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Orwell and the Tea Party

By posted at 6:19 am on July 26, 2010 39

George Orwell never thought that his work would outlive him by much. After all, he considered himself “a sort of pamphleteer” rather than a genuine novelist, and confidently predicted that readers would lose interest in his books “after a year or two.” Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.

covercoverI say this as someone who not only reads Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four once a year, but who also owns collections of essays, biographies, and even a copy of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which according to one reviewer “at times mak[es] the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair.”

But for people like me who are under 30, there will always be something remote and incomprehensible about Orwell. I was in preschool when the Berlin Wall fell, and I know perestroika and détente as answers to exam questions rather than lived experiences. I grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ICBMs, and found LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Girl” ad far less terrifying than some of the spots from the 2008 presidential election. I think of politics in terms of individual issues and partisan planks rather than grand, historicizing political ideologies. In short, because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not.

In ninth grade, I was required to read Animal Farm. My class read the book over a period of three weeks, which was not that hard of a task, since it is all of 30,000 words. Our teacher gave us the barest outline of historical context, enough at least to know that Napoleon represented Stalin, Snowball represented Trotsky, and that was about it (a whole unit on allegory would have to wait until sophomore year, and Billy Budd). But because the book is a “fairy story,” I learned its themes easily: power corrupts, principles are elastic, revolutions will be betrayed, and evil’s greatest allies are the unthinking masses.

Two years later, I found myself following Winston Smith into the cabbage-smelling hallways of Victory Mansions on a bright cold day in April. This was the year of “relatable” protagonists, so after Ralph from Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I was primed to look for affirmations of my own worldview. And Nineteen Eighty-Four was both cynical, anti-authoritarian, and a paean to hopeless dissent in the face of inexorable conformity (its working title, after all, was “The Last Man in Europe”). To my teenage mind, Winston was both pathetic and sympathetic – a role model – even if Big Brother got him in the end. Surely, I thought, these were the only lessons that were worth keeping from the book, since nothing else was obvious.

If there is such a thing as a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read books, then my high school approach to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been the latter. But that was because I did not know exactly how these books were shaped by their times, and how contemporary audiences would have reacted to them. We never heard about Orwell’s influences, such as Arthur Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin, or James Burnham, because they are not part of the literary canon. We never learned about the show trials in Moscow or the Spanish Civil War, either, because that was meant for history class, not English. And any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds: I did not, for instance, understand that the concept of “Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism, whereby fascism advanced under a socialist veneer, until much later. In short, I could not have known what Orwell intended his works to be, and so I understood them in the only way I knew how, as advice manuals for the American adolescent.

I’m not the only one who never quite “got” Orwell the first time around. Because few people who read Orwell’s novels in classrooms also learn about their context, most people misunderstand them, or at least half-remember them, in the same way. Sometimes, his name gets applied to topics that he never really thought about, such as the “Orwellian” investment philosophy of Goldman Sachs (at best, Orwell railed against the “sheer vulgar fatness of wealth” and the “worship of money” in general) and the “downright Orwellian” American Community Survey form for the 2010 Census (Orwell has nothing specific to say about government paperwork). Other times, this means that Orwell’s political enemies try to claim him for their own side. This is nothing new: in the 1950s and 60s, for example, Soviet publications like Kommunist and Izvestia argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually a critique of American excesses and amorality, and in 1984, Norman Podhoretz famously tried to make Orwell into a pro-nuclear neoconservative hawk.

coverBut even though Hitler and Stalin belong to the dustbin of history, people still manage to find shades of totalitarianism and organized lying – Orwell’s favorite targets – in more places than ever. During the summer of 2009, for instance, opponents of health care reform wielded Orwell’s name indiscriminately. Steven Yates, a philosophy Ph.D. and member of the John Birch Society, told us that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave.” Bill Fleckenstein, an MSN Moneywatch columnist and hedge fund manager, also decried such an obviously “socialist” project: “For those who aren’t clear on why socialism doesn’t work, I recommend reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”3 And Tea Party protesters have carried signs reading STOP. YOU’RE STARTING TO SCARE GEORGE ORWELL, ORWELL WARNED US, or ORWELL WAS A VISIONARY. Never mind that, in “How the Poor Die,” Orwell criticized how the indigent had inadequate access to health care; never mind that, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he blamed inadequate government intervention for poor nutrition and squalid living conditions in northern mining towns. Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.

Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval.

So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent.

And Orwell was wrong to believe that good writing alone could promote honesty. He wrote that euphemistic, dishonest, and generally bad prose “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” whereas “good prose is like a windowpane,” through which the author’s purpose can be seen clearly. All true. But good writing can still be perverted, as many of his readers have shown and continue to show. As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker, “Orwell’s prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought.” His style, in other words, has overwhelmed his substance, and if he had not been such a good, clear, memorable writer, he would not be plagued by grave-robbers.

Clearly, literary immortality has its downsides. And as the last sixty years have shown, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not like other canonical works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, whose messages are straightforward in comparison. Instead, they are as much pamphlet as novel, which means that it is impossible to understand his political purpose without knowing the intellectual and ideological environment in which he wrote. Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.





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39 Responses to “Orwell and the Tea Party”

  1. Craig
    at 8:27 am on July 26, 2010

    Great essay. If anyone wants more examples of Orwell being misappropriated, I’d recommend John Rodden’s _George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation_. The first couple chapters run down some crazy instances of opposing factions both invoking Orwell. And then there are the marketing campaigns that push “Orwellian” products.

  2. Shannon Turlington
    at 8:35 am on July 26, 2010

    Fascinating essay. I had a class as a senior in high school that combined world history and literature. Every piece of literature we read was framed in its historical context. It remains one of the most memorable classes of my school career and I have often wondered why history and literature weren’t taught together more often, as everything made so much more sense when they were.

  3. Lydia Kiesling
    at 8:43 am on July 26, 2010

    Thank you for writing this! One of my favorite things about Orwell, a trait which I believe should make him antithetical to subjugation by any political party, is the extreme care he took to consider his positions. It’s very rare for anyone in the political arena (today or at any time) to do anything other than staunchly defend even the most absurd intellectual dead ends, rather than to evolve once it becomes clear a given position is wrong or untenable. Orwell was a thinking man, not an ideological bullhorn. It really saddens me to see that such a nuanced and interesting mind has become a facile catchword for anti-communist propaganda.

    BTW I’m also in the aspidistra-owning camp. And clergyman’s daughter.

  4. Joe Woodward
    at 9:31 am on July 26, 2010

    Interesting essay on reading Orwell. He is an interesting case–especially for writers on writing. He has a good deal to say about is the difference between “publishing” and “writing.” If you’re a writer (or another kind of artist), you’ll be interested. One act is private, imaginative, creative and the other is not. Publishing is always subversive in some way, he explains–the writer demands the world’s attention through publishing, which follows out of one of four major impulses. In his explanation, we write out of “sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, histortical impulse, or political purpose.” All of these terms he defines by word and example in his essays on the subject. I’ve been thinking about all this as I’ve worked on a biography of another writer from the same era. Orwell was convinced (as am I) that the times demand certain attentions.

    Orwell wrote, “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books…” Did Orwell use war, or war use him?

    His exquiste, short, autobiographical essays are collected in the new Penquin Classics series Great Ideas. His title is “Why I Write.”

  5. Danny
    at 9:35 am on July 26, 2010

    I don’t find it sad or unfortunate that a bunch of right-wingers misunderstand Orwell. I find it hilarious. The man fought as a communist in the Spanish-Civil War, alongside and in arms with the anarchists. He said, “There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

    (He even took a bullet in the throat!)

    Let the morons put their foots in their mouths. It makes it all easier to sort out in the end.

  6. Mark Kohut
    at 9:45 am on July 26, 2010

    I’m sorry but that Orwell saw this in 1984 is one reason it will and should last. Distorting and using a writer is still less than distorting reality….

