“It was their final, most essential command.”

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. . . . The heresy of heresies was common sense. . . . The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. 

— George Orwell, 1984

The Truly Evil Thing is Stimulating Hatred and Dishonesty

The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible. War damages the fabric of civilisation not by the destruction it causes (the net effect of a war may even be to increase the productive capacity of the world as a whole), nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty. By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself.

George Orwell

In Front of One’s Nose

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George Orwell

In one of Orwell’s essays he writes, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I read this essay years ago and this quote still hits me during times I’m struggling to pay attention to the course of a discussion or observe some interaction or event. By the way, we say “pay attention” for a reason, because there is effort involved, it “costs” us something to be present and focused in the now. My lovely wife reminds me that I tend to run deficits in my attention budget. So I have work to do myself.

Anyway, Orwell recognized that most people may look, but they struggle to see what lies right in front of them. I know I certainly do. Of course we all know a good portion of our fellow travelers who simply don’t want to see—because they might not like what they see! It might weaken their web of belief to see things differently, which would disturb their world and potentially overturn a settled opinions. And so we beat on, boats against the current, having those utterly pointless arguments with friends and relatives for whom critical reflection and a change of mind is simply not an option. We’re better off talking about the weather instead.

It has taken me many years to realize that not everyone is interested in a search for truth…or beauty, or goodness. Heck, some aren’t even mildly interested in a sensible position—especially in politics and football—for that matter. I got it. Many of us just want to feel comfortable, because that type of higher level, deeper thinking, can be, as my wife likes to say, “a bit much.” But I’ll note here that the “in front of your nose” type thinking/awareness is more about attentiveness to subtleties and nuances in the moment. Experience is multilayered, and its influence on our thinking and actions is often unconscious. Orwell might remind us that’s why propaganda, well orchestrated, can be so effective. This is why history is crowded with groups of people that, at times, have believed monstrous lies. If you’ve been alive long enough you’ve probably come to the same conclusion I have that people aren’t primarily rational, they’re emotional. And that’s what moves them. The trick, of course, is to get people, early on during their educations, emotionally invested in the importance, goodness, and benefit of seeking truth…faith, hope, & love. As William James put it, truth can be realized by its “cash-value in experiential terms.” Simply put: The truth pays.

So try to remember Orwell’s words as you go about your day and keep reminding yourself to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you. You might be surprised at what you see and learn.

Making George Orwell Great Again

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George Orwell

The new Trump Administration has been a boon for sales of George Orwell’s book 1984. The novel is a literary masterpiece. Originally published in 1949, it’s a dystopian novel about authoritarianism. The most famous quote, which you’ve probably heard at one time or another, is “Big brother is watching you.” The novel introduces us to concepts like Newspeakdoublethink, and thoughtcrime. The decades old novel is suddenly back on the bestseller list (an Amazon #1 recently) because some of the book’s ideas are speaking to us at this unique time in American history. What this book does, or I should say what all good literature does, is provide us with a vocabulary for articulating our feelings and thoughts. Being able to speak about something allows us to better understand it. Freedom of thought, as the novel tells us, is partly brought about by an expansion of expression via language. Thought and language are tied together.

This brings me to a general theme in Orwell’s work. Like every good writer Orwell was concerned with the truth. For example, Orwell had fought in the Spanish civil war on the side of the Republic against the fascist. He had personally witnessed some of the key events in the war. After the war, he’d read a lot of reports about the war and found a lot of what he’d read contained blatant falsehoods. He knew what was happening. The fascist had ultimately won the Spanish civil war and they were now attempting to shape its history through propaganda…or as Orwell might say, they were purposely trying to create its fascist history. Authoritarian leaders, i.e. Franco, Hitler, and Stalin, where not just trying to control the present and the future, but also the past. Propaganda and lies were replacing history and fact and what actually happened. This terrified Orwell:

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. . . . Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement. (Underlining added)

I’ve read the entire, approximately 3 inch thick, volume of the Everyman’s Library edition of George Orwell’s essays. It’s one of my top 10 all time favorite books. Orwell’s novels are excellent, 1984 is one of the finest literary achievements in the English language, but it’s in Orwell’s essays and non-fiction books that we get the George Orwell that’s so admired and respected as a social critic and writer. His essays are a first class education in the humanities and writing all by itself. Take my word on that. We could have a college level course just on Orwell’s essays and it would be a fascinating intellectual and moral adventure.

Being Orwellian, I think, should also mean having a scrupulous concern for precision, integrity, and facts in the way you think, write, and speak. The truth is usually complex and sometimes very difficult to get at, but it can only be genuinely approached along this Orwellian path.

Why I Write

The Power of Words

When I considered why I wanted to start this blog, my first thoughts were of George Orwell’s piece Why I Write. Orwell, in his trademark candor, laid out four general motives that he believed animated every writer in varying degrees. So instead of me trying to find the words to explain why I write (or blog), I’ll just let Orwell explain:

They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose.Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

All four of Orwell’s motives, in varying degrees, at different times, are what animate me to write. For example, If I had to choose I’d say aesthetic enthusiasm followed closely by historical impulse are the strongest motives in me at the moment. But maybe that’s just sheer egoism to say that.

As for political purpose, well, as Waldo Emerson said: “You can no more keep out of politics than you can keep out of the frost.” Regardless of how much distance one tries to keep or how much “objectivity” one tries to maintain, It’s impossible to affirm, criticize, or comment on any public policy, debate, proposal or political figure without appearing to take sides. The best any writer can do is write what he or she feels or thinks is the case based on the available facts and evidence at the time. In the Orwellian sense, my main political purpose is the hope that maybe something I write may alter someone’s idea about the kind of society (or way of life) we should strive for.

Lastly, there is one additional motive for writing glanced over by Orwell, and that’s about leaving something of myself behind beyond just memories and material things. So much of who we are — what we think and feel — is trapped inside our head. When we pass from this world there is nothing left but the memories of us in pictures, videos, and stories told by others. When we’re gone our material possessions are dispersed and sold off. But by writing (blogging) we can leave behind, locked in computer servers around the world long after we’re gone, our thoughts, opinions, concerns, loves, dislikes and traces of all the other intentional qualities that really make up the essence of who we really are. We may be gone physically, but our thoughts and feelings (in words) can be captured forever. The Reaper may steal us from this world, but we can leave behind for our children, grandchildren, friends, and future generations these distant echoes of our essential spirit to remember us by. As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “Every word that you write is a blow that smites the Devil.”