‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).
We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.
And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.
So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.
I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.
Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’
He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.
But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’ (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’
And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.
He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’
Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)
Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.
But it’s not always so easy.
Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’
No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?
We have to take sides.
Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.
How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?
To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does. If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.
Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.
We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.
It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.
How would Orwell have responded? There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now. We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on.