Monday, April 30, 2018

George Orwell's mirror for American leaders

I have been essays that George Orwell wrote in the thirties and during World War II. They hold up a distant mirror* to our current predicament.

Orwell, a "democratic socialist" with an evolving dislike and distrust of hard-line Communists, is not always insightful. His major error was assuming that Britain -- and ultimately, I gather, all countries -- had to make a binary choice between fascism and socialism. He roughs out some national stats, such as how many British citizens were likely to be malnourished circa 1937, but he doesn't seem to have much of a grasp of economics. He's vague about the changes he'd like to see, at least in the essays I've read (and in The Road to Wigan Pier, really an extended essay).

But Orwell did know people -- he was a passionate embedder, becoming a tramp to get to know tramps, staying in the miserably substandard homes of coal miners, talking in depth to hundreds of working and middle class people. And he has a certain moral clarity, a commitment to justice and alleviating suffering. He judges the privileged, but with empathy. He sees that his Marxist quasi allies are driven largely by hatred and he recoils from that.

Thus, while condemning  Britain's leadership through the post-WWI era for myopia, for clinging to their privilege, for cowardice and incompetence, Orwell pays grudging tribute to a certain baseline integrity. And that's where we get, to mangle a metaphor, a kind of mirror-by-contrast held up to the U.S. just now:

The natural instinct of men like Simon, Hoare, Chamberlain, etc., was to come to an agreement with Hitler. But—and here the peculiar feature of English life that I have spoken of, the deep sense of national solidarity, comes in—they could only do so by breaking up the Empire and selling their own people into semi-slavery. A truly corrupt class would have done this without hesitation, as in France. But things had not gone that distance in England. Politicians who would make cringing speeches about “the duty of loyalty to our conquerors” are hardly to be found in English public life. Tossed to and fro between their incomes and their principles, it was impossible that men like Chamberlain should do anything but make the worst of both worlds. (Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays (p. 130). Mariner Books. Kindle Edition.) 
By "the worst of both worlds," Orwell means opting for war without preparing for it. Still, ultimately these feckless leaders chose principle over their personal interest in his telling.

And that's where the contrast strikes me. Republicans have been faced with a similar choice -- power, and enhancing the incomes of those who bankroll them, versus whatever commitment to democracy and rule of law and respect for proven fact they might still harbor. Unlike the feckless leadership of the U.K. in the 1930s, they are failing that basic test of decency, integrity, patriotism -- running interference for Trump, collaborating in his efforts to smear and hobble the investigators.

P.S.  Orwell's contrast between British and French leadership seems unfair to me, based on the little I know. The French collaborationists came to power after the Germans had overrun the country. If Hitler had launched a successful cross-channel invasion, who knows how the British would have responded?


*The phrase comes from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1987) 

1 comment:

  1. From Orwell's review of the second edition of Mein Kampf, published in 1940, a year after the original translation: “It is a sign of the speed at which events are moving that Hurst and Blackett’s unexpurgated edition of Mein Kampf, published only a year ago, is edited from a pro-Hitler angle. The obvious intention of the translator’s preface and notes is to tone down the book’s ferocity and present Hitler in as kindly a light as possible. For at that date Hitler was still respectable. He had crushed the German labour movement, and for that the property-owning classes were willing to forgive him almost anything. Both Left and Right concurred in the very shallow notion that National Socialism was merely a version of Conservatism.

    Then suddenly it turned out that Hitler was not respectable after all. As one result of this, Hurst and Blackett’s edition was reissued in a new jacket explaining that all profits would be devoted to the Red Cross."

    Maybe when this is all over, Rupert Murdoch will donate his estate to the Red Cross.