Why Donald Trump Is an Orwellian Nightmare for English Teachers

 

yakov_guminer_-_arithmetic_of_a_counter-plan_poster_1931

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.

Charlie Marlow to his shipmates in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

No, Donald Trump isn’t a nightmare for English teachers because he uses bigly as an adverb. Nor is it that when it comes to oratory, Trump’s speeches make George W Bush seem practically Churchillian in comparison. No, the reason that Donald Trump is a nightmare for English teachers is that words to him are meaningless.

Why bother teaching someone the difference in shades of meaning between the words venial and abominable when 2 + 2 = 5?[1]

To Trump, words are just things, commodities to be manipulated for bargaining or seduction or braggadocio. We English teachers, on the other hand, tend to see words as sacred, as vessels of meaning, and we try to teach our students to choose them carefully so that their descriptions are as clear and accurate as possible, whether they are writing about their grandmothers or analyzing Lear’s betrayal by his daughters Regan and Goneril.

Of course, most if not virtually all politicians occasionally lie, but generally with subtlety and rarely when the lie can be easily refuted.  This is not the case with Trump who seems to be a pathological liar. His lies are legion.  He lies when it’s not necessary, seemingly for the sake of lying.  To me, this lying is a very big deal, and I believe it is both my patriotic and moral duty to point out to my students why his lies are lies when they are applicable to the literature we are studying, the way I would like to think I would with Hitler’s lies if I had been teaching in Germany in the 1930’s.

Our school prayer begins with these words.

May our words be full of truth and kindness . . .

Not only are Trump’s words essentially devoid of truth and kindness, his kleptocratic tendencies as evidenced by his violation of the emolument clause, his packing the cabinet with sycophantic billionaires, and his admiration of Putin as soulmate put our very republic in danger. Nor does it help that it seems as if most Republicans in Congress don’t care about the rule of law now that one of their own can aid them in dismantling health care and cutting taxes for the 1%.

Remember Whitewater? All those Clinton investigations?  Those were different people and different times.

* * *

To see what I’m getting at, allow me just one recent example of Trump’s misuse of a phrase (see italics below) and how it can distort reality to his favor.

Yesterday, on hearing that the Electoral College had made it official he would be our next president, Trump crowed, “Today marks a historic electoral landslide victory in our nation’s democracy.”

Never mind that he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million; here’s a handy chart mapping Electoral College margins of victory from Washington to Trump:

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-6-35-55-am

 

Politfact quotes Larry Sabato, the director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia: “Calling a 306 electoral-vote victory a ‘landslide’ is ridiculous. Trump’s Electoral College majority is actually similar to John F. Kennedy’s 303 in 1960 and Jimmy Carter’s 297 in 1976. Has either of those victories ever been called a landslide? Of course not — and JFK and Carter actually won the popular vote narrowly.”

Of course, by declaring his historically comfortable but by no means overwhelming victory a landslide, Trump gets to have the words “historic electoral landslide” plastered in headlines and on screens across the planet. If he’s won by a landslide, the vast majority of people want whatever he wants, so that means that most people want the wealthiest Americans to receive enormous tax cuts.  If this election has taught us anything, it is that a majority of voters in 30 states aren’t all that discriminating. If some hear it was a landslide on Fox News, that’s good enough for them. Here’s a quote from today’s Washington Post: 

An editor at Breitbart, formerly run by senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon, said that fear [of reprisal from Trump and his minions] is well-founded [among lawmakers].

“If any politician in either party veers from what the voters clearly voted for in a landslide election … we stand at the ready to call them out on it and hold them accountable,” the person said.

In fact, if those who attend Trump rallies hear him say  2+2=5, they very well might believe him, even without having to go through the torture that O’Brian puts poor Winston Smith through in Orwell’s 1984.

How chilling to read these passages from 1984 in light of Trump’s “historic electoral landslide”:

There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.

[. . . ]

We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which (sic) will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals. Humanity is the Party. The others are outside — irrelevant.’

Will I be teaching 1984 in the spring?[2] Yes. Will Trump’s name come up? You betcha!  Will I be teaching “Heart of Darkness” this spring?  Yes sir, of course.

