Orwell and Us
The battle over George Orwell's legacy.
Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By DAVID BROOKS
But to reenter these debates is really to go into an intellectual-history museum. E.P. Thompson may have believed that Orwell was an apologist for quietism. Raymond Williams may have regarded Orwell as hopelessly bourgeois. But aside from a few dozen professors, does anybody really think Orwell still needs defending from these ideological dinosaurs? And as for the argument over whether or not Orwell would have ended up at the Hoover Institution, who cares? Orwell was valuable as long as the Soviet Union was around, but few people cite Orwell to buttress their arguments on, say, whether we should seek regime change in Iraq. The Orwell tug of war is over.
Indeed, one of the striking omissions in this book is any reference to the events of September 11 and the war on terror. In his magazine articles over the past year, Hitchens himself has been crusading against Islamofascism, but even he doesn't enlist Orwell in that crusade here. While there are references in this book to forgotten leftists such as Konni Zilliacus, there are none to Osama bin Laden or the Taliban.
Imported into this new age, Orwellian instincts are sometimes more of a hindrance than a help. For example, fighting totalitarianism, Orwell developed an instinctive distrust of authority. But today the great challenge is reconstituting legitimate authority to preserve democratic institutions and civilized life. Many on the left accused Rudy Giuliani of using "Big Brother" tactics in his efforts to crack down on crime in New York. But they were misled by the category. Giuliani was no dictator; he was mainly restoring civic order and improving life for ordinary New Yorkers. Similarly, one can have a legitimate debate about how much authority should be invested in the new Department of Homeland Security, but if you start importing the categories of "1984" into that debate, you will end up in a hysterical shouting match that will lead you away from the right balance between liberty and security.
ORWELL WAS PERCEPTIVE about how colonial domination infects both the colonizers and the colonized. But if you see today's world through the prism of colonialism, as some on the left still do, you find yourself in a make-believe world in which Islamic Jihad is an anti-imperialist uprising, the United States poses a greater threat than Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and Arab and African dictators are somehow the legitimate manifestations of their indigenous cultures. Orwell is not to blame. He didn't face the problems we face. Queen Victoria's colonialism was nothing like the democratic imperialism America practices in Serbia and Afghanistan. Islamic fascism is not quite the same as Italian fascism.
But the main reason Orwell doesn't matter much to our current controversies is that, as Hitchens acknowledges, he never really paid much attention to the United States. And that illustrates a significant difference between the debate we are engaged in today and the Cold War debate that Orwell dominated. During the Cold War, the essential issue was Marxism. The key debate was over what sort of society the Soviets were building: Was it the vanguard of the glorious future, or was it a tyranny of some new- or old-fashioned sort? Orwell's Europe certainly experienced waves of anti-Americanism, but for intellectuals in Orwell's day, reading Marx, Hegel, Trotsky, and Lenin was more important than reading Jefferson, Hamilton, or Adam Smith.
Our current battle lines often resemble the Cold War's battle lines. But the focus of attention has shifted. Now America is the main issue. Is America the vanguard of the future or is its political and cultural might more a threat and a corrupter?
Certainly there is interest in what motivates the Islamic extremists. But there aren't many pro-Islamist intellectuals writing in the New York Review of Books. No one thinks Islamists are heralding a glorious future or are the chief influence on the world. Today it is how you feel about the United States that determines whether or not you think America should play an assertive and, if necessary, unilateral role around the world.
Orwell would matter if he had written about American idealism, America's sense of mission, mass affluence, the triumph of the market mentality, American history, or Pax Americana. But while he seems to have had a general disdain for American culture--and championed, in a vague way, European socialist unity as a way to counterbalance American hegemony--he never turned his full attention to this country and its ideas.
So in writing this book, Hitchens seems actually to have pulled himself away from the main topics that occupy him when he writes for magazines. At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.