George Orwell’s 1984 quickly introduces the reader to the three slogans of its fictional authoritarian government: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. According to the common interpretations, these are not meant to be literal equivalents — to be at war is not to be at peace. Rather, as the novel suggests, they are propagandistic cause-effect relationships, tradeoffs. War, the State promises, will bring about peace. True freedom is found in slavery — if you submit to the Party, you will live a successful, comfortable, happy life. Ignorance, giving up personal and contrary ways of thinking, makes society stable, safe, united. The slogans present necessary evils, unpleasant means to noble ends: accepting war, slavery, and ignorance brings personal and national benefits. (The order reversal of the middle slogan is intriguing. We have, from the reader’s perspective, “bad is good,” “good is bad,” “bad is good.” Orwell chose not to pen “slavery is freedom,” which would have aligned with the others and made the “slavery brings freedom” interpretation even stronger. Still, any notion of “freedom bringing slavery” is difficult to reconcile with the other two, given that this propaganda is presenting terrible things as desirable. The Party isn’t going to tell citizens to watch out for slavery but embrace ignorance and war.) Winston Smith, of course, finds out the hard way what happens when war, slavery, and ignorance are not accepted.
In a time of rightwing attempts to overthrow free and fair elections, rising authoritarianism among the populace, and an American system too underdeveloped to handle anti-democratic threats like Trump, one can’t help but think of Orwell. We’ve seen in terrifying fashion how democracy requires the truth to survive, withering in ages of disinformation. Even language became concerning. Blatant falsities about an inauguration crowd size were infamously labeled “alternative facts,” not really doublethink, but reminiscent of how past facts were erased and replaced in the novel. Truth Social, a platform built for Trump and his lies, sounds uncomfortably like the Ministry of Truth, the propaganda division of Oceania whose pyramid-shaped building displays the Party’s three slogans. Of course, conservatives delight in noting that 1984 was a 1949 response to authoritarian socialism in the Soviet Union, and often whine about how woke cancel culture, COVID vaccines, masks, and lockdowns, or welfare and universal services represent the tyranny and submissive collectivity of which Orwell wrote. But they forget Orwell was a socialist who advocated for democratic socialism as frequently as he warned of communism, and they live in a strange world where every liberal (to say nothing of Leftist) policy or cultural shift warrants screams of 1984 but demagogic leaders, casual dismissals of legal and democratic norms, absurdities spewed for reasons of power, plots to ignore election results, violent attacks on the Capitol, authoritarian and nationalistic voters, and so on somehow are of little concern.
But clearly, while it may be most appropriate for the text, depending on one’s reading, the cause-effect interpretation of the slogans doesn’t best reflect our realities. (Though you do see hints of it at times. American war has long been framed as necessary for peace, even if it achieves the opposite, and other horrors.) A literal equivalent interpretation gets much closer. While it probably won’t be publicized and sloganeered in a cartoonish manner, authoritarianism appears to rely on parts of the populace living in parallel worlds. (The State would publicize tradeoffs and push you to accept them, but it would not advertise the fact that you believe falsities and contradictions.) Parallel worlds, built on conspiracy theories and lies, were of course a major reason German democracy collapsed in the 1930s. The Nazis blamed Jews and Communists for Germany’s problems, which justified Hitler’s dismantling of democratic processes and restriction of civil rights. This is how authoritarianism grows and triumphs. It is not that one part of the populace believes war is necessary for peace and another does not. One believes war is peace. It doesn’t realize or accept that it’s ignorant, enslaved, at war; it thinks it is peaceful, free, and strong (this is different from the novel, where everyone knows, for instance, that it is wartime, with news from the front broadcast everywhere; “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war”). One part of the population believes destroying democracy is saving it. The armed mob that broke into the Capitol, the conservatives decrying mass voter fraud (60% of Republicans, nearly 40% of the nation, still believe the 2020 election was stolen), and even some of the politicians sustaining the lunacy…they believe democracy is in danger as sincerely as liberals (and moderates and sane conservatives). It must be protected from those cheating Democrats, fraudulent votes, bad voting machines. Their own reality. Such dupes are completely detached from quality standards of evidence and reason (why would you trust a bad documentary or an article on Breitbart over the conclusions of Republican-controlled, recounted states, Trump’s own Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security, and some 60 federal court cases?), but they think they’re saving democracy. When they’re actually cutting its throat.