In 1943, George Orwell wrote that he feared “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”
The preceding decades saw mass disinformation campaigns through the extensive use of propaganda, near-omniscient government surveillance, seemingly endless warfare, hostility towards minorities and totalitarianism on both the right and the left. Liberal democracy and the very concept of objective truth appeared discredited. It was a bleak era, and one that feels more and more familiar.
Orwell had a response to these terrifying challenges. He upheld the sanctity of objective reality, even when it meant standing up against his own political party. We must all learn to do the same.
From the White House’s “alternative facts” to Facebook’s “fake news,” objective truth does seem to be fading from the world. Some have outright denied its existence, including the Pomona College students who penned an open letter this spring declaring that “the idea that there is a single truth–‘the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West.” Was anyone surprised when Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its 2016 Word of the Year?
Orwell recognized that to be post-truth is to be post-liberty. In the words of Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell’s “1984,” “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” If the government can make people see five fingers when there are really four, or millions of illegal voters when there are really none, it can get away with anything.
Often, however, no one needs to tell us to ignore what we see with our own eyes. It is human nature to believe what we want.
Orwell was exceptional because “instead of shaping facts to fit his opinions, he was willing to let facts change his opinions,” biographer Thomas Ricks wrote. This attitude made Orwell a renegade in his own political circle. As a staunch democratic socialist, he frequently criticized capitalism, imperialism and fascism. Yet, he also vocally opposed Soviet totalitarianism at a time when much of the English left was in collective denial about the consequences of communism.
While Orwell was warning the left of the threat Soviet communism posed, fellow rebel Winston Churchill was trying to warn the right of the dangers of Nazi Germany.
Orwell and Churchill represented two very different political philosophies. Yet, though one was on the left and the other the right, they fought for the same thing. They cherished democracy and individual freedom, and put their principles before their parties. Neither made many friends with their heresy, but both ended up making history. They were the radical center at its best.
Echoes of Orwell and Churchill’s stubborn independence are evident in today’s Never Trump Republicans. This small but outspoken group includes writers like David Frum and Max Boot and a few politicians, including Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Whatever you think of their political principles, at least they have remained true to these ideals while others in the party kowtow to a president who disdains much of what conservatism is supposed to be about.
Democrats have not yet been tested in the same way as Republicans. Still, there are rumblings of a so-called “Tea Party of the left” determined to yank the Democratic party from the center-left to the fringes. As the name suggests, members of this group take their inspiration from the movement which arguably paved the way for President Donald Trump. Whether or not the Democrats will resist an extremist takeover may be one of the most vital political questions of the coming years.
Truth did not fade out of the world in Orwell’s lifetime. Instead, largely due to Churchill, Orwell and others like them, the West reasserted its principles of democratic liberalism and established a relatively peaceful world order.
Since the events of last year, that order has been crumbling. I am hardly the only one to notice the echoes of the 1930s today; sales of “1984” shot up to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in January.
We have the benefit of being able to learn from the past. If we do not heed the lessons of history, we risk repeating its mistakes.
Tanner Larkin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. The Radical Center appears every other Wednesday.