A few years ago I came across a collection of the journalism, essays, and letters of George Orwell in a Roman library, and was thrilled to have something interesting to read in English. The set had originally been of four volumes, but since the first two books were missing, I had to be content with reading only Orwell’s mature writings, from the outbreak of the Second World War to his death in 1950, a period which included the publications of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four.
Some people might find Orwell a strange figure: deeply in love with traditional English life and a political radical, calling himself a Socialist almost to the end; hater of both Capitalism and Communism; enemy of British Imperialism, but loudly supportive of the war effort against Germany and dismissive of Irish claims to independence; a hero of free speech who called for the censorship of American comic books and Salvador Dali’s exhibitionist autobiography.
But looking at the issues from Orwell’s perspective, his opinions are anything but strange or self-contradictory. For example: someone can be against Britain conquering countries like India or Burma, but still fight tooth and nail against the Germans who would do the same to England. Someone can call himself a Socialist but that does not mean he has to turn a blind eye to the crimes against humanity routinely committed by the Soviet Union.
It is easy to understand that in Orwell’s day the political left (to which Orwell belonged) avoided criticizing Stalin either for fear of sounding too conservative or fear of hurting the Socialist cause. But Orwell noticed a more insidious aspect to Socialist silence about Stalin: because Stalin’s crimes went against their left = good, right = bad prejudice, Socialists were simply incapable of seeing Stalin for what he was.
The same went for antisemitism: because your average Englishman of 1948 was a mild anti-Semite, he was incapable of realizing just what Hitler had attempted to do to the Jews, even after the war was over and the Holocaust had been extensively reported on the news.
Orwell shows us how our prejudices and ideologies determine what we consider facts. His solution to this political and cultural blindness was to cultivate clarity of thought and language, a hatred for hypocrisy, and the willingness to reflect deeply on his own prejudices. In short, Orwell was intellectually honest, and he forces his reader to attempt the same.
And after reading Orwell’s journalism I’ve simply stopped paying attention to contemporary journalists who prefer “compelling narrative” (that is, regurgitated cock and bull stories) to the hard work of digging up facts or speaking truth to power.