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Monday, November 21, 2011

The desecration of George Orwell

While the nation obsesses over public education and pushes to elevate student knowledge in mathematics and science,  the driving forces behind the technology, the promotion of illiteracy is ramped up quite a few notches.    It is not insignificant that a major political party is fielding an array of  candidates who are virulently anti-intellectual and take great pride in displaying ignorance and contempt for knowledge.   Using language precisely and well is no longer a value.  In fact, for conservatives, it has become regarded as a defect of character.

George Orwell used language carefully and effectively.  Although he is best known for his satirical novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the preponderance of his work was journalism--reporting and analytic commentary.

Two of his essays which are widely anthologized in college composition texts, drawn from Orwell's experience as a colonial official in Burma, stand out as stunning, incisive observations on human proclivities:  "Shooting an Elephant" and "A Hanging."  His experiences in the Spanish Civil War, as recorded in Homage to Catalonia, provide some deep and detailed insights into what shaped his political thinking.  It also provides the interpretative context for his satiric novels.  In addition, Orwell was a critical linguist.  His "Politics and the English Language" is one of his significant studies in how language is the transactional currency of the intellect and its role in human behavior.  

A fundamental premise of Orwell's work is that the meaning of words is determined by their accrued history,  Accumulated human experience is stored in the language.  An emphasis in Orwell's work is that language used honestly, accurately, and skillfully is requisite to a healthy political climate.  He writes:  

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. 
 A symptom of the deleterious effects of slovenly language is in the use of the word "Orwellian."  Advocates in both political parties charge the opposing party with "Orwellian" language when they   take offense at a linguistic ploy of their opponents.  The tactics they cite are what Orwell satirized and criticized, not what he advocated or practiced in his own use of language.  To label misused  and ill-used language as "Orwellian" is to miss the point.  When many commentators on blogs and cable TV liken their political opposition to what is portrayed in 1984, they reveal that they have never read the book or had much comprehension of it if they did.  When conservatives cite the book as evidence of the wrongness of liberalism, they misrepresent the  book and Orwell.  The novel is inspired by Orwell's exposure of Stalinism as the  most pernicious of political cancers.  He says of himself that he was "AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic Socialism."  He sees the evils in both Capitalism and Communism, as he writes in a book review:  

Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics. Capitalism and Communism: Two Paths to Slavery.

With a sense of irony and despair at the intellectual morass in which contemporary American politics is mired, I see Orwell enlisted into the partisan causes, when in fact he explicitly disassociated himself from the kind of petty and baseless bickering that makes up much of popular political discourse.  The GOP bears a particularly heavy burden because its members make accusations of Orwellianism while it adopts as its propaganda playbook the very distortions and misuses of language that Orwell satirized and criticized.  He saw that the electronic media could be used to monitor and condition humans by subjecting them to repeated "messaging."  Even if the words of the messages had no basis in reality but were used as conditioning devices to purge minds of original observations and thoughts and supplant them with constantly repeated words, a vulnerable mentality could be shaped around the message that the political party wanted it to believe and act upon.  And in the concerted attack on liberalism and the relentless repetition of contrived, accusatory messages, the GOP adopts precisely the messages and their constant drumming through the media that Orwell portrayed as destructive of competent mentality.  No processes of cognition and ratiocination are engaged.

The GOP has simply employed the techniques of media-delivered advertising, and in a public undereducated in letters and literature, those techniques are effective.  That is what is  behind the harping in education against the "liberal" arts in favor of technical matter, which can be instilled by rote, not by utilizing the critical processes of mind that language and thought employ.  That is also why the kind of testing and evaluation of education through the tests devised by the No Child Left Behind program are such inadequate measures of learning. 

Orwell is often invoked as support for the right wing attacks on anything liberal.  A recent headline on a blog aggregator is typical:  To Understand America’s Growing Nanny State, Read Brave New World and 1984.  On its face, the headline was inane.  Orwell criticized totalitarianism and the use of language to administer operant conditioning to a weak-minded public.  He favored a democratic socialism that organized itself to provide basic needs required to achieve and sustain freedom, equality, and justice,  

I find that much of the commentary on blogs is the symptom of minds purged of the basic tenets of democracy and, yes, Christianity, and can repeat only mindless sound bites and slogans they receive from the heroes they worship through the media.

It is time for those who read, think, and write from the literary traditions of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Lincoln, and their fellows to assert a little unabashed elitism and call for the restoration of the liberal arts as the most fitting and effective tool of democracy.

We cannot survive under the rule of the pridefully ignorant,

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States