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[1] The latter word in this case being a much more accurate descriptor of Trump, a known swindler and self-professed sexual assaulter.

[2] By the way, click here for an extensive Pre-Trumpian lesson plans for teaching 1984.

An Approach to Teaching 1984

1984 email imageHaving just finished teaching Orwell’s 1984 for the first time in twenty years, I thought I’d share my approach with anyone out there interested in tackling the novel. I find covering novels during a school year very challenging because of the time involved, and limited reading assignments make coming up with lessons difficult because students don’t know the complete arc of the narrative. In this case, my victims are high-achieving 9th graders.

What struck me when rereading the novel is its high artistic achievement.   For whatever reason, I remembered it as being more polemical than artistic; however, I now consider 1984 as a beautifully synthesized work in which setting, character, plot, symbolism all reinforce one another to create a devastatingly powerful whole.

But where in the hell to begin? There’s so much there: the geographic dynamics of the three superstates, the concept of doublethink, the linguistics of Newspeak, the pervasiveness of totalitarianism, the structure of the novel — not to mention characterization and symbolism.

Part One

I begin with characterization, with Winston, the protagonist. The first reading assignment is short, the first seven pages of the Signet Classic edition, the assignment ending when Winston writes the date April 4, 1984 in his diary.[1]

In our close reading, we focus on Winston’s fragility, how his overalls symbolically swallow him, much as his dystopian world has swallowed him. We discuss the setting and especially the tone.

The second assignment is to finish “Section 1.” In the subsequent class, we focus on O’Brien, who, of course, takes over the narrative at the end of the novel. I especially note the initial description of O’Brien’s person:

O’Brien was a large, burly man with a thick neck and a course, humorous, brutal face. In spite of his formidable appearance, he had a certain charm of manner [. . .]. Winston had seen O’Brien perhaps a dozen times in almost as many years. He felt deeply drawn to him, and not solely because he was intrigued by the contrast between O’Brien’s urbane manner and his prizefighter’s physique.

Note that prevalence of negativity in that ambiguous description and how O’Brien’s very appearance calls to mind doublethink, the paradoxical juxtapositioning of antithetical elements.   WAR IS PEACE. O’BRIEN’S UGLY MUG IS ATTRACTIVE. During Winston’s interrogation near the end of the book, we return to this passage. Obviously, Winston “misread” O’Brien.

In the passages describing “the flicks” and the Two Minutes of Hate, we explore how the violence involved in the movies and the “two minutes” might negatively condition even intelligent contrarians like Winston, which sets up later revelations like his regret over not killing his wife when he had the opportunity or his blithely promising to throw sulfuric acid into the face of a child. Of course, contemporary phenomena like violent video games offer correlations students can relate to.

Sections 3 and 4 provide elaboration and an opportunity to discuss the modus operandi of the State, the barbarism of the children, the undermining of basic human instincts like filial love. We also discuss the ubiquitous surveillance of Outer Party members and how telescreens and hidden microphones create paranoia and why a paranoid populace would be less inclined to rebel.

In Sections 4 and 5, we tackle Newspeak. I encourage students to record Newspeak vocabulary in their notebooks, and on our once-a-week block day (85 minutes as opposed to 45), I have them translate the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities into Newspeak.

What a wonderful opportunity to discuss language and how the specificity of vocabulary sharpens perception. We talk about the role that language plays in shaping what we call reality. I ask them to visualize an oleander. If they don’t know the word, I tell them an oleander is a bush. Then I compare descriptions between a student who knows what an oleander is and a student who describes a bush. (Or you could have one student sketch an oleander and another a bush). We discuss how eliminating words and simplifying vocabulary help to restrict thought in Oceania.

Section 8, the last section of Part One, is particularly important as Winston enters the prole ghetto, visits a pub, and discusses the past with a senile old man. We debate the pros and cons of being a prole versus a party member. Here also is a chance to question the relationship between human cognition and our understanding of history.

At the end of Part 1, I show the movie trailer for the 1984 version starring John Hurt.

Part 2

Part 2 deals with Winston’s and Julia’s love affair. Here we have the dichotomy of thoughts versus feelings highlighted by Winston’s inner proclamation at the very end of “section 7”:

They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you couldn’t alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could not lay bare in the utmost detail everything you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

Obviously, a comparison and contrast between Winston and Julia is a potential subject for discussion or a paper.

