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If You Name-Check Orwell, You’ve Lost the Argument

Appealing to the long-dead writer is a sign you haven't thought very hard

If I could set the rules of engagement in social media culture wars, I might begin with this directive: Use your own words. Being unable to defend rotten ideas leads many Twitter debaters to use cherry-picked quotes and misinterpreted texts to make what they feel to be a point. Recently, I enjoyed writer Clarkisha Kent’s thread of MLK Jr. Day counterprogramming, which provided radical and unsanitized remarks from King to challenge the usual “25 wack ass inspirational quotes about love and hate” so often trotted out to silence outrage and dissent. 

Almost any major (dead) intellectual can be appropriated and twisted this way; the more they wrote and spoke, the more there is to draw from. Paradoxically, the breadth of output also encourages us to collapse these figures to some basic attitude, and their name becomes synonymous with a rather toothless conventional wisdom. Therefore, King’s rebelliousness and anti-capitalist rhetoric is erased for something like, “love is better than hate.” For the British thinker George Orwell, who wrote widely as a journalist and novelist, the oversimplified lesson seems to be, “anyone who tells me I’m wrong is an authoritarian despot, and it’s self-evident that communism is evil.” The bastardization of Orwell’s work is so extreme a member of U.K. parliament is comfortable parroting a quotation that cannot even be attributed to the man.

Fake Orwell aphorisms are irritating in their own right (no, he did not predict smartphones in his dystopian novel, and no, he was not the one to quip that “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed”), but think for a moment about what the “further a society drifts from the truth” phrase is doing in that conservative MP’s tweet. It’s assigning the value of “truth” to whatever fucking dumbass opinion he shares — in this case, the actor Laurence Fox’s racist objection to the historically plausible appearance of a Sikh soldier in a World War I drama. (For the record, he couldn’t even get Piers Morgan on his side.) It’s hard to imagine either the real or apocryphal Orwell defending this petty, spurious complaint as a pure fact under assault from a society that has abandoned reality. After all, the record proves Fox to be flatly incorrect.

In the tweet above we see that Orwell need not be (mis)quoted in order to serve as an awkward cudgel in argument. The video this fellow is mad about makes no mention of the author, and yet, somehow, a positive response to a member of parliament speaking on behalf of trans rights occasions his fury that “so-called intellectuals still don’t understand George Orwell.” I suppose we should say, in his defense, that Orwell did have a homophobic streak that may have extended to the trans community — but already you see the uselessness of any of this, since Orwell’s beliefs were of his time, not to mention fluid and sometimes contradictory, and convincing anyone that they match or bolster yours is a fool’s errand.

As historian John Rodden said during a 2004 PBS Think Tank special on “Orwell’s Century,” it’s almost typical to claim “that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be standing with the neo-conservatives and against the Left. And the question arises, to what extent can you even begin to predict the political positions of somebody who’s been dead three decades and more by that time?” Besides, it seems to elude many that whatever his insight, Orwell was not infallible. You can disagree with him, too.   

Orwell Syndrome is especially pronounced where it comes to his signature fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. These are the novels that gave us the overused terms “thoughtcrime” (defined as any personal impulse that subverts the totalitarian ruling party, though right-wingers now use it to whine about the pushback to their hate speech) and “Orwellian” (mass surveillance combined with the suppression, denial and reversal of truth to benefit a regime, but now usually meaning “I don’t like that”). The avowed lessons of the books and their coinages — always up for dispute anyway! — are today rendered by bad or indifferent readers, by people who have in fact read none of Orwell or basically forgotten what they have, and, most obviously, by those who were assigned to read Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm as high school freshmen, and do not really engage with literature in adulthood. It’s the same phenomenon as dating profiles listing The Great Gatsby as a favorite novel, or Trump reaching into the landfill of his adolescent memory to claim that his is All Quiet on the Western Front

The upshot is that Orwell’s ghost ends up fighting what Orwell stood for. Antifa supposedly employ “Orwellian” tactics despite 1) not being in power and 2) Orwell’s months with the Republican army in Spanish Civil War, supporting them in the brutal conflict with Franco’s fascist coalition. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are somehow parables of how socialism is “well beyond stupid” instead of slippery satires that envision how utopian ideals are corrupted and exploited by would-be dictators.

Orwell, who wrote searingly about class inequality and said of his experience in Spain that “[e]very line of serious work that I have written since… has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,” might be shocked to learn that he’s loved by the chuds yelling at Bernie Sanders. Gotta respect this demographic that equates universal healthcare to outright Stalinism. Also, a couple MAGA dudes overpaying for their drinks at a bar is absolute evidence of autocracy. 

Had Orwell lived a longer life, he may have grown quite conservative, if not reactionary. Such matters, however, belong to the realm of academic speculation. What we can be sure of is that his commitment to the clarity of plain language, and warnings of what lies in store if words are distorted, has made him the tragic victim of quasi-literate dipshits bent on the annihilation of meaning. The Orwell we have in print is of no interest to them, for merely typing “Orwell” is, to their minds, the killing blow. Orwell is there in spirit with them. Orwell has their backs against the PC police and SJWs and the LGBTQ agenda. He can’t speak for himself anymore, but luckily, he endures as a kind of shared sock-puppet account.

Hey, wait a minute… isn’t that communism?