Edmond O’Brien in his role as Winston Smith 1984 (1956)—dir. Michael Anderson
Not War, but Self-defense
Like Orwell, Niebuhr was writing about a particular historical moment, but the lessons both ascertained remain relevant to this day. In any conflict, it’s worth approaching the situation from the other side’s perspective. One can vehemently oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions while at the same time recognizing it has legitimate reasons for pursuing them. In seeking to prevent a nuclear Iran, such recognition is not a hindrance to western policy makers, but an asset. Moreover, it is the duty of citizens to question their leaders’ belligerence, and understanding the motivations of one’s enemies helps ensure that our leaders don’t recklessly march us towards unnecessary violence.
Another important aspect to understanding the perspective of one’s rivals is to approach disputes with an understanding of their broader historical contexts. It can benefit instigators on both sides of a conflict to convince their populations that war is not only inevitable, but eternal. Nineteen Eighty-Four dramatizes this point very effectively through Oceania’s shifting allegiances.
Oceania, Big Brother’s empire, is perpetually allied with one of its two rival superpowers, Eastasia and Eurasia, against the other. But exactly which power Oceania is at war with changes with alarming regularity. These shifting alliances could lead many citizens to question the necessity of war, for if supposedly mortal enemies can so quickly team up against an erstwhile ally, it’s worth wondering how deeply rooted these disputes really are.
Big Brother’s solution is, to borrow the Party’s ghoulish phrase, bringing the past up to date. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” Or as a later passage in the novel phrases it, “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”
Such lessons are of enduring relevance to our modern world. Proponents of the 2003 war in Iraq regularly focused on the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and with good reason. Saddam was so sadistic that despite his hatred of Communism, he idolized Stalin. But what war proponents rarely mentioned was that the most objectionable of Saddam’s human rights violations were committed while he was a stalwart ally of the United States.
To acknowledge this fact would have compromised the hawks’ claim that war was inevitable, while at the same time undercutting the Manichean assumptions at the root of their broader ideology. “Every war when it comes,” Orwell recognized, “is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.”
Or consider President Obama’s recent address to “the Muslim world” (read the transcript of the Cairo University speech here on the White House website). It was an eloquent, thoughtful, and encouraging speech. Even Niebuhrian in its acknowledgement of similar facts and illusions. And it was roundly praised, except by the most intractable elements on both sides. I certainly don’t mean to compare neoconservatives with Al Qaeda, but the symbiotic relationship between competing belligerents is undeniable. Competing sides need not be morally equivalent to be locked in a mutually perpetuating, yet mutually destructive cycle.
None of this is meant to suggest that Orwell would have opposed the Iraq War or supported Obama’s efforts. As a general rule, one should be wary of speaking for the dead. I think there are good reasons to think Orwell would have opposed the war, particularly his loathing for colonialism, and good reasons to think he might have supported it, such as his staunch anti-Stalinism.
Whatever Orwell’s own conclusions would have been is ultimately beside the point. What’s important is that the lessons he furnishes his readers with allow them to exercise greater discernment in forming their own conclusions, to whatever end.
The Destruction of Words
In my experience, it’s commonplace among undergraduate literature students to dismiss Orwell as a poor writer. This has, I think, little to do with the sort of burgeoning Stalinism many conservatives mistakenly, though not always unreasonable, attribute to the average liberal arts undergraduate. It’s a dispute over aesthetics, not ideology. To the nascent Nabokovian, Orwell’s “windowpane” clarity, as he described it in “Why I Write,” can seem dull in its absence of formal innovation and baroque embroidery. But this misses the point.
Of course Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t written in luminous prose. Perhaps the novel’s greatest legacy is its illustration of the corrosive effects of political language. One can find the early, though by no means inchoate, origins of these ideas in “Politics and the English Language”:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the country side, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
The practice of political euphemism is on full display in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the most dramatic and memorable examples being Oceania’s four ministries: Peace, responsible for Oceania’s perpetual wars; Plenty, which rations food and goods; Truth, Big Brother’s propaganda arm; and Love, headquarters of the Thought Police and site of innumerable acts of torture.
Orwell had an acute understanding of the ways in which political thought could vulgarize language, but he also recognized that the inverse was true: “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” It was from this recognition that the Party’s debased vernacular Newspeak, which aims to shape the parameters of political thought through “the destruction of words,” was born.
Our contemporary political culture is as polluted by euphemism as that of Orwell’s time. These euphemisms come in two varieties. There are what I would call “dead euphemisms”, which operate much in the same way as dead metaphors. “A metaphor which is technically ‘dead’,” Orwell explained, “has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.” Euphemisms like “collateral damage” and “ethnic cleansing” are now so common that they’ve lost much of their original effect, immediately bringing to mind the victims of a Predator drone assault or Janjaweed raid, the very sorts of things these terms were designed to obscure.
It’s worth remembering the origins of such phrases every time you come across them, but in general these dead euphemisms have been flensed of their pernicious capacity through mere repetition. However, new political euphemisms, “living euphemisms”, emerge with troubling regularity and it is against these phrases that an engaged citizenry must remain most vigilant.
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