St. George and the Dragon

George Orwell

George Orwell

Over the past year, I’ve encountered references to George Orwell in some pretty odd places, confirming what I’ve suspected for a while now—his name has become a “meaningless word,” one of the techniques Orwell himself warned against in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that is used in political writing to circumvent the truth.  So, in the name of truth and honesty, I propose that a moratorium of at least one hundred years be placed on all references to Orwell or his works.

Before you dismiss my proposal as the mutterings of a cantankerous literature teacher, let me share with you my reasons for making it.  The first threadbare allusion to Orwell that I ran into this past year was in a student’s proposal for a paper titled, “Fundamental Transformation:  From the Freest Nation on the Planet to a Socialist Controlled USSA,” in which President Obama was accused of taking the United States down the slippery slope of socialism, a term this student used interchangeably with communism, fascism, and totalitarianism.  As I recall, the student was going to include 1984 as part of his research into the totalitarian nightmares caused by big government.  To his credit, and with some urging on my part, Orwell didn’t make it past the planning stages.

Granted, 1984 is a critique of totalitarianism, but it certainly isn’t a wholesale condemnation of socialism.  Indeed, Orwell was a self-avowed socialist, which he made clear in his essay “Why I Write,” declaring:  “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”  So, no.  Unlike my student, Orwell did not see democracy and socialism as mutually exclusive.

The face of totalitarianism: a portrait of Big Brother made from a composite of 20th c. despots by artist Nancy Burson.

However, the more perverse reference to Orwell appeared in the essay “The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals,” which was published in the Hoover Institute’s Policy Review.  As one might suspect from its source, the essay defends the Tea Party movement, not the intellectuals.  But it does so in a manner that is a bit hair-raising, reaching a conclusion that probably wouldn’t even be embraced by many Tea Partiers.  To get there, author Lee Harris describes the intellectual climate of contemporary America by referring to “Newspeak,” a kind of double-talk that is employed by the totalitarian government in 1984 in which war is justified in the name of peace or an act of hate might be explained as an act of love, as when Wisconsin senator Alberta Darling assured my partner and I that her opposition to marriage equality for gays and lesbians was in our best interest.

There’s nothing surprising about Harris using Orwell this way, people using “Newspeak” to discredit their opponents is so common it has become a kind of Newspeak itself.  But it becomes perverse when—in an article defending the John Birch Society-like, rabidly anti-communist Tea Party—Harris elaborates upon Orwell’s idea by employing the concept of “cultural hegemony,” a term he credits to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist critic who is a darling of the academic left.  Harris tips his hand here, revealing the cynicism of his article, by purposely distorting the ideas of these two old lefties to defend a group who collectively associate the left with fascism, an ideology against which both men openly fought, and not just intellectually.

Essentially, Harris argues that cultural hegemony, basically a relationship between those in power and those who aren’t in which the powerless collude in their own subjugation by willingly taking up the language and manners of their oppressors, reveals how Americans are pressured to think and sound like the academic elite because of the immense power they wield .[1]  Worse, according to Harris the “truths” uttered by this elite are a kind of “Newspeak,” revealing perhaps not so much a conscious agenda as the elite’s inability to see anything in terms outside of their ideological biases.  Of course, all of this hogwash is just a fancy-pants way of decrying liberal, elite media bias and its deleterious effects on American culture.  But, Harris avers, the Tea Party movement is immune to this form of cultural hegemony—and to all intellectual critiques, for that matter—because they are not an intellectual movement.  Rather, he declares, they are a movement founded on attitude, not ideology.  They reject ideology, one can only assume, because it belongs to the cultural hegemony of the academic elite.

Such a conclusion is meretricious and offensive to the legacies of Orwell and Gramsci, to say nothing of the Tea Partiers, whom he denies thoughtful, reflective political action.  To act solely from a position of “attitude” is unquestionably antithetical to Orwell, who championed a citizenry’s ability to intellectually challenge its government, but it also runs contrary to the politics envisioned by the founders of the United States, i.e., the drafters of the Constitution, that document to which so many Tea Partiers declare the same kind of fealty that Fundamentalists claim to have for each and every word in The Bible.  If Orwell can be used to cheer on a political movement founded on ideals so at odds with his own, then he can be used to defend anything.

So that’s it, folks.  No more allusions to Orwell or his works.  Sure, you can read them.  I even encourage you to.  And, great though they are, read beyond Animal Farm and 1984, too.  Orwell is an engaging essayist, and his non-fiction books like Down and Out in London or Homage to Catalonia are highly regarded.  See what he has to say.  Then, maybe in one hundred years we’ll get it right, and we can start talking about his ideas again rather than around them.

—–

[1] I confess that this conceit throws into question the country that Harris is discussing, but wherever it is, if academics wield great power there, it cannot be the United States, which as a nation has historically eschewed intellectualism.

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One Response to St. George and the Dragon

  1. policomic says:

    The owners of that used book store on University Avenue, like a lot of business owners along that street, are up in arms over the light rail project that threatens their future livelihood. I can understand that, even though I support the project, generally. But this guy put two quotes up on signs in his windows: one from Orwell (I can’t remember the quote, but it was from either Animal Farm or 1984) and the other from Ayn Rand (that one was “Who is John Galt?” believe it or not). I’m certainly not equating Orwell and Rand as authors, but all I could think was, “You’ve got two floors, stuffed with books, and these two quotes are the best you could do?”

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