    This is a gimmick notion for an essay and disses literature at base…

  7. John Baker
    at 11:37 am on July 26, 2010

    I don’t know. Sometime I think that “Politics and the English Language” should be required reading for everyone who registers to vote. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

    Also, I went on a real Orwell kick after reading Hitchens book years back. At the time he and Andrew Sullivan were plugging the Iraq war and I thought they made a good argument. But after reading “Shooting an Elephant” I couldn’t shake the image of Dubya dressed in an old English army outfit chasing an elephant with Saddam’s face out of my head. Somehow it seemed to me that the last line “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” explained more dumb assed foreign policy more succinctly that thousands of detailed essays and volumes.

    Though dated by the details Orwell like Socrates wrote about too many things that will always true about humans and politics to ever be obsolete. I suppose I never quite got it when I was under 30 but I never quite understood much about reality of the world when I was under 30.

  8. Robert
    at 12:35 pm on July 26, 2010

    The fact of an author’s work being misappropriated is a universal reality for canonical authors and a measure of their vitality, not an indication of obsolescence. When people no longer misquote, misappropriate and misunderstand you, THAT is when you no longer matter as a writer.

    I think the author was a better reader in high school, before being corrupted by the bankrupt ideology that says that we understand authors through the prism of their socio-economical-political context. That is flim-flam that keeps English professors in employment.

    Context enriches our reading. But a great author like Orwell lives because he speaks to elements of the human experience which are pervasive and recur in many different contexts. Tyranny is everywhere. Everywhere there is a battle over history and the control of language, whether waged on an epic scale by government against its people or in microcosm at a job, or a school, or within a family.

    Who doesn’t know a Boxer? Didn’t Orwell capture both the power and greatness of that approach to life as well as its tragic limitations? Won’t their always be Mollys, who will sell their dignity and self-respect for ribbons and sugar?

    Orwell is fine. I hope this writer was on deadline, and knows better than he writes here. The clear-eyed account of the human condition does not die with the context. As of July 1st (for example) I’m a first-year resident. How often do you think I’m faced with “shooting an elephant”? If you said every hour of every day, you got it.

  9. Culprititus
    at 1:00 pm on July 26, 2010

    I’m glad to have read this. I read 1984 and Animal Farm as well as Brave New World in my early teens. I still remember bits from them now that I’m nearing 30. Context is very important for real understanding of artwork. Historical and political context are so vital to developing a individual’s comprehension of reality.

  10. spike
    at 1:46 pm on July 26, 2010

    I read 1984 by accident when I was 14 years old, in 1970. I knew nothing about Orwell or the book’s reputation, I approached it as I would have any other science-fiction novel, and I did not immediately make the connection with Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Reich, but rather saw it as a place where America could end up if the power of corporations and the media were allowed to run unchecked. Maybe I was influenced by the Counterculture already, I don’t know. I know that when a teacher pointed out the connection to Communism and Nazism some years later, I thought it was so obvious that it was facile; that could not have been Orwell’s only point. I still don’t think it was.

  11. John Hope
    at 3:35 pm on July 26, 2010

    George Orwell lived just down the road from me in the thirties . He used to bicycle to meet his friend Jack Common who lived in Datchworth . Hugh Kingsmill said of Orwell that he was like ‘ a gate swinging on a rusty hinge ‘ . Of course he was . All that melodrama that is 1984 . It’s the BBC . All those essays ‘ Such , such were the joys ‘ all true, all part of the English upper middle class, what we now call dysfuctional life. He wasn’t a genius , but he had a wonderful ability to write like he spoke .

  12. Cambridge in the Classroom | Clinkman's Blog
    at 5:25 pm on July 26, 2010

    [...] in the Classroom Posted on July 26, 2010 by clinkman Darryl Campbell’s essay on Orwell and the Tea Party has me thinking about the way in which books are taught in both secondary and university [...]

