In an irony for the ages, Kellyanne Conway may have accidentally altered the course of history in favor of her mortal enemy – the truth. And I’m not even talking about the now-infamous “Bowling Green Massacre.”
No, it was Conway’s reference to “alternative facts” on Day 3 of the Trump era that sent thousands of citizens scrambling for a copy of 1984. And nearly 70 years after it was first published, George Orwell’s masterpiece about newspeak, doublethink, and the abuse of truth, found itself on top of Amazon’s best-seller list.
It isn’t easy to penetrate the mass pollution of our mental landscape in this Golden Age of Nonsense. But Conway’s lazy contempt for all of us and reality itself rang a bell with anyone familiar with 1984. The fascist government in Orwell’s Oceania maintained its absolute power by corrupting the language and systematically disabling its citizens’ ability to recognize the truth.
Their process was to control the language to control the truth, to control the people. They devised a simple test to determine whether their control was absolute. Because Oceania’s subjects were not merely to say that 2 + 2 = 5; they were required to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. In other words, they were to be convinced that what was not true was true.
The road to Conway’s casual lie was a long one. The relevance of truth has been eroded for decades, from all directions. The business plan for the Fox News empire could be boiled down to “corrupt the truth.” Postmodernist academics insist that there is no such thing as objective truth. And journalists, our ostensible defenders of truth, have neglected their duties since they first swooned over Ronald Reagan’s homespun malevolence.
Those journalists became stenographers who simply echoed whatever they were told, after pretending to do their jobs by checking in with the “other side.” Using the example of Orwell’s formula in 1984, a journalist might ask Stephen Hawking, for example, if 2 + 2 = 5. To which he would say, “No.” The journalist might then ask Kellyanne Conway if 2 + 2 = 5, to which she would say, “Yes.”
The journalist would make no further effort to determine which answer best represented a quantifiable truth. Instead, the two answers would be left hanging in the air, as if there was no way of knowing which answer was correct. Or as if both answers were opinions, and as such, were equally valid.
This simulated journalism played an active role in enabling the rise of Donald Trump. But then one day (we will hope), the balance finally tipped. The phrase “alternative facts” broke through. Maybe the you’re all too dumb to notice or care about this sloppy lie attitude was simply impossible not to notice.
But somehow, that moment and that phrase seem to have awakened citizens and journalists alike to the fact that our most fundamental sense of what’s reasonable has been violated, and that we’ve been played for fools. And that, finally, we actually care. This is no small thing. In fact, it could represent a significant breakthrough in the very battle for (and against) human progress itself. The stakes could not be higher.
A hopeful sign of the renewed valuation of truth is that journalists are actually invoking the concept of credibility again, and finding Conway’s credibility to be inadequate. Another hopeful sign is the fresh interest in the writings of George Orwell, who understood better than most, the relevance of truth, and the ways by which it is corrupted.
As he would insist, there’s an alternative name for alternative facts. They’re called lies. In 1984, Big Brother wasn’t just watching. Big Brother was lying, to everyone, all the time. But now it is time for all of us to be passionate advocates for the truth, all the time. And to let all the would-be Big Brothers know that we are not amused by their lies, that we are not fooled by their lies, and that we are watching them.