Orwell And Good
George Orwell gets quoted so much nowadays that I wouldn’t be surprised if something from “Homage to Catalonia” has been used as a reading at a wedding. And why not? He is, in my opinion, one of the finest English writers and thinkers of all time. This is one Blair whom everyone loves. One of the things I like about him is the way he publicly changed his mind on matters, and his writings could sometimes be contradictory; in other words he was a very human writer.
What everyone seems to agree on is that he was a great visionary. His works, in particularly “1984“, describe a future world which daily seems to be unfolding in front of us. But I am not sure how accurate this is. Orwell did show a nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society in “1984”, but I feel this should be seen in context. Orwell was born in 1903, still twenty-five years before full and equal universal suffrage for men and women was realised. He was educated first at St. Cyprians, a brutal regime he described in “Such, such were the joys”.
He grew up in a world where the British Empire was at its height, and he played his part in administering justice in the colonies as a police officer in Burma from 1922 until 1927. When he returned to England he saw National Socialism, Fascism and Communism rise to power across Europe, then witnessed the Second World War and a National government in the UK.
This was the background to Orwell’s life, when he wrote “1984”, after Kafka’s “The Trial”, Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”. Totalitarianism was not a terrifying fiction but was very much a part of his world, and “1984” was to some extent not so much a prophesy as just 1948 given a tweak.
What would Orwell think if he were able to see the world in 2004? Would he be shocked, and agree with everyone who invokes his name on such matters as CCTV cameras and Political Correctness, and rail that his predictions of Big Brother and the Thought Police were coming true? Or would he not instead marvel at just how much the world has changed since 1950; at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the huge increase in democracy across Eastern Europe and South America? Of course the world is not perfect; there are still far too many despotic regimes, and a few unconvincing democracies, and there is of course still the small matter of terrorism – there is still much to do (oh no, now I am sounding like the other Blair!) – but would Orwell not be interested in the important issues like the human right to freedom of expression across the world, rather than the human right to go 40 mph in a built up area without a GATSO catching you.
Of course, I don’t know what Orwell would think, but that doesn’t stop everyone else from having a go. Another great English writer, William Shakepeare, wrote in “The Merchant of Venice” that “the Devil can cite scriptures for his purpose”, and I cannot help thinking that, should he not find what he was looking for in the Bible, old Satan would use something Orwell has written to suit his needs.
For Orwell is quoted by such diverse writers as George Monbiot when talking about globalisation, and referred to by Melanie Phillips to attack the bill on inciting racial hatred. Peter Hitchens uses him in his lament to a lost Britain, while Christopher Hitchens sometimes appears to think that he is George Orwell, or at least his heir. Michael Moore in his film Fahrenheit 9/11 compares Bush’s War on terror to Orwell’s theory of a perpetual war, while the website Moorewatch quotes Orwell to attack Moore’s film “Bowling for Columbine“. Perhaps they are all right.
Quoting Orwell has become a way to give instant kudos to your argument. Anyone can do it, and it doesn’t really matter if it is an appropriate quote or not. It says I am on the side of Orwell, light and freedom; those who disagree with you, and who you criticise, be it George Bush, Michael Moore, the Government, the EU, or whatever, are therefore on the side of darkness and totalitarianism. Ironically, his words on freedom are often used to try and gain the moral high ground and can be used to silence debate.
This is not meant as an attack on Orwell, rather to express concern at the way his name is bandied about. If he is used to defend everything, then eventually his writings will mean nothing. “1984” is a fine novel, and Orwell’s warnings about totalitarian rule should of course be taken seriously; alongside the writing of others and the teaching from history they are a constant reminder of where society can go, and where it should not go. We should never be complacent about sleepwalking into totalitarianism and there is still much to learn from Orwell’s writings; but not necessarily from those who quote him.