Orwell and Obama: Doublethink is double-plus ungood

I just reread Nineteen Eighty-Four -- actually, listened to the audiobook. It is far better than I had remembered from my high school days, far better written, far more incisive, and it has a far better story that rests on a far more interesting character, in poor Winston Smith, than I had remembered. It is a great book. It's so great that it has done what only the truly great books can do -- by dramatizing a fictional tale, it has impelled me to look into my own actual beliefs and behavior at this political and economic moment.

It was the concept of doublethink that struck the hardest blow -- a sudden horrible shock of recognition. Doublethink in the novel is:
The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
If I am honest I have to admit that I am guilty of doublethink, that in my mind I hold two contradictory beliefs, that I tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, and that I keep the lie one step ahead of the truth. I have become irrational.

On the one hand, I supported Obama for any number of reasons from the very early days, watched his ascent to power with fascination and, frankly, awe -- as if he really was something of a superhero come to earth. In the primaries I was relentless in my Obamania, and in the general election I was wracked with an excruciating mixture of fear and hope for months and months. When he won the election, I had a kind of spiritual orgasm. Tracy and I retired to the couch for more or less 24 hours, watching YouTube clips of election highlights, playing our favorite joyful songs, and shaking radiant, gratified faces at each other in disbelief. Once inaugurated, I was happy with early announcements: phased withdrawal from Iraq, banning torture, no more using the phrase "War on Terror," funding stem cell research, bold stimulus to invest in green clean energy, health care, green transportation, etc. etc.

On the other hand, when I look at my country, when I look into my heart, I see that the US and the whole post-industrial world truly is a capitalist oligarchy, ruled by small elite groups for their own enrichment. The US political system is cleverly rigged, the economy is clearly aimed at pouring almost all of the wealth upwards, and the two-party system is there to simulate a minimal amount of "debate," staged by the handful of conglomerate media companies, that is largely limited to issues of importance to the ruling class. The two parties stifle any and all rivals and use extremely sophisticated coded media language to communicate to their followers. The system has now perfected the art of reaching just the right people with just the right language to support the elite's two chosen candidates. Congress is hardly better, with both houses bursting with millionaires -- and the rest with incomes and tangled connections of influence and power beyond the reach, and probably even the imagination, of most ordinary people.

The two concepts are entirely irreconcilable. To simultaneously understand that Obama has drawn almost his entire administration from the same elite roster as Bush -- and to dismiss my previous concerns about those people in hope that somehow they will get things right this time -- that is doublethink. To watch Obama deal with the financial crisis by plucking people from the the Wall Street titans, the self-described Masters of the Universe, and placing them in charge of "fixing" the very problem they created, and accepting that their solution is to immediately pay themselves and their friends absolutely colossal sums of money borrowed from future generations -- and even cheerleading this effort as unavoidable, as an unfortunate necessity -- that is doublethink. To know that President Obama is continuing to run the country for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful capitalist class and that the working and middle classes, when it's all said and done, are going to get shafted for every penny yet again -- and yet to literally beam at President Obama while he jokes around with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, to marvel at his intelligence and calm demeanor and sober, good-natured bearing -- that is indisputably doublethink.

I am guilty of doublethink. I am as susceptible to microtargeted PR efforts as the Fox News consumers I disdain have proven to be susceptible to the PR efforts that target them. To admit this to myself is extremely sobering and makes me head for the safety of defiant justification: What, I want Obama to fail? And anyway what choice did I have -- Mike Gravel? Wasn't the most important thing to be rid of Bush, who was overtly Orwellian, and then get on with improving things? Isn't it an achievement all by itself, sad as it is to say, to have elected a president who is well-spoken, mild in temperament, smart? And wouldn't it have been almost impossible for me to not support the first African American president, especially when he seems to be just about pretty much damned perfect in every way? And if Obama supporters abandon him, won't the Republicans just reassert control?

Those may be good questions, but they don't absolve me from needing to think rationally. Obama may be my favorite president in a long time, but that has about as much to do with justice and economic fairness as saying R.E.M. is my favorite band. The system is rotten to the core, and looking at the truly obscene debt and deficits, could well be finally past the point of no return. It's by any honest measure wildly, dangerously out of whack. At a time when the financial sector, after betting the country's future on idiotic gambles that should have been illegal, has brought the world economy to its knees, Obama is presiding over a scuffle among different factions of the wealthy regarding who will take home the biggest bags of our money, and he's billing the whole thing to the national credit card. Which is just what Bush used to do.

But even after all that ... I. Still. Love. Him. Just as after his ordeal, Winston Smith, at the end of Orwell's novel, has his ideological breakthrough: I ... love ... Big Brother. How is this possible? Because doublethink is possible. And I am guilty of it.

