From Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, today’s discourse often evokes Prometheus-winning classics

By Michael Grossberg

You can’t get away from it these days, for good or ill.

Just about anywhere you look, from mainstream newspapers and magazines to Substack blogs and social-media references, writers, columnists and commentators frequently are referencing classic novels, stories and fables to forge timely metaphors about today’s trends.

George Orwell (Creative Commons license)

All too many prove to be cautionary warnings about the importance of telling the truth, in the midst of so many public falsehoods… and draw upon some of the most enduring Prometheus-winning works of fiction, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Most references offer welcome reminders that while politics seems to be a stagnant and toxic swamp of falsehoods, lies and delusions, facing facts and telling the truth remains the foundation of both sanity and civilization.

Such continuing literary references testify to the power of popular and enduring fiction to frame our imagination and understanding – and the ability of novelists and artists to speak truth to power.

Hans Christian Anderson statue in Copenhagen

THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

For instance, recently a Wall Street Journal column referenced Andersen’s anti-authoritarian fable (the 2000 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner) as well as several Hollywood films (including The Candidate and Wag the Dog.)

“Such scripts make for popular movies, but they’re the wrong way to view a real presidential election,” the columnist wrote.


“Voters are hardly perfect and sometimes make mistakes. But in general, the story that comes closest to real life is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” By a presidential campaign’s end, as with the emperor at the parade’s conclusion, many swing voters sense when they’re being conned and see through it. Trying to run an entire presidential campaign on a false narrative is a prescription for disaster.”

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR

Meanwhile, Orwell’s impressive commitment to rationality, objectivity and liberty – reflected in both Nineteen Eighty-Four, the 1984 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee, and Animal Farm, the 2011 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee – inspired much of a recent Substack column posted by Matt Labash on his Slack Tide blog.

In the article “Our Lying Problem and how George Orwell Can Stop It,” Labash self-deprecatingly admits to telling a few small white lies every day, as he suggests most of us do to be polite and get along socially with minimal conflict.

But he also bracingly skewers the mendacity (to use Tennessee Williams’ favorite word for lies) of so many in public life. Not a new trend, to be sure, but one seemingly more prevalent today than ever.

“Truth is a stubborn bugger, and has a way of revealing itself no matter how many confidence men try to suppress it or shell-game it around the table for their own diabolical advantage.  I don’t take my truth antidotes from public self-servants. I take them from one of the rare men whose words I steadily trust,” Labash wrote.

“That would be Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, even if he’s been dead for 73 years.  Is it a writerly cliché to love Orwell?  If so, who cares?  Clichés become clichés because they have usually arrived at some sort of widely recognized truth…

“This is why, a few years ago, I settled on a new Bible – even if I’m still perfectly fine with the old one.  It’s something the Gideons should place in motel rooms if they ever run out of King Jameses:  a slim volume called Orwell On Truth, which contains, all in one place, the very best pulls from Orwell’s prodigious output.

“He committed a considerable amount of words to print in his relatively short 46 years in essay, journalistic, and fictive forms. But this book’s snippets are loosely grouped on the single subject of telling the truth, minus all the dead elephants  and talking pigs and other (often wondrous) architecture that was erected around what Orwell really wanted you to know, which is:  the truth is a valuable enough thing that we should relentlessly tell it, despite our national origins or political orientations or whatever else colors our worldview.

Labash quotes several apt selections from Orwell’s stories and essays – all worth rereading – – before reaching his eloquent conclusion.

“Ultimately, putting a stop to the incessant public lying, I suspect, comes down to something as simple as not rewarding it. For people in public life are frequently there in the first place as the beneficiaries of a spoils system – a spoils system that has become deeply, perhaps irreparably spoiled.  Too many of their constituents or audiences not only tolerate being lied to, but prefer to be. Just as babies need pacifiers.

Which is why so often these days, our run-of-the-mill headlines feel purloined from Orwell’s own novelistic dystopias. As Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four – a songbook that is cracked open so often by so many self-dealing pundits and politicians that they have ceased to hear its music, or to recognize the moral clarity that condemns what they themselves are doing:

“Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the Party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The key-word here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it also means the ability to believe that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed to the contrary.”

“I’ve read enough Orwell to think of him less as a writer than as a doctor. A doctor who might not have the cure for what’s still ailing us nearly a century after he did the bulk of his writing, but who can at least unblinkingly diagnose the disease. Which is the start of a cure if we’re ever to find one. If there’s any hope of doing so, we have to think as independently and freely as he did.”

For the full column, visit Labash’s Substack blog.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, end slavery and war and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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