aNewDomain — Whenever I have the need for clear thinking and clear writing, I turn to George Orwell. He’s one of my intellectual heroes.
I’m pleased that his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is once again a bestseller. As I see it it, the more people are exposed to his thoughts on politics, languages, literature and culture, the better.
But the book’s recent surge in popularity does make you wonder: What would Orwell think about today’s events and trends? How would he respond to the GOP-enabled Trump Administration now on display here in the United States?
What would George Orwell say about Donald Trump?
In that book’s introduction, Hitchens wrote:
This is not a biography, but I sometimes feel as if George Orwell requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies; an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity.
The above passage is an example of Hitchens’ occasionally overwrought writing, a practice to which the mature Orwell would rarely succumb. But Hitchens does have one thing right: Orwell has been over-deified.
Some of you reading Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time, for example, might even miss the grim satire of Orwell’s own time embedded in the pages. And that’s understandable, given that book’s strong focus on Big Brother and the “future totalitarian state” elements of the story.
That’s fine by me because, again, anything that gets people to read Orwell is justified.
And what would Orwell do?
On to the question, “What Would Orwell Do?”
Would he, for instance, be speaking out against Pres. Donald Trump?
That might be too simplistic a question to ask. As perceptive as Orwell was, I’m not sure he could have immediately comprehended how social and communication media evolved to what they are today.
Given how decentralized communication has become, the Ministry of Truth’s “top-down” control over history, language, and content, as portrayed in 1984, would be a challenge. Even the Chinese have difficulty with totally censoring access to the Internet, after all.
Nor did Orwell see how some business and industry organizations would evolve as willing handmaidens of political movements as has been the case, for example, with Fox News.
That he did not portray developments like these in Nineteen Eighty-Four was not due to a lack of imagination but to his particular cultural view, rooted as it was in an England on its last legs as an empire.
And, unlike many of his generation, he actively engaged and experienced his world in ways that stretched his thinking and informed his writing. Examples are his experiences in Burma, his fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and his repeated attempts to experience firsthand the lives and experiences of the “lower classes.”
All these experiences colored his later writing and political thinking.
So what would Orwell think about what’s going on today in light of all that?
Orwell was no stranger to propaganda …
Well, he certainly was no stranger to propaganda. That much is evident from his work at the BBC’s Eastern Service during World War II. But unlike many on the Left of his day, his views of both Hitler and Stalin were negative, despite the Soviet Union’s being a World War II ally.
Read some of his “As I Please” newspaper columns written during World War II from his London vantage point. You’ll see he was willing to call out both the Right and the Left for hypocrisy. Also, review the difficulties he had in getting his short novel Animal Farm published — even some publishers on the Left in England thought it was too obviously anti-Stalin to print.
Were Orwell writing today about current U.S. politics, I’m guessing he would be acutely sensitive to hypocrisy and language manipulation — from both sides of the aisle. An easy target for him would be how often politicians lie and how often their followers swallow or overlook their lies.
Most likely, he would be merciless in his pillorying an easy target like Trump. I’d like to think he would also target the complicity of the mainstream media and its often misguided attempts at balance.
What Orwell would be crystal clear about is that, at the end of the day, politicians are all about power and how that power is wielded.
Had he attended Trump outdoor rallies during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and witnessed how Trump whipped up crowds into a frenzy of seething hatred of Hillary and the media, he may have been reminded of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies and Nineteen Eighty-Four’s “two minute hates.”
His pen’s ire would no doubt target those on the Left, too. And he might see parallels between the struggles of flyover states in the U.S. with those of the working poor in Northern England’s 1930s-era Wigan Pier, which he saw for himself and documented in his 1937 work, Road to Wigan Pier.
But he did have an unusual appreciation of how language, politics, and literature interact. His novels, essays, and other writings, including his invention of Newspeak, all attest to that.
Of course, as Hitchens points out, Orwell was no saint. But he was able to put all that understanding into words that are still relevant to us today.
That is why the WWOD question is so worth asking.
Here is Christopher Hitchens delivering his Why Orwell Matters” talk at Northern California’s Commonwealth Club.
For aNewDomain, I’m Dennis D. McDonald.
An earlier version of this column ran on Dennis D. McDonald’s site, DDMCD. Read it here.
Cover image of George Orwell: Public Domain, via George Orwell Archive Gallery