Revisiting Orwell’s ‘1984’ in the Twilight of the WH Trumpian Era

After an exhausting five days around the presidential election, I spent Saturday (7 November 2020) watching the CBS Westinghouse Studio One version of George Orwell’s “1984.” On Sunday, I reviewed my 2016 essay (“Watching ‘1984’ in Trump’s America” and on my blog)After nearly four years under the smog of Trumpland, the weekend saw a hopeful clearing, further lightened by the dark absurdist comedy played out at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot in Philadelphia on Saturday.

The Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco was just another instance when Trumpian endeavors seemed more Nikolai Gogol’s “The Governor Inspector” than Orwell’s “1984.”

The Westinghouse Studio One version was the first TV adaptation of Orwell’s classic. Studio One began after World War II as a 60-minute CBS Radio series but moved to television in 1948. The 1953 adaptation starred Eddie Albert as Winston Smith (Edmond O’Brien would take the principal role in the feature film version).

By 1953, Albert (1906-2005) had changed his German surname (Heimberger), which had once labeled him as the enemy during World War I, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a business degree, found himself unemployed after the stock market crash in 1929, been the lead on the Broadway stage, written and performed in a teleplay (“The Love Nest” with Ed Wynn), starred in the film version of a Broadway hit musical (“On Your Toes” by Rodgers and Hart), and been awarded the Bronze Star during World War II.

In 1953, he would receive an Oscar nomination for his role as the photographer friend of the reporter Joe Bradley played by Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday.” Audrey Hepburn would win the Oscar for her role as Princess Ann.

Albert could play cruel men such as the sadistic prison warden in the 1974 “The Longest Yard,” but at the time of the 1953 Westinghouse Production, he was still a leading man and a sometime character actor. He’d play the womanizing scoundrel Ali Hakim for the 1955 musical movie “Oklahoma.”

As the lead for “1984,” he’s instantly more likable than John Hurt who played Winston Smith in the 1984 feature film version. Albert’s Winston seems more hopeful with Hurt’s Winston more hungry. Of course, the Westinghouse version can’t compare in set design or technological insight or foresight of a film made three decades later. The Westinghouse version is more austere and the set design more abstract, drenched in shadows and closer to a stage production.

As I pointed out in my 2016 essay, Orwell, who died in 1950, could not have predicted the societal change brought on by the birth control pill although birth control of a different sort (condoms and diaphragms) were available in 1950. He died before McCarthyism was in full swing and well before the computer age and cellphone technology would bring Big Brother into our workplaces and homes.

Yet for Albert by 1953, the Thought Police of the 1950s had already touched his life. Albert was one of the actors named during the McCarthy trials under the Un-American Activities Committee. His wife, Margo, also an actress, was blacklisted. He survived, likely due to his actions during World War II, but it is likely his career still suffered. His character Winston’s love story suffered and the Thought Police separated him from his love. For Albert, his own love story had come under scrutiny by Congress, but he remained married to Mexican American actress Margo Albert until her death in 1985.

In the novel, Winston works at the Ministry of Truth where he is re-writing historical records so they conform with the state’s current version of history. He meets a woman, Julia, who works there, falls in love with her and secretly meets her for sexual recreation although sex has been outlawed unless it is for reproduction. Eventually, Winston and Julia are discovered, arrested and tortured into betraying each other. The only love allowed is for the government, a government that had enemies, including East Asia. 

In 2020, there are things to laugh about watching the Westinghouse version. The couple express joy blackmarket finds. Albert’s Winston is ecstatic with real white bread and jam. He smells with deep appreciation the coffee. Orwell could not have predicted the global reach of Starbucks. Still, I thought of the desperate search for toilet paper in March and the sudden interest in baking bread which led to a shortage of yeast. Milk, eggs and flour were all hard to find in March and April. Then there was the sudden surge of interest in sewing. Remember the hoarding of face masks and the attempted price gouging of cleaning and disinfecting supplies? I wonder if “1984” had been written by a woman, if different aspects of desperation would have surfaced? Would the value of a woman be measured by her bread making and sewing skills?

But I also thought of where I was during the actual 1984. During the 1980s I visited Japan, learned about both sides of my family and, more importantly, saw how the Japanese dealt with flu and cold season. I would later also visit Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. Face masks were common place. Japan has a long history of wearing face masks. You might not live or work in an area where many East Asians do either, but I have and do.

