On January 22, 2017, two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” as a way of describing lies. She was referring to the White House press secretary’s providing false estimates for the crowd that attended the inauguration.
This idea of “alternative facts” is actually not unique to the Trump administration. Although that term is new, the dictatorships that dominated Europe in the mid-twentieth century, the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler and the Soviet government of Josef Stalin, were no strangers to “alternative facts.” Those two authoritarian states regularly issued pronouncements and provided information that they knew were not true.
One of the greatest literary champions of truth in the face of these threats was George Orwell, who died all too soon at age 46 in 1950.
Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, spent the final years of his life revealing in those two novels how dictatorships contort the truth to achieve their ends. In his book England Your England, composed largely after the end of World War II and the fall of Hitler, Orwell analyzed the effects of how Nazism and Russian communism constantly used “alternative facts” to promote their ends:
“Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. For example, it is impossible to calculate within millions, perhaps even tens of millions, the number of deaths caused by the war. [World War II] The calamities that were constantly being reported—battles, massacres, famines, revolutions—tended to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One had no way of verifying the facts, one was not even fully certain they had happened, and one was always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources….Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth…that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.” (p. 54)
This analysis describes all-too accurately the state of truth in the current era of “alternative facts.” The government in Washington baldly denies even the most obvious facts—the existence of global warming and climate change, the size of a crowd on the Mall in DC, the effects of a bill that deprives millions of people of their health insurance, the absence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, etc.. It’s frightening that the other examples of governments that use these tactics are two of the worst dictatorships in history.
What does Orwell recommend that writers do in response to governments denying obvious truths? He advocates political action, but interestingly, he cautions that opposition to regimes that embrace falsehoods can also lead to fanaticism and dogmatic ideas if we embrace activism without reflection:
“To suggest that a creative writer, in a time of conflict, must split his life into two compartments, may seem defeatist or frivolous: yet in practice I do not see what else he can do. To lock yourself up in the ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the less, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. War, for example, may be necessary, but it is certainly not right or sane. Even a general election is not exactly a pleasant or edifying spectacle. If you have to take part in such things—and I think you do have to, unless you are armoured by old age or stupidity or hypocrisy—then you also have to keep part of yourself inviolate.” (p. 25)
In other words, writers have to curb the temptation to oppose fanatics with an equally fanatical ideology. We must act, and not be paralyzed by ethical dilemmas. But we must never let go of our critical and moral judgments, even if we have to bracket them in order to undo a terrible evil.
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