Although I’m a frequent quizzer, I don’t quiz them on the contents of “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” the treatise written by Inner Party Members but attributed to the fictitious Emmanuel Goldstein. This part of novel is not nearly as popular with the students and difficult for many of them to comprehend.

We do discuss the geopolitical configuration of the planet, but spend most of our time exploring how the ubiquitous slogans (IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, etc.) work as paradoxes that can contain some elements of truth.

orwell-1984-propaganda

At this point, on Block Day, I divide students into groups and have them discuss the following topics and to record in writing their conclusions:

  1. It is vitally important to the Inner Party that the people of Oceania be kept in a perpetual state of paranoia. Discuss how this is achieved and, most importantly, why it is so important to the party’s system of control.
  1. Discuss the use of technology to control public and private behavior in 1984.
  1. How does Newspeak enable the Party to control thought and limit emotion?    How important is Newspeak in the plan for perpetual Party power?
  1. Would you rather be a prole or a Party member in 1984? Why or why not? Provide examples from the novel to support your argument.

I allow students to choose whatever topic interests them the most, and at least this year, the groups broke down remarkably well into units of three and four. These topics end up being the basis of a writing assignment, which I’ll reproduce at the end of the post.

Part 3

In Part 3, I introduce students to the three elements Aristotle’s rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos and argue that O’Brien’s interrogation is an act of persuasion that utilizes these three elements. Here, I’m indebted to Emele Brax’s dissertation “A Rhetorical Reading of George Orwell’s 1984,” which you can find here.

We discuss how O’Brien establishes his credibility and Winston’s ambiguous feelings toward him (ethos), how O’Brien manipulates logic to convince Winston that Winston is wrong (logos), and how appeals to pathos, i.e., comfort, protection, and family[2] help to convert Winston into a believer.

We also talk about O’Brien’s contention that reality only exists in the minds of right-thinking Party members. I introduce them to the concept of existentialism.

Wrap Up

Once we have finished the novel, I go subversive and claim that it has a happy ending, that the protagonist’s conflict is successfully resolved in a way that makes him happy. After all, “two gin-scented tears of joy” are “trickling down” his cheeks as we learn that Winston “had won the victory over himself.”

Of course, the students disagree, so I take on O’Brien’s persona, hold four fingers up and ask how many they see, explain to them they’ve been brainwashed by Western humanism.  I ask them to imagine that they’re North Koreans and how might their interpretations differ if that were the case. This play acting leads to a summing up discussion, so all that’s left is the paper.

1984 Essay Assignment (based on the 4 topics listed above)

Your first sentence should mention the title and author and convey that 1984 is an important dystopian work about totalitarianism.

The next three or four sentences should provide a short summary of the culture of Oceania.

Then depending on your topic, you should pivot towards your thesis.

For example, for topic number 1, you might say something to the effect that because of constant surveillance and the tendency for neighbors and children to inform on their parents and friends, paranoia runs rampant among Party members.

The thesis comes next.

For number 2, you might say something to the effect that being under constant surveillance controls both public and private behavior, which makes rebellion next to impossible.

The thesis comes next.

For number 3, you’d mention Newspeak as a major factor in limiting Party members ability to reason and experience emotions before stating your thesis.

For number 4, your pivot should mention the distribution of the prole and Party population and how they’re treated by the Inner Party before stating your thesis.

Each body paragraph’s topic sentence should reflect an idea in your thesis and should be debatable (in other words not a statement of fact). You need to demonstrate that the topic sentences are true by providing examples from the novel via direct quotations.

  1. When incorporating quotes, provide context (where and when the quote appears, and if it comes from a character, tell us who says it).
  1. Fluidly incorporate quotes into your own prose.

You don’t want long quotes but to break quotes into small segments and “sandwich” them into your analytical sentences.

For example, rather than writing, “Party members have it better than proles. ‘They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty,’” it’s better to slice the quote into more digestible bites like this:

All Winston seems to know about proles is that they grow “up in the gutters” and go “to work at twelve.” Even though they enjoy “a brief blooming period of beauty,” they end up “middle-aged at thirty” and “dying for the most part, at sixty.”