  13. Paul Wilson
    at 9:43 pm on July 26, 2010

    Your readers may not know this, but Orwell was also a keen collector of political pamphlets; you might even say he was a connoisseur of the “art.” When he died, his collection ended up, intact, in the British Museum in London, now the British Library. Back in the Stone Age, when I was doing serious research on Orwell, I got the collection out and spend several days pouring through it. It was an amazing experience, and in an odd way it brought me closer to the man’s mind, I think, than looking at his manuscripts, or reading his books. Most of the issues dealt with in those pamphlets — issues that Orwell sometimes tackled himself — are long since dead. Orwell’s work, most of it, is very much alive. So I disagree that his style overwhelmed his substance. It’s that very style, in fact, that has allowed his work to survive.

  14. Ben Sutherland
    at 12:54 am on July 27, 2010

    Perhaps that Orwell is difficult for you to understand is more about you than Orwell. Just a thought.

  15. J.C. Hallman
    at 4:19 am on July 27, 2010

    Brilliant essay. Well done. Orwell is the precise opposite of Thomas More on this point…

  16. ian
    at 5:32 am on July 27, 2010

    I don’t think a claim like “Koestler…is not part of the literary canon” holds much water. He’s not fashionable, granted, but I’d have thought most well-read people knew of Darkness at Noon.

    “any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds”…this is bizarre, but if true it explains a lot. Why would anyone seriously trying to “teach” Orwell exclude politics?? Would you teach Bovary and leave topics like gender or marriage out? These books are not fairy stories or sci-fi, they have roots in the real world and to try to understand them without that basic knowledge is purest perversity.

  17. kartika damon
    at 12:10 pm on July 28, 2010

    I think the work stands on its own as well as contextually. His work is about human nature and the idea that while dictators may claim they are creating egalitarian societies, they are are really about the power and control. We see this throughout history. Orwell knew that the Stalin’s of the world claim to be for the people, while those in the government are always getting the biggest piece of the pie, the best cuts of the meat, and all of the perks they can. “All pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

    Orwell wasn’t talking about the kind of democratic socialism that offers universal health care and education. He wasn’t talking about Obamacare as some call it. Those who use Orwell’s name to scare the right wing base and tea party movement, most of whom have not read Orwell or studied history, use the kind of rhetoric his books describe as dangerous propaganda.

  18. Henry Pelifian
    at 8:22 pm on July 28, 2010

    I think Robert got it right in his comments.

    Orwell in writing about a particular time and place creating a fictitious world has captured for all time the dilemma facing us, even now in our own country.

    In my own “Animal Park” I followed Orwell, undoubtedly, not as well.

  19. Having A Spot of Tea With George Orwell?
    at 2:46 pm on July 30, 2010

    [...] Here’s a thought-provoking piece from Darryl Campbell at The Millions on what he considers to be the misinterpretations and often downright misunderstandings about Orwell’s works, especially Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. He points to the ease with which people find “the shades of totalitarianism and organized lying” all around, bandying Orwell’s name about in various ways: looking to Animal Farm as proof of why socialism won’t work, asserting that universal healthcare would make Orwell turn over in his grave, even plastering his name on Tea Party billboards and signs. This is particularly relevant due to the nature of what Orwell was writing about–abuse of language and the dangers of a naive populace. [...]

  20. CherieJ
    at 3:40 am on July 31, 2010

    I like to play these games: if Orwell were alive today he would have a field day exposing all of the lies and corruption that sadly pass for rational discourse in the public arena.

    As a matter of fact he would probably be in jail, because there are certain public figures (and I won’t mention names,) who would not enjoy being on the receiving end of his total disregard for their intellectual dishonesty and brute negligence of the human rights of others,

    He was a literary genius, and always will be.

  21. CF Oxtrot
    at 7:32 pm on July 31, 2010

    1) Using Orwell to pick on “right wingers” is redundant… and is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. And shooting fish in a barrel is incredibly wasteful, since a shot fish won’t survive, and can’t be eaten. Besides, there are plenty of Democrats currently in federal power in DC, and in state and local power around the country, who are just as guilty of distortion, lies, and other Big Brother-styled “perception management,” so there seems an almost insincere or fraudulent point when picking on “right wingers” here.

