Rereading 1984

By David Michael Newstead.

Last summer, I unexpectedly found a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 in a used bookstore in Washington D.C. The novel had been buried in a pile of miscellaneous paperbacks, hiding in plain sight. For how long? I’m not sure. So when I realized what it was, I immediately grabbed it and headed to the register. I guess I was surprised to even see something that rare. Then again, finding the book in 2016 might have been an omen of things to come. Eagerly, I bought it and re-read it. The story, of course, was the same: Big Brother, the Thought Police, and the rest. The difference was that the world around me had changed since the last time I’d read it. It’s a book that only becomes more relevant with each passing day. And in some countries, it isn’t far from reality as it is.

Besides the narrative though, the paperback itself started to intrigue me: the look, the feel, how the pages smell, how it fits in my hands, the original cover art, and the signs of wear and tear from over the years. This particular copy was slightly beat up, but still in good condition for something printed in the late 1940s. And that’s when I thought about it more. Here’s an object – almost 70 years old now – that’s an analog relic in an increasingly digital world. It is a lingering connection to and a warning from the distant past. When it was first printed, World War Two had just finished and the Cold War was in its earliest stages.

Plenty has happened since then and who knows where this book was for all those years before I got it. Regardless, today some Orwellian themes are just a description of disturbing norms across the planet: widespread government surveillance, propaganda, and political doublespeak. Maybe the methods have been updated overtime, but there’s a reason 1984 and other dystopian novels have had skyrocketing sales lately. George Orwell, for his part, fought against fascism and oppression and passionately believed in objective truth. Safe to say, that battle continues.

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2+2=5

By David Michael Newstead.

Made famous by George Orwell’s novel 1984, the slogan 2+2=5 is used to represent the absurdity of political falsehoods and lying propaganda. But it wasn’t a figment of Orwell’s imagination. In fact, the author was referencing an actual propaganda campaign from Stalin’s Russia, which Orwell was highly critical of.

For Stalin, 2+2=5 was a rallying cry, boasting that the goals of the first five-year plan had been achieved ahead of schedule in only four years. Meant to rapidly modernize the Soviet economy between 1928 and 1932, the first five-plan had indeed collectivized farmland and created heavy industry throughout the country. But like most things Stalin related, there was a sizable body count. The collectivization of agriculture, for example, triggered a famine in which millions died, while industrial workers were harshly punished for failing to reach an ever-increasing set of quotas associated with the plan. Still, propaganda posters were churned out just the same, proclaiming success regardless of the numbers.

Today, circumstances may have changed, but political falsehoods live on. Orwell’s work is being re-read like never before and Stalin is once again admired by the Russian state. As for 2+2=5, it feels like the slogan is only one press conference, one tweet, or TV interview away from resurfacing – from being proudly shouted at anyone within earshot. It’s something George Orwell understood very well and a phenomenon that we’ll have plenty of time to think about.

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The Commissar Vanishes

By David Michael Newstead.

David King died last month. He was a British graphic designer famous for his collection of Soviet photographs and posters. King spent years amassing his collection, building a visual portrait of history like a jigsaw puzzle.

The only reason I know about David King’s work though is because I was wandering around a bookstore while I was in high school. I found myself immediately drawn to his book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since.

On one level, The Commissar Vanishes is about Photoshop before there was Photoshop – where enemies of the state were airbrushed out of existence so often that an original photograph looked nothing like the multiple reproductions churned out after each purge. In many cases, Stalin was a constant presence, while the other people in the photo were at risk of being killed and then erased from history.

As if that weren’t Orwellian enough, the book also included defaced portraits of officials whose terrified friends and loved ones suddenly found themselves in possession of something illegal, something that had to be destroyed. The result being that victims’ photos were expunged both in public and in private.

But through his years of digging, David King was able to piece together the truth and show each iteration of the fabrications and the system that manufactured a cult of personality through statues, books, posters, photos, and paintings. Because of that work, his legacy is well-earned. David King was 73.

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Livestreaming 1984

Starting January 21, the D.C. Public Library is presenting Orwellian America – Government Transparency and Personal Privacy in the Digital Age. Among the events…

– A live-streamed, 11 hour marathon reading of George Orwell’s 1984.

– A screening of Frontline’s United States of Secrets, Part 1.

– A workshop on Tor, for anonymously surfing the web.

– Downloadable propaganda posters.

Check out Orwellian America 

Watch the 1984 Livestream