From May and Corbyn to the 'fat-headed Daily Telegraph reader': the never-ending relevance of George Orwell
How comforting to know that Orwell's caricatures still make perfect sense today.
Nearly thirty years ago the American author Mike Godwin noticed that when online, people couldn’t help themselves; every argument about anything seemed to end up with someone comparing someone else to Hitler. It is quite reassuring that there is a semi-official title - Godwin’s Law - for this desperate need within people to frame whatever argument they are having as their own personal battle against Nazism, and it makes clear how blindly self-centred and ignorant most of us really are.
The other name that tends to come up a lot is George Orwell. Anyone even remotely close to being resolute in their politics, it seems, suspects that were the man who wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four alive today, he would no doubt be on their side. Every shade of conspiracy theorist sees Orwell as a sort of God-like figure, who would have certainly approved of their edgy cynicism, not matter how outlandish and defective their thinking might actually be.
It is an easy trap to fall into, and not just for those cheery types who like to bang on about Zionist plots. After all, Orwell was truly brilliant, which is in part why we still talk about him and his ideas nearly seventy years after his death. And it is the case that he saw through the propaganda and lies of his time where so many of his contemporaries simply could not. Christopher Hitchens said that of the three biggest twentieth century questions - those of Empire, Fascism and Communism - ‘George Orwell got all of them right’, and I have yet to encounter a more succinct, pertinent explanation of his importance and lasting relevance.
I have just finished reading Orwell in Tribune (Politico’s Publishing, 2006), a collection of his 1940s articles in which he consistently makes arguments and observations that, in a sense, do not appear to have aged a day. A few of these are addressed below.
The essence and purpose of political debate clearly intrigued Orwell, and he was frustrated by discussions had in bad faith. In December 1944 he wrote that ‘...almost nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that the objective truth matters as long as you can score a neat debating point’, and how these words ring true nowadays also. We live in the televisual age of the ‘gotcha moment’, where news program discussions are not had by open-minded contributors, but instead obstinate campaigners who bark at each other for ten minutes either side of commercial breaks.
Of course it’s not all bad (I happen to think that YouTube has been a force for good in this sense, as it’s now possible to watch long-form political conversations for free online, and the viewing figures suggest that people are interested). But the impact television had, and is still having, on the very question of what a debate actually is has been such that the disappointment Orwell felt in the 1940s hasn’t gone away for those who understand that the need for thoughtful dialogue is truly fundamental within any forward-thinking society.
Look at our current political leaders in Britain. In terms of their approach to doing politics, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are two peas in a pod. For them stubbornness is not just another character trait, but instead their raison d'être. The thought that a well crafted argument might cause them to change their minds terrifies them, and so like spoilt children they both decided long ago to stop listening to anyone vaguely interesting. Though they won’t say so in public, ‘objective truth’ doesn’t really concern them.
On 28th January 1944 Orwell wrote that, ‘Obviously one mustn’t say ‘X agrees with me: therefore he is a good writer’’, which on the face of it seems fairly straightforward, but as it turns out it is an exceptionally honest statement outlining a ethical standard that is not maintained as it should be. In these partisan times, how regular it is to see activists who pose as writers fawning over another from their side of politics, regardless of whether or not the other has any meaningful talent as a writer. In direct contrast with what Orwell meant, it is enough for the worst type of pro-Trump, Corbyn-supporting or Brexit campaigner that another agrees with them, and is on their side.
Twitter has not helped this of course. It has amplified the voices of the witless and often the bigoted, because stupid people often shout the loudest, but the tacit complicity in this of more rationally minded types has been shameful. We are in teams now it appears, and it won’t do to criticise a teammate, no matter how imbecilic and offensive their views might be.
In the same January 1944 piece Orwell said, ‘Personally I admire several writers (Céline for example) who have gone over to the fascists, and many others whose political outlook I strongly object to’. What are we anti-fascists to make of this point of view now? Is he sympathising with fascists? Does he not understand what fascism is? I would suggest he understood a damn sight more than most of us ever will, and his opposition to fascism was unconditional. All he was doing here was praising the writing talents of those who he profoundly disagreed with nonetheless, but I think this will be lost on twentieth century campaigners; having nothing at all good to say about one’s opponent is now thought to be fundamental. Donald Trump didn’t cause this, but he truly is the living embodiment of this position, the natural end point on the slippery slide of political pigheadedness.
The wartime hypocrisies of both the nativist and the conspiracist angered Orwell. He was equally appalled by the ‘fat-headed Daily Telegraph reader who cries out against doodlebugs while not caring a damn for the starvation of millions of Indians’ (11th August 1944), and the pacifist relativists who assured him that ‘the concentration camps, the gas vans, the rubber truncheons, the castor oil and all the rest of it - are simply lies emanating from the British government. Or, alternatively, they are not lies, but then we do exactly the same ourselves’.
How comforting to know that these caricatures still make perfect sense seventy-five years on! Of course it would be going too far to suggest that all those in favour of Brexit aren’t concerned by major issues facing other countries, but a nationalist sense, sometimes underlying the campaign, occasionally in full view, that Britain is better than the rest, or at least that we could be made great again outside the European Union, was essential to their victory in the 2016 referendum.
As for the relativism Orwell saw amongst anti-war types, well, this has crept more and more into the mainstream. It is, for example, not a fringe view to hold nowadays that Islamist terrorists are in part justified in what they do because ‘Tony Blair and George Bush’ etc. These people are the unwitting heirs to those Orwell described, those determined not to see any difference in moral standing between any warring factions. In contrast, he was characteristically frank, whilst adding a caveat that separated him from the ‘fat-headed Daily Telegraph’ types: ‘Nazism… is definitely worse than British imperialism, which has plenty of crimes of its own to answer for’.
I could go on and on like this. It is a well-worn cliché that says we can understand more about the present by looking back into the past, the type of thing a boring history teacher tells children who aren’t paying attention. But in the case of George Orwell, it is unequivocally true. He saw the twentieth century world as it really was, and the profundity of his work is such that he is still showing us how to be in the world: sceptical and truthful in equal measure.