    2) Any work of published writing that attracts attention is likely to be mis-used via either un-knowing misinterpretation, or willful distortion. Dear Glorious Leader, Imperator and Pontiff, His Noblest Sagacity and Erudite Dispensary of Profundity — Barack Hussein Obama — loves to misquote historically provocative figures who spoke truth to power in the same way Orwell did. He Who Sits at the Right Hand of the Throne, the estimable Joseph P. Biden, VPOTUS, plagiarized Neil Kinnock, a labor-supporting UK politician, in order to seem more populist than Biden’s cadre of financial supporters and Gepetto-like string-pullers would reveal.

    3) In view of the above two points, I am forced to wonder why you’d open an essay with the statement:

    “Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.”

    But perhaps I missed the arch humor in your statement.

    4) One thing of which I’m sure: Orwell alive today and living in the USA would be a fierce critic of BOTH parties, and our current POTUS, and the current Administration. So let’s not pretend that Orwell would only spin in his grave at mis-quotes or mis-use by the GOP and its supporters. Plenty of the comments in this thread seem to mis-understand Orwell as having argued for what Obama, his Cabinet & the Congress are working toward. This is a great irony, I think. But really it’s just more evidence of my first 2 points, isn’t it?

  22. JerzyK
    at 8:16 pm on July 31, 2010

    If George Orwell’s writing could be reduced to a single salient theme, it would be that of warning. essentially, sloppy & lazy thinking proceeding from sloppy & lazy habits of speech destroy our ability to lay out what we mean or even our ability to understand crucial concepts such as freedom, rights, due process, guilt or love.

    his last work was meant as a warning against the trend he saw in both public discourse & the politics served by that discourse. It is no accident that ingsoc, or english socialism, is the villain, since Orwell knew that particular nest of vipers from the inside. Make no mistake about it,. Orwell, in his wiser , later years was stridently anti-socialist & saw both the regimes of Hitler & Stalin in much the same light, for pretty much the same reasons.

    What goes largely unnoticed in his work is that Orwell is , in the end, opposed to the organisation of human life, to the streamlining, & efficiency which must circumscribe choice & to the conscious effort to subvert meaning of words in order to have them serve the dominant, totalitarian paradigm.

    It’s this very theme that that is at the core of socialism, nazism, communism, through their attempts at remaking man in the image of the party.

    It is then no surprise that some have seized on this imagery & invoke the man’s name in vain, especially since 1984 is about as accurate a critique of the soviet / nazi ideological & political reality as could be found, those were the totalitarian states of his day.

    Tea partiers are perhaps more entitled to use Orwell’s words than the centre-left in power today, since, for better or worse, they are anti-establishmentarian.

    They correctly see ‘progressive’ politics of today as a blatant attempt at depriving them of personal choice over their lives through further empowering of the nanny state, regulation of industry & financial sectors & even intrusion into something as personal as healthcare decisions.

    They are right to fear this.

  23. William Woody
    at 8:36 pm on July 31, 2010

    Is it clear that some protesters are using “Orwellian” when they should be using “Kafkaesque” instead? Absolutely.

    Is it clear that Orwell himself did not attribute great intellectual depth to his writings by calling himself a “pamphleteer” whose works will be forgotten in a couple of years? Again, absolutely–which to me means your dissecting Orwell’s “true” political positions as being in opposition to what the Tea Party folks stand for means you’re making the same mistake your accusing others of making.

    Was Orwell a great supporter of “Democratic Socialism”? Sure, though one has to be careful what we mean when we talk about Orwell and Socialism. He denounced the Soviet Union as not being a true socialism.

    In fact, his work 1984 was a denouncement of power, and the abuse of power–and how power corrupts even the most sacred of institutions. He even framed his beloved English Socialism as the bad guys in 1984: Ingsoc.

    It should be clear that 1984 is about power and the abuse of power. Orwell himself said that the book was an attack on the perversions caused by totalitarianism and by unchecked state control: “The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

    The message of unchecked totalitarian control is emphasized by O’Brian’s speeches while torturing Winston in Miniluv.

