Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Why bloggers love Orwell

A lot of people think George Orwell is special. I'm one of them.

I first read Orwell's books Animal Farm and 1984 when I was about twelve years old. The latter was good for many nightmares--I don't recommend giving the book to twelve-year-olds, but nobody was paying much attention to my reading matter at the time. 1984 seemed to weave a spell over me--so much that, for a week or so, it seemed more real than what was going on around me, and far more frightening. Winston Smith's travails seemed so terrifying and, in the end, so utterly devoid of hope, that it took me a while to come back again to my own world.

The most memorable part of the book to me, aside from Room 101 and the rats, was the section (an Appendix, I believe) about Newspeak. That words could be twisted into their opposites and used as propaganda ploys was a new thought to me at the time, but it made intuitive sense.

Later, it was the Orwell of the pithy epigram who appealed. He was an acknowledged master of the form, as evidenced here.

But I confess that I haven't done any serious reading of Orwell's other works. But having recently read this piece on Orwell written by Timothy Garton Ash and appearing in the New York Review of Books back in 1998, it seems that I must add Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, at the very least, to my ever-growing "required reading" list.

In his article, Ash poses a question that others have also tried to answer recently: what is it about Orwell that makes him so fascinating and important a writer even today? Ash writes:

The answer is both complicated and simple. It really starts in the Spanish Civil War. Because [Orwell] had joined the heterodox Marxist POUM militia rather than the communist-run International Brigade, he and his wife then got caught up in the violent suppression of the POUM in Barcelona. Friends with whom he had fought at the front were thrown into prison or killed by the Russian-directed communists—supposedly their republican allies. Orwell became a fugitive on the streets. This edition prints a secret report to the Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason in which Eric and Eileen Blair are described as "rabid Trotskyists" and "agents of the POUM." Had they not slipped out of Spain a few days earlier, they could have found themselves, like Georges Kopp, incarcerated, tortured, and thrown into a coal bin with giant rats. [Note the possible origins of the particularities of Winston Smith's dread Room 101.]

This direct experience of communist terror, betrayal, and lies is a key to understanding all his subsequent work. Of the Russian agent in Barcelona charged with defaming the POUM as Trotskyist Francoist traitors he writes, in Homage to Catalonia, "It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts journalists." The tail sting is typical black humor, but also reflects a further, bitter discovery. On returning to England he found that virtually the whole left-wing press was suppressing or falsifying the facts about the Barcelona events. This was the second part of his Spanish experience, and it shocked him even more because it was happening in his own country. Here begins his fascination with what he describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as a basic principle of Oceania's ruling ideology: "the mutability of the past." Falsification, airbrushing, rewriting history: in short, the memory hole.

There, in a nutshell, is the fascination Orwell holds for me now: his sense of betrayal leading to bitterness and skepticism, and his realization of how easy it is for the press and others to lie about what had happened and how difficult it can be to combat those lies. Although Orwell remained a socialist all the days of his life (in his case, guilt about the British class system seemed to have been part of the reason), he was a socialist who hated--positively hated--Communism. His most basic dedication was to the cause of trying to ferret out the truth, and to describe the ways in which truth can be perverted and twisted. That mission transcended politics.

In my own humble way, I feel a small kinship. In preparation for my next "A mind is a difficult thing to change" essay, I've been thinking about my own bitterness, sense of betrayal (particularly by the press), and attempts at finding the truth.

For me, most of this has occurred in a long and complex post-9/11 process which will be the subject of the rest of my essays in the series. For Orwell, it was a bitter and dramatic experience that was directly personal. For me and most others, it is a more cerebral process, mediated mostly by reading, listening, and watching. But it has been a life- and mind-changing process nevertheless.

In Ash's article, he also makes some points about Orwell that made me suddenly see Orwell in a new light, which is that he bore some resemblance to bloggers--or, at least, to the goals of many bloggers, or to bloggers as they like to imagine themselves to be: truth-seekers who are honest about their own biases, and who are not above admitting and correcting their own mistakes. Perhaps that's one of the reasons bloggers, as a whole, seem especially attracted to him. Here's the quote:

[Orwell] writes about [the Spanish Civil War] in the first person, not in the self-indulgent spirit of "look at me, what a brave little Hemingway am I," but because it really is more honest. That "I" makes explicit the partiality of his view. To rub it in he tells the reader at the end of the book: "Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events."

He uses all his hard-learned writer's craft, chisels away at clean, vivid prose, deploys metaphor, artifice, and characteristic overstatement; but all the facts are as accurate as he can make them. It is, as he wrote in praise of Henry Miller, "a definite attempt to get at real facts." For all the question marks about the factual basis of some of Orwell's earlier work, his public and private writing after 1937 shows him striving for an old-fashioned, empirical truth, light-years removed from the postmodern. This includes, crucially, the unpleasant truths about his own side. These he makes a special point of exposing most bluntly...

His great essays straddle politics and literature. They explore Dickens, Kipling, and Tolstoy, nationalism, anti-Semitism, Gandhi, and boys' weeklies. In "Politics and the English Language" he shows how the corruption of language is crucial to the making and defending of bad, oppressive politics. But he also shows how we can get back at the abusers of power, because they are using our weapons: words. Freedom depends on writers keeping the word-mirrors clean. In an age of sophisticated media manipulation, this is more vital than ever.

