Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Don't apotheosize George Orwell! (Or, more on Michael Moore)

Reader Kumar has challenged my suggestion that there might be a similarity between George Orwell and Michael Moore.

I stand by it, though I think my earlier characterization was too simple. Orwell is certainly great by a different standard than Moore ever will be: in the 1930s, Orwell put his money where his mouth was and went to fight (though not so much in actual combat) against the Fascists in Spain. He also put in his time aiding the British war effort against the Germans -- hero material, to be sure.

But he also changed his mind -- sometimes radically -- and made some mistakes. Two biographies of him have come out in the last couple of years, both apparently foregrounding his intellectual inconsistencies and contradictions. (I've read some of D.J. Taylor's Orwell: The Life, but I've heard that George Bowker's Inside George Orwell is pretty good too.) Here is a helpful summary of the crux of Orwell's transformation from the New York Times review by Benjamin Schwarz:

Yet neither succeeds in placing Orwell in the context of the fierce political atmosphere of Britain in the 1930's -- when the future of liberal democracy seemed very much in doubt -- which means that Orwell's own protean political views go largely unelucidated. Neither author, for example, notes, let alone explains, Orwell's rapid transformation from an antiwar anti-imperialist (as late as July 1939 he suggested that British imperialism was "just as bad" as Nazism) to a doughty English patriot.

Reminds one a little of the liberal hawks (Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman) after 9/11, doesn't it? It even reminds me, in a certain way, of Michael Moore's "patriotic" turn in the second half of Fahrenheit 9/11.

But let's continue with Schwarz:

As that shift suggests, Orwell's views were, depending on one's perspective, evolving or inconsistent -- or both. . . . Bowker and Taylor each lay out Orwell's myriad -- and largely familiar -- intellectual and political contradictions. A man of the left, he turned to socialism largely because he thought capitalism was destroying the traditional decencies; as his friend Cyril Connolly said, Orwell was "a rebel in love with 1910." Although committed to the reformation of Britain's class-bound society, Orwell put his infant son's name down for Eton. This anti-imperialist former imperial policeman combined the cosmopolitan and the parochial. His mother was half French (Orwell wrote his first article in French); he fought in Spain under the banner of international socialism; he championed Henry Miller. But his intense attachment to England led V. S. Pritchett to remark that Orwell had "gone native in his own country": when venturing onto the Continent, he was gripped with fear at the prospect of being unable to find "proper" tea. And, as both biographers keenly emphasize, Orwell the devout nonbeliever held that the loss of faith had left modern man spiritually bereft and ethically bankrupt. (Orwell, who always displayed an intricate knowledge of ecclesiastical matters, left instructions in his will that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England.)

But perhaps the most important thing:

In 1949 Orwell gave to an object of his affections who worked at the Foreign Office the names of Communist sympathizers who couldn't be relied on to write pro-British propaganda. (The complete list was revealed only a few months ago.) Bowker and Taylor point out that Orwell wasn't advocating state suppression or harassment of the people on his list; he merely, and sensibly, suggested that they shouldn't be asked to write for the anti-Communist cause. Moreover, another crucial (and alas still not yet obvious) distinction should be remembered: as Orwell consistently stated, leftist progressivism and a commitment to social justice are not the same as -- are, in fact, the very opposite of -- Communism. Orwell believed the people he named (usually correctly, occasionally erroneously, seldom recklessly) served or sympathized with a murderous state and an ideology that was rotten to the core. (In the early days of World War II Orwell kept a list of those he suspected of being Nazi sympathizers. How many critics today would hold that had Orwell shared that list with the Foreign Office he would have acted wrongly?)

This is the part where one's jaw drops open. The author of 1984 ... and he's naming names? Granted, it's not evil like Elia Kazan and the Hollywood Blacklist -- no one, as far as I know, lost their source of livelihood due to Orwell's list. And I don't particularly hold it against him given his two great novels and many wonderful essays ("Killing an Elephant," "Homage to Catalonia," "Politics and the English Language," "Inside the Whale"). The balance comes out overwhelmingly pro-Orwell. But the incident reminds me that Orwell was all too human -- his ideology led him to some serious moral errors.

Ok, I've hopefully brought Orwell down to size a bit (though I realize everything I've said may be arguable). But how to raise Moore, who is by anyone's estimation a bit of a clown?

If you read recent history the way I do, Moore has stepped in to deflate a state of 'manufactured consent' gone horribly awry. In this case, the hysteria following 9/11 enabled the Blair and Bush to start a preemptive war in Iraq on spurious grounds. WMD and the Saddam-Al Qaeda 'link' were lies that managed, through constant propaganda, to attain the status of truth. Moore is adding up all the contrarian evidence (especially from Richard Clarke and the 9/11 Commission hearings), and torn a great big rip in the mainstream consensus on the war.

[Note: In my view, we should throw out the Bush/Saudi conspiracy stuff in the film. What is important is the way the administration has milked the terrorist attacks to justify the invasion of Iraq.]

And Moore has done it without the aid of a political party apparatus or other institutional (read: academic, journalistic) credentials -- basically just a video camera and the $30 million he made on his last splendidly muckraking pseudo-mentary. It's because of that that I feel he is a remarkable public intellectual -- an 'everyman' against the war machine.


Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

I am not convinced. I've not delved deeply into each of the contradictions and reversals on Orwell's part. But they seem to be the result of honest struggle and reflection on Orwell's part, and that too in a very difficult time.

Moore's admirers and biographers, I suspect, will never have to deal with that sort of difficulty. He's rather predictably left-wing, which is to say, unthinkingly left-wing.

Apart from this, in terms of sheer stylistic command of their respective media, Orwell is def. miles ahead. Orwell's prose style reflects his manner of thinking quite well. Certainly, the flagrant contradictions in F9/11 aren't characteristic of any single work of Orwells'.

That said, I did enjoy the movie for what it is: a 21st century version of pamphleteering. Certainly, as I mentioned earlier, F9/11 is at its strongest when detailing the lack of evidence for WMD in Iraq. I wish Moore had focused on just that aspect, and not the silly notions of the Bush familys' venality as a cause of the Iraq war.


10:14 PM  
Aftaab said...

Sanjay Subrahmanyam is attempting to essentialize the Indian identity. Subrahmanyam’s attempt to appropriate Abul Fazl, the Mughal court historian during Akbar’s era, is a mistake. India did not exist as an entity before 1947. Some of this has been demonstrated by Beant Singh in his “Why I am not an Indian” (see http://www.sikhe.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=326). It would serve us well if we did not marginalize the Gujrati, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Kashmiri and many other well established ethnic and cultural identities by appropriating the Indian nationalist agenda.

Secondly, on the question of secularism, it means different things to different people. If one were to add the notion of respect for civil rights to its definition, then the Mughal state was largely secular--contrary to Amardeep Singh’s argument. Richard Eaton, perhaps, one of the leading historians of South Asian Islam, has convincingly shown in his The Rise of Islam on the Bengal Frontier that the Mughal state was secular. He cites an impressive set of data points, Persian sources, travel diaries, etc. to prove his point. There is time to revisit the notion of Mughals as intolerant and "non-secular" because the evidence does not exist. A major pilgrimage site of Krishna devotees (Brindavan near Mathura) was granted by Jahangir. More Hindu temples were created during the reign of Aurangzeb than any other time period. Indian history textbooks written by Hindus with an agenda present a simplified picture of history, distorting the facts. (Also see Eaton’s impressive article on temple destruction by Mughals in an anthology of essays, "Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States", in Essays on Islam and Indian History (OUP 2000), which Eaton wrote after the Babari Masjid debacle.)

11:26 PM  

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