    The fact that Orwell was denouncing the abuse of power and denouncing totalitarianism: while perhaps the Tea Party protesters may want a different end result than George Orwell would want, the fact that both protested against the abuse of government power and the coming of totalitarianism means that perhaps they are not quite the diametrically opposed forces you paint them to be.

    “Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.”

    With all due respect, having grown up doing “duck and cover” drills believing nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was just around the corner, Orwell was quite relevant. (His book “1984″ was written in part as a denouncement of Soviet Socialism.) And so long as the threat of totalitarianism exists anywhere in the world, Orwell is still quite relevant.

  24. glaurung
    at 7:58 am on August 1, 2010

    But how exactly are those Tea Partiers actually opposing the threat of totalitarianism? I myself agree that totalitarianism is bad but I don’t see the health-care reform as a act of state’s corruptive power over it’s citizens, I see it as an example how to use that power for the good of the people. Even if it’s dancing on a fine line.

    But nevermind me. What I’m really trying to say is this: isn’t goverment which does not do anything to help the well-being of those who live in poverty actually using it’s powers in that same destructive manner?

  25. Glenn Donovan
    at 12:00 pm on August 1, 2010

    Having just re-read 1984, I must say I find much to commend this essay in terms of understanding Orwell and his work. But I don’t see much that helps me understand the Tea Party. First, it is not a political party – it’s name is a bit unfortunate in that respect. Second it has no unified, formal platform and accordingly, it is difficult to define it. I see it as a populist movement, based on a certain segment of our societies outrage over the creeping power of government, and real fear about our economic future.

    While I’m not a literary student, I think it’s clear that Orwell was terribly concerned about about authoritarian rule and the corruption of society that accompanies it. What I find most compelling about Orwell is the personalized depiction of the impact of such a society on individuals and groups, both intellectually and emotionally. He exquisitely describes a tyranny that invades every inch of the public’s life in way that any reader can access – no epistemology of political thought is necessary to get it.

    ‘Tea Partiers’ and many others, including libertarians (not LiBeckitarians) are very concerned about the increasing power of government and one doesn’t need an ivy league degree to be worried about it. Perhaps the author would do well to remind himself that in the past 100 years, we’ve witnessed govt in all it’s forms in the U.S. progress from spending 6% of GDP to currently spending 46% of GDP. We have a federal criminal code that give prosecutors ridiculous discretion that is abused every day, making criminals of people who never intended to harm a soul. We are in two wars that we don’t have to be in – these are issues that deserve concern, and Orwell speaks to these concerns in important ways, yes?

    I suspect something else is actually at work here. Orwell was indeed a man of the Left in his time, and like many others, watched his dreams turned to ashes over and over again. The ‘Prols’ didn’t rise up, dialectical materialism doesn’t exactly predict much accurately and while it still has it’s allure for many, most honest intellectual leftists – such as say, Christopher Hitchens (a world class expert on Orwell) have had to admit the insufficiency of Marxism, and the real suffering it brought to the world. All the literary pretensions in the world will not allow one to escape these ineluctable facts, and I think Orwell in particular brings these issues into stark relief, making his writing and thoughts fair game for those discussing these issues. The author is free, obviously, to criticize those who try to co-opt Orwell, they put themselves in the public spotlight and as such are fair game. But to somehow imply that they are missing Orwell’s point by using his words to criticize Socialism is way off the mark, and this seems to be the author’s main argument, which, despite his cogent analysis of Orwell and literary skill, seems to not be substantiated by the facts.

  26. Tom Blanton
    at 2:59 pm on August 1, 2010

    Perhaps Campbell suffers from a form of received wisdom myopia as opposed to any learned understanding of people, politics and government. Darryl, check back with us in 25 years after you’ve put the current political landscape in context.

    Perhaps, then Campbell may write a rant about why left and right didn’t join together now to shout down the ruling elite using Orwell’s words. Here in the surveillance state, it seems both the Bushes and the Obamas of the world are much more equal than the people I know.

