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  xWednesday, June 25, 2003

happy birthday, george orwell


The Washington Post has a 100th birthday essay on Eric Arthur Blair, who is better known by his pen name George Orwell.

The article notes that "Orwell has suffered the famous author's ultimate fate: He is revered and invoked more than he is read." Which is probably true. But I'm a pretty big fan of Orwell; enough to have read more than the Big Two, 1984 and Animal Farm. My friend Patty sent me a copy of Orwell's first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, from a bookshop in Paris. It's an excellent autobigraphical account of living in poverty. Having worked in a big hotel, as Orwell did, I found his descriptions remarkably accurate some 60 years later. And on the recommendation of a friend, I read Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's account of his fighting on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. (Orwell was wounded, and then Communist factions sought to purge him for his less-than-pure ideology, forcing him to flee.) I admit that, while I own a copy of Orwell's early novel The Clergyman's Daughter, I've never gotten 'round to reading it.

I have to take exception to the following line in the Post piece:
As a prophet he was almost always wrong; 1984, as we now know, looked nothing like "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

That sentence shows a profoundly disturbing failure to comprehend what 1984 is all about (indeed, it strikes me as the comment someone might make who invokes Orwell without having read him...) I've not only read 1984 but studied it several times in high school and college, the last time in a course on utopian novels (1984 and Brave New World were included as examples of dystopian works). Like most utopian/dystopian fiction, 1984 isn't supposed to be "prophecy;" it's a commentary on present-day society -- in this case, a harsh critique of Stalinist Russia in 1948. (Just as Animal Farm isn't a "fairy story," but an allegory of the Russian revolution and a crititique of Marxism.)

Having said that, only a fool would say that, having passed Orwell's title date, his predictions become invalid and we're safe from the clutches of Big Brother. I could point to several ways in which Orwell's writings are eerily prophetic when compared with 2003:

  • Increasingly pervasive surveillance, both online and in public, and the collection of vast amounts of personal data in private hands

  • Perpetual war, thanks to the "War on Terrorism" and its dress rehersal, the "War on Drugs" (both of which, I might add, have come with a hefty price in terms of civil liberties)

  • And an increasing prevalence in both political "doublespeak" and information management that recalls Orwell's "memory hole" (cases in point: Bush's labeling as "revisionist history" critics who pointed out that he'd cited a threat from Iraq's alleged weapons as a threat to justify his invasion, and Ann Coulter's apparent attempt to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy in her recent book -- and as a bonus, she calls criticism of McCarty's witch hunts "Orwellian"!)


And those are off the top of my head. Articles like the Post's might point to the ways that modern society isn't like Orwell's dystopian future in smug satisfaction, but it's much more important to be on guard against the ways society is trending in that direction, and oppose those trends as much as possible.

So on the 100th anniversary of George Orwell's birth, here's a quote from 1984 that describes the totalitarian Party mindset to keep in mind as we absorb the Administration's lates spin about its war on Iraq:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.

and of course, with love to Karl Rove,
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.

Yeah, Orwell was a terrible prophet. Sheesh.

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