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Understanding Orwell: His teachings for a time of extremes

George Orwell and his dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four‘ have been widely discussed recently amidst the furore around the White House’s stream of dishonesty, but the conversation often misses the mark, writes Jake Watson, and at best undervalue Orwell’s still relevant political lessons. At worst, the far-right attempts to claim him for themselves; as seen in the comments sections across the media and in articles from the likes of FOX News and Breitbart.

This is harmful, writes Jake, and a clearer image of his lessons would be beneficial as the extremisms of his time are widely considered to mirror ours. In his article, Jake presents this image, by fairly taking quotations and facts of Orwell’s life and using them to provide meaning and historical context to the political and social context of the present.

The re-emergence of George Orwell in the media and public discourse is always a bittersweet occurrence. On one hand, the discussion of great political and literary minds is always beneficial; on the other, the mention of Orwell can only mean that something he warned us about is happening. As a writer who came to prominence during a time of extremes-as ours are becoming-his words are more than ever worth reading.

His relevance lately has been peaking, with lies flowing from the White House daily and the line between true and false concealed. The discussion-in comment sections across the web, and publications like FOX News and Breitbart-reveals a deep misunderstanding of the man, but also a lack of appreciation for the scope of his lessons.

Focus goes usually to the clearer points of his most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, particularly his staunch opposition to controlled, deceptive language. This has been spurred on lately by the term ‘alternative facts’ and the more egregious examples of utterly disproved voter fraud and bans that aren’t bans. In his words, “Sanity was statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought”. And, “The very concept of objective truth is fading out in the world. Lies will pass into history”.

What’s important to remember is that this, like all Orwell believed, is fundamentally nonpartisan. Dishonesty is something to be resisted coming from the left, right or centre; political language, he says, and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists-is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Many people rightly attack Donald Trump for his lies, while being lenient of those from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. This occurs just as often in reverse. But Orwell’s statements are not mouldable to ideology; they are unabashedly unbiased principles. However, many use them only in one direction, particularly when using Orwell to aid their anti-political correctness beliefs. Though many of the people who rally against politically correct speech are undoubtedly bigots, unfashionable criticism of ideas which we’ve every right to critique is too often unfairly silenced. As Orwell wrote:

At any given moment, there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question … a genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing.

Written as a preface to Animal Farm in response to the pre-WW2 hypocrisy of the British press and intelligentsia who criticised Churchill’s government while leaving the Soviets untouched (“serious criticism of the Soviet regime … is next door to unprintable”), these words could apply today, particularly to discussion on Islam. It currently has a special place as the most controversial and most protected religion in Australia. While Christianity, an astoundingly similar faith, can be openly derided and mocked, if such treatment occurs to Islam it is ‘Islamophobic’, and highly unfashionable. This means that measured discussion of the religion often gets lumped in with the genuine xenophobia-of which there is plenty-against Muslims themselves. It seems likely Orwell would have disagreed both with the hatred for the almost entirely peaceful followers of the faith, and those who shut down criticism of the faith itself.

His talent for nuance and equivocation are seen not just in his writing but in his life. An avowed socialist, he was largely excommunicated from Britain’s literary class at the time for not supporting Stalin, who was seen as the strongest opponent of Fascism. But Orwell-who literally fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War-knew that Stalin was the same beast as Hitler: Totalitarians both, but in different outfits. He knew their downfalls were not each other, but something more difficult, which was to fix the causes of their ascendancies. To him, this meant middle-class unemployment, though he did not believe this was merely a matter of jobs; it was that.

By about 1930 there was no activity, except perhaps scientific research, the arts, and left-wing politics, that a thinking person could believe in comparisons of Trump to these maniacal despots are gross exaggerations, but Orwell’s analysis seems to fit closely with what many have blamed for his election. Again near the mark is his diagnosis of the surge of support for Stalin by Orwell’s peers:

It was simply something to believe in … All the loyalties and superstitions that the intellect had seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises. Father, king, leader, hero, saviour-all in one word, Stalin.

You could, reasonably, replace the last word of that quote (a small excerpt from his 1940 essay ‘Inside The Whale’) with the name of any populist leader currently on the rise worldwide. The renaissance of nationalism, driving and driven by these leaders, is “the product of fear and the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization”, says Orwell. So the aim, if it is accepted that our times bear any resemblance to his, is to fill the gaps and give people what Orwell, and Stalin, and Hitler, knew they need: something to believe in. Something to support, not oppose. How to do this is a much harder question, as is how to fix the problems of today, the problems of ever more-opposing factions, of the increasingly indiscernible line between true and false, of the seemingly universal lack of ability to equivocate, and so once more I request the help of the vastly more eloquent Orwell:

A truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist…The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, or evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified.

George Orwell cannot fix these things for us, but what he stood for and exemplified can. Truth over lies; principles over politics; lonely right over popular wrong. Perhaps this is why we have never let Orwell leave – because we never stopped needing him.


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  1. Phil

    Yes – with you on that. And with Orwell too. People today, as in the past always want solutions. If they attacked the problems instead of searching for solutions then the solutions would arise as a matter of consequence. Mind you, the solutions might not necessarily be the most attractive, nor the most amenable but at least they problem will have gone away!!

    Then again the solution might be exactly what is needed. This is the paradox of human life.

    The sooner we get on with ridding ourselves of the problems and stop trying to find solutions, the better, I think we will be.

