Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
Big Brother Doesn't See Race
The blindspot in 1984 makes it less useful in our current fascist crisis.
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
In the United States, authoritarianism means Big Brother. George Orwell's 1984, which works both as Cold War anti-Stalinist agitprop and as anti-fascist warning, appeals equally to left, right, and center, and is as a result ubiquitous in high school classrooms. It was inevitable, then, that numerous commentors would link 1984 to 2016. Libertarian vice-presidential candidate Bill Weld compared Trump's rallies to Big Brother's two-minute hate. The Economist linked Trump's rhetoric to newspeak. The Atlantic ran a piece by a high school teacher talking about why 1984 was important to teach at this moment.
And yet there is a crucial difference between Trump and Big Brother. Big Brother isn't racist.
A Fascism That Doesn’t Discriminate
You would think that racism would be central to any portrayal of fascism; Nazism is inseparable from hatred of Jews. Yet, America's most important cultural vision of authoritarianism is virtually post-racial. It's true that there are some mild hints of prejudice in the narrative; Winston Smith makes a few mildly disparaging references to Jews and to the foreign "Mongols" in Eurasia. The repressive machinery of the party, however, is not especially focused on Jews, or Asians, or marginalized people. It's aimed, instead, at its middle-class white citizens. Indeed, the horror of 1984 is in part that it takes the surveillance, the cruelty, and the terror which Orwell saw as a British imperial official in Burma, and visits it on the white, middle-class professionals of London itself.
You could argue that Orwell didn't focus on racial hatred because he was extrapolating from Stalin, rather than from Hitler. The truth, though, is that Soviet violence was itself often powered by racial or ethnic hatred. The Ukrainian famine in 1933, or the purges of the people Stalin referred to as "Polish filth" in the later 1930s, or the final targeting of Jewish doctors in 1950, which Stalin died before completing, were all focused around, and enabled by, prejudice. Compared to actual authoritarian states, Oceania is remarkably egalitarian in its use of surveillance and internment. O'Brien, the representative of the thought police in 1984, says that the proles are not human—but that's an excuse for repressing them with less venom. The human face which the boot stamps upon forever—in Orwell's world, unlike ours, its precise appearance is a matter of indifference to the authorities.
As with Orwell, so with our other most recognizable fictions of authoritarianism. Margaret Atwood is sensitive to the ways in which fascism uses sexism, but The Handmaid's Tale barely mentions race. Black people in Gilead are killed off to the side, but it's not a central concern of the novel. Similarly, racial animosity in The Hunger Games is presented with such circumspection that many readers did not realize Rue was black until the movie appeared. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is an obvious Hitler analog, but hatred of Jews and people of color is displaced onto hatred of all non-magic users, regardless of racial background.
Thus, Harry Potter, like 1984, is ultimately a story about how fascism affects white people. Such narratives conveniently elides the fact that the main victims of authoritarian regimes are almost always people defined as racially different—whether Poles in the Soviet Union, Jews in Hitler's Germany, or black people in the giant gulag of the antebellum American South. Part of 1984's appeal for Americans is that its lack of racial analysis makes it easy to see authoritarianism as something to avoid in the future, rather than as a description of, for example, the current ideology of the United States prison system.
Post-Racial (Two Minutes) Hate
A post-racial Big Brother is going to be of limited use in understanding America—and of very limited use in understanding Trump. The media in the United States can talk about authoritarianism, and it can talk about racism. But, with its understanding of fascism shaped by texts like 1984, it often has trouble putting the two together.
Consider coverage of Trump's attack on the judge in the Trump University fraud case. Trump was accused of duping students into paying tens of thousands of dollars for useless real estate advice. The judge in the case was Gonzalo Curiel, an American born in Indiana whose family background is Mexican. When Curiel ruled against Trump on a procedural point in June 2016, Trump responded by saying Curiel was biased because of the judge's "Mexican heritage."
Trump was widely condemned for his racist remarks. Many also attacked him for trying to undermine faith in the judiciary and the rule of law. But there was little effort to put the two together. Yet authoritarians virtually always use prejudice specifically to undermine the rule of law, just as Trump did in this case. Hitler used paranoid conspiracy theories about Jewish treachery to justify his personal power grab; Putin uses homophobia to buttress his arguments about the decadent west and the need for his own (supposedly) strong leadership. In the same tradition, Trump leverages hatred against marginalized groups to buttress his power—as in his efforts to delegitimize Black urban voters as an excuse to toss out the 2020 election results.
Big Brother does scapegoat political opponents, of course. But he does not target whole groups of people whose only political sin is that they are not white enough. As such, he doesn't immediately come to mind when Trump attacks immigrants, or black people, or Jews, or LGBT people. In our fixation on 1984 and similar stories, we fail to see how stoking resentments against marginalized people is central to crushing American democracy.
Less Orwell, More Butler
If we're willing to look up from 1984, there are other texts which can perhaps provide a better road map for the challenges facing the United States during our current apparently endless Trump era. Octavia Butler's 1998 Parable of the Talents, for instance, features a religious fascist named Andrew Jarret whose slogan, eerily, is "Make America Great Again." Jarret demonizes non-believers and outsiders to consolidate power, averting his eyes as his supporters commit freelance acts of terror against minority communities. Or, looking further back, we might think about D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, in which hatred of black people justifies a vigilante overthrow of Southern governments and mass disenfranchisement in order to restore a white hierarchy.
Orwell isn't irrelevant just because he didn't see all aspects of our current crisis. But if we're looking for ways to understand America's lurch towards authoritarianism, it's important to acknowledge that racism isn't some sort of incidental, unpleasant afterthought in Trump's bid for power. For all his perspicuity, Big Brother's penetrating eyes didn't see race. The fascist watching us does.
A version of this essay appeared some years back on my Patreon.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.