On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, called easily disproved claims made by White House press secretary Sean Spicer “alternative facts.”
A bewildered Chuck Todd responded, “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”
While the phrase “alternative facts” reminded many of the terms “falsehoods,” “lies” and “untruths,” it reminded many others of George Orwell’s dystopian, politically charged novel “1984.”
Not only were people inspired to tweet about that, they wanted to purchase a copy. By early Wednesday morning, the novel was the best-selling book on Amazon.com.
“We put through a 75,000 copy reprint this week. That is a substantial reprint and larger than our typical reprint for ‘1984,’” a Penguin spokesman told CNN.
Sales of the novel also enjoyed a marked spike in 2013 — one edition experiencing a 10,000 percent jump in sales — following the leak of NSA documents.
Many quotes from the book especially resonated with readers following Conway’s remarks.
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command,” for example, reminded some of Spicer’s argument that Trump’s inauguration had record-breaking crowds, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.
That this particular novel — a mainstay in high school classrooms — would be so thoroughly referenced in the past week makes sense as the book is a powerful political statement against an all-seeing, untrustworthy government.
Its plot follows Winston Smith, an everyman living in a society controlled by an omnipresent, totalitarian power, which distorts the truth, erases and alters evidence of the past and essentially controls its subjects. Throughout the novel, readers are introduced to a litany of inventive phrases describing this government’s actions, such as “doublethink” (believing contradictory things), “newspeak” (ambiguous, political propaganda) and “Big Brother” (the controlling government).
Much like “gas-lighting” (from the 1944 film “Gaslight“), “Catch-22” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” these terms derived from fiction have endured as cultural shorthand to describe government actions such as false propaganda and forced belief systems — understood even by those who never read a page of Orwell’s prose or seen the movies.
While “1984”‘s spike is particularly notable, the book’s popularity has been rising for many years, likely because it’s often used to describe governments actions. As Ian Crouch wrote in the New Yorker, “words … are manipulated by the three branches of government to make what might seem illegal legal — leading to something of a parallel language that rivals Orwell’s Newspeak for its soulless, obfuscated meaning.”
The Orwell estate’s literary agent Bill Hamilton said in 2015, “Interest in Orwell is accelerating and expanding practically daily. … We’re selling in new languages — Breton, Friuli, Occitan — Total income has grown 10 percent a year for the last three years.”
Orwell wrote the book at the end of his life, as he was stricken with tuberculosis living reclusively on the Scottish isle of Jura. He died at 46, just six months after the book’s publication in June 1949, thinking of the book as a critical and commercial success.
It was, but three years later the novel had fallen out of fashion. Only about 150 copies were purchased each month, barely enough to keep the book in print.
It remained that way until 1954, when the BBC produced and distributed a filmed “horror” adaptation of the novel. The network was quick to add a disclaimer: “This is one man’s alarmed view of the future.”
It was an instant hit. As the Daily Beast reported:
Television lives by viewing figures. Those for Nineteen Eighty-Four were, for a live drama, unprecedented. The tally (seven million) was exceeded only by that for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the previous year. “Big Brother is watching you.”’ “doublethink,” “thought- crime” and the “two-minute hate” became catchphrases.
Then the book’s popularity exploded. And like Big Brother’s gaze, it became ubiquitous — and stayed that way. Sales soared toward the astounding numbers they reach today.
The CIA grew interested, financing an American 1956 film adaptation with one request — instead of ending the film with the iconic four words (or at least the sentiment they contain), “He Loved Big Brother,” the agency doctored the story to have Winston Smith being shot after yelling “Down with Big Brother!”
Two versions were made of the film. The one with the altered ending played in Britain, according to “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters” by Frances Stonor Saunders, while the one with the original ending played in American cinemas.
More film adaptations (these seemingly free of CIA interference) were eventually made, as the book was printed and reprinted to aid high school English teachers in informing America’s youth.
Outside of the classroom, the novel eventually became such a pop culture phenomenon that Apple announced the first MacIntosh through a Ridley Scott-directed television commercial directly referencing it, which fittingly aired during the 1984 Super Bowl.
Perhaps the phrase “alternative facts” will soon have as much cultural currency as the terms Orwell penned more than a half-century ago, even though the former were said in earnest while Orwell’s were bitingly critical.