Friday, March 26, 2010

Over-Zealous Orwell Devotees and Our Post-9/11 Discourse

I've been reading and re-reading the latest collections of essays from George Orwell recently (here and here) and thoroughly enjoying both books. There are so many themes and ideas in Orwell's writings that cut through the generations dividing his time and ours that my brain is swimming a bit. The books are now dog-eared and filled with notes for future blog posts and my journal of ideas is stuffed with comparisons and contrasts that I'd like to draw.

One thing that has jumped out at me as I've read through these texts is how heavily Orwell has influenced some of his well known advocates. Specifically Christopher Hitchens, George Packer and Andrew Sullivan (Packer actually compiled these latest essay collections). All three of these men have made no secret of their adoration of Orwell, they have written multiple books between them on the theme and speak of Orwell nearly constantly. Still, until I really started to dig deep into Orwell's canon I hadn't realized how much each of these three leading intellectuals actually emulated Orwell - particularly in the aftermath of 9/11.

You see Orwell was a realist - not just in foreign policy but in life. He was a socialist yes but he was not a pacificist, peacenik or particularly idealistic about the necessity of war. Certainly this was born out his life experiences. Orwell was an imperial administrator in Burma and he famously fought with the Marxists in valiant but futile attempt to thwart a military coup in the Spanish revolution. That experience in Spain was perhaps the single most poignant experience in his life - it shaped his worldview for the rest of his life.

As his native Britain faced the growing threat of Fascism from continental Europe Orwell was on the attack against naive leftists who believed that Hitler was not a grave threat. In the second volume of essays All Art is Propaganda Packer has included a devasting 1941 piece that Orwell penned against English author H.G. Wells entitled simply, "Wells, Hitler and the World State,"

[Wells] was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them. The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves.

It is in the Wells essay and other similar writings that the behavior of Hitchens, Packer and Sullivan in the post-9/11 dialogue come into focus. Hitchens famously melted down while writing for The Nation, finally resigning in disgust while proclaiming that, "Moreover, it's obvious to me that the "antiwar" side would not be convinced even if all the allegations made against Saddam Hussein were proven.."

Packer, those less volatile and vitriolic than Hicth, nonetheless eagerly consumed the cheese that Bush and Cheney had used to bait the Saddam trap. Packer while being critical of Bush administration bungling also lashed out at the left in his book The Assassins Gate.

Sullivan offered up little else but over-heated rhetoric in those post-9/11 days declaring, "decadent left enclaves on the coasts [that] may well mount a fifth column." He too was a prominent cheerleader for the Bushites Iraq folly, a position he has since expressed regret for.

All three of these men are intelligent writers with interesting and novel ideas about our times. They are rightly revered as prominent public intellectuals and have all spoken, in varying degrees of candor, about the mistakes that they (and many others) made in the post-9/11 fever. In reading these couple of dozen Orwell essays in recent weeks one can see where his over-zealous devotees easily went astray. They admire and worship Orwell and desperately wanted, like their hero, to be the clear headed moralist intellectual of their own time. Unfortunately for them Saddam was not Hitler, Bush was not Churchill and no one will ever be Orwell.

Update: One point of clarification regarding Hitchens, Packer and Sullivan. Hitchens is a self-described Marxist with a history as a Socialist. Packer is nominally a liberal in the American sense of the word. Sullivan, still a British citizen, is a conservative - which makes him essentially a liberal in American politics today. Hitchens and Packer are not just influenced by Orwell the writer but also in varying degrees in their political outlook. Sullivan is most certainly not a Socialist, as Orwell was, and he has been an outspoken critic of, for example, the British National Health Service. Going back over my post I was concerned that I had left the impression that Sullivan was as much an ideological heir to Orwell as Hitchens. That is certainly not the case.

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