April 5, 2002


Down with St. George : Fans of the War on Terror, Which Sounds Ever More Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Still Venerate George Orwell. They Can Have Him. (John R. MacArthur, March 30, 2002, Toronto Globe & Mail)
I must admit at least one thing will never be the same for me post 9/11: my reflexively good opinion of George Orwell, icon-saint of the non-communist left, whose holy reputation rests in part on its usefulness to the anticommunist, neoconservative right.

In truth, I've never felt that attached to Orwell; somehow his writing never evoked the passionate admiration I hold for Albert Camus or Graham Greene. But I've always felt obliged to exalt Orwell, whatever my gut feelings. Within the small corner of the media that I inhabit, one could say that it's politically correct to love Orwell; and to be sure, there's much to love about his work, the journalism, of course, but also his remarkable talent for exposing hypocrisy and demolishing cant.

So I bristled when I was contradicted on a radio show by journalist Michael Barone, who invoked Orwell to excuse civilian casualties in Afghanistan caused by U.S. bombing.

The Brothers are of the opinion that you can tell the three most significant political philosophers of the last three centuries by the desire of the Left to wrest them from the Right. Adam Smith (18th Century), Alexis de Tocqueville (19th) and George Orwell (20th) are respectively the original champion of Free Markets; the great explicator/sage critic of American democracy; and the most devastating literary opponent of Marxist socialism. (Each is, of course, more complex than this caricature, but that is how we recall them.) But their continuing influence and elevated reputations make them particularly threatening to the Left, which has therefore been forced to wish away the conservative implications of their thought and to gin up theories about how, if read "properly", they are really liberals.

By a serendipitous confluence of events we see this tendency on display with all three in recent years. The newest and best translation of Democracy in America, by Harvard's lonely conservative, Harvey Mansfield, prompted numerous critics to complain about the Right's co-opting of de Tocqueville. To them we can only say : read the Memoir on Pauperism :

Any measure that establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and gives it administrative form thereby creates an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrial and working class.

and then try to make a coherent case for the "liberal" de Tocqueville.

Meanwhile, a variety of recent books have argued that because Adam Smith recognized the deficiencies of capitalism, he should not be read as its champion. This is something akin to saying that because Einstein resisted the most awesome implications of relativity, he should be considered an opponent of the theory. In fact, the only remaining and compelling criticism of capitalism is the conservative critique, as witness Albert Jay Nock :

Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.

Smith's similar recognition that capitalism is not sufficient to produce a good society and a good life can not change the fact that he understood it to be the most efficient and productive economic system. His belief that it should be tempered with Christian kindness makes him more of a conservative figure, rather than less.

Finally, there's Orwell. Even the Modern Library, whose Top 100 lists are otherwise mostly littered with dreck, was forced to include both 1984 and Animal Farm in its Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century and Homage to Catalonia on its Top Nonfiction of the Twentieth Century. Taken together these books offer a truly devastating portrait of both the reality and the illusion of utopian socialism, a portrait of betrayal, murder, and totalitarian horror. In effect, they stand as a rebuke to the entire Left project of imposing equality via the State.

Despite this cold hard truth, the Left has held its collective nose and claimed Orwell as its own. This exercise in either self-delusion or outright falsification requires them to focus solely on the truth that Orwell was a Socialist and did fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War but then to ignore virtually everything he ever wrote. Mr. MacArthur seems to have had what must have been a nearly unique and shockingly unpleasant experience for a man of the Left, when he picked up an Orwell essay and actually read it. If more folk of his ilk did so, perhaps they'd disabuse themselves of the notion that Orwell was a soulmate of theirs and realize the contempt in which he held them, even going so far as to inform on them to the British government. Orwell speaks clearly enough for himself, if only you read him.

Here's just one example, from a work that happens to be on-line, Shooting an Elephant : this is one of the great anti-Imperialism pieces ever written, but it is important to comprehend Orwell's argument. His concern is not with the effects of colonialism on the natives, but with the way it corrupts the souls of their overlords, forcing them into morally repellent actions in order to maintain control over the native population. That's not exactly the heart-sick sympathy for the oppressed that we'd expect from a Leftist, is it?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 5, 2002 9:43 AM
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