Christians can respect George Orwell even if we cannot fully claim him. But “woke” progressives have no logical choice but to repudiate the secular liberal icon altogether for his skepticism toward egalitarianism, globalism, and political correctness.
However he may feel about it, no honest and perceptive person will deny that the Overton window of acceptable discourse has shifted drastically to the left over the past several decades. Less obvious is one of the peculiar implications of this shift—namely, that many widely-beloved figures of yesteryear can be easily shown to have held opinions and principles now associated with right-wing extremism, even if they could have been placed on the left during their lifetimes. It is one thing to observe that a politically correct regime which only tolerates figures appealing to liberals will have no place for, say, Christopher Columbus, or Raphael Semmes, or even saints like Louis IX. It is quite another to realize that the only reason secular liberal icons like George Orwell have not yet also been ferociously “cancelled” is because of radical cognitive dissonance, a temporary inconsistency on the part of those who would police public opinion.
To demonstrate this thesis, we might first consider a preface Orwell wrote to his enormously popular novel Animal Farm. In this preface, Orwell reflected upon his difficulty in getting the novel published, and remarked that at least one rejection was explicitly motivated by fears that his caustic mockery of the Bolshevik revolution might be deemed offensive in some quarters. “At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia,” he concluded. “Everyone knows this, almost everyone acts on it […] What is disquieting is that where the USSR and its policies are concerned one cannot expect intelligent criticism or even, in many cases, plain honesty from Liberal writers and journalists who are under no direct pressure to falsify their opinions.”
While the political correctness of Orwell’s day was directed primarily toward glossing over the more brutal and totalitarian aspects of the Soviet system, Orwell’s general observations about the inherent manipulative tendencies of mass media surely remain pertinent today. Certain “sensational items of news,” he noted, were
kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact […] The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.
To be sure, one cannot have a functioning community if each individual presumes himself entitled to say absolutely anything he feels like at any time whatsoever, and Orwell knew it. “There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some form of censorship, so long as organised societies endure,” he conceded. At the same time, “If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.”
And regarding this doctrine of intellectual liberty, Orwell went on to wax populist: “The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it,” even as “it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect.” Can anyone imagine finding such a sentiment in an editorial of The Washington Post or the New York Times? Let us recall, too, that the common Englishmen Orwell found preferable to the elite were at least, if not more, “misogynist,” “homophobic,” and “white supremacist” than are their American counterparts today. To give an even more shocking, vivid contrast between Orwell and those calling for tighter internet censorship and more legal restrictions on seditious speech, we may note that Orwell defended granting habeas corpus to the openly fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, even though Britain was at that very moment still desperately locked with real, actual Nazis in the most destructive war ever. We might also reflect upon how the mere expression “western civilization” now provokes knee-jerk hostility among academics and journalists, to say nothing of the claim that the said civilization is distinguished from others by its zeal for open inquiry.
Closely read, Orwell’s essay “Notes On Nationalism” proves just as striking as the Animal Farm preface, even if Orwell begins it with a commonplace: “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism.” The telling part comes in when he takes this insight in a direction exactly opposite to the one permissible in the mainstream discourse of 2021 (emphases mine):
Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.
Interestingly enough, Orwell believed that nationalism’s “worst follies have been made possible by the breakdown of patriotism and religious belief,” and went on to wonder whether old-fashioned, traditional patriotism itself “is an inoculation against nationalism.” In any event the nationalist may be identified insofar as “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
So, yes, Orwell agrees with most mainstream commentators, who say that patriotism is good and nationalism bad. But what Orwell condemns as nationalism is precisely that which is now celebrated, especially by those neoconservatives and neoliberals seeking to impose global democratic revolution—i.e., globalism—throughout the world. Likewise, the simple, protective devotion toward home which Orwell commends as patriotism is precisely what gets condemned as small-minded, xenophobic, and isolationist by CNN anchors and establishment conservatives alike. The difference is that Orwell sees patriotism as “defensive” on behalf of a particular culture, a “particular way of life,” while the invasive ideological project he identifies with nationalism need not have anything to do with the nationalist’s own nationality at all. The “other unit” into which the nationalist “has chosen to sink his own individuality” could just as easily be the Communist Party, Black Lives Matter, or a migrant population.
For when Orwell declares that “it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country,” he does not mean this as praise; in his view, all that deracinated intellectuals have done is replace healthy human attachments with ideology. When a man transfers the attachment which would normally go toward his own history, culture, and heritage over to some foreign people or political abstraction, the said transfer “makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic—more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest—than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.”
Orwell dissected a number of these artificial, transferred nationalisms, and one such examination seems eerily prescient:
The old-style contemptuous attitude towards ‘natives’ has been much weakened in England, and various pseudo-scientific theories emphasising the superiority of the white race have been abandoned. Among the intelligentsia, colour feeling only occurs in the transposed form, that is, as a belief in the innate superiority of the coloured races. This is now increasingly common among English intellectuals […] Even among those who do not feel strongly on the colour question, snobbery and imitation have a powerful influence. Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it.
The relevance of these comments to our own milieu is unmistakable, as it shows how the assumption that white people are morally and spiritually inferior may have been lurking under the surface in the Anglosphere for quite some time. In any event, it is a safe bet that the repetitive slogans of “anti-racism” and “anti-fascism”—i.e., anti-Westernism—would have held little more appeal for Orwell than did Nazism or Stalinism. By his own account, the “–ism” mentality is itself the problem: “The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”
Let it be admitted that Orwell was hardly some kind of crypto-Christian conservative. Such an impression would be highly misleading, given his forthrightly critical attitude toward religious conservatives such as G.K. Chesterton. Yet Orwell did ultimately believe in objective Truth with a capital “T,” which puts him on our side against those who find Truth oppressive as a matter of principle. If the bizarre theoretical fashions of academia and the ever-shifting narratives of the mainstream media call to mind Big Brother’s contempt for reality, maybe there’s a reason. Christians can respect Orwell even if we cannot fully claim him; “woke” progressives have no logical choice but to repudiate him altogether. There is no middle way here. We can accept that dissidents skeptical of egalitarianism, globalism, and political correctness need to be ruthlessly purged from the public square, or we can salute the author of 1984 as a thoughtful man of conscience. To try to do both is like asserting that two and two make five.
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The featured image is a photograph George Orwell in BBC (1940) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.