I don't claim to be an economist or social theorist, but I do claim to have a fairly clever head on my shoulders. Admitting my doublethink is a step away from feeling good, but it is a step toward sanity.


cfp said...

Doublethink is probably so deep in how this culture works that I'm not sure anybody could be elected president or successfully govern without appealing to it on a fundamental, emotional level. But even if Obama's distinction are mostly symbolic, that's better than any alternative.

But there are pragmatic differences and I think you gloss over them in a way that makes me want to give poor Al Gore a hug (and Nader a punch in the face). I think it's all a matter of how you calibrate your expectations. Once you accept that this is an oligarchy and that it'd be nearly impossible to change that in the most fundamental way, you start to think that maybe some oligarchs are better than others.

I do believe, perhaps mistakenly, that Obama is more constrained by the system and it's workings than he is secretly loyal to it. Maybe that's doublethink. I do know that it's often a pointless distinction, at least in the rational sense. I guess I don't care. While I can point to the personal benefits of believing this, they have no role in making me I believe it. I just do believe it. It's not a conscious choice, and for that I'm sort of grateful.

No doubt, I am subject to masterful manipulations in this. I guess one's willingness to call such an effect propagandist really depends on how you judge its consequences. On the relative scale of our culture and its symbolic expressions (and manifold manipulations), I'd say they are better than harmless.

cj said...

I think you've put your finger on something a lot of us have been feeling, Grendel. But you could also think of it in F. Scott Fitzgerald's terms:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Of course, I can see it your way, too. :)

Grendel said...

I like Scott, but he wisely stayed away from politics, except for "May Day."

The key to doublethink is accepting both ideas -- really believing both of them at the same time, even though they cancel each other out.

And you nailed it with expectations. Obama's imperfection is not a matter of him letting me down -- I let myself down by not really listening to his program. I remember writing on this very blog something like "What is Obama's plan for ____? I don't know and I don't want to know, I just want him to stay ahead in the polls."

Grendel said...

I do recognize political and stytlistic faults with this. I'm not he "bad man" ha ha!

Maud Newton said...

"The system is rotten to the core, and looking at the truly obscene debt and deficits, could well be finally past the point of no return."

So true, and so terrifying. I'm so nervous about it that for once I have no stomach for composing hectoring blog entries about tax policy and the failure of oversight, etc., etc.

In fact, I'm so anxious that (I'm ashamed to say) I've begun to limit my exposure to the news.

cfp said...

What is this point of no return and when were we ever not past it? I don't know, man. Most of history has been miserable or at least wildly unfair to most people. At least now it smells better and we (usually) have certain protections. I sort of feel the same way about democracy as I do about the president: rosiest when compared to the alternatives. Genuinely rosy in that regard, though, because even modest distinctions in these things are important.

I don't mean to do that "I'm the most cynical so I win" thing. I hate that attitude (especially in a comment thread on the internet! Bleh!) I don't consider myself to be cynical, actually. I'm just married to an historian.

Grendel said...

I don't know what "past the point of no return" means, because it's poorly worded like the rest of this piece. I just don't know enough about economics to do more than go, "Eeek!" when I see graphs of the national deficit and debt. I don't see how they are ever going to be paid back. I don't see any mechanism or plan for a mechanism or willingness to find a plan or mechanism on the horizon. Maybe it's there and I just don't see it. But at some point, surely, it becomes more attractive to default or inflate it away? I mean, we are for all intents and purposes in bankruptcy right now, are we not? Again, I don't know enough to share more than uneasiness and speculation.

It's true, history has sucked for 99% of people throughout its duration. But why does it have to? Why do we settle for that? Why do we delude ourselves into justifying it?

cfp said...

I won't pretend to understand the ins and outs of the national debt, but the way it has been explained to me indicates a mutual death embrace with our creditors that aligns interests to a degree that gives everyone a reason to pretend. And that could be good very likely be good enough to get us through this rough patch.

As for the politics of the deficit, I think they're mostly dishonest. All these "deficit hawks" are just advocating that we spend the money on rich people, not poor ones. Really! It sounds so awful but it's true. Take the estate tax repeal. That's $250 billion right there, tacked on to the debt for the sake of the richest of the rich. It'd cost less to train bears to do volcano monitoring.

cfp said...

Also- point taken. Things don't have to be awful. The ways in which things can be better are crucial and must not be trivialized or dismissed. But as much as some things have changed, some haven't. Some, in particular, haven't changed as much as our perception of them has.

The conflation of democracy and consumption, for example. That's a perspective very particular to our lifetimes and it is so fundamental that it's hard to even articulate in a way that feels, at least to me, to do it justice. I read something lately, I think it was Jung, on the psychological effects of advertising. They run deep. I suspect it is all fundamental to how we view the past, present, and future. Individually; collectively.