  2. Egalitarian

    You just have to listen to Conservative hardliner like Miranda Divine to realise how toxic the modern debate is.People like her are bred not born.

  3. auntyuta

    Phil, does that mean instead of finding a solution how to cope with ever increasing numbers of refugees we should start looking at all the reasons why there are that many refugees in the first place and aim at creating conditions that do not make it necessary for people to flee leaving behind homes and countries that have been destroyed?

  4. silkworm

    I simply don’t get the author’s statement that Islam is a protected religion, and I don’t get why the very short discussion of religion has any place in this essay.

  5. Steve Laing

    silkworm – I agree with you. As an atheist, I see all religions as delusional, but also accept that there is something in the human condition that seems to need to conjure them up. But I’m against persecution of minorities based on often untrue generalisations, and in Australia that happens to more likely be people from Muslim cultures than “Christian” ones. But that doesn’t mean I’m an apologist for Islam.

    With the ongoing demise of the printed word, and the proliferation of the electronic word, the opportunity to rewrite history and then deny it has changed is getting easier. And that is just how those in control want it. Orwell is interesting because he is the voice of the common person, and foresaw how people create and then abuse power, and how they might do it. Perpetual “war”, cultural hatred of others, justification of “entitlement”. His point was that it didn’t matter what political banner it was under, those in power increasingly distance themselves from those they are supposed to represent. Even Shorten. From his perspective, the people are there to give him feedback regarding policy, but not to actually progress them – that is the role of the political classes. Orwell, rightly or wrongly, was at the barricades. Shorten, like so many other politicians who plan to set the world on fire and represent the wishes of the electorate, has been seduced by the processes of state, such they can see no other means that progress can take place. Which is why we are stuck in this downward spiral. The people are angry, but they aren’t mobilised, and meanwhile the country burns.

  6. helvityni

    Steve Lang,

    These days people don’t walk anymore, so they don’t easily attend any protest marches; people rant and rave , argue and fight on internet, the only walking is done by their fingers on keyboard….

    Maybe we ought to have Protest Drives; shout our unhappiness regarding our politicians out of our car widows…special protest buses available for the carless….

  7. Terry2

    The economic concept is now one of perpetual war as suggested by Orwell, where the masses are constantly told of victories albeit nobody is really clear who or where the enemy is.

    Very much a part of the Trump view on life, even to the extent that Iraq was included in his first Executive Order banning visas to Iraqi citizens as they were part of the axis of Islamic evil but have now been reprieved in the second EO once the Iraqis pointed out to Trump that they are actually on the side of the good guys.

    Onward rolls the war machines in the USA, Russia , China and others continuing to churn out armaments and munitions serving the dual purpose of maintaining employment at home and destroying the enemy, whoever that may be and wherever they may be – not that it really matters.

    It follows that world peace would be a catastrophe ruining the global quest for jobs and growth.

  8. jimhaz

    Last night I discovered this essay written in 1999 by Donella Meadows

    Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

    I would class it as essential reading for anyone interested in solving problems.

    Keep up the “higher-level negative feedback loops” .

    How about someone creating a MP email list so that all articles published here are automatically emailed to all Ministers. Well at least non-conservative ministers as she says “You don’t waste time with reactionaries*; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded”. (*Conservatives like Abbott and Bernardi).

  9. Jack Straw

    I am sure we don’t need any more evidence to understand that the system is now truly rotten.It will only be stupidly and laziness to let it get worse.We have gold looting pirates in charge for a government.

  10. Maeve Carney

    Silkworm, then you didn’t read or understand the preceding two paragraphs. The use of Islam was an illustration of a present example of the past that Orwell knew of.

  11. Charles

    Orwell was far enough ahead of his time that the words he coined ‘newspeak’, ‘thoughtpolice’ and ‘doublethink’ entered the lexicon. Guess he just saw through the machinations of the MSM/ruling elite of the day & clearly framed their deceptive agenda in a format that struck a chord with readers.

    Orwell (1949) – “Big Brother is Watching You”
    CIA (2017) – ‘Yeh we know, good morning smartphone, hello smart TV’

    If Orwell were alive today, would he search for all the solutions to all the problems in the modern world or would he realise that the only solution worth knowing is called happiness, and that that is without a cause, being as it is a natural state once effort to seek it ceases?

  12. jimhaz

    Two Minutes Hate

    “The Two Minutes Hate, from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a daily period in which Party members of the society of Oceania must watch a film depicting the Party’s enemies (notably Emmanuel Goldstein and his followers) and express their hatred for them for exactly two minutes”

    “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp”

    For me the internet is creating this.

  13. auntyuta

    “It seems likely Orwell would have disagreed both with the hatred for the almost entirely peaceful followers of the faith, and those who shut down criticism of the faith itself.”
    “measured discussion of the religion”
    “genuine xenophobia”
    In my experience “xenophobia”, that is a fear of foreigners or strangers seems to be widespread. It may lead to hatred of everything that is foreign or not well understood. If someone tries for instance to have a”measured discussion” about something that is foreign, that person may be seen by some people as a ‘lover’ of that what is so very foreign . . .
    Eloquent Orwell points out that even intelligent may fail to be able to see things truly objectively.
    “A truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist…The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, or evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified.”
    As far as I am concerned, I cannot understand how intelligent people can be made to repeat obvious lies and in the end claim to believe in that what is a lie. Sure, sometimes it is not all that clear, what is the truth and what is a lie. But then there are what are most definitely lies, and still people can be made to believe them! How come?

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