Beauty of Gray

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Orwell, pt 2

The first post on Orwell can be found here. So Orwell was right on some big questions. Was he particularly insightful, or just lucky? After reading through the whole volume, it seems to me that luck played a big role.

Going through the entire group of essays, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Orwell was, in large part, a crank. He blasted anything and everything that came in front of him. The government was terrible, they were botching the war, the population was unserious, the patriots were all simple-minded Blimps, Gandhi was a simple-minded tool of the British imperialists, the working class didn’t know what was good for them, the upper classes were stupid and exploitative, the leftists were morally blind and naively utopian, while the rightists were reactionary. Even his literary criticism is very negative, as he dumps on Eliot’s later verse and claims Yeats’s poetry is spotty and loosely constructed.

As it turns out, this pattern of contrarian thought served him well in the interwar years, since the main evil during that time was precisely in allowing your thought to be captured by a movement, to get drafted into one of the two oppositional camps of Communism and Fascism. In that sense, he was lucky in that he lived during a period when his natural tendencies steered him towards the best path.

Orwell also distinguished himself by strongly supporting the war against Germany, despite what he felt were major flaws in British government and society. It’s this aspect of his war writings that many have found appealing during the present war on terror. It’s remarkable how similar some of the main currents of thought are, and Orwell’s essays denouncing the pernicious effects of leftist defeatism and anti-British sentiment could have been written a year ago, rather than 60 years ago. Sullivan in particular loved Orwell’s argument that the actions of British pacifists and anti-war demonstrators were “objectively pro-Fascist.”

Strong words, and reflecting an opinion that I happen to agree with. But they’d reflect better on Orwell if he hadn’t turned right around and used the exact same words to denounce the upper class right wing as also “objectively pro-Fascist.” Which brings us back to Orwell’s general crankiness and also his major weakness as a thinker (at least as displayed in this volume.)

For while Orwell was never enslaved by Communist orthodoxy, and he was enough of a realist to effectively denounce others’naïve utopianism, he nevertheless suffered from his own form of utopianism and constrained leftist thinking. The most constant thread in his war writing was his call for a complete system of national socialism for Britain, the complete nationalization of industry and redistribution of goods along a more egalitarian line. He went so far as to say that Britain’s only choices were to adopt a strong socialism or lose the war. And this vision infected his thought, as he several times lamented what he perceived as missed opportunities for revolution in England. Orwell was, more or less, hoping for a British version of the 1917 Revolution, without the subsequent Bolshevik takeover.

So while he was able to rise above simple anti-British reactions and saw that even as flawed as he thought it was, Britain was still infinitely preferable to Germany, he was nevertheless a very harsh, left wing critic of British society, and hoped for not just a reform, but an actual revolution to establish justice and socialism. While Sullivan and others have picked up his pro-war writings and ran with him, when you read all of his writings he comes across as a lot closer to Chomsky than to Sullivan or even Hitchins. (And like many of today’s crop of radical leftists whose thought is pervaded by their Vietnam experience, Orwell’s thought was profoundly affected by his experience in the Spanish Civil war, in which England and America refused to come to the aid of the Republicans, leaving Orwell feeling betrayed and assuming that, because of this, they were actually sympathetic towards fascism.)

His political writing constantly comes back to issues of class analysis. The upper class is made up of undeserving semi-imbeciles, who live on the backs of the workers and contribute nothing. The patriotic middle class is made up of Blimps, unthinking stooges of the existing order. And the lower classes have either been bought off or fail to recognize their true interests, and so have not yet risen up to overthrow the existing order.

So when you get down to the rare occasions that Orwell wrote positively about anything, he was profoundly misguided in his prescriptions both for winning the war and for reforming society. But these writings are not often dusted off. Instead, we remember him for his forceful denunciations. And when you’re against everything, there will always be a large overlap with anyone else’s opinions. Everyone is for one thing and against all the others, so most readers would end up agreeing with 90% of Orwell’s writing, since they are also opposed to most of things he decries. It seems to me that this, combined with the excellent quality of his writing, is the secret of his success and high reputation.

To put it another way, anyone will find plenty to agree with in Orwell’s writing, and he will likely have said it as well or better than you could yourself. But this very ubiquity of appeal also means that nothing is more likely to be true simply because Orwell said it. If you want to make an argument from authority, Orwell is not a good one to pick.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:47 AM

Monday, November 25, 2002
Blogger, heal thyself!

In the mood to be a little snarky, I noticed this coup de grace that Andrew Sullivan delivered in a post attacking the latest editorial from Paul Krugman:

This guy used to have a brain. Now he only seems to have bile.

Just for kicks, I decided to go through Sullivan’s current postings. Right now (Monday, 3:30 EST), the posts from the top are:

A plug for the latest Kinsley column

An attack on a new French book release

Elucidation of a Bin Laden reference

Debunking of a 9-11 lie

Rip on Chirac and France

Multi-post analysis of purported bin Laden letter, attacking Islamicist ideology, linking it to Hitler, and working is a swipe at American media.

An attack on the “fusion of the multi-culti left and the religious right” which resulted in Pim Fortuyn’s murder

Letters quote

Attack on campus leftist

Attack on NYT bias

Linked article

Attack on BBC bias

Attack on the Catholic Church

Attack on NYT bias

Attack on Krugman

Attack on “leftwing depravity”

Swipe at Gore

Criticism of Ivy leagues for allowing anti-Semitic poet

Attack on BBC bias

Swipe at “Maxim culture” and reality TV

Critique of a poll

Attack on Islam

Attack on the Catholic Church

Praise of Eminem and South Park

Attack on Islam

Readers post

So, of the 23 items with actual comments from Sullivan that he has on his front page right now, 18 of them were criticisms or negative comments. The only real thinking on the page is the breakdown of the bin Laden letter, in which Sullivan comes to the remarkable conclusion that Islamicists are not nice people and don’t like the West or Israel.

Maybe blogs are the next wave, but they’re clearly no insurance against the descent from thoughtfulness into bile…

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:46 PM

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