End your paper with a conclusion that doesn’t merely summarize your argument but pivots to another related aspect of the novel. For example, if you argue that being a Party Member is better than being a prole, you might end the paper by discussing what a terrible choice it is because Party members lead wretched lives given that . . .

[1] 4 April was coincidentally the day the reading assignment was due.

[2] Both O’Brien and Big Brother are father figures.

1973 Versus 2015

large_v43ez7xKqqbM35phWHqlq27P1jwSunday, as I was [cue robotic voice] circuiting through satellite channel choices, I ran across Woody Allen’s Sleeper, a movie I found hilarious when I first saw it in 1973 at the Ultravision Theater. The Ultravision is now long gone but in those days was a part of a shopping center located on the corner of Ashley River Road and Highway 7, about five miles north of the downtown peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina.

In the forty-two years since, much has changed around Charleston. For example, Highway 7 in those days was still wooded in spots but now has been renamed Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. We’re talking five lanes of suburban sameness, what James Hillman aptly describes as “the nowhere that is everywhere,” that ubiquitous stretch of fast food franchises, retail outlets, and convenience stores leading into virtually every city in the USA.

The plot of Sleeper tracks Miles Monroe, a latter-day Rip Van Winkle who subjected unwillingly to cryopreservation in 1973 awakens 200 years later to confront the brave new world of the future. In case you haven’t seen it, the movie’s a sort of conflation of Huxley and Hemingway, sci-fi futurism meets the Spanish Civil War, at once a farce and homage to Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin — a dystopian comedy.

Seeing the film again got me thinking about the tricky business of trying to predict the future, an exercise fraught with potential failure. Brave New World missed the monorail at times; 1984, perhaps a more accurate prophecy, nevertheless got some aspects of the future wrong as well.

Watching Sleeper, I started wondering, “How different is a day in 1973 when the movie was released to a day in 2015?” We’re talking 42, not 200 years, but that’s almost half a century, and we’re in a new millennium.

Pretend you’re an anthropologist, detached from our culture. Remember, younger readers, that 1973 was pre-digital, the age of the 8-track cassette, the first non-radio music available for cars and trucks. No email, no personal computers, though some people did have touchtone phones.

What would it be like to have been in suspended animation for the last 42 years and suddenly to find yourself in the year 2015?

* * *

Awakening in 2015 versus 1973

Dick Tracy's Two-Way Radio Watch

Dick Tracy’s Two-Way Radio Watch

Rather than an ac/dc alarm clock radio chiming you into consciousness, chances are your wake-up mechanism is a small computer roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes but much thinner. This device also offers the ability for you to look at your friends while you communicate with them, whether they’re across the street or half a world away — it’s the “picture phone” futurists used to dream of as a earthshaking marvel — but the truth is that you virtually never use its visual capabilities to communicate with your friends or family, nor do you, in fact, use it to talk to people as you would on a more conventional phone. You prefer to “text” them, to type super-abbreviated messages, like “OMG, CSL!”

Dressing for Work

Surprisingly, dress hasn’t changed all that much at all. No unitard suits with rocket logos hang in the closet. In fact, half the young people you see at the college could be either Bob Dylan or Joan Baez circa ’65.

 

Dylan '65

Dylan ’65

2015 hipster

2015 hipster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing Breakfast

Although invented in 1946 and marketed as Radarange, microwaves weren’t widely available for residential use until the late-70’s, so the unfrozen-you might be surprised that you can zap a bowl of oatmeal in a minute and a half, but chances are you’d rather pull into the drive-thru lane at Bojangles for some artery-clogging ham biscuits because retrieving the oatmeal from the cabinet, pulling the milk from the fridge, and punching in the cooking time of the oatmeal is way too much trouble.

In fact, one of the significant differences you might notice if you were to awaken after a 42-year nap is the epidemic in obesity that characterizes your 21st century community.

Commuting

Same ol’, same ol’ — no flying cars, no monorails, no individual jetpacks.

Mass transit hasn’t progressed at all. The T in Boston is even dingier than it was in ’73.

In fact, the coolest vehicles on the roads are the oldest, e.g. that 1973 VW microbus that you just passed driven by some old man with a ponytail.

