Taking Orwell’s name in vain


Everyone loves George Orwell, though hardly anybody cares what he said or thought…

Few dead old white guys have a holier aura than George Orwell. Despite his place next to Dickens and Dostoevsky in the pantheon of Writers You Had to Read in High School, he enjoys a popularity amongst the general population that can’t be attributed (entirely) to the shortness of his books. Neither can his books’ simplicity (the lack of “thees” and “thous” and ten-syllable names) fully explain Orwell’s appeal. No, what makes him great is the universal thought bubble that has burst above the head of every teenager who’s ever picked up Animal Farm or 1984:

“Damn, this dude was right.”

Orwell was right about the badness of Stalin and he was right about the badness of the surveillance state. He was right that people are easily brainwashed, and he was right that technology is making things worse. This is where most people conclude their reading of Orwell. They walk away with a pleasant, fuzzy impression of him as honest and objective, gentle and worried, a supra-political truth-teller who just wanted folks to be nice to each other.

And so, aside from a few grumpy Stalinists, it’s hard to find anyone who truly dislikes him, though every aspect of his life has been subjected to intense posthumous scrutiny for more than fifty years. He’s venerated as a symbol of basic human decency, the kind of person who either gets “canonized or burnt at the stake,” according to his former boss at the BBC. Some people come right out and call him a “secular saint.”

Orwell’s prophecies inspire pilgrimages from the faithful and great volumes of scholarship from a priesthood of learned elders. When calamity strikes, people seek his wisdom to help them grapple with the incomprehensible. He’s as universally beloved as one can be in this snide, contentious age. Squint hard enough, and the tall, lanky Englishman starts to look a little like Jesus Christ.

He’d be very annoyed by the comparison. This was a man who once wrote that, “alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” Orwell was no utopian. Rather, he was outspoken in his belief that, “[t]he essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty.” In his famous essay “Why I Write,” he is explicit about where his own loyalties lie: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Elsewhere, he dares the reader to misunderstand him: “when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.”  

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