In his best articles and letters, he gives us a gritty, personal example of how to engage as a writer in politics. He takes sides, but remains his own man. He will not put himself at the service of political parties exercising or pursuing power, since that means using half-truths, in a democracy, or whole lies in a dictatorship. He gets things wrong, but then corrects them. Sometimes he joins with others in volunteer brigades or boring committee work, to defend freedom. But if need be, he stands alone, against all the "smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."


At 1:56 PM, August 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The black text on an orange background in the linked post is both unreadable and painful.

Copied the text out into Word and I can read it.

Will think about commenting after my eyes recover.

At 2:42 PM, August 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my great failings is that, in regard to my reading material, I am, most often, a skimmer. However, your posts inspire me to read every word and, often, I even reread so as to better absorb your point. You never disappoint. Probably not a day goes by that one can't easily find examples of the manipulation of facts or the outright dissimination of misinformation in all areas of mainstream media. The new Naral backed commercial against Judge Roberts comes quickly to mind as an example from today. Regardless of how you feel about his suitability to be a Supreme Court justice, couldn't the opposition just fight fair.Give it your best shot with honest facts and let truth will out. I feel so fortunate to live in the age of bloggers and, especially in these early years since I believe in the ones I read, there is a genuine commitment to truth telling. Yes, I understand the influence a bias might have but, as you pointed out, at least the bias is acknowledged and I can judge for myself how much it might effect the blogger's content.

At 4:00 PM, August 10, 2005, Blogger ShrinkWrapped said...

Orwell is a great source of quotes to illustrate, in the most succinct way possible, the evils of totalitarianism.
This is a great post. I will use some of your words in my post on PC & Defects in Reality Testing.

At 5:56 PM, August 10, 2005, Blogger Bookworm said...

Wonderful Orwell homage. He was unique in being able to use his personal experiences, but to gain sufficient distance from them, so as to write unparalleled prescient and objective fact and fiction about the dangers of any form of totalitarianism.

At 6:31 PM, August 10, 2005, Blogger David Foster said...

Just a plain great writer, too. Try to read his description of the coal mine in "The Road to Wigan Pier" without feeling at least a bit claustrophobic.

At 9:46 PM, August 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your posting reminded me that in my collection of "intend to read" books is Christphor Hitchens' fairly recent "Why Orwell Matters".
Intend to get to it right away.

At 4:07 AM, August 11, 2005, Blogger camojack said...


At 10:22 AM, August 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

George Orwell was a well meaning economic illiterate. Socialism was presumably about sharing the wealth and everybody being nice to each other. He died at a relatively young age. It’s too bad that Orwell never got a chance to closely study the works of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises.

At 11:00 AM, August 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Winston Smith's travails seemed so terrifying and, in the end, so utterly devoid of hope, that it took me a while to come back again to my own world."
When an author is able to hijack a reader's grasp on reality, even for a short spell, it is truly a remarkable achievement. In all my readings there have been a precious few that had this ability.
Orwell's writings were a womder.

At 1:32 AM, August 12, 2005, Blogger Troy Stephens said...

Thanks for yet another fascinating, informative, thoughtfully written, and very relevant post! You and Tammy Bruce have together inspired me to read the Orwell I somehow never got around to in my school years. (Well, I'm underlining Animal Farm and 1984 in my ever-growing "To Read" list at least. It's a start!)

One thing I find remarkable about Orwell is that I've noticed him being quoted by people of widely varying political persuasions in recent years -- from those of us in the classical-liberal / libertarian / [neo-] conservative camp, who invoke Orwell in criticism of "political correctness" and its associated language-control-as-a-means-of-thought-control obsession, or see the MSM and folks on the left as presenting a deliberately skewed picture of progress in Iraq and the meaning of the War on Terror, to still others on the progressive-left and farther-left, who've accused not only the current administration but also (to my continuing astonishment) the very same MSM of promoting the war(s) using Orwellian "newspeak". There's something inherently interesting about the rare author whose ideas have such broad appeal (and, clearly, widely varying reader interpretation). I look forward to reading his work and learning more about him.

At 7:48 AM, August 12, 2005, Blogger Barba Roja said...

Ah, but here's the rub: though his experiences in Spain did set him dead against Stlinist Communism as it was practiced in Russia, it convinced him more than ever that socialism was the best way to go. As he says:

[W]hen one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle… Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senior' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black… And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

Alas, the Soviet Union had decided that, if there was going to be a Communist revolution in Spain, they wanted to control it. So, they gave military aid to the Spanish Communist party (the P.S.U.C.) in return for suppressing the Anarchists and Socialists. With the Communists fighting their allies and the bourgeoisie collaborating with Franco, the internal strife was sufficient to give the Spanish Fascists and their Nazi backers the upper hand. Democracy didn’t return to Spain until 1975, after Franco’s death.

At 5:14 AM, December 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find most interesting (and ironic) about 1984 is how the Left has hijacked an anti-communist novel and uses it to bash the Right over the head.
The core central ideas of the novel (new-speak, thought-crime, mutability of reality) are all ignored so that the Left can use 1984 to complain about surveillance.
If you never read the novel and just listened to how people commonly talk about it, you would think that 1984 was an anti-Right, anti-fascist novel about the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance.

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