A fitting best-seller for 2017 is a novel written in 1948 called “1984.” “Post-truth,” “fake news,” “alternative facts” — Big Brother would feel right at home among us.
Everybody knows who Big Brother is. He is the ubiquitous face of “the Party,” whose totalitarian rule over a North Korea-like country called Oceania operates through a Ministry of Truth that in effect is a Ministry of Post-Truth.
Dark days lay ahead when “1984” appeared in 1949. Was author George Orwell a prophet? Nuclear war threatened and totalitarianism ruled half the globe, its fall and democracy’s survival by no means assured. Was Big Brother the face of the future?
He was not, and by 1984 this was starting to become clear. U.S. President Ronald Reagan had been re-elected proclaiming “morning in America.” Japan’s economy was soaring. The clouds were lifting. “1984” never lost the classic status it acquired almost immediately upon publication, but 1984 was not “1984.” We had survived: democratic, free, prosperous — the masters, not the slaves, of our wondrous technology.
Something strange happened as 2017 dawned. Lots of strange things happened as 2017 dawned. Reflecting some of them is one of them: a surge in sales of “1984,” which is suddenly looking prophetic again.
Its neo-best-seller status follows a heated exchange in January, days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, between a presidential adviser and a TV news journalist who charged the infant White House team with blatant falsehood. Not falsehood, protested the adviser — “alternative facts.”
It’s an unfortunate phrase with distinctly Orwellian overtones. “The Party,” Orwell wrote, “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Was it the Trump White House’s command, too? Was this the Ministry of Truth reborn?
Journalists pride themselves on their commitment to truth. “Fake news” was originally a journalistic coinage — journalists’ acid characterization of what nonjournalists were tweeting, posting, sharing and liking, based on emotion, rumor, instinct or nothing at all, just for the hell of it: “Pope Francis endorses Trump for president” and so on.
The ready acceptance that this sort of thing was winning for itself in the blogosphere — the mass suspension of the faculty of disbelief — caught the truth camp off guard. How could it be happening? Trump’s PR genius is no small part of the explanation. With characteristic flair, energy and lightning speed, he tossed “fake news” back at the journalistic “establishment.” It was faking the news; not the unaccountable tweeters but The New York Times, The Washington Post — they were the “enemies of the people.” Big Brother would have loved this.
Asahi Shimbun columnist Tatsuhiro Kamisato draws an interesting comparison, not to “1984” but to medieval European medical lore, whose dubious claims for the curative properties of certain plants — mandrake root prominent among them, a supposed remedy for anything from melancholy to sterility to bad luck — were the “fake news” of an age supposedly more credulous than our own. “Truth” has many definitions. A medieval one was the endorsement of holy or classic writ — the Bible, Aristotle, or, in the case of mandrake, the ancient Greek physician-botanist Dioscorides. Today the writ need be neither holy nor classic.
Maybe belief and disbelief are beside the point. “Post-truth” implies “post-belief.” You don’t believe a thing as opposed to disbelieving it, you simply absorb it. Or as Kamisato puts it, “Reality has become less important.” He cites the Pokemon Go craze as an example. Those who pursue the cyber-monsters don’t insist on their reality. You can call them unreal without offending them or dampening their pursuit.
This is intellectual soil in which a Ministry of Truth can take root. Japan’s seems to be flourishing. The word “combat” (sentō) is unacceptable in connection with Japanese peacekeeping missions abroad; the Constitution bans military activity in combat zones. Japanese peacekeepers are active in South Sudan. Their mission depends on their zone of operation not being characterized as a combat zone. “Armed clashes,” yes — those are occurring, but not “combat.” But activity log books kept by the peacekeepers repeatedly refer to “combat.” The logs had been discarded, said the Defense Ministry in December in response to journalists’ inquiries. No, they hadn’t after all, the ministry said in February, and yes, they do employ the word “combat” — but not in the sense that the Constitution means it, so there’s no constitutional issue.
On that note, for now, the matter rests. “At one time,” observes Kamisato, “an episode of this magnitude could have brought down a government. Now, there’s no indication the government is under any strain at all.” The Ministry of Truth has things under control.
It’s a big subject, truth. Ministering to it means inculcating it. Is one ever too young to learn the truth? Pedagogues at Moritomo Gakuen, a private Osaka kindergarten, know one never can be. Their 4-year-old charges are made to recite, “China, South Korea, change your hearts, don’t teach lying history!” “Go, Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe!” “It’s good that the Diet passed new (tighter) security laws!” An elementary school Moritomo Gakuen was intending to open in April — this now looks doubtful — was originally to have borne the name “Abe Shinzo Memorial School”; Abe’s wife, Akie, was to have been its honorary principal.
A suspiciously deep-discounted sale of government land for the new facility is at the heart of the scandal endangering the enterprise, but the Orwellian pedagogy is one of two things — either an isolated example and therefore of limited significance, or a harbinger of worse (or better, if you think so) to come, and momentously significant.
“1984” ends with the omnipotent Party crushing an impotent rebellion. The rebel is tortured and brainwashed but not exterminated. Why bother? Let him live. He has learned the truth: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Orwell’s prophetic aura had faded by 1984. In 2017, it’s looking brighter. And “1984” is once again a best-seller.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”