… we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
When one looks at the all-prevailing schizophrenia of democratic societies, the lies that have to be told for vote-catching purposes, the silence about major issues, the distortions of the press, it is tempting to believe that in totalitarian countries there is less humbug, more facing of the facts. There, at least, the ruling groups are not dependent on popular favour and can utter the truth crudely and brutally. Goering could say ‘Guns before butter’, while his democratic opposite numbers had to wrap the same sentiment up in hundreds of hypocritical words.
Actually, however, the avoidance of reality is much the same everywhere, and has much the same consequences. The Russian people were taught for years that they were better off than everybody else, and propaganda posters showed Russian families sitting down to abundant meal while the proletariat of other countries starved in the gutter. Meanwhile the workers in the western countries were so much better off than those of the U.S.S.R. that non-contact between Soviet citizens and outsiders had to be a guiding principle of policy. Then, as a result of the war, millions of ordinary Russians penetrated far into Europe, and when they return home the original avoidance of reality will inevitably be paid for in frictions of various kinds. The Germans and the Japanese lost the war quite largely because their rulers were unable to see facts which were plain to any dispassionate eye.
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong. But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic. In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean word where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.
George Orwell, “In Front of Your Nose”, Tribune, 1946-03-22.
October 12, 2016
May 30, 2016
As Orwell noted in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” He was speaking, of course, about control of written history, of what we know to have happened — and thereby how we allocate our political support. It is not a small matter if the company that is coming to be the nation’s most significant source of news skews that news toward its own political preferences. In fact, it’s just a tiny bit chilling. Government censorship is, of course, terrible. But censorship by a small group of unelected young people is not all that much more appealing.
This problem existed already on another scale. The socioeconomic, racial and political homogeneity of the media is a problem, one that I have written about before. That said, those media were operating in a competitive landscape, and no one outlet really had all that much market power. In each medium there were outlets of different sorts of political leanings, and more of them with the rise of the Internet.
Facebook, on the other hand, dominates all other social media outlets for news to an extent that no print outlet ever dominated the American landscape. The only arguable parallel is the big television networks from the 1950s to the 1980s, and at least there were three of them, rather than one. Besides, for most of that time they operated under the Fairness Doctrine — in other words, under heavy-handed government interference to limit their power to shape the national debate.
The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn’t make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good. These are the people who embrace Orwell’s dictum and say: “Yes, absolutely, the left should have control over what people are allowed to hear and know, because that’s how we’re going to build a better future.” The first argument may be unsatisfying. But the second is … downright Orwellian.
Megan McArdle, “Facebook Dislikes Conservatives, and That’s OK”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-11.
January 28, 2016
Someone has just sent me a copy of an American fashion magazine which shall be nameless. It consists of 325 large quarto pages, of which no less than 15 are given up to articles on world politics, literature, etc. The rest consists entirely of pictures with a little letterpress creeping round their edges: pictures of ball dresses, mink coats, step-ins, panties, brassières, silk stockings, slippers, perfumes, lipsticks, nail polish — and, of course, of the women, unrelievedly beautiful, who wear them or make use of them.
One striking thing when one looks at these pictures is the overbred, exhausted, even decadent style of beauty that now seems to be striven after. Nearly all of these women are immensely elongated. A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal. Evidently it is a real physical type, for it occurs as much in the photographs as in the drawings. Another striking thing is the prose style of the advertisements, an extraordinary mixture of sheer lushness with clipped and sometimes very expensive technical jargon. Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random:
“A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.” “Bared and beautifully bosomy.” “Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!” “Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!” “An exclamation point of a dress that depends on fluid fabric for much of its drama.” “The miracle of figure flattery!” “Molds your bosom into proud feminine lines.” “Isn’t it wonderful to know that Corsets wash and wear and whittle you down… even though they weigh only four ounces!” “The distilled witchery of one woman who was forever desirable… forever beloved… Forever Amber.” And so on and so on and so on.
A fairly diligent search through the magazine reveals two discreet allusions to gray hair, but if there is anywhere a direct mention of fatness or middle-age I have not found it. Birth and death are not mentioned either: nor is work, except that a few recipes for breakfast dishes are given. The male sex enters directly or indirectly into perhaps one advertisement in twenty, and photographs of dogs or kittens appear here and there. In only two pictures, out of about three hundred, is a child represented.
