Philosophy Weekend: What “Orwellian” Meant to Orwell

(Privacy in the Internet age is emerging as one of the crucial ethical topics of our era; we’ve briefly touched upon it here at Philosophy Weekend, but will clearly have to begin devoting more space to the big controversies in 2014. Let’s get the party started early with a sharp opinion piece by Tom Watson, a longtime friend and debate partner of Litkicks. Tom, the founder of Cause Wired, is also the author of the book CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World as well as a recent set of New York City reminiscences titled ‘Bridge and Tunnel Kid‘.)

Earlier this week, Federal Judge Richard Leon described the information gathering techniques of the National Security Agency as “almost Orwellian” in a ruling that the agency likely violates the Constitution. This may represent the high water mark for the rampant, almost fad-like invocation of the mid-20th century British social critic’s name in public discourse.

Or low water mark, your choice.

For a writer of remarkably sparse fictional output who died tragically young at the age of just 46 in London fully 64 years ago next month, George Orwell sure gets around a lot these days. Yet I suspect that more people bring to mind the famously theatrical Apple commercial invoking shades of 1984 when they throw around “Orwellian” than the thinking or writing of the actual man.

In its modern, bastardized usage “Orwellian” is meant to signify the darkest over-reach of the state into human life, depths of control so vast that they rival conditions in Orwell’s famous futurist dystopian novel. Yet the term’s common usage — try searching Twitter on any given day — is less than a comic book version of the real thing. Worse, where it once may have contained valid social criticism and a linkage to post-War western thinking, “Orwellian” has ceased to have any real impact at all.

Of course, Orwell’s 1984 imagines a post-apocalyptic world that never came to be — it is set amidst a stalemate between three strange and constantly warring global superpowers formed after widespread nuclear war devastated the world. The novel is a story of rebellion against one of the states, which maintains a mind control system amidst formal layers of class structure and a kind of totalitarian nationalism that, in 1948 when it was submitted by an ill Orwell to his publisher, both remembered the Nazis of the recent dark past and commented on the Stalinists of the increasingly scary present.

And, in keeping with Orwell’s constant theme in the last decade of his life, 1984 is the story of a revolution betrayed. If anything is truly “Orwellian” that’s it: 1984, Animal Farm, and even to a certain extent his brilliant 1946 essay Why I Write (which every critic should read) focus on this idea, which stems thematically at least to some degree from Leon Trotsky’s writing in exile.

Orwell was an idealist before he was a cynic. He fought on the Republican side in Spain and took a bullet in his neck; his health never really recovered. He loved democracy and the organized left,  and believed the war against fascism might spell its doom. He was a social democrat and probably would have been labelled a “neo-liberal” by today’s civil libertarians. While his wife Eileen worked with his blessing for the British Censorship Department — oh, how shocking that might be to those who invoke his name so easily today! — Orwell was declared unfit for service but still managed time with the Home Guard with the BBC’s Eastern Service, and later created cultural radio programming for India designed to counter Nazi propaganda and — oh yes, it’s true — bolster Britain’s imperial standing.

Of course, much of 1984 was about the British class system and a commentary on those social striations. It represented Orwell’s belief that the Second World War would do away with the old guard and lead to a new order; in 1941, he still believed that order would be welcome: “the fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realisable policy.” By 1948, the vision had become a blended horror of fascism and Stalinism. Party member and double-agent O’Brien famously describes the circular reasoning of the state and its ethics:

The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

The sections of 1984 dealing with a total lack of privacy and the requirement that citizens, including children, inform on each other are by far the most chilling in the book — which in my view is a paler work than Orwell’s more successful Animal Farm. That book, more tightly reasoned and a hell of a lot scarier than the esoteric 1984, was a rough criticism of the British left and its lionization of Joseph Stalin.

So what does “Orwellian” mean?

I guess it can mean the flavors of totalitarianism in Orwell’s novels, their influences deeply anchored in Stalin and the Third Reich and extrapolated to western democracies that have collapsed, failed, and ceased to exist.

But to me, “Orwellian” stands for precise writing in English. The most important work of Orwell’s career is his criticism, social and cultural. The novels are models of his precision prose, but I don’t think they legitimately relate on any level to modern intelligence gathering, privacy in the Internet age, or the nature of data in current democracies. I don’t mean this harshly, but that usage of “Orwellian” doesn’t rise to the level of high school essay level thinking. It’s facile, easy, pat — and flat, simple and dull. It means nothing.

In short, a writer of the quality of George Orwell would never stoop to the level of using “Orwellian” as any kind of shorthand.

Yet Orwell’s criticism and indeed, his ideas about criticism and writing and so very worth visiting in these days of bullet points, Web site slideshows, endless list-making, tweets and retweets, and small-brained sloganeering.

George Orwell detested a cliche as much as he detested a censorious government; he would be dismayed to be tossed about so simply. In 1946, the wrote about passion in writing, and precision in language in his essay Why I Write:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.

Now that’s Orwellian.

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