  27. Tim Poston
    at 8:12 pm on August 1, 2010

    I recall a 1964 conversation with another undergraduate: at the time, the casual perception of Animal Farm was as an anti-socialist, and more specifically anti-Soviet, fable: therefore, by 60s polarity, pro the ‘Free World’ package. I remarked that it tells us that communism is as Bad as capitalism and tsarism. It does not tell us that those are Good.

    He said “Oh. I suppose it does have a political message.”

    Reading it in the Cold War Era was no guarantee of connecting in full, either.

  28. Mike
    at 1:45 am on August 2, 2010

    This work is well written, but almost to the extent of ignoring the argument that is trying to be made while instead focusing on your own diction. If you wish to argue Orwell’s political messages in other works of his and compare them to his last work 1984, which is what most conservatives are alluding towards you would be better off citing examples of each work and discussing their themes and differences instead of making one line summarizations of each which are really just opinions that have been sewn in. Orwell was influenced by many different things throughout his life and reflected this in his work at the time. To assume he was either completely right or left is naive. An essay written in ones youth will not accurately describe all of their future opinions or behavior. Only the most unsophisticated people think in such a manner where everything is either right or left, and I think Orwell was far from being unsophisticated. Drawing from the article, a person who supports a tax reform and is a member of the tea party does not also mean that they do not support health care reform. In this same regard all of Orwells works did not follow any constant rigid political ideology throughout his lifetime.

  29. Brett Hetherington
    at 10:55 am on August 2, 2010

    One reason why American readers find a lot of Orwell’s writing “hard to get” (especially the first time round) is because he is so often writing about social class. And in England social class is everything whereas in the US it is usually a minor factor in public discussion.

    Daryl Campbell, the author of this article makes plenty of good points about Orwell but he has missed one of the biggest reasons why Orwell wrote at all: the injustice of social class in society.

    There are other reasons why Orwell is at times misunderstood…

    http://www.bretthetherington.net/Modules/Blog/Pages/BlogEntry.aspx?BlogEntryId=351

  30. Ophelia
    at 11:28 pm on August 2, 2010

    The timing of this essay is uncanny – I’m just getting into Animal Farm and slowly realising the depth of the context. You hit the nail on the head – you can simply read his work; but to read and understand you must familiarise yourself with the appropriate context. I’m trying to read it the ‘right way’; I believe it’s worth it!

  31. Tom Hustvet
    at 9:23 am on August 3, 2010

    This morning I was tempted to say, “By golly, Martha, some of these kids today can write pretty good!”. ‘Cept I don’t know a Martha. Still, it was a real joy to read writting that, even though it kind of got into ‘show off ‘, got so quickly and deeply into the brain. Born in ’43, I have lived through lots of headlines, speeches, and really dumb acts with predictable horrible outcomes. We, the peope of a couple of generations, have watched the masses follow countless calculating evil doers. Today, when all history can easily be replaced by the stroke of a few keys, I can only shudder to think of the controls our technology could, and probably will, place in the hands of the next otherwise normal despot. Still, this article also allowed me to still have the impression that, somehow, we aren’t doing everything wrong, at least yet. This was a really great read.

  32. Caleb
    at 11:55 pm on August 5, 2010

    A well reasoned essay though some of the early paragraphs seem superfluous.

    What George Orwell’s political destination would have been had he lived past his forties has been continuously debated. He was certainly a fierce hater of totalitarianism in all its forms. He was homophobic but philosemitic, thought Stalin and the system he created the greatest evil but always took the side of those “who had the lean portion” in life.

    In a lesser-known work “Homage to Catalonia” he first warned the reader about his biases and waxed rhapsodic about the “international working class” in the last chapter–after describing a harrowing escape from Spain after the Anarchist POUM in whose militia he served was “suppressed” by the Communists. Small wonder this book went unpublished for decades because of opposition by the Moscow-oriented Left Book Club!