In the 1980s, I was already bristling at some of the theories about Japan because the bulk of Japanese studies in the United States is built upon what White men saw and believed. There was one prominent White woman, Ruth Benedict, who during World War II, conducted interviews with Japanese interned in the United States. Benedict herself did not understand Japanese nor perhaps, the difference between Japanese and Japanese Americans.

When I took my first trip to Japan, the Japanese language was new to me.  I didn’t speak it at home. I didn’t attend Japanese school on Saturdays like many Japanese Americans. In Los Angeles and Orange County, I had already met with the ethnic Japanese Thought Police who told me that I was a banana, something no Japanese American in San Diego had ever told me.  In Japan, although I discovered some aspects of culture continued resonate,  things were also different. Japanese and Japanese Americans are different. Being essentially American, Japanese Americans differ in their ability to adapt to various aspects of Japanese culture just as non-ethnic Japanese.

My mother’s older sister had studied in a Japan for one year. My mother had not. I began 2020 missing that aunt who had recently died; by May 2020, I was glad she had died. My aunt had lived through several waves of yellow perilism, yet there was a moment in 2012 when she was delighted to see a packed theater of predominately non-ethnic Asians at the pre-Broadway run of “Allegiance,” a musical about the Japanese American internment. By May 2020, led by Trumpian rhetoric, anti-Asian sentiment was on the rise, even in Southern California, even in areas where nearly 30 percent of the population was ethnically East Asian.

Unlike Albert, changing my name, one that already doesn’t readily identify me as Asian American, would make little difference.  I don’t go out much and I don’t feel that travel alone in a car outside of Southern California is particularly safe based on my race. On Election Day 2020, I wore a jabot with my grandmother’s pearls. Even though US women had the vote for 100 years, my grandmother could not naturalize until 1965. I don’t know if she ever voted.but women in Japan got the vote in 1945. When she came to the US, she first lived in a city that had lynched 17 Chinese on a single day in 1871. She moved to a county that had an active Ku Klux Klan from the 1920s, mostly targeting Mexican immigrants and Latinos. She was also in California under governor Earl Warren  (1891-1974) during the time of Mendez v. Westminster (1947) and Perez v. Sharp (1948) and Oyama v. California (1948).  Warren, who was governor from 1943-1953) went on to become the Chief Justice of the United States (1953-1969). He wrote the majority opinions of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Loving v. Virginia (1967), but we often forget that California Latinos paved the way for both decisions.

With the box office and awards performances of “The Farewell” and “Parasite” in 2019,  Asian Americans seemed to have made tremendous gains in 2020 by the Oscars. Then the mid-March COVID-19 restrictions hit. In May 2020, I saw another example of a memory hole in discussions about race where the history of the KKK in Southern California (San Diego, Orange County, Long Beach , Inglewood and Culver City) was forgotten and replaced by explanations steeped in the history of the Deep South on the East Coast. This memory hole isn’t a construct of White men, but one facilitated by the Tuskegee Institute because their lynching statistics begin in 1882, the same year as the Chinese Exclusion Act, and yet use a binary system. One is either Black or White. These are the statistics quoted on the NAACP official website despite the problematic binary system being well known.

These reconsiderations were part of a trend. In 2017, the #MeToo movement made me re-evaluate my assessment of Japanese transplant and Japanese American companies and in 2020, COVID-19 made me re-evaluate US perspectives on Asia.

Witnessing the refusal of many US residents and citizens to wear face masks, I have further reason to question the analysis of US scholars and researchers of Japan and East Asia. Would I trust someone like Cynthia Kim Beglin who has lived in Japan and China? After reading her piece in Psychology Today, I would take her analysis of any East Asian country with enough grains of salt to raise my blood pressure because of her curiously American rigidity. 

Beglin who was also first in Tokyo in 1984 wrote:

Being an American, it never occurred to me to wear a mask when I lived in Tokyo, even the few times I had a cold. I just stayed home. It seemed too foreign, too uncomfortable to wear a mask. It would have been like wearing kimono, the elegant traditional dress–with its many under-layers, heavy silk obi tied at the waist in a cumbersome knot, the heavy silk outer robe, and torturous-looking footwear called geta. (Well, maybe wearing a mask was not quite as uncomfortable as wearing kimono, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do.)

Can her analysis of Asian collectivism versus American individualism be anything but biased?

In the 1980s, I did, for a few months, have to wear a kimono and geta for a job in a Japanese restaurant waiting tables. There is nothing torturous about geta just as there is nothing that bad about wearing a face mask. Compared to high heels and nylons, geta and tabi are comfortable and sensible. 

