Zeitgeist

From Orwell to Gladwell and Back

October 05, 2016

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From Orwell to Gladwell and Back

In politics, secrecy and silence are becoming less practical, while noise and distortion are coming to dominate. Thus, the 2016 election raises questions of how strategies of political power are evolving as we move from an age of information scarcity to one of superabundance.

Almost by definition, the powerful in the future will still continue to exercise dominion over the minds of men, but their methods of manipulation will change.

The technology of power is moving from the past’s emphasis on privacy and concealment toward more contemporary techniques of diversion, bias, misconception, and willful stupidity. The crude methods that George Orwell summed up in his image of the incinerator-chute “memory hole” are growing into more sophisticated devices for providing the public with misleading frameworks for mentally organizing (or rationalizations for simply ignoring) the overload of available facts, thus making it harder to remember or understand politically inconvenient knowledge.

In the past, outright censorship was more useful. During the Egyptian counterrevolution over 3,300 years ago following the reign of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten (a.k.a. Amenhotep IV), his statues were smashed and his name laboriously scraped from the walls. His memory, and that of his queen Nefertiti and son Tutankhamun, were largely expunged from history until the archaeological discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Admittedly, the history of the damnatio memoriae in which losers are excised from the chronicles is inherently paradoxical because it’s hard for us to know if it happened unless it failed at least enough for us to have heard of the unperson.

Still, erasing facts and even people from history could sometimes work because in the past, information was scarce since reproducing it was so expensive.

Even without political ill will, simply maintaining the knowledge already existent was difficult: Libraries, for example, might catch fire and texts (and thus knowledge) could be lost forever.

With the invention of the movable-type printing press in the West in the 1400s, redundancy began to win the war against knowledge decay. Eventually, there were enough copies of books that knowledge was unlikely to be fully expunged.

In modern times, the urge to retcon reality is no doubt as strong as in the past. But information storage and communication are so cheap that old techniques such as book burnings can hardly be counted upon anymore to root out all copies of data.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith labors at the Ministry of Truth rectifying the past, rewriting old newspapers to fit with the latest party line of who are now the good guys and who the bad guys.

“In the current year, we now know that plenty of people would join the Volunteer Auxiliary Thought Police for free.”

In the Soviet Union a half decade after 1984 was published, the abrupt fall of Stalin’s successor Beria led to a letter-from-the-editor of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia instructing readers to cut out the admiring article on Beria and replace it with the enclosed expanded articles on the Bering Sea and other alphabetically adjacent topics.

We see some of the old-fashioned memory-hole techniques at work currently with Wikipedia.

For example, the heroine of Hillary Clinton’s debate climax, Venezuelan immigrant Alicia Machado, has labored tirelessly for two decades to make herself famous in the Spanish-speaking world. But most of the former Miss Universe’s renown has come from multiple scandals, such as being accused by witnesses of driving the getaway car when her boyfriend shot his ex-brother-in-law and then threatening the judge in their case with murder. (Here’s her amusing answer on CNN when Anderson Cooper asked her about those allegations.)

In reality, Machado is a cross between two characters on Tina Fey’s sitcom 30 Rock: Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney, a dim but relentless, publicity-seeking, aging actress doing whatever it takes to hang on as a celebrity; and Salma Hayek’s Elisa Pedrera, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy’s homicidal fiancée who, while unknown in the U.S., is notorious in her native Puerto Rico for murdering her husband in a jealous rage.

Of course, that Machado is an utter stereotype of the telenovela actress means that it’s harder for gringo goodthinkers to understand her, since they’ve been indoctrinated that pattern recognition is wrong.

Machado’s many skeletons in the closet raise questions not only about her credibility but also about Hillary’s judgment, and, most important, about just how much vetting immigrants get. In an era when it’s easy to look people up on the internet, why was Machado, who is notoriously drawn to violent men, recently granted the vote?

Last week, you could still find on Wikipedia two of Ms. Machado’s more recent misadventures:

In 2005, Machado was engaged to baseball star Bobby Abreu. During their engagement she was on the Spanish reality show ‘La Granja’ where she was filmed on camera having sex with another member of the show. Shortly after the video surfaced Abreu ended their engagement.

On June 25, 2008, Machado gave birth to her daughter, Dinorah Valentina. She issued a statement that the father of Dinorah was her best friend Mexican businessman Rafael Hernandez Linares after Mexican news sources, quoting the Attorney General, reported that the father was Gerardo Álvarez Vázquez, a drug lord.

But mentions of these imbroglios have since been memory holed on Wikipedia. Editors have offered bizarre excuses for deleting the most interesting information about Hillary’s heroine, such as that the diva is not a “public figure,” an assertion that would surely wound the actress more deeply than allegations that she’s a gangster’s moll.

That points out an answer to one of the more obvious questions about the plausibility of Orwell’s 1984: How can they afford that? Is it really fiscally feasible even for a totalitarian government to employ an army of salaried Winston Smiths to alter history?

Yet it’s naive to imagine that a government would have to pay people to do this kind of thing. In the current year, we now know that plenty of people would join the Volunteer Auxiliary Thought Police for free.

The memory hole, however, isn’t the only technique for regulating ideas. Among professional journalists, a trend is to take refuge in pedantic obscurantism about the meaning of terms. For example, Donald Trump’s reference to Alicia’s notorious tape of sex with a fellow reality-show participant as a “sex tape” has been widely denounced as totally lacking in verification, even though you can watch it yourself in ten seconds.

For example, Maureen Dowd wrote in her column in The New York Times that Trump is “offering no evidence that one exists.” Dowd is a worldly woman, so her submission to the party line must feel at least a little bit humiliating for her.

Orwell called this process crimestop, or “protective stupidity.” Trump brings out in journalists, to a remarkable degree, “the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments…and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.”


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