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Book Review: Churchill & Orwell (Thomas Ricks)

The heroes of every age are often not seen as heroes during their lives, or if so viewed in their own age they are not so viewed in later ages.  And doubtless perceptions of heroes change as one future passes into another.  But for us, today, Churchill and Orwell are heroes to many, and whatever else may be true, this alone gives the two men something in common.  Thomas Ricks uses this commonality as the springboard and organizing theme for his book, which is a competently written capsule biography of its title subjects, combining examination of the men with examination of their time.  His book offers both an interesting narration of known facts and some fresh insights by the author—neither an easy feat when dealing with heroes.

Most of the book consists of a chronological history of its subjects, narrated in short, pithily written chapters alternating between each man, with occasional asides by the author relating events of the past to the current day.  Especially for Churchill, this history is well-trodden ground, but Ricks still manages to breathe life into his account.  For Orwell, what Ricks relates is mostly about his writing, coupled with his time in the Spanish Civil War, since Orwell’s life outside writing was fairly simple and relatively short.  For Churchill, the account is secondarily about his writing, and more about his deeds, from the Boer War onwards, since Churchill’s life was anything but simple.

I will not review the history Ricks covers, since it is pretty much known to all, though as I say expertly presented in this relatively short book.  But I will note some areas of interest and insight.  I found particularly interesting Churchill’s methods for energizing and impelling the British military bureaucracy during World War Two.  We tend to think of the British people, or any people in war, as pulling energetically together in harness toward achieving a shared, existential goal.  (Probably this view is encouraged by movies, which after all have to focus narrowly while creating an exciting story—showing a bunch of bored obstructionist bureaucrats for two hours of film wouldn’t attract much of an audience.)  The reality is more mundane—laziness, stupidity, cupidity, and all the vices of man are just as evident at such times as at others, and bureaucracies tend to encourage such behavior.  Much of Churchill’s effort went to overcoming this pernicious mix of vice and inertia, using constant demands for “Action This Day,” “followed up with intelligent memoranda and orders that spurred subordinates accustomed to a slower pace and fewer questions.”  Not for Churchill the “set the agenda” model used by other leaders, hoping those below him will move toward the desired goals under their own power (something that tends to work only in authoritarian or fiercely ideological systems, such as Soviet Russia or the Obama executive branch).  “At one point during the war he found time to delve into domestic egg production, badgering the minister of agriculture.  ‘I wish I could persuade you to try to overcome the difficulties instead of merely entrenching yourself behind them.’”  A good sentence, and Churchill’s success showed it can be done, something to remember for today’s leaders—though it requires energy and an eye for detail, together with charisma.

I also found interesting Ricks’s thoughts on the prose of his subjects.  He is very much a fan of Orwell’s prose, and less so of Churchill’s.  Riffing off Orwell’s “Good prose is like a window pane,” Ricks notes that Churchill’s prose was like a stained glass window pane, which is at least a partial compliment—but he also quotes, with approval, Evelyn Waugh’s complaint that Churchill was “a master of sham-Augustan prose.”  In fairness, Ricks also notes that Churchill was also fully capable of making complex prose simple—famously changing the term “Local Defense Volunteers” to “Home Guard,” and “Communal Feeding Centers” to “British Restaurants.”  I think that the choice between good simple and good complex prose is mostly a taste distinction, since both styles can convey complete meaning.  Orwell was dedicated to clarity of thought and thereby clarity of communication, and to that end he favored a stripped down prose, which eliminated cant in large part by preventing its concealment in orotund phrasing (yes, I know “orotund” is a word Orwell would have avoided).  Ricks points out that Orwell’s style has, at least on the surface, largely triumphed in modern writing—perhaps not in academic writing, which is famously opaque, but certainly in journalism and popular books.

Personally, I think that triumph is somewhat unfortunate, since there are two types of arabesque writing, with two different objects.  The first is what I call the “high style,” the style in which Churchill wrote.  Its aim is to paint a compelling picture, where more words are used than perhaps strictly necessary, but where those words add color, depth, and ease of remembering.  It is certainly more elliptical and complex than Orwell’s recommended style, but this “high style” has been the choice of many famous and undoubtedly accomplished authors, from Gibbon to Henry James.  Using this style instead of a simpler style is, therefore, of itself merely a stylistic choice, neither inherently good nor bad, although today such more complex writing seems old fashioned to us, and harder sometimes to read, since simpler prose is generally favored in modern life.

