Back in the time when I was required to read Orwell in school, we did it from the moral heights of a soon-to-be Cold War victor. In 1984, America still considered itself good and right and the enemy an “evil empire.” While we couldn’t know what would happen within the next five years or so, I think we could sense our Cold War victory coming to fruition. We also processed Orwell’s imagined dystopia through our “we share the same biology, regardless of ideology” (Sting) worldview. We all knew that the Soviets weren’t literally forced to believe that “two and two made five,” but didn’t really understand to what this allegory really applied.
It is in today’s America where I can see the examples of Orwell’s absurdities brought to life. For most who read Orwell, I suspect part of the disconnect is the gap between his context and our own. First off, he modeled 1984 more off the Nazis than the Soviets (although, Animal Farm, also required reading, allegorizes the latter). He writes from a time where the sins of Hitler’s Germany were not only fresh in everyone’s minds, but based on current knowledge of actual Nazi atrocities. Certainly, the general public was not privy to the inner-workings of the German war machine. However, unlike today, the fear of Nazis was based on the experience of a war just fought and far less a projection of modern fears and prejudice. Similarly, in using the concept of “2 + 2 = 4” as a stand-in for “obvious and irrefutable truth,” he could likely rely on the education of his readers to understand the historical power behind that statement. That equation, as stand-in for natural law, is nearly as old as the Church of England herself. Orwell and his readers might also be aware of Descartes’ use of it in his 1641 Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, where he explores the relationship between self-evidence, truth, and reality. Are they indeed all equivalent? How can we know?
In any case, today’s society lacks both the memory of a World War and that generation’s classical education to help us understand Orwell’s warnings from Orwell’s own perspective.
As much as Orwell seems to have predicted some of what we are going through now, we haven’t come to here in a way he would recognize. For me, it requires the perspective of those who’ve lived through Soviet Occupation to bring help make sense of the purpose of (seemingly) counter-productive social engineering. Soviet (and presumably Nazi) dogma included a combination of actual facts, politically necessary falsehoods, and outright absurdities. Voltaire (as Orwell’s education would have learnt him) explained why the last is necessary. Forcing you to accept that which is obviously not true also helps you swallow those less obviously false, but politically necessary, falsehoods upon which the system relies. Voltaire also explains how by getting into your mind and adjusting what you think, a totalitarian can also control what you would do. Ultimately you will cease to even question doing things that would otherwise be unthinkable.
From someone who grew up in a conquered Soviet territory, I was given further insight. Under such a system, you are constantly required to remember what you’re allowed to say and what you’re not. The fact that you can’t actually reason out right from wrong or good from bad means you do have to carefully remember. The more ridiculous, absurd, and even obviously, self-evidently false the “fact” you must recite, the better. With such requirements, logical thinking becomes counter-productive. A liability. It is actually dangerous to think critically about what you’re told when that risks your arriving at a thought whereby you might, unknowingly, contradict Party-proscribed truth. The result is a docile society that must actively avoid questioning anything – just in case it can get one in trouble.
Seeing Stalin’s rules reflected in today’s America should frighten everyone. Probably not everyone sees it. Maybe even history will prove that I am overreacting; that society can take this in stride and resolve it as we’ve always resolved our political questions. However, that’s not what I wanted to write about today.
Back in the 1980s, I had a college roommate who was into the Weekly World News. We didn’t have money to throw around, but he could still occasionally talk us into picking up a copy of this tabloid of tabloids. This printed newspaper* was filled with crazy stories about Elvis being seen alive, evidence of psychic powers, UFO sightings, and the like. The articles were written in complete earnestness, no matter how crazy the topic.
Having developed a taste for the Weekly World News habit, I began to take an interest in its details. Many of the stories contained therein were not made up out of whole cloth, but sourced from other news outlets. One of those sources was (apparently) legitimate newspapers from Russia. Starting in the late 80s, with Gorbachev’s Glasnost, the Soviet official news agency began publishing reports of UFO sightings. The most famous is referred to as the “Voronezh UFO incident,” where, supposedly, a group of kids not only saw aliens but actually witnessed the abduction of a teenager. This was not first UFO story to be reported as fact by TASS (acronym for Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union in Russian) and I’m not sure it was the last. The Soviet Unions days, however, were numbered.
In the early 1990s, after the Soviet breakup, fanciful stories detailing all kinds of supernatural activity were reported throughout Russia and made its way to Americans via the Weekly World News. It wasn’t just UFOs. All manner of “news of the weird” seemed to be readily available to Russian readers.
This comes to mind today as I read, in this past weekend’s Wall St. Journal, an opinion piece about the UFO and the military (In the Mood for UFOs?). Columnist Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. sees the currently-popular story (which I’ll admit I have not been following) as one more example of the decline of professional journalism in America. Is this sufficient to explain what we are seeing?
This may all be looking for meaning where none is to be found. The instinct that leads me to correlate Russian newspaper articles with Orwellian thought control is the same that leads people to believe in UFOs in the first place. Our minds are designed to create patterns out of what we see. Particularly when the world is throwing scary, confusing, and (often) contradictory information at us, we want to believe that it all fits into some grand scheme. Whether that scheme be benign or sinister, in either we find comfort.
An association of UFO reporting to Soviet psychological manipulation is hard to justify. Most of the Russian stories surfaced only post-Soviet Union. For those that weren’t, they only seemed to appear in the last year or two before the fall of The Wall. The Soviet authorities themselves had little patience for the supernatural. Belief was to be grounded in the material. Visitors coming from other worlds sounds a little too religious to comport with the ideals of Communism.
The horror of 2020 feels like it should have some greater meaning**, even though it is far more likely that it does not.
*The printed version ended it’s 28-year run in 2007. It has been reborn as a website, but I’d think as a virtual entity it would simply become lost in all the crazy, conspiracy-laden sites that pepper the internet.
**So here’s something that begs for assignment of greater meaning: no sooner did I complete my first draft of this article when I started seeing Twitter posts defending assertions that 2 + 2 = 5.