George Orwell was a fantastic thinker and writer. A product of the British public schools, which to American ears unfamiliar with such seems a handicap, he was an intellectual fellow. He studied literature under Aldous Huxley, another interesting chap with solid literary chops backing up a relatively unique way of approaching the world. He would write Brave New World, a phenomenal dystopian vision where humanity is suffocated beneath pleasure.
Orwell took his dystopian visions a different direction than his old professor did, however. Writing 1984 and Animal Farm, he explored in the former the outcome of totalitarian regimes and in the latter the origins of them. Both these books involve a concept which he found himself most obsessed with throughout most his life; the perversion and manipulation of information. One can see this play out through hundreds of essays and paper columns he published throughout the 40’s.
He wrote several journals turned memoirs.
Homage to Catalonia details his participation in the Spanish Civil War of the 30’s, where he was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper prior to being declared an illegal ideologue by a zealous communist party. He and his wife, who must have been incredibly patient with her revolutionary husband, were forced to flee the country by their former allies. The communists, he said, had taken their orders from Moscow as was the custom of communist parties around the world at that time. Orwell’s anarchist militia was outlawed overnight on the charge of collaborating with the fascists, a ludicrous charge no one but the most gullible fanatic could believe. But the outcome was the same and he fled.
Down and Out in Paris and London is a charmingly depressing little book about trying to make it with nothing in Paris and London. While a writer, he could never find work as such early on and when he found himself in Paris, he took work as a dishwasher in various hotel restaurants. They never paid enough, he worked sixteen plus hours a day, and he was shit on fairly regularly by everyone around him. Not the least of which was due to his being English and deserving it, of course. Having traveled back to England after some time, he found himself engaged in a sort of tramp migration, the laws of England oddly encouraging the hobos to migrate all across the country.
It’s worth a read, particularly if one has either worked in the restaurant industry or been a hobo; I’ve been the latter and I’ve listened to countless friends in the former.
His writing which is most personal are his essays, however.
In the 40’s he found himself penning a column he called As I Please found in a paper called the Tribune. In this column, he shared more of his own opinions on topics ranging from censorship to women’s cosmetics to lamenting the neutering of the English short story and literature in general. His best work bubbles up in these columns and essays.
I’ve read them before but since my love of Orwell is the obsessive sort I’m reading them again. Of course, one’s environment has much to do with how they view the world around them, so I find myself drawing parallels with how the media in his own time and my own are comporting themselves. He wrote most of these columns during World War II, where the Germans had done their utmost best to level London to the ground. He mentions this, almost casually, but he is forever interested more in his own colleagues.
Here is a clipping:
A phrase much used in political circles in this country is ‘playing into the hands of’. It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you are told that by saying this, that or the other you are ‘playing into the hands of some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately.
For example, if you say anything damaging about British imperialism, you are playing into the hands of Dr Goebbels. If you criticize Stalin you are playing into the hands of the Tablet and the Daily Telegraph. If you criticize Chiang Kai-Shek you are playing into the hands of Wang Ching-Wei — and so on, indefinitely.
Objectively this charge is often true. It is always difficult to attack one party to a dispute without temporarily helping the other. Some of Gandhi’s remarks have been very useful to the Japanese. The extreme Tories will seize on anything anti-Russian, and don’t necessarily mind if it comes from Trotskyist instead of right-wing sources. The American imperialists, advancing to the attack behind a smoke-screen of novelists, are always on the look-out for any disreputable detail about the British Empire. And if you write anything truthful about the London slums, you are liable to hear it repeated on the Nazi radio a week later. But what, then, are you expected to do? Pretend there are no slums?
Everyone who has ever had anything to do with publicity or propaganda can think of occasions when he was urged to tell lies about some vitally important matter, because to tell the truth would give ammunition to the enemy. During the Spanish Civil War, for instance, the dissensions on the Government side were never properly thrashed out in the left-wing press, although they involved fundamental points of principle. To discuss the struggle between the Communists and the Anarchists, you were told, would simply give the Daily Mail the chance to say that the Reds were all murdering one another. The only result was that the left-wing cause as a whole was weakened. The Daily Mail may have missed a few horror stories because people held their tongues, but some all-important lessons were not learned, and we are suffering from the fact to this day.
George Orwell, As I Please, June 9th 1944
I write my own clumsy sentences November 2nd, 2020 in the midst and near-climax of an American election. Tomorrow is election day and as is customary we find ourselves determining which criminal we would prefer rule over this nation of thieves. This decision is made, presumably, after ingesting information provided to us by an intellectual priesthood we call The Press.
Every four years, not coincidentally along the same timeline as national elections, the American media loses sight of their high minded ideals in favor of power politics. Supposedly devoted towards relaying facts and information intended to produce an informed electorate, they tend to veer off into the bushes and engage in a variety of absurdities, instead. Any decent-minded individual who pays attention beyond Late Night Television can see this.
It is true the American newspaper and its modern equivalents can never be taken at their word they are non-partisan. Any newspaper which carries on the tradition of making endorsements, for instance, reveals the lie in the moment. The rag I find myself stuck with in Seattle, a place theologically in love with diversity but practically opposed to such things, is the Seattle Times. We had another paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but they went over some years back. We also have The Stranger, but only the insane fringes consume it with a serious eye.
There isn’t an Orwell to be found at any of these rags. There are unexceptional thinkers giving proper lip service to the local orthodoxy, instead. I have never read an opinion in the Seattle Times which didn’t march lock-step with the local Democratic Party. The Republicans, the Great Satan of the region, are simultaneously not in power anywhere yet also to be blamed for the region’s woes. To point out that perhaps this narrative is a bit fishy, is to be accused of playing into the Republican’s hands.
Orwell’s name has become an adjective. One can now have an Orwellian approach to information and journalism. But one wonders exactly what they mean by that.
The most common usage of course refers to 1984 and a complete control of what information is disseminated to a perfectly stupid people. But those who have read Orwell’s essays know it is deeper than that. While the State produced all the lies in 1984, one sees in Orwell’s essays the inspiration for this disinformation apparatus is in fact The Press. They create such a cacophonous melange of noise and bullshit one doesn’t know what to think. So one likely just votes along party lines.
In Seattle, that party line is Democratic. The party can rely on the voters here voting blue no matter who and the papers are definitely not going to do anything about that. One can, most assuredly, count on criticism of the Republican Party arising here however, a most useful service. But hollow and partisan in the absence of criticism of the Democratic Party which is only leveled to advance perceived progressive causes.
This is all well and good, partisans cannot help themselves. But they also cannot reasonably consider themselves arbiters of the truth. The truth withers the instant a politico gets a hold of it. Much like Church and State, the union of the two cheapens both. The only difference is the papers have been wed to politics from their inception.
Interestingly, Orwell has more to tell us about what is going on right now than our current journalists do. Head over to the Orwell Foundation and take a look, they host all his essays online for free.