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Spotting Doublethink In Ourselves

If truth is to prevail, then we must learn to self-examine relentlessly

George Packer has a good review essay of a new book about the George Orwell novel 1984. Excerpt:

We stagger under the daily load of doublethink pouring from Trump, his enablers in the Inner Party, his mouthpieces in the Ministry of Truth, and his fanatical supporters among the proles. Spotting doublethink in ourselves is much harder. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” Orwell wrote. In front of my nose, in the world of enlightened and progressive people where I live and work, a different sort of doublethink has become pervasive. It’s not the claim that true is fake or that two plus two makes five. Progressive doublethink—which has grown worse in reaction to the right-wing kind—creates a more insidious unreality because it operates in the name of all that is good. Its key word is justice—a word no one should want to live without. But today the demand for justice forces you to accept contradictions that are the essence of doublethink.

For example, many on the left now share an unacknowledged but common assumption that a good work of art is made of good politics and that good politics is a matter of identity. The progressive view of a book or play depends on its political stance, and its stance—even its subject matter—is scrutinized in light of the group affiliation of the artist: Personal identity plus political position equals aesthetic value. This confusion of categories guides judgments all across the worlds of media, the arts, and education, from movie reviews to grant committees. Some people who register the assumption as doublethink might be privately troubled, but they don’t say so publicly. Then self-censorship turns into self-deception, until the recognition itself disappears—a lie you accept becomes a lie you forget. In this way, intelligent people do the work of eliminating their own unorthodoxy without the Thought Police.

Read the whole thing. 

He’s right about that. Packer is a liberal writing to liberals, but he’s telling a universal truth. In my interview last week with Sir Roger Scruton, who spoke to me for my new book project, I brought up Hannah Arendt’s line about the “terrifying negative solidarity” in pre-Nazi, pre-Communist Europe. It was the widespread belief that all the established parties were terrible and untrustworthy. Arendt goes on to say that in Europe between the wars, the destruction in Europe of a belief in hierarchy, in traditional values, and in ways of knowing, made it much easier for the masses to accept lies. People got to the point where they enjoyed the lies, because the lies hurt the people they wanted to see hurt.

From Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism:

I believe that this is true of many on both the Left and the Right today. We on the Right have become accustomed to Trump’s compulsive lies, and laugh them off as entertaining, or justified because he’s owning the libs. And, as Packer points out, progressives have a different way of making lies and half-truths acceptable to themselves, because these lies are ideologically satisfying. A lie you accept becomes a lie you forget.

Let me be clear: all of us are in grave danger because of this fact. If you read Arendt, you see that the pieces now are all falling into place for the coming of totalitarianism: the atomized and alienated masses, the discrediting of old political parties and institutions, widespread skepticism of traditional values and ways of seeing the world, and the pleasure people take in transgression.

With that background in mind, here’s what Roger Scruton told me last week:

The point is not simply that lies are being told, it’s that people are being conditioned to the point where they can’t make the distinction between truth and falsehood, so that the concept of truth is being marginalized. And that of course is something we’ve seen in social media, and President Trump is famously not innocent in this matter with all his fake news stuff. Truth is absolutely fundamental to what is wanted by those who rebelled against the system and that’s what Havel called the positive rebellion, one of living in truth. And he was consciously invoking Jan Hus, the slogan that “Truth will prevail,” pravda vitězi, and that is a very important concept for the Czechs all down the ages.

I think one can see that the search for truth is the fundamental point at which human beings finally resist totalitarianism. You can take away everything else but you can’t take away this: we will always know the difference within ourselves between the true and the false even though we can’t say it. Orwell felt that that wasn’t so, that if you were sent to Room 201 you’ll come out unable to make the distinction between truth and falsehood, but I think that this is absolutely fundamental to [Czech dissident Vaclav] Benda’s posture and [Czech dissident Vaclav] Havel’s in those days, that this is the one thing they can’t take away. They can obscure it and make it look as though something is true when it’s not true, but to take away the very distinction between the true and the false is not possible.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” said Orwell. That is the duty that is upon all of us. Every single one of us, whether we are on the Left or the Right. It’s hard. But once we stop looking for truth, and once we agree, if only within our own hearts, to live within a lie because it is more comforting that living in truth (as Solzhenitsyn and Havel both said that we must do), then we open ourselves up to totalitarianism.