On the other hand, the second type of complex writing is, as Orwell saw, designed to conceal falsehood and to blur thought.  It is designed to compel an unreasoning, or contrary to reason, conclusion by one of two mechanisms.  The first is by frustrating the reader, who is forced only to see a desired conclusion, not the reasoning by which that conclusion is reached, or alternatively is forced to intuit a general feeling, since there is no reasoning at all (postmodernist writings, from Foucault to Žižek, are all like this).  The second mechanism of compulsion is by executing a moral judgment upon the reader who does not immediately jump, without reasoning, to the desired ideological conclusion (Racist!  Sexist!  Transphobic!).  This second type of complex writing is, obviously, pernicious, and was Orwell’s focus.

But that does not mean simpler is always better.  In particular, simple writing that does contain clear reasoning can also conceal core falsehoods, if the vocabulary itself has been corrupted (a famous complaint of Orwell’s).  One can make a very simple and apparently rational statement that is simply wholly false, very easily, if the writer knows that the zeitgeist demands that the reader not question either the false premises or the false conclusion (e.g., “Gender is a fluid social construct that each person decides for xirself.”).  As long as simple writing does not have this flaw, though, it is probably the better choice for most modern prose, since it is easier to write (although not as easy as it looks), and it can reach a larger audience today, given that most readers are now unused to the “high style.”  But I still like the high style.

A third point of interest is that Orwell, a man wholly of the Left, was constantly on the edge of being totally excommunicated by the Left, which then, as now, attempted to enforce discipline in a way undreamed of by the Right.  Most famously this is true of Orwell’s attempt to publish Animal Farm, published in 1945, but it was first a challenge for Orwell when nearly ten years earlier he wrote The Road To Wigan Pier, about life among the British industrial working class.  The Left’s objection was that Orwell refused to lie in order to properly portray the working class in the light demanded by political myth, as heroic and selfless participants in the global socialist movement.  Orwell was very much a socialist, but instead he portrayed English workers as they were, simultaneously oppressed and selfish, and he dared to coldly analyze the reality of socialism as practiced and its effect on actual workers.  This was an unforgiveable sin, and the reaction from the Left was harsh and permanent (as had been the reaction from the Right from Orwell’s criticism of Empire in the earlier Burmese Days).

It is strange, therefore, given this history, that Ricks repeatedly expresses surprise at the difficulties Orwell faced having his books published, including Wigan Pier, Animal Farm, and, of course, 1984.  But this was no surprise at all—certainly not to Orwell, who was very much aware of this problem, nor to any other member of the Left at the time, including Orwell’s sometime publisher, Victor Gollancz.  Suppression of any and all dissent in the service of paving the road to Utopia has always been, and today remains, the main internal tactical characteristic of the Left.  For the Left, as has been frequently noted, there are no enemies to the Left—but anyone who deviates in any way to the Right must be punished with all the severity that can possibly be mustered.  (Of course, it was Alexander Kerensky who first formulated the dogma of “no enemies to the Left”—and look how that worked out for him.)  The totalitarian impulse behind this condemnation of any perceived criticism of any aspect of the Left is concealed behind the usual falsehood, that any problems resulting from implementation of Left policies are due either to lack of sufficient focus in application or to Right sabotage—encapsulated in the viciously pitiful but frequently heard claim that “Communism has never actually been tried.”  We have seen merely the latest iteration of this last week, in June of 2017, when the detestable Noam Chomsky, challenged, ascribed the collapse of Venezuela not to the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez that Chomsky praised only a few years ago, but to the failure to adequately suppress the hoarders and wreckers who polluted the pure light of socialism that would otherwise have been guaranteed to create the first South American paradise.  And, strangely, Chavez’s other worshippers, such as the halfwit actor Sean Penn, have gone silent—not from shame, certainly, but merely to wait to offer their unthinking support to the next destructive instantiation of the Left vision.

But the worst Left heretic of all, of course, is a man of the Left who would cooperate with anyone wishing to harm politically any member of the Left, even the most evil.  This happens most often, or most publicly, when members of violent Left groups are exposed by former compatriots who have seen the error of their ways.  Left propaganda has successfully characterized this as a betrayal, rather than what it almost always actually is, heroic self-sacrifice.  Thus, Ricks gingerly approaches Orwell’s 1949 preparation “of a list of suspected Communists,” to be delivered to those leading the fight for freedom against totalitarianism, as an action of Orwell’s that needs to be excused away—not, as Ricks should, as something that must be lionized by any decent human being.  (And, of course, the list contained actual Communists personally known to Orwell, not “suspected” ones—Ricks just adds the adjective, perhaps by reflex, to give a pejorative flavor to his description of the action.)

