Why Orwell Matters
One of my favorite Orwell moments comes early in his autobiographical account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, when he weighs his own reaction to revolutionary Barcelona. Surveying the looted churches, expropriated taxis, militant shoeshine men, and democratic sheet music, he breathed the spirit of 1936--and coughed. "There was much in it that I did not understand, in some way I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."
Defending things you don't like is standard operating procedure for the eclectic contemporary left--imagine the laughter among Wedge shoppers if they were to read of Orwell's disdain for the "fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist." (Hey, he missed "piercing enthusiast.") Orwell could have used a little sex mania, judging from 1984. But at least he stayed within smelling distance of the orthodoxies he hated--and paid people the compliment of arguing with them. Theory fans "never bother to discover what is going on inside other people's heads," he observed. Better to just do away with the heads, Stalin might add, as putsch came to shove in Spain.
George Orwell was many things that he did not like, argues Christopher Hitchens, in his heroically researched new appreciation, Why Orwell Matters (Basic Books). That's what made him a great journalist of himself and the Communist betrayal, what helped him be right so early and often. The author formerly known as Eric Blair was an Eton-educated son of an opium flogger for the Empire. He got a job as a colonial policeman in Burma--the LAPD of its era. Yet Orwell went on to become a seminal anti-imperialist, satirist of police states, soldier against Spanish fascism, and socialist who coined the expression "cold war."
Orwell wrote and argued his way out of his prejudices, in other words. He took positions at odds with his viscera--or just as often, tested his mind against them--becoming a more athletic thinker for it. That the guy wasn't a genius only demonstrates what ordinary people can do with courage, honesty, and humor. "One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality," Orwell wrote.
This was the "power of facing unpleasant facts" Orwell counted as his strength--and the singular quality Hitchens hopes to pass along as a model. It was the gift that allowed Orwell to see through the Moscow show trials before the Spanish version came to town. And he combined with this a rare sensitivity to language, a gift so (posthumously) celebrated that a synonym for the debasement of meaning bears his name: "Orwellian." (It can also be used to connote "in the tradition of Orwell" or "Big Brotherly.") Himself a writer of surgical grace, Hitchens wisely quotes his subject on the dangers of received phrasing: "When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning."
This match of minds is a provocative one. Having read Christopher Hitchens in The Nation since the seventh grade, and 1984 in the titular year, I can safely say that both writers have been a part of my conversations for longer than my entire adult life. Yet where the ascetic and self-deprecating Orwell died impoverished in 1950, Hitchens is the closest the left has to its own Hunter S. Thompson--a celebrity Rosa Luxemburgist and Vanity Fair columnist whose prose suggests a partisan "stoutly manning a barricade made of hotel minibars" (to quote Tom Carson). "Hitch" was the open-shirted British expat and insistent secularist who suavely dismembered the cults of Princess Di and Mother Teresa. (When both died in the same week, a friend of mine imagined an upbeat Hitchens beginning his next column, "I am naked as I write this...") Now his published case for trying Henry Kissinger as a war criminal has become a documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which opens Friday at Bell Auditorium.
If Orwell's great subject was language, Hitchens's is religion. "Even when I'm not writing about it, I'm writing about it," he once told me in an interview. In Orwell, then, Hitchens sees the antithesis of the believer's mind. "What he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that 'views' do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think."
"How Orwell thought" might be the key to "why Orwell matters" now--and not only because public beheadings in Iraq and "Dear Leader" sing-alongs in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea owe a royalty to the author of 1984. How Orwell faced the unpleasant facts of World War II poses a challenge to his anti-imperialist and anti-fascist inheritors--particularly now that they are divided over the urgent question of American intervention.
Much as Orwell became a patriot as bombs rained down during the blitz, Hitchens became an American on September 11. On a day when the existing dialect rushed in with appalling inadequacy, he felt something unexpected: exhilaration. "Here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated," he wrote. "On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan....On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism."
Doing the math, Hitchens concluded that if passengers hadn't mounted their unfathomably brave resistance on United Airlines Flight 93, "I might, from where I am sitting, be a short walk from a gutted Capitol or a shattered White House." In the event that the mass murderers were also somehow aided or abetted by sullen clients of the United States--former mujahadeen, Saudi oligarchs, Pakistani secret police--this only multiplied American responsibility for bringing the war to them.
In the year since, it's safe to say that even when Hitchens isn't writing about the war, he's writing about it. Why Orwell Matters anticipates his support of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan and the confrontation with Saddam Hussein. "Orwell appears to have thought it axiomatic that fascism would mean war (in both senses of the verb 'to mean') and that the battle should be joined (in both senses of that term) as early and decisively as possible," he writes.
More recently, Hitchens has made Orwell into a stick with which to beat the antiwar movement. He won headlines last month by quitting The Nation after 20 years (calling the left-wing periodical "the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden"). When interviewed about the exit in Salon, Hitchens attacked what he terms the "moral equivalence" of his opponents. He likened them to pacifists in 1940, and paraphrased the neutralism of another time: "Well, this Nazi business in Poland is pretty rough, obviously, but look at how the British behave in India. Why should we pick a side?"
Hitchens would have spoiled his air of sublime derision had he mentioned that Orwell made the same argument before the Hitler-Stalin Pact changed his mind. "How can we 'fight Fascism,'" Orwell asked in Adelphi magazine in 1939, "except by bolstering up a far vaster injustice?" That being, "the huge British and French empires--in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting colored labor."
Later, Orwell performed an about-face, adopting the "Trotskyist" slogan that "the war and the revolution are inseparable." His worst phrase from the period is also his most quoted: "Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi."
But all World War II comparisons rely on that degraded analogy used by every American president since 1945. As Hitchens acknowledges among sympathetic listeners, the United States and its proxies are an empire. Empires are imperialist. Hence the qualms on the left aren't over the enemy, but over the state and the vague suspicion that the state and the enemy exist in Orwellian symbiosis.
This isn't some irrelevant and internecine squabble among sectarians: It represents nothing less than the issue of the day. Yet it took the conservative Weekly Standard to make the obvious point: "No one thinks Islamists are heralding a glorious future," writes David Brooks, reviewing Why Orwell Matters. "Today it is how you feel about the United States that determines whether or not you think America should play an assertive and, if necessary, unilateral role around the world."
It's worth pausing for a moment to note that the radical American left regards the United States the way Meadow Soprano sees her father: Love him, hate what he does in the world--a painful position, but not a masochistic one. (Condemning someone you love is the flip side of defending someone you don't like.)
Orwell never made it to America, and Hitchens calls his underestimation of our own living revolution "the grand exception" to his prescience. But some Americans did take up Orwell and applied his ideas to U.S. power and the media. None has done so more influentially than the linguist and critic Noam Chomsky, whose bestseller 9-11 (Seven Stories Press) has had a print run of more than 200,000 copies, and who calls the U.S. a "leading terrorist state."
Hitchens mentions Chomsky in Why Orwell Matters to support his guess that Orwell would have opposed the American aggression in Indochina (anti-colonialism trumping anticommunism, so to speak). And the two Orwellians share a history of sympathies and interests. Chomsky's first published article was an editorial on the fall of Barcelona, which he composed when he was nine years old. (Animal Farm struck a teenage Chomsky as "amusing but pretty obvious." Then he came across Homage to Catalonia, which reinforced his view of Stalin's war on the left.) Reviewing Chomsky's The Culture of Terrorism in 1988, Hitchens wrote that the author "is nearly the only person now writing who assumes a single standard of international morality not for rhetorical effect, but as a matter of habitual, practically instinctual conviction."
So it was depressing to read the two writers most attentive to Orwellian transparency falling out decisively after September 11, yet avoiding engagement with the most salient question dividing them: Can the American Empire be put to good use on occasion? And is it too dangerous to try? All the slurred logic of Hitchens and curt evasions of Chomsky only skirted the issue that had been hanging in the air since the two broke over the issue of arming Bosnia. As Hitchens wrote in 1992: "The non-interventionists who draw back their skirts from anything that smacks of commitment or responsibility have forgotten the obvious fact: Doing nothing is a policy."
America is a world power, Hitchens says, so its hands are already dirty. But the domestic opposition shouldn't immerse its own hands in the mud, Chomsky might answer.
The best way to illustrate this difference, which cuts across the American left, is suggested by Hitchens's best point in last year's insufferably titled Letters to a Young Contrarian, where he offered the counsel to live your life "as if." In those two words can be found an old strategy for the powerless against stultifying times. Václav Havel had "proposed living 'as if' he were a citizen of a free society," writes Hitchens. Oscar Wilde acted "'as if' moral hypocrisy were not regnant." Rosa Parks proceeded "'as if' a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of the day's labor.
"They all, by behaving literally, acted ironically." And in doing so, they forced the powerful to appear, and to become, absurd.
Chomsky's version of this means writing "as if" the golden rule applied to nations. He has forced us to face many unpleasant facts. For example, the primary UN Security Council resolution concerning Iraq (687, 1991) calls for disarming our clients as well. The U.S. trivializes international justice by ignoring Haiti's repeated calls for the extradition of former paramilitary leader Emmanuel Constant--and by passing a law that allows the president to make war on the Hague should Americans ever be detained there. Our country betrayed the Kurds not once, but twice, and supplied Saddam the means of gassing them. Chomsky writes, in other words, "as if" September 11 had changed everything but the motives of state.
Hitchens counters that American air cover for the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq might be a model for decent intervention. He posits that the Bush Administration can be shamed out of gangsterism. He takes heart that Henry Kissinger is against the war, as are the Saudis and the Turks. In short, Hitchens argues "as if" September 11 had changed everything--including the motives of state.
One writer appeals to the conscience of citizens, who might be moved to prevent the worst. The other acts on the premise that our leaders can be compelled to keep their promises. At different times, I hope both are right--a monumental hedge, I realize, and one that Orwell would reject. But if Hitchens's love letter to a dead contrarian tells us anything instructive, it's that the most vindicated figure of his time lived and wrote as if he might be wrong.