It is not too many centurions, particularly 100-year-old-plus writers, whose vision of the world is as relevant today as it was when first shared with the public over half a century ago. It is this vision of Orwell, the X-ray view through the cant, platitudes and lies to that ugliest of human drives, the lust for powers absolute, that still distinguishes the British writer, born 112 years ago this week on June 25, 1903. He was only 46 when he died on January 21, 1950. It is his frightening acuity that keeps him not only in the pantheon but even within the orbit of contemporary consciousness.
This is testament not only to Orwell’s talents, but to the unhappy state of the human race. The totalitarian drive, cloaked in cant, platitudes and lies, is more vigorous than ever before, which explains why it is that Orwell’s Cassandra cries resonate to this day. Frankly, how much better to live in a world where Orwell gathers dust on the shelf, an antique with nothing to say to us. But that, of course, would be a state of ordered liberty.
While Orwell is most widely famous for his dystopically prescient novels of totalitarianism, 1984 and Animal Farm, also Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of fighting in Spain (ultimately against the Moscow-run Communists purging the Loyalist coalition of non-Communists), his journalistic essays provide a kind of direct access to his ranging thoughts. In 1940, Orwell wrote “Inside the Whale,” an essay on literature, noting:
While I have been writing this essay another European war has broken out. It will either last several years and tear Western civilization to pieces, or it will end inconclusively and prepare the way for yet another war which will do the job once and for all.
The counter-“court history” argument of American Betrayal, of course, is both: WWII tore (Communist-subverted) Western civilization to pieces, which would be further pulverized in the “cold war” to follow.
But war is only ‘peace intensified’. What is quite obviously happening, war or no war, is the break-up of laissez-faire capitalism and of the liberal-Christian culture. Until recently the full implications of this were not foreseen, because it was generally imagined that socialism could preserve and even enlarge the atmosphere of liberalism.
It is now beginning to be realized how false this idea was.
At least Orwell had begun to realize how false this idea was. He continued:
Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships — an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction.
Given historical models, the phrase “totalitarian dictatorship” does not conjure up our own increasingly restricted, dictated state of political or public being that is so far is able to exist mainly separate from apolitical life. (It is hard not to notice, however, that the definition of “political” life keeps expanding.) Our “Gulags” are professional, social; however injurious to career or reputation, they do not lead to incarceration, slavery, torture and death, like the real thing . But even without the aspect of physical coercion, Orwell’s description of “an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction” is disturbingly familiar.
Orwell, cheery thing, doesn’t mince words about what comes next:
The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.
This fits. In fact, collectivism — totalitarian dictatorship, socialism, progressivism, etc. (don’t forget Obamacare) — depends on it.
As the “autonomous individual” goes, so goes “rugged invidualism.” So, for that matter, goes “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And, as individualism disappears, the paternal/nanny/socialist state expands. Sound familar? It’s American betrayal meets the death of the grown-up.
From American Betrayal:
As far back as 1934, The New York Times trumpeted NEW DEAL PATERNALISM IMPERILS ALL INDIVIDUALISM. The article describes a speech by Massachusetts governor Joseph Ely at a conference of America’s governors. “There is no stopping short of the end of the road,” Ely said, “and at the end of the road we shall have a socialistic state.” Invoking Stalin in Russia, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany—all newly minted dictators—Ely pointed out that where these despots ruled, “individualism had passed from the people to dictators making the people the ‘children of government.’ ”
Echoes of de Tocqueville. One century earlier, the French visionary described the infantilizing effect of a paternalistic despotism in America. Imagining the “immense, protective power” of a state with “absolute” power, and likening such power to “parental authority,” which keeps citizens in “perpetual childhood,” he wondered, “Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?”
It would seem that the mortal blow against the “grown-up”—the free citizen—was struck, softly, once liberty was no longer paramount in this country, once ideology began to take precedence over facts, once we traded in the American ideal of “rugged individualism” for the material markers of “the American dream.”
If once upon a time Americans subscribed to our Founders’ belief that our Creator endowed us with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there came a time when we expected a package of perks—car, house, Play Station—to sweeten the deal. Suddenly, those perks became darn near anentitlement, an attitude entirely befitting the subjects in Tocqueville’s absolute state. In fact, measured in material goods as it is, the contemporary “American dream” is a vision driven by the Marxist belief in the primacy of the economic.
American Betrayal tracks these treacherous processes, paying close attention to the rise of ideology over facts. Not surprisingly, it is George Orwell, in an essay called“Looking Back on the Spanish War” probably written in 1942, who tells us when it all got started.
From American Betrayal:
By 1936, after civil war broke out in Spain, George Orwell could sense a sea change in the writing of history, of news, of information, of the handling of what he called “neutral fact,” which heretofore all sides had accepted.
“What is peculiar to our age,” he wrote, “is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.” Or even that it should be, I would add. For example, he wrote, in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on World War I, not even twenty years past, “a respectable amount of material is drawn from German sources.” This reflected a common understanding—assumption—that “the facts” existed and were ascertainable. As Orwell personally witnessed in Spain, this notion that there existed “a considerable body of fact that would have been agreed to by almost everyone” had disappeared.
“I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History ended in 1936,’ at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism generally, but more specifically of the Spanish Civil War.” He continued, “I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed . . . I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened.”
Then he hits it precisely: “I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’ ” (emphasis added).
Ideology over all.
Happy Birthday, George Orwell. If only more could see what you saw so long ago.