one thing meaning the opposite just for its own purpose, or even for the purpose of merely obscuring truths; Orwell was positing a much nastier, much more insidious idea: that language could be infantilized to a point that reality became impossible to talk about in the first place.  That you could turn language into gibberish not to hide what a state actor was doing (though that might be a definite plus), but rather to keep people from establishing a consensual reality where, say for instance, "freedom" or "justice" are meaningful things, things that have a common reality, however abstract, so that we can have a conversation about freedom or justice where we have a mutual understanding in which the conversation takes root and from which it blossoms.

Winston is alone in his ideas and memories, even though there are surely other people equally alone with shared ones.  All these islands of thought, in an ocean of consensual delusion.

That is at least as frightening as a ratcage hat.





1 comments:

Keri Knutson Tuesday, February 14, 2017 at 1:40:00 PM EST  

This is it, I think. Not just that we have unstable and malicious administration doing horrifying things, but that the situation is literally eroding a shared reality. And most importantly, looking at the people around you, some of them your friends and family, and finding them untrustworthy on a fundamental level. That way lies madness.

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