On the front cover there is a colored photograph of the usual elegant female, standing on a chair while a gray-haired, spectacled, crushed-looking man in shirtsleeves kneels at her feet, doing something to the edge of her skirt. If one looks closely one finds that actually he is about to take a measurement with a yardstick. But to a casual glance he looks as though he were kissing the hem of the woman’s garment — not a bad symbolical picture of American civilization, or at least of one important side of it.
George Orwell, retitled as “George Orwell Wrote One of the Most Incensed Takedowns of American Fashion Magazines”, The New Republic, 1946-12-02.
September 11, 2015
Open Culture presents David Niven in the lead role of the first adaptation of Orwell’s final novel for radio:
Since George Orwell published his landmark political fable 1984, each generation has found ample reason to make reference to the grim near-future envisioned by the novel. Whether Orwell had some prophetic vision or was simply a very astute reader of the institutions of his day — all still with us in mutated form — hardly matters. His book set the tone for the next 60 plus years of dystopian fiction and film.
Orwell’s own political activities — his stint as a colonial policeman or his denunciation of several colleagues and friends to British intelligence — may render him suspect in some quarters. But his nightmarish fictional projections of totalitarian rule strike a nerve with nearly everyone on the political spectrum because, like the speculative future Aldous Huxley created, no one wants to live in such a world. Or at least no one will admit it if they do.
July 6, 2015
June 29, 2015
Brendan O’Neill on the European “right to be forgotten”:
“He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall. ‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.'”
This is the moment in Nineteen Eighty-Four when O’Brien, an agent of the Thought Police who tortures Winston Smith in Room 101, dumps into a memory hole an inconvenient news story. It’s an 11-year-old newspaper cutting which confirms that three Party members who were executed for treason could not have been guilty. “It does exist!” wails Winston. “It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.” O’Brien, mere seconds after plunging the item into the memory hole, replies: “I do not remember it.”
Of all the horrible things in Nineteen Eighty-Four that have come true in recent years — from rampant thought-policing to the spread of CCTV cameras — surely the memory hole, the institutionalisation of forgetting, will never make an appearance in our supposedly open, transparent young century? After all, ours is a “knowledge society,” where info is power and Googling is on pretty much every human’s list of favourite pastimes.
Think again. The memory hole is already here. In Europe, anyway. We might not have actual holes into which pesky facts are dropped so that they can be burnt in “enormous furnaces.” But the EU-enforced “right to be forgotten” does empower individual citizens in Europe, with the connivance of Google, to behave like little O’Briens, wiping from internet search engines any fact they would rather no longer existed.
April 25, 2015
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
April 21, 2015
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
March 28, 2015
I didn’t know that Orwell was a former pupil of Aldous Huxley:
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
March 18, 2015
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one. […] It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
December 10, 2014
The most recent issue of Intelligent Life looks at the brief interlude of George Orwell’s career while he was working at the BBC during the Second World War:
Orwell spent a mere two years (1941-43) at the BBC, which he joined as a talks assistant in the Indian section of the Eastern Service. No recording survives of him giving a talk, which is perhaps fitting; for what is most striking about his essays and journalism is the tart, compelling timbre of his voice. The critic Cyril Connolly, an exact contemporary, thought that only D.H. Lawrence rivalled Orwell in the degree to which his personality “shines out in everything he said or wrote”. Any reader of Orwell’s non-fiction will pick up on the brisk, buttonholing manner (“two things are immediately obvious”), the ear-catching assertions (“the Great War…could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented”) and the squashing epithets: “miry”, “odious”, “squalid”, “hideous”, “mealy-mouthed”, “beastly”, “boneless”, “fetid” and — a term he could have applied to himself — “frowsy”.
Orwell might well have damned this new honour too. In his studio on the edge of the Blenheim estate in Oxfordshire, Martin Jennings, the sculptor working on the eight-foot likeness, told me that Orwell had made some disobliging remarks about public statues, thinking that they got in the way of perfectly good views. The bronze Orwell will look down on the comings and goings of BBC staff who, returning his gaze, can read some chiselled wisdom from his works on the wall behind him. The Financial Times recently called Orwell “the true patron saint of our profession”, another tribute he would probably resist. “Saints”, he warned, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”
Why Orwell? His time at the BBC was ambivalent at best. As students of 1984 soon discover, the novel’s dreary, wartime ambience and the prominence of propaganda owe much to his BBC experiences; Room 101, where Winston Smith confronts his worst nightmares, was named after an airless BBC conference room. “Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum,” Orwell wrote in his diary on March 14th 1942, “and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless.”
