Sunday, January 24, 2016

On Orwell, intellectual love for authority, and today's world

For any of you who have read Orwell's fiction, such as 1984 and Animal Farm, but have yet to read his non-fiction, I highly recommend that you start as soon as you're capable. His longer pieces are must-reads [1], but if you're lacking time, as is the state of homo-economicus, then take a dabble at a few of his essay collections. I recommend this fat book of post 1945 essays as well as the one with a provocative title: All Art is Propaganda. You can move through the books and read the essays that interest you (the latter one being better, as it has fewer to choose from) whenever you have the time.

I personally love finding works from the distant past that seem applicable today. [2] There is one point that Orwell made that I particularly like: that of the intellectual who likes authority or a show of power. It's interesting to find this to be true today of many of my compatriots on the left [3]. 

Nevertheless, it's still a surprise to hear many of these lefties express some sort of desire for an authority figure in the middle east. That this is covered by some odd need to appear concerned for the inhabitants of the region (while never bothering to ask those inhabitants what they want) is odd enough, but not as odd as the fact that it is asking for a particular kind of evil in the world without asking about the consequences—yet again. 

Nor does it occur to them to step back and try to understand the situation or figure out what went wrong. I expect this from the right and those who will gain some monetary benefit from unneeded military action, I do not expect it from those who are examining this from an exclusively intellectual viewpoint [4]. 

It would appear that Orwell dealt with the same thing and dismissed these people (those who would side with the Nazis or the Bolsheviks... you know, before their atrocities were known, when they were either men of the industrialists or men of science) as those whose views are merely bending to the newest power [5]. And I see it today as people demand shows of force over thoughtful analysis.

But there is a growing movement against that. Those in the Black Lives Matter movement stand as a great case in point—domestically speaking. Meanwhile, for overseas matters, our mainstream media may not like it but they are being forced to confront the messy consequences of our foreign policy by those on the ground and by people like Glenn Greenwald over at The Intercept. This is the true ideal of a liberal: to scrutinize any master, to effectively analyze power structures (or institutions) and what they do for the betterment of all the people. Orwell would be proud.

Update 25JAN2016:  A note: this really reads as an analysis and less as a rant as I intended. As the commentator pointed out: there is value in siding with power. But perhaps this post needs to include the likes of Montaigne who has some good points on the matter of those who would side with power and those who would stir any established power (doesn't end well for them, not in the material sense, though posthumously they may gain something).

"Heu! patior telis vulnera facta meis.”14
They who give the first shock to a state, are almost naturally the first overwhelmed in its ruin the fruits of public commotion are seldom enjoyed by him who was the first motor; he beats and disturbs the water for another’s net."

Read his essays if you get the chance. Really solid stuff (have a book and go through it for the better ones). And, let me be crass for a moment. This book of mine, a novel, mind, is a great read on rebellion, albeit a futuristic one.

[1] Homage to Catalonia being one must read. In it you can see Orwell's disillusionment with the Stalinist machine in Spain as it crushes the nascent Anarchist movement there. Good stuff, even if you do have to get past a lot of acronyms to truly understand it. It even serves as a good starting point for Chomsky's "Responsibility of Intellectuals" essay—another classic at that. That being said, it's interesting to see conservatives or near-neocons using Orwell as a battering ram against the left (nothing new, this, I remember being part of the conservative movement and how MLK was evoked against affirmative action.... revisionism at its best). Orwell was a socialist, and remained so until the end. 

[2] Same reason I love James Baldwin's work.

[3] Or what is considered the mainstream left (the less said about those who claim the middle ground as some fundamental belief, the better) here in the USofA. As for the right, at least most of them openly acknowledge a love for certain forms of power, thus they can at least be shielded from calls of hypocrisy. Thus the case of Putin or how China runs over the concerns of its citizens, those on the right easily fall (or are jealous of) for such displays of power because that's part of their ideology (funny then that they then cloak it with "Americanism" or their odd brand of it).

[4] Though I suppose for those on TV a shows, intellectualism is more of an act than anything else. 

[5] I'm not saying that this reaction does not serve an evolutionary function of survival and simply trying to ride the coattails of the power to some decent position in society yourself. I'm only saying that it's not intellectual.

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  1. Well that's cute, you're at it again. Remember that following the powers that be is more important as a survival technique than you may think. With the winds of power in your sails, you can travel farther than you could without them. Think about that. Let it sink in. There is so much to gain from not being a brigand, so take the path of power. One day, then you too can shift the boat a little. But only a little.

    1. Though I agree that there lies much value in simply aligning oneself with the reigning power, there also lies value in the fringes. Most movements (civil rights etc etc etc) do start with radicals who pay the ultimate price. Note what Montagaine says about those that stir any society into action. Both play their part. In the end it's about a certain diversity in a society that would allow for change (note even today the push pull action between each party's established and more radical parts—whatever you may say about those groups.


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