This, of course, wholly explains why, as Ricks notes, “Orwell has not been well served by academia . . . . [he has] been ‘relatively ignored” by university faculties.”  Ricks cites the sociologist Neil McLaughlin for the proposition that this ignoring is because “Orwell is esteemed in the popular culture,” to which Ricks adds “also perhaps because he has been so long embraced by conservatives.”  While this latter is closer to the mark, it is also wrong.  Orwell is ignored by the Left because Orwell betrayed the Left, the center of which was then, and is even more so today, universities—which are monocultures of the hard Left devoted to the destruction of the West and the creation of a Utopia, if necessary paved with the bodies of the common people.  If American university faculties ran America, it would look a lot like the society of 1984, although with less efficiency and competence, and more wine and cheese parties for those in power.  It is no wonder such people ignore Orwell, when they are not attacking him.

A final point of interest is that although Ricks has obviously studied both Animal Farm and 1984, and cogently discusses details of each, his summaries of both books are jarringly wrong.  He says the former tells “how farm animals revolt against their human masters, only to be enslaved by the local pigs.”  And he says the latter “ends with the two broken lovers meeting later, equally desolated.  They confess to each other their betrayals, and then part.  No hope is offered.”  But in the former, it was not slavery, but totalitarian dominance of both action and thought, worse than Farmer Jones, that the pigs delivered.  And it was not “the local pigs,” which implies an outside agency, but the farm animals’ former compatriots.  More critically, the real ending of 1984 is not the parting of Winston and Julia, which is subsidiary to (although related to) the real ending—Winston’s solitary discovery that “He loved Big Brother.”  Ricks ignores the real ending, the triumph of totalitarianism over the human desire for freedom.  No hope is offered, to be sure—but the bleak ending is tied to Winston’s inner thought, not to his love for Julia.  I suppose these are not critical flaws in Ricks’s book, but they are strange mis-characterizations of Orwell’s most famous and important books.

As far as insights, I think the most useful insight Ricks offers is that, if choosing dystopias that partially characterize our present, or at least our present path, we do not need to, and in fact cannot, choose between Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.  Ricks correctly says that the distinction between Huxley’s view of a world “in which people were controlled by the state through pleasure” and Orwell’s view “of a state built on the use of pain . . . is a false distinction—both men are right.  The great majority of people are content to be amused and not to challenge the state.  But a dissident minority often emerges, and suppressing it generally seems to require harsher methods.”

So far, so insightful.  Where this line of thought fails is that Ricks tries to tie this to the modern national security state’s monitoring of private communications, which while objectionable for a variety of reasons, doesn’t exactly seem to be a “state built on pain” or to be focused on a “dissident minority.”  Doubtless realizing this weakness, he then tries to reach pain and dissent by offering the example of our torture of our enemies in foreign wars, which again seems a stretch as proof that the Ministry of Love is emerging from the shadows.  I think Ricks is correct in his basic insight, but not in how the “harsher methods” are relevant to today.  Rather than foreign jihadis on foreign soil, or Internet surfers who are fully aware of, but are indifferent to, the NSA hoovering up their communications, the “dissident minority” is those who are not content to be amused by the new Huxley-ite Pleasure State, the furtherance of which is the highest goal of today’s ruling class and ethos.  The minority are those who refuse to agree that the unbridled pursuit of private (and group, and public) pleasure is the highest good of society—those who refuse to worship the brazen idol of Unbridled Individual Freedom.  It is those people, mostly orthodox religious believers, and more generally anyone with a classical view of virtue, whom the state now persecutes—not, perhaps, or perhaps not yet, with physical pain, but rather with the psychological pain of legal and social attacks, large fines designed to destroy, loss of livelihood, and public obloquy.  The end result is one in which every person is kept in a state of sated pleasure, as Huxley saw, as long as he does not challenge the sophistical battle cry that anything can be tolerated except intolerance.  But if he does, if he rejects the dogma of liberal democracy that true freedom is to believe and act only in exactly the way permitted, and no other—then the machinery of the state is turned loose against him.

Both Orwell and Churchill declined, rather than rose, toward the ends of their lives.  Churchill stayed too long in politics and ended up consorting with the dubious likes of Aristotle Onassis.  Orwell spent time in Jura (which did no good to his decaying lungs), but at least his companions of his last days, chief among them Malcolm Muggeridge, were of a finer caliber.  I did not know that Orwell was friends with Muggeridge, and it was he who arranged Orwell’s funeral in 1950.  Such a friendship, had Orwell lived, might have produced spectacular fruit.  But that was not to be, and so we are left with the actual deeds of these heroes, which are enough—and are both warning and path for us.

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Published in Biography & Autobiography Book Reviews British History Charles Communism European History Left-Liberalism War

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