Sunday, April 17, 2005

Timeless Thoughts from Orwell

Inspired by this comments thread at Roger L. Simon's, I googled up a copy of George Orwell's famous 1945 essay "Notes on Nationalism". It is a fascinating read. In particular, the following two passages jumped out at me:

Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory, but it is an unfaked emotion in many cases. During the war it was manifested in the defeatism of the intelligentsia, which persisted long after it had become clear that the Axis powers could not win. Many people were undisguisedly pleased when Singapore fell ore when the British were driven out of Greece, and there was a remarkable unwillingness to believe in good news, e.g. el Alamein, or the number of German planes shot down in the Battle of Britain. English left-wing intellectuals did not, of course, actually want the Germans or Japanese to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated, and wanted to feel that the final victory would be due to Russia, or perhaps America, and not to Britain. In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong. As a result, "enlightened" opinion is quite largely a mirror-image of Conservative policy.

Change "Britain" to "America", and replace the passages on Singapore and Greece with ones covering 9/11 and Iraq, and you have an all-too accurate description of the attitudes of many American and European leftists.

All of these facts are grossly obvious if one's emotions do not happen to be involved: but to the kind of person named in each case they are also intolerable, and so they have to be denied, and false theories constructed upon their denial. I come back to the astonishing failure of military prediction in the present war. It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

Once again, simply change a few places and dates, and you have an almost-perfect summation of the views of many liberals and leftists over the last three years. Iraq is a quagmire, the Taliban are coming back, al-Qaeda is resurgent, etc. etc. The last sentence, especially, needs no updating.

Orwell's conclusion applies to everyone across the ideological spectrum:

It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognize that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.


Blogger TLJ said...

Those are very apt quotations. Do you know Norman Podhoretz's essay on Orwell? It's in his "Bloody Crossroads," an excellent collection.

2:15 PM  
Blogger TLJ said...

One more thing: Note the typo in "Many people were undisguisedly pleased when Singapore fell ore when the British were driven out of Greece. . ." That should of course read "fell or when. . ."

2:18 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home