Of the current situation in 2020, Belgin writes:

Now that we’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, I’ve learned to wear a mask. (My husband has too.) I don’t love it. It’s not particularly comfortable. I feel weird. I have a bit of trouble breathing. But I do it anyway. I do it to protect others. I do it to protect my family and myself. I do it because all the countries that have had success in slowing the spread of this terrible disease have insisted their citizens wear masks. I do it to thank all of our health care workers and first responders for their selflessness. I do it because it’s my duty as an American to help my country slow this epidemic. I view it as the patriotic thing to do. I hope you do too.

I admit that in Japan I did not wear face masks. I was only sick once and did not have to go out of the dormitory.  Other times, I had was allergic reactions–no possibility of transmission to other people. Despite being an American, there are things I learned in Japan that I accepted. Feeling weird is not a big problem for me, but I live in a county that is 10 percent ethnic Asian and near a city that is 30 percent ethnic Asian. This is an aspect of Japanese culture that I have no problems adapting and accepting. 

Now, I cycle with a face mask. I run dogs on an agility course twice a week while barking and yipping commands. I know that for these activities some face masks (which I make myself) are better than others. I also have an FB friend who runs marathons with a face mask. Face masks are an aspect of Japanese and Asian culture that has now entered American culture. This is a visual change, but there have been other changes percolating in every community, becoming just as pervasive and invasive as Starbucks. 

In four years of Trumpland, I’ve considered the hysterical whine of insecurity that may have given rise to the cultish Trumpian fanbase. The world has changed and continues to change because in reality, the real memory hole is not just what a totalitarian government has forced its citizens to forget. The memory hole  is also the history, the criticism and the social realities that were written by White men. Evaluating or re-evaluating Asia is only one aspect of the cataclysmic re-writing of the world. When my mother studied art history, there were no women artists mentioned and the portrayal of non-European art and artists was questionable. When I studied art history as an undergrad, there were still no female artists included. In the last decade, as I continue to retake classes in art history, history and sociology, the changes resulting from diversity of voices that brings in non-European sources and includes ethnic minorities,  cannot be ignored. The history and critical culture that someone born in 1946, like Donald Trump, was raised on has been transformed. If individuals remain fossilized in their beliefs, language and knowledge, they will have a hard time moving forward.They will feel weird. They will likely feel angry for the loss of affirmation. And being American doesn’t mean one is adaptable to the changing landscape of knowledge and culture. 

I’d rather not frame wearing a face mask as patriotic. It’s so easy to misuse that  term and it comes up repeatedly in Trumpian Newspeak. It is as damaging as deciding who is a real Japanese American and who is a banana (and who are real Asian American writers per Frank Chin’s 1991 ““Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake”), or who is a real American and who is un-American. 

In his email to his supporters Trump writes: 

It’s clear that Patriotic Americans want FOUR MORE YEARS of President Trump, but that won’t stop the Radical Left from trying to cause CHAOS and CONFUSION.

In the small print of most of the Trump campaign missives is this: 

If you’d like to step up and join your fellow Patriots in the fight against the Left-wing MOB please click here to sign up to volunteer with Team Trump. It’s because of the commitment and support from real Patriots, like YOU Jana, that we will Make America Great Again! We appreciate your support and with your help, we’ll secure FOUR MORE YEARS!

Wouldn’t it be better to make the decision based on science and a concern from one’s neighbors, not caring if they are Democrats or Republicans or whatever enemies of the state or people an antagonistic politician, even the president might say (i.e. journalists). Orwell’s 1984 was science fiction, but in 2020, I’d rather we’d rely on science, from Japan and the US

The world is changing, but more slowly than I had hoped for when my grandmother was still alive in the 1980s.  I was raised in a city that sent its Japanese ethnic population to internment camps in Arizona. I have lived in a city (Pasadena) that once ran out all of its Chinese and Chinese-looking citizens in 1885.  I live in a state that once gave more legal rights to Blacks than Asians.  In 2020, I don’t think the American culture is ready for an ethnic East Asian woman as president or even mayor of Los Angeles or governor of California. 

In 1984, Eddie Albert played the president of the United States in “Dreamscape.” By this time, he was probably best known for his turn as Oliver Wendell Douglas in the sitcom “Green Acres” (1965-1971).  

He was 78 when the film “Dreamscape” came out. Joe Biden is 77. In 1984, movie makers thought people could imagine a 78-year-old White man as a president. Biden will be a welcome change from the dark comedy and grotesque horror of the last four years. Yet the Götterdämmerung of White male built societies and their partial histories and limited critical analyses is upon us and will be for many years, perhaps until we can foresee any American being president. 

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