February 20, 2017 12:02:37 am
The first few weeks of the Trump presidency have been truly breathtaking. One might even be justified in talking about a kind of Trump renaissance. There is a buzz of creativity all around. The passivity of the past decades has disappeared, and various forms of activism are emerging. The time is now — or never. The comedy channels are thrumming with activity; people are looking out for the latest outrage and, incidentally, productivity is down because everyone is spending so much time looking at Trump videos. Not particularly witty himself, Trump is the cause of wit in others — and that, too, is something to be grateful for. One remembers Roland Barthes on Voltaire: “It was … a singular happiness to do battle in a world where force and stupidity were continually on the same side: A privileged situation for the mind.”
But I suppose the most remarkable instance of this Trump-driven creativity is the way in which the pedestrian news conference has been reinvented. The crucial invention, I suppose, was the introduction of what Kellyanne Conway memorably described as “alternative facts”, to counter the boring reference to actual data by “lying” commentators — photos, metro travel figures — seeking to diminish the historic significance of Trump’s inauguration: Largest ever, millions… Of course, it was not immediately apparent what Conway’s “alternative facts” might be, but soon Trump’s press-man, Sean Spicer, introduced another innovation. This was in the context of Trump’s repeated assertion that there had been widespread voter fraud in the presidential election.
The absence of any facts — alternative or otherwise — to back this sensational claim, was quickly substituted by the president’s “belief” — even, and more significant therefore, the “long-held belief” — that that was indeed the case. In this brave new world, beliefs trump facts.
Indeed, one could go further and say that “beliefs” become facts when they are processed, iterated and reiterated a million times, in the echo-chambers of social media. Poor Bush was reduced to actually bombing whole countries to produce new facts on the ground. Trump, the shrewd businessman, has found an economical shortcut.
In trying to get their heads around the radical transformation that the Trump presidency has wrought in a few short weeks, people have found themselves turning to Orwell’s totalitarian fantasy, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And it is true that the concept of Newspeak — the deployment of a tightly controlled language in which uncomfortable and inconvenient truths may not be uttered or even thought — should be familiar to us, even from the prelapsarian world before we entered the present post-truth paradise. The struggle for an adequate language — a language adequate to the grotesque facts of our experience — certainly antedates Trump. But this struggle has become enormously more complicated in today’s world, where language is only a small part of machinery whereby media saturation works. The toxic melange of words and images circulates exponentially in the world of the social media — and far outstrips anything that poor Orwell might have imagined.
There is another Orwellian concept from Nineteen Eighty-Four that hasn’t received the attention it deserves in the present context. This is the concept of the “memory hole”. This is the chute down which inconvenient people, facts and images are disposed — so that people who fall out of favour become “un-persons”, as if they had never been. Kundera uses this to brilliant effect with the story about the comrade who falls out of favour and then — airbrushed out of the record — survives in history only in the image of the hat that he had lent to his Leader. But, of course, Orwell’s “memory hole” is positively old-fashioned: “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” Computers enable the retrospective alteration of the historical record in ways that Orwell could not have imagined. It isn’t enough to think of the computer and its associated technologies only in terms of surveillance — a la Snowden. The infinite revisability of the record, and its global amplification, destabilises the very notion of “reality”. In that sense, Kellyanne Conway’s concept of “alternative facts” is merely a modest beginning, in its innocent invocation of an empirical world of “fact”. Spicer’s “belief” takes the game to the next level.
There is another Orwell-related clarification that I need to make before I bring the story home. In thinking of a name for the ruling ideology of Oceania, the dystopian republic of which the United Kingdom was merely Airstrip One, Orwell considered several options before he finally settled for Ingsoc, that is, English socialism. It is an effect of the fact that Orwell’s text was quickly sucked into the force-field of Cold War propaganda that the other front-runner — “Americanism” — has lapsed from public memory.
However, while Orwell seems relevant, there is another source that must be acknowledged: Vishwaguru India — because our claim here goes well beyond pushpak-vimana and the plastic surgery of the elephant-headed god Ganesa. I’m not thinking only of the mocking parable of the six blind men of Hindostan — which is, after all, about the creative power of belief. There are other, more contemporary examples, the most consequential of which is certainly the great Ramjanmabhoomi movement of the 1980s, the inaugural moment of the tragedy that engulfs us today. The entire mobilisation was founded on the belief that a certain mythical character was born at a particular spot. A precious and irreplaceable archaeological site — the Babri Masjid — was demolished in broad daylight, on live TV no less, because large numbers of Hindus were motivated by their (manufactured) belief that the god Rama — hero of Valmiki’s epic — was born at the precise place where the Babri Masjid stood. We don’t yet know who brought the monument down, but we do know precisely where a fictional god was born!
So acknowledging Orwell is fine, but vishwaguru India must claim its rightful due: Advance our own Agent Orange, resplendent in a saffron turban, to counter the upstart Trump. After all, the present dispensation rests on the services of a shadowy “so-called” cultural organisation that has raised rumour-mongering and the manufacture of “belief” to a fine art. Thousands of people across the length and breadth of the country can be prompted to repeat the same lies — remember the warehouses full of high-denomination notes that all these operatives claimed to have seen, hoping thereby to manufacture the “belief” which, it was hoped, would legitimise notebandi? The convergence of this rumour-mongering capacity with the amplifying potential of social-media technology is the foundation on which the present dispensation rests: The troll-factories might well be the distinctive feature of our own, latest, late-fascism.
There is, however, a further Indian refinement which might prove somewhat more difficult for Trump to adopt. This is the process by which beliefs, challenged by mere facts, are swiftly transformed into “hurt sentiments” — and these “hurt sentiments” are not only accorded legal protection, they also provide de facto legitimation to gangs of lumpen vigilantes, who inflict compensatory physical hurt. Latecomer America, still hanging on to archaic Enlightenment values, has much to learn from the vishwaguru.
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