  33. Linklog for 6th August to 12th August | Robert Sharp
    at 12:57 pm on August 12, 2010

    [...] Should Orwell endure? – "because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not" [...]

  34. w.annable
    at 2:01 pm on August 16, 2010

    Dear all commenters maybe I have missed something but when I read 1984 I thought that its underlying message was,[ mind control] put to one side is it a right wing or a left wing BOOK, mind control should come to the fore. People are stampeded to the left then the right by news papers, radio, television,politicians, religious pontificates and so on, control the mind of the Prols and you have as they say [got them in the palm of your hand.] Christopher Hitchens has been mentioned by some commenters ,you will find that if you look up his brother Peter Hitchens = writes for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday he is much more ,to my mind,a better Orwell scholar.

  35. valdemar
    at 11:19 am on August 28, 2010

    ‘“Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism’

    No, it was a satire of Stalinism (Big Brother physically resembles Stalin). Also, to some extent, the BBC where Orwell worked during the war. The pyramidal Ministry of Truth resembles old Broadcasting House in London – try Google images.

    However often the right quote him, Orwell was a leftist who wanted the rich to be taxed heavily and the rest to live decently under the aegis of a healthy democratic state. He despised American-style politics, arguing that rich men with gangsterish tendencies manipulate public opinion in the US. Well, clearly he was wrong about that, the crazy old socialist…

  36. rabs
    at 10:00 am on August 30, 2010

    “Political language is the art of making lies sound truthful, murder look respectful, and giving the appearance of solidity to pure wind”. George Orwell. Tell me this quote still doesn’t ring true in this age of universal spin,

  37. Karolinka
    at 10:11 am on August 20, 2011

    Let’s let Orwell speak for himself:

    “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”.
    Orwell, “Why I Write”, 1946

    Evidently, Orwell didn’t equate socialism with totalitarianism.

  38. Frank Sellers
    at 3:42 pm on December 26, 2012

    I completely disagree that one must trudge through a litany of contextual material in order to “get” Orwell. I read “1984″ around 1984 when I was in high school and I got it right away without having to know anything about the times in which he wrote it.

    You do not need to put either “1984” or “Animal Farm” into historical context—their messages are self-evident. Especially that of “Animal Farm”: “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” Come on! How much more clear did he have to be?!

    And to write a long-winded essay on Orwell and then say that his work is “ephemeral” is ridiculous. The very fact that Darryl Campbell is writing about Orwell and so many people are appropriating or misappropriating him 60+ years after his death proves otherwise—his message is eternal.
    The irony about the Tea Baggers misappropriating Orwell is that most Tea Party members are not intellectuals and never have, nor will they ever, read Orwell. It’s actually tragic, because then they’d recognize a lot of the Republican party’s propaganda, especially how the so-called War on Terrorism is a nice fit for the eternal war in “1984”. George W. Bush & Co. used the book as a How To manual. Google “George W. Bush Doublespeak” and you’ll get lots of hits. Reporters at press conferences were too often afraid of looking stupid to ask, “What they hell did you just say?”

    Bush & Co. turned into terrorists themselves by torturing prisoners of war, suspending our Constitutional rights (ironically to protect them) with the Patriot Act, politically punishing public critics with the infamous No Fly List, etc.
    Getting back to “Animal Farm,” Republicans are currently, desperately fulfilling Orwellian prophesy in their attempts to protect the wealthy from paying taxes, even to the point of sending the U.S. back into a recession as punishment on the rest of us if they don’t get their way. In case anyone missed the point in Animal Farm, the wealthy are always the animals who are more equal than the others, and at this point in history Republican politicians are their slavish lapdogs lying to the masses to make them think they will benefit by the rich not
    being taxed.

    Talk about doublespeak!

  39. The Right that Pretends to Know – On Writing About LGBTI Rights | Storymoja
    at 10:25 am on April 27, 2014

    […] from an obtuse analysis of utopian and dystopian texts by mentioning them and giving them the standard treatment by the right wing. He asserts that dystopian texts support the status quo, no need for mass-suicide-inducing reform […]

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