May 05, 2009

Facing Other Unpleasant Facts

I've been reading a new collection of George Orwell essays entitled Facing Unpleasant Facts which includes a lot of Orwell's hoary best such as "Shooting an Elephant" and "Such, Such Were the Joys."  I quote Orwell on the masthead for this blog because the sentiment expressed there, which I applaud, actually did guide the way he wrote.  He was generally Socialist in his outlook but it was a practical kind of Socialism built upon his revulsion against capitalist exploitation in such industries as coal mining (thus his Road to Wigan Pier).  He obviously was no pie-in-the-sky idealist or pacifist; he was openly critical of Britain and France's appeasement of Hitler, and he personally fought in the Spanish Civil War.

The collection is prefaced with an introduction by George Packer of The New Yorker and there's a nice irony in that.  If there's a publication on Earth which typifies the kind of vague, on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, excessively complex, under-edited type of prose which Orwell abhorred, I don't know what that magazine would be if not The New Yorker.  It's kind of amusing that Packer tries to rein it in a little in the intro and write a little more like Orwell: simple sentences, active verbs.  Orwell could write like that because his ideas were so powerful. He didn't let words get in the way of the clarity of his thinking.  Whereas in modern political writing, as one might find in the columns of the media stars at the New York Times and the Washington Post, the writers are so afraid of offending authority and thus spoiling "access," that no clear opinions dare be stated. Thus, the resort to "style" and the kind of mishmash which Orwell pilloried in "Politics and the English Language" [which Packer didn't dare include].

Orwell wasn't like that.  For example, in reflecting on the Spanish Civil War and why the elites in Great Britain and France simply left the Republican Army to its fate and its annihilating defeat at the hands of the Hitler-backed Franco forces, Orwell stated clearly that the reason was that the governments of Great Britain and France were pro-Fascist.  They liked what was going on. It suited their economic purposes to allow a Left-leaning government in Madrid to fall to the Fascist Franco. It was only when it became obvious that Hitler had designs against them that the Allies got serious about resisting Der Fuhrer.

It's interesting, to say the least, to mull over how Orwell would have written about the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  It's doubtful that Orwell would have seen the putative rationale, that "freedom was on the march," as in any sense genuine.  It seemed to be in America's economic interest to overthrow Saddam and install an America-friendly regime headed by Ahmed Chalabi.  That would ensure a favorable government overseeing our oil industry in Iraq.  Afghanistan presented a tempting target because of the oil pipeline that could be built across the country with the right government in place, such as one headed by the former Unocal consultant Hamad Karzai.  It would provide steady work for Halliburton, the oil field contractor.  It sounds good to throw in the stuff about the Taliban "harboring" bin Laden, but I doubt this kind of specious nonsense would have fooled George Orwell.  These wars served the purposes of the governing class.  They didn't turn out very well, but that's because the head guys in that governing class were pretty stupid.

One striking thing in one of the lesser-known essays: Orwell recommended keeping a diary or journal of one's ideas about politics and social matters.  That way you could track the development of your own thinking, watch it evolve, catch the errors in your understanding and logic.  I guess that's what a blog actually is, when you write about the stuff I usually write about.

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