Here in Charleston, you find routes have widened lane-wise and a skinny lane on the shoulder is reserved for bicycle traffic but that the traffic is terrible, Manhattan-like, bumper-to-[fiberglass]- bumper.

DUI non-licensed drivers still putt around on mopeds with cardboard license “plates” that read “Moped.”

The mini-computer we carry can give us directions while we drive, which truly seems futuristic. Road maps are obsolescent. You can choose either a male or female voice and actually speak into the mini-computer and ask the voice for information.

On the Job

Whether you’re an employee at Boeing, a Seven-Eleven, or a school district, cameras record your comings and goings. Your mini-computer is also equipped with a camera, so it’s not only Orwell’s Big Brother keeping tabs but also corporate brother and little brother — literally, your little brother might record a video of you committing some act of malfeasance.

Chances are, if you work indoors, you spend hours dealing with email, and if you don’t delete them on a daily basis, they proliferate like tapeworms, and even if you’re framing houses in the great outdoors, emails ping in your pocket like pinball machines as your mini-computer receives messages, from not only friends but also from corporations and even conmen.

TMI.

Writing

typewriterOh my God! No more retyping a page because you typed too close to the bottom, no more correction tape, no more spelling errors! You can cut passages and paste them into your document. Virtually any fact can be looked up on a computer, vital information like Lumpy Rutherford’s actual first name on the ’60’s sitcom Leave It to Beaver. It’s the information Age.

 

Happy Hour

After work, you still go to a bar, but chances are you can’t smoke in there, and the number of different beers is staggering. The 25 cent happy hour Bud has given way to the $8 “Avery, the Maharaja Imperial India Pale Ale.” Beer experts slosh malted beverages around their palates distinguishing piney aftertastes and assessing the wattage of the hops.

Evening Entertainment

Broadcast news has not changed one iota – a white male reads to you in between reports from far flung locales.

On the other hand, you can suck virtually any movie you want to see out of the sky instantaneously, even old flicks like the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, a film impossible to see in ’73 unless it miraculously appeared at an arthouse cinema or on the late late show on TV.

You can also record television programs and stop them to go to the toilet, which still looks essentially like it did in 1973.

1973 toilet

1973 toilet

2015 toilet

2015 toilet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or you can groove to music you can purchase 24/7 and listen to immediately. Wanna hear “Working Class Hero” by John and Yoko? No problem. You can download it on your mini-computer for a dollar and a quarter.

A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

(As far as entertainment goes you’re a king or queen).

Keep you doped with religion, and sex, and T.V.

Politics

Here’s something that might surprise you. The nation has lurched way way rightward. The Republicans running for president today would consider Richard Nixon a commie. He after he wrote this in 1973:

It is time to bring comprehensive, high quality health care within the reach of every American. [We should] assure comprehensive health insurance protection to millions who cannot now obtain it or afford it, with improved protection against catastrophic illnesses. This will be a plan that maintains the high standards of quality in America’s health care. And it will not require additional taxes.

The current president, although a centrist by European standards, is branded a socialist by his opponents.

Despite the rightward shift in the country, when it comes to social issues, people are much more open-minded. A majority believe gays should have the right to marry, a concept that was as alien in 1973 as the idea that many leading candidates running for the presidency in the 21st century would reject science, not only evolution but also objective data documenting rising temperatures.

Religion

Many have left traditional churches that conduct liturgical services and have also abandoned fire-and-brimstone preachers. Instead, they hang out in jeans at megachurches on Sundays and listen to Christian rock performed by live bands.

Many others have abandoned religion altogether.

Still fewer proclaim, as they have for the last 2,000 years, that the end time is near.

Overall

These changes have all occurred in my adulthood and therefore I take them for granted. What would seem like a miracle in ’73 – for example to freeze the live broadcast of a football game, back track, and watch a play again in slow motion — seems mundane.

We’re distracted, alienated, walk down the street with our earbuds booming as we stare into that ubiquitous device that we think we can’t live without while songbirds fly over us unheard and unseen.

Still, I can watch a Shakespearean performance virtually whenever I want to, which in a way makes me richer than Nebuchadnezzar.