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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2002 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Here's why Orwell matters: Ten minutes with … Christopher Hitchens | Christopher Hitchens, author of "Why Orwell Matters," is - like the revered subject of his latest book - one of the most interesting, unpredictable and controversial journalists/authors/intellectuals of the era.

A former Trotskyite and fallen hero of the American Left who now supports the Bush administration's plans for regime change in Iraq, Hitchens writes monthly for Vanity Fair magazine.

He's famous for his iconoclastic books attacking Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. And for 20 years - until he resigned recently over his increasingly widening differences with its concretized editorial positions - Hitchens wrote an opinion column for the Nation, flagship of American leftism.

I talked by telephone with Hitchens on Wednesday, not long after he had returned from a journalistic mission to the Middle East for Vanity Fair.

Q: What - at a minimum - should every good American know about George Orwell?

A: I think every literate American or anyone hoping to be or claiming to be literate should have read "Homage to Catalonia," his account of the betrayal of the Spanish Republic by Stalinism, which is one of the great pieces of first-person historical reportage that we have.

It turns out that a single person, even amid all that chaos, can actually succeed in coming up with something like objective truth and have it verified by independent sources later on. But to do it in a personal way, that shows a kind of integrity as well.

Q: What were Orwell's key moral values, or political values or principles - his basic politics?

A: His basic, essential politics were humanistic, I think. That's to say that he didn't believe that people under the skin were very different. He believed that given a chance, people had an instinct for freedom and for justice, and that the overlay of things like racial and national differences - and ideologies that told them that what they really wanted was more food and more security rather than more freedom and so on - were secondary.

Also, that you could appeal to a certain humanity and common decency in people, in spite of all the odds against it or all the appearances to the contrary.

It's very simple in a way, but I think that's what he believed. His favorite remark, his favorite citation, was from John Milton, who said "by the known rules of ancient liberty."

Q: If you had to think in terms of a 30-second sound bite, what was Orwell's greatest insight or his most profound statement about politics in our lives?

A: Actually, it's strange, he doesn't excerpt … very well … as a one-liner. He liked often to begin articles with an arresting sentence that wasn't maybe as true on the second reading, but would get people's attention. He begins his article on Gandhi by saying, "Saints should be assumed to be guilty until they've been proved innocent."

Q: Which is something you've taken up as a motto.

A: Which is a good point. But the reason to revere him is that he was correct on the three great issues of the century that's just ended (the end of European imperialism, fascism and Stalinism) ….

Orwell was very early indeed in seeing that empire wasn't going to last and didn't deserve to. It's appears to us absolutely uncontroversial today, but it wasn't then and he was a pioneer in that and also in resisting fascism, which he saw early on was a threat not just of tyranny but also of war.

Q: A lot of people were looking fondly at Mussolini both here and in Europe.

A: Yes. A lot of people thought, "Well! It's efficient. It delivers the goods. It makes people stand up straight and do their stuff." He realized not only that it was a ghastly society to live in but that it was a society that was organized for aggression. It couldn't live within its own borders.

And so he was one of the first people to volunteer to go to Spain to block the road to fascism physically. And while he was engaged in that, and also through other researches and readings that he had done, he became aware that there was huge illusion that was prevalent among the people who thought they were opposed to imperialism and to fascism, which was that the Stalinizing of Russia provided a model for a better society.

He thought that was an unforgivable hallucination, an evil falsification, in fact. He spent the remainder of his life, after he had come back from Spain, the last decade of it, really, opposing and exposing that huge deception.

He can be said to be the only public intellectual, or the only freelance writer, I'd rather say, who got all these three things right - at the same time.

As a result, he was very much reviled. He never had a steady publisher. He never had a steady outlet for his magazine writing. He was always broke. He was always ill. And he was kept to a very minority limited audience and not recognized for his contribution until after he was dead. He only lived to be 46. The only thing he didn't get right was the United States.

Q: What didn't he get right about it?

A: Well, his big failure, or big disappointment, was he never visited the United States, never showed until late in his life any curiosity about doing so…. His image of America was rather shaped by his own English imperial middle-class background.

He thought of America as large, contented, greedy - he shared in a lot of the clichéd impressions of America that Europeans have.

Q: Did he have any great appreciation for America's Founding Fathers or the founding principles?

A: Yeah, he did. And he saw them expressed in things like Mark Twain. He was an admirer of Twain's and an admirer of Thomas Paine. But what he wrote about this is very fragmentary.

Q: How does Orwell matter today, when there are no totalitarian monsters to scare us and it's a much, much different world?

A: Well, as someone who's been to two of the Axis of Evil countries, Iraq and North Korea, it's not possible to spend a day in either society - or longer than that, because I have - without thinking of Orwell.

It's as if they designed their governments by having read "1984," rather than the other way around. It's not as if he used them as a model, it's as if they used him. It is extraordinary….

But I think the crucial thing is that he did it all on his own. He had some reason to suspect that he was the only person who thought this way, but he thought, "I don't care. It could well be that everyone is wrong and I'm right."

And he had the fortitude and integrity to maintain that and he didn't seem to mind that he never had a pot to piss in. So what it shows is, that not only the truth can prevail, if you like, but that it can prevail through the efforts of one skeptical individual. I doubt we'll ever reach a time when that wouldn't be a good example.

But I think the second bit may be the most important. He realized that in order to prevail you had to have a way of using language that was truthful and direct, and that there were traps being set in the language itself for people to fall into.

So they would talk about "land reform" instead of "enforced collectivization." If you get people to talk a certain way, half the battle is won.

And so you've always got to be on the alert for when you think you are talking common sense or received wisdom, actually you are simply repeating propaganda that was designed for you by very ill-intentioned people.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald