Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Thoughts on Orwell

Other books I’ve been re-reading lately are “Animal Farm” and “1984” by George Orwell. (All right, I’ve got a small confession to make. I’m not physically reading all these books; I’ve got them on CD. Same with the previously mentioned “Tale of Two Cities”. But I’m absorbing them nonetheless.)

Orwell has got to be one of the most quoted and least read authors around. He has become the darling of the American right, many of whom don’t even know that, although Orwell’s later works were certainly anti-communist, Orwell himself was a democratic Socialist. For instance Ann Coulter, right wing columnist, quotes Orwell in her books without ever mentioning he’s a Socialist.

I should admit I’m no expert on the exact state of Orwell’s political evolution at the time he wrote “Animal Farm” or “1984”, but a simple reading of the books is evidence enough that Orwell would be in awkward company with today’s right wing.

For instance his main criticism of communism in “Animal Farm” is that the communist abandon their original ideals to imitate the capitalists. The return of organized religion is what Orwell regards as the final corruption of the communist regime. And at the end of the book, the ultimate horror is that the communists morph into the capitalists they replaced.

As for “1984”, a large part of this book deals with the sexual suppression enforced by the totalitarian regime. The first step towards rebellion against totalitarianism is sexual freedom. Hardly the ideology of today’s religious right.

Conservatives love to apply “1984” to liberal big government programs, but from my re-reading of the book, the most shocking comparisons are to the Bush administration. I know I’m not the first person to point this out, and that the whole debate about “Who does ‘1984’ apply to more?” is a childish game, but just for fun consider these comparisons:

1. Anyone who has actually read “1984”will remember the 3 slogans of the party, “War is Peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength.” Now is it just me, or does this sound remarkably similar to the speech George W. Bush gave in which he actually said, “When we talk about war, we are really talking about peace.” Of course this was a reflection of a larger conservative argument which was popular at the time. The argument went that anyone for peace was really only delaying an inevitably conflict, and so those of us for peace were really “pro-war.” Now how Orwellian is that? The only way you can be for peace is to support the war? The people in favor of invading a foreign land that had never attacked us, were actually the people for peace?
(Appearently I'm not the only one who thinks this is a bit too close to 1984)

2. In “1984”, the government deliberately keeps the country in a constant state of warfare in order to be able to appeal to the spirit of patriotism and self-sacrifice as an excuse for giving up freedoms. Sound familiar?

3. In “1984” the world has been reduced to only 3 super powers. At any given time the government is always at war with one of them, and at peace with the other. Since enemy at the time is always defined as the definition of pure evil, it stands to reason there could never have been any alliances in the past, and so the history books are always being changed so that the country the government is currently fighting becomes the country the government has always been fighting, and has never been aligned with.
Now, granted in the US we aren’t physically changing the history books yet, but it does seem that in preparation for the Iraq War, and in the need to define Saddam as the ultimate evil, US support of Iraq during the 1980s was brushed under the rug a bit.

4. And of course there is the comparison between the “1984” government’s campaign to abolish the sex drive, and Bush’s push for abstinence education. (All right, admittedly this last one is a bit of a stretch. If you think I’m stretching here just go up and re-read the first 3).

So, I put it to you, of all the conservatives who love to quote Orwell, how many of them do you think have actually read his books?


PB said...

Hey Joel,

You might really like a new book by Emma Larkin entitled _Finding George Orwell in Burma_. Larkin travels for a year in Burma, and finds that it mirrors the horrors predicted by Orwell. A good read


I like Orwell because his style is very simple, no which, no that. Top down sentences. He did not like to use French-Latin origin words.

So, let' s think about the title. Animal Farms. A farm is a place to cultivate something to eat. Animals, including human beings, are cultivated there.

You know every things from this title after reading this novel.

All humans may become animals if they do not know something. But many are/

Joel said...

Your last sentence seems to have gotten cut off, but I agree with you that Orwell is a delight to read. Animal Farm in particular is written in very easy to understand prose, as you point out.

RadioSilence said...

1984 is awesome. I find the idea of doublethink was the most important part of the book, as opposed to simply being a critique of Stalinism (which is what the conservatives harp on). It's truly fascinating how Orwell builds a system based on continuous deceptive consciousness, that at the same time carries enough implicit (and constantly alternating!) recognition of reality to keep functioning. I feel that doublethink is to some extent present in all people/cultures and in fact unavoidable, because its power draws from our need to reconcile the instinct to learn and change with the desire for stability and identity.

Joel said...

I agree, double Think is one of the most fascinating concepts Orwell introduced. I was just thinking of it the other day, actually, and I think a lot of Double Think (the concept of holding to opposing views simultaneously) can be applied to the way religious people will often try and reconcile their theology with their real world knowledge. But that's just one example. You can apply it to a lot of things across the board