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Skidmore professors asked: What is relevance of '1984'?

Skidmore professors asked: What is relevance of '1984'?

'It's this idea of vigilance — we have to be vigilant now'
Skidmore professors asked: What is relevance of '1984'?
Pushkala Prasad, professor of management and business at Skidmore College, speaks with fellow panelists Tuesday.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER

As thousands gathered in theaters around the nation Tuesday to watch Michael Radford’s on-screen adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984,” Barbara Black asked why. 

“What does an evening like this do for all of us?” Black asked a panel of Skidmore College professors after a showing of the British drama, which debuted in theaters in 1984, at the college’s Tang Museum. 

Political science associate professor Ron Seyb, who was one of the three panelists, pointed to what he saw as the film’s underscoring theme: hopelessness.

“So it mirrors our moment, but what does that do for us?” asked Black, a Skidmore English professor who teaches classes on dystopian and utopian fiction. 

Seyb lightly offered a suggestion in the form of a question — “Does it make us just wallow?” — before pointing to a lesson to take from the story, which imagines a totalitarian state where workers are under constant surveillance by the Thought Police and must pledge allegiance to a leader called Big Brother.

“It's this idea of vigilance — we have to be vigilant now,” he said. “The world may not be as bad as it is portrayed in ‘1984,’ but it needs a lot of watching, because there are sort of sinister forces that might be at work.”

About 80 people — a mix of college professors, students and other community members — attended the screening. It was one of nearly 200 showings taking place around the nation Tuesday, which marked the day in the film, April 4, when the protagonist, Winston Smith — played by John Hurt, who died in January — begins writing in a journal in opposition to his oppressive government. Proctors in Schenectady also offered a showing of the film, with an introduction from Gazette columnist Sara Foss, as did Sage Colleges’ Opalka Gallery in Albany.  

The collective screening was organized as a protest by United State of Cinema, which said on its website that participants “strongly believe in supporting the National Endowment for the Arts and see any attempt to scuttle that program as an attack on free speech and creative expression through entertainment.”

Federal funding for the NEA would be cut under the Trump administration’s proposed budget. Orwell’s “1984,” first published in 1949, depicts a government that outlawed free speech.

“We’re excited to show this for a number of reasons, but primarily to initiate a community conversation at a time in which ‘alternative facts’ are something that people talk about,” said Tom Yoshikami, educator for college and public programs at the Tang.

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It was Kellyanne Conway’s use of of the phrase “alternative facts” on “Meet the Press” in January that triggered a spike in sales of “1984,” Seyb noted during the discussion. Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, used the contradictory phrase in defending White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s false claims that the president’s inauguration had record-breaking crowds.

One attendee said “my head snapped around” when he heard Conway’s use of the phrase, “and I immediately did think of ‘1984.’”

Panelist Pushkala Prasad, a professor of management and business at the college, reminded the audience that the idea of “alternative facts” isn’t new.

“States have always built alternative truths,” she said. “At this point, it’s just kind of in your face.”

Panelist Tim Wientzen, an assistant English professor at Skidmore, admitted that he didn’t know what people are trying to get out of watching, or reading, “1984” today. 

“We have an administration that is just much more overt, or maybe not as good at, saying the exact opposite of what is true,” he said. “Everyone does this. Every politician ever has had a press secretary who has tried to convince you that black is white, right? But Donald Trump will say black is white.”

People may be watching or reading “1984” because they are looking for an “analog in the historical record” to untruths of today, Wientzen said, pointing to slogans from the book such as “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength.”

“So at least we can find it in a defamiliarized form that’s not so intimate to ourselves,” he said. 

Regardless of why people are turning to “1984,” for Wientzen, whose field of study is early 20th-century British literature, to see widespread public interest in a modernist novel is exciting.

“It almost never happens,” he told the audience before the screening. “So thanks for being here.”

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