One answer to “why Orwell?” is because of his posthumous career. Five years before his death in 1950, he was, in the words of one of his biographers, D.J. Taylor, “still a faintly marginal figure”. He had published seven books, four of them novels, none of which put him in the front rank of novelists, two of which he had refused to have reprinted. He was acknowledged as a superb political essayist and bold literary critic, but his contemporary and friend Malcolm Muggeridge, first choice as his biographer, frankly considered him “no good as a novelist”. It was only with his last two books, Animal Farm and 1984 (published in 1945 and 1949), that Orwell transformed his reputation as a writer. These two books would change the way we think about our lives.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
September 4, 2014
The Westport Independent, a self-described “censorship simulator,” places that editorial power in the hands of players during a time of political unrest in the city of Westport. It’s 1948, and rising rebellions against the government lead to a new bill banning any news outlets that do not comply with the Loyalist Government Guidelines. You play as the editor in chief of an independent newspaper entering its final weeks before the ban.
As editor, you control the censorship of articles, pick headlines, and arrange the layout to tell the truth of your choosing. As with Orwell’s 1984, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Will you abide by rules and force-feed your readers the government’s narrative? Or will you defy their guidelines, and print the rebellion’s perspective instead? The city, divided into class-based districts, dynamically responds to everything you print. By shaping public opinion with the stories you choose, you shape the current events that unfold. And by shaping the events, you affect the stories you can cover.
September 1, 2014
In the Telegraph, Sean Thomas says that the self-loathing tradition among Labour intelligentsia makes Labour the worst possible party to make the case for union, even though Labour stands to lose far more electorally than any other party:
It’s often been observed that a certain type of British Lefty hates Britain – and that they reserve particularly hatred for Englishness. Back in 1941 George Orwell made this acute remark:
England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.
So what’s new? The difference today is that this shame and self-hatred now dominates Left-wing thought, whereas it was once balanced by the decent Left: who were proud to inherit the noble traditions of radical English patriotism.
[…] The latest polls show that the United Kingdom is close to breaking up. This is a remarkable state of affairs when you consider that, a year ago, polls were two to one against partition. How has this occurred? Because we have allowed the British Labour party to lead the No debate.
This was a disastrous decision, given that, as Orwell noted, Labourites and Lefties revile and deride so many of the things perceived as quintessentially British. Take your pick from the monarchy, the flag, the Army, the history of rampant conquest, the biggest empire in the world, the supremacy of the English language, anyone who lives in the countryside, the national anthem, the City of London, the Royal Navy, a nuclear deterrent, the lion and the unicorn, duffing up the French, eating loads of beef — all this, for Lefties, is a source of shame.
The result, north of the Border, is plain to see. Whenever the passionate and patriotic SNP asks the No campaign for a positive vision of the UK (instead of dry economic facts, and negative fear-mongering) all we hear is silence, or maybe a quiet murmur about “the NHS”. Yes, the NHS. For many Lefties, the NHS &mdah; an average European health system with several notable flaws — is the only good thing about Britain. It’s like saying we should keep the United Kingdom because of PAYE. Thus we tiptoe towards the dissolution of the nation.
There is a deep irony here. If Scotland secedes it will hurt the Labour Party more than anyone, electorally. But such is the subconscious hatred of Britain and Britishness in Lefty hearts, I believe many of them think that’s a price worth paying: just to kick the “Tory Unionists” in the nuts, just to deliver the final death-blow to British “delusions of grandeur”.
August 25, 2014
There is a price to be paid for divorcing actions and concepts from the words that describe them. Government, and the law that undergirds it, is made up of words. Devalue the words, strip them of meaning, and you do the same thing to the concepts those words describe. Action follows Thought, and for Thought to exist there must be the Word.
This was George Orwell’s central insight when he invented Newspeak for his novel 1984. Language doesn’t just describe what we think about, and allow us to communicate with each other; in a major way, it actually determines what we think about, and how we think. We conceptualize the way we do, even in the abstract, using constructs of language — even mathematics and computer code is a kind of language. Orwell understood that the Word could actually be turned into a weapon, an invisible knife to cut away a man’s ability to think (and thus, to act). All you have to do is convince a man that the Word he’s hearing means something other than what he thought it meant … or can mean anything, really. Or nothing at all. Science, history, literature, even music — they evaporate like a puddle in the hot sun because the Words used to build them stop conveying meaning.
Words have meaning. They must have meaning, for if we are to communicate at all we must transmit meaning from one person to another. This is perhaps the most unforgivable part of the postmodernist assault on the language itself: it has weakened our ability to even describe the loss of meaning.
Monty, “In the beginning was the Word”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-27.