Why Orwell Matters

Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens (Basic Books, 2002)

If, like me, you are saddened that the media can, without irony, describe something called the civilian version of an assault rifle, or are puzzled why a university has to set up a diversity syllabus, or tire of hearing about the international community, or are irritated by the illogical efforts of the U.S. Census Bureau to classify its citizens, then you are probably a George Orwell fan. And if you don’t understand why all that steams me up, I heartily recommend you read Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. For me, Orwell’s thinking is crystallized in that famous piece, where he shows how malevolent or misguided ideas and the weaselly and windy language in which they are expressed reinforce each other, blunting the inquiring and analytical mind.

The author, once the enfant terrible of English letters, is now a middle-aged gadfly. He is Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School in New York City, and a noted columnist. He has recently been in the news for a public spat with his old pal Martin Amis over the latter’s belated recognition that Uncle Joe Stalin – the Granddaddy of all Big Brothers – was an ogre. While not explicitly responding to any attack on Orwell, Why Orwell Matters arrived (September 2002) when Orwell was under fire for revelations about his cooperation with the British Foreign Office over communist infiltrators. And an anti-capitalist parody of Orwell’s Animal Farm, called Snowball’s Chance, by John Reed, was published last summer. Hitchens explains that Orwell needs rescuing from a simplistic veneration, and misplaced adoption by both the Left and the Right.

Hitchens is an obvious Orwell enthusiast, seems to have read everything of Orwell’s, and everything about him, and shares much of Orwell’s maverick nature – his independence and unpredictability. He strikes gold several times. He has a chilling description of a visit to North Korea in the late 1990s, which exactly echoes the horrors of Orwell’s 1984. He skillfully shows how Orwell did not recoil from the horrors of fascism into the arms of socialism, instead boldly declaring that collectivization would inevitably end up as tyranny.  But Hitchens’ approach to his theme is flawed. His method is to devote chapters describing Orwell’s position on several subjects – e.g. The Empire, America, The Left, the Right, Feminists. Orwell was, however, evidently not equally incisive on all topics: for instance, he was ambiguous about America (which he never visited), and awkward with women – both behaviorally and in how he depicted them in his novels. Thus Hitchen’ comprehensive approach weakens his argument by suggesting Orwell’s relevance has a consistency that is not merited. The book appears more as a series of lectures, some with flabby endings, and his conclusion that Orwell’s “commitment to language as the partner of truth illustrates that it matters not what you think, but how you think” is surely overstated.

Perhaps the world can be divided into three groups: those who think Orwell matters, those who don’t, and those who aren’t sure about him, but wasn’t he, like, shortstop for the ‘74 Orioles?  However, my interpretation of the title “Why Orwell matters” is “Orwell matters for these reasons” rather than “Whether Orwell matters or not”. You will find over sixty-five thousand hits for “Orwellian”, and nearly 1.5 million for “Big Brother”, on an Internet search engine, and a brief glimpse shows that ax-grinders from all sides distort Orwell to help their own cause. Overall, Hitchens has written an engaging update for the Orwell aficionado, but missed an opportunity to hammer home the wisdom of his message concerning the doublethink of today’s manipulating language-manglers – the demagogues, bureaucrats, hucksters, charlatans, propagandists, and authors of Internet start-up press releases. Read this, but even better, go back to read (re-read) the original Orwell.

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