Opinion: In these difficult times, I look to the works of George Orwell for inspiration
Bob Rae is Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations and, more recently, the author of What happened to politics and Tell them we’re human.
I started reading the works of George Orwell in my early teens, starting with the allegorical short story farm animal and the dystopian science fiction of 1984. I was hooked and bought every red Penguin paperback edition of Orwell I could find. Since then, I read his works and read about him.
Working at the United Nations makes me think of Orwell and his observations more frequently these days (I made note of what would have been his 119th birthday in late June). The UN, at its best, may be an institution that serves the greater good, but it has also, especially in recent months, been a place where words are twisted and lies abound. As some state actors attempt to rewrite history and the facts are turned upside down, I often turn to Orwell for advice and wisdom.
A case in point is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing “special military operation” to “destroy Nazism” by attempting to annex eastern Ukraine. At the United Nations, we have also become accustomed to constant attempts by the Chinese government to insert President Xi Jinping’s thoughts into official resolutions, undermining and qualifying commitments to human rights, democracy and the rule of right by subjecting them to the “spirit” of “equality of nations” and “mutual respect”. (Translation: Stay out of our business).
In 1946, Orwell wrote, “We are all capable of believing things we know to be untrue, and then, when we have finally been proven wrong, brazenly twisting the facts to show we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to continue this process for an indefinite time: the only brake is that sooner or later, a false belief collides with a solid reality, generally on a battlefield.
The limits of what is now called “confirmation bias” have never been better described.
Orwell was born Eric Blair, India in 1903, the son of a career civil servant who worked in the opium trade. Educated at prep schools and Eton College, the young Blair went to work as a policeman in Burma (now Myanmar), but quit after five years and returned home to become a writer. He had no money or status, was estranged from his family and struggled to find his voice.
But he found it. He followed the destitute citizens of Depression-era England and France, writing about poverty with a sociological imagination, personal empathy and growing political engagement to portray the dark side of empire and industry.
His incisive political observations were perhaps most solidified, however, by his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Those who fought in Spain have been said to be “premature anti-fascists” in their opposition to dictator Francisco Franco. But as he recounts in his 1938 memoirs Tribute to CataloniaOrwell shunned both the fascist and communist ideals of the two main opposing camps and instead joined an anarchist group fighting in revolutionary Barcelona.
Unlike so many others on the left who fell under the spell of Communism, Orwell received his inoculation of this ideology in Spain. He understood the use and misuse of language, how propagandists could select words and arguments to deliberately distort meaning, lie and confuse. After being shot in the neck and nearly losing his life in a fight against fascism, Orwell realized during his recovery that he and his wife, Eileen, were under surveillance by the Spanish Communist Party. He saw friends die on the battlefield, but also tortured as prisoners of the Communists, who branded them “objective fascists” for their dissent from Stalinism. He witnessed the sheer brutality of tyranny.
Orwell’s writings put him at odds with the political correctness that prevailed at his time. He warned of the dangers of the growing reality of totalitarianism, his instincts having proven correct in the decades that followed. In the macabre alliance of Soviets and Nazis in the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in 1939, he saw a display of contempt for the spirit of democracy. The dominant themes of Orwell’s best-known works reflect his deep anger at the presence of tyranny all around him – lies and deceit, propaganda and mass surveillance, rewriting history, restricting individual freedoms; themes that still resonate today, often in terrifying ways.
In the dark, however, Orwell still found faith in humanity. In one of his poems, he describes an encounter with a fellow soldier in Spain: “But the thing I saw on your face/No power can disinherit./No bomb that never exploded/Break the ‘crystal spirit.’
We would do well to remember his words in these difficult times.
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