Saturday, 25 August 2012

Why Orwell is Relevant: Part Three.

One of the useful aspects of debating George Orwell's legacy is that whenever he is discussed online, it is almost always inevitable that two things will happen:

1) That certain left wingers or "leftists" or those who still cling to the idea that Russian Communism was a noble idea will deride Orwell and make unfounded claims as to what "political trajectory" he would have taken had he lived beyond 1950 and with little foundation.

2) That certain precepts Orwell stood for such as clarity of language and freethinking will be derided by those who defend that with regards certain trends of thought today.

One example is the way those who peddle the term "Islamophobia" ( a meaningless word when used like "reactionary" without precisely defining what it actually is ) or will seize on that with glee to suggest questioning the validity of that term exactly implies a use of Orwell to further a "right wing" agenda.

I will take two examples that have arisen in relation to my defence of why Orwell is relevant in 2012.

One blogger on the Guardian's Comment is Free website called "Champaklal" opines,

"Leftwingers often attack political systems they depend on. So what? It is in the hope of improving them. How DID they improve in the past anyway? Do you think the foundation events of our freedom like the French and Bolshevik Revolutions came without contradictions? Would you have preferred Hitler?"

How on earth was the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia a "foundation event of our freedom" ?

Again there is this residual inability to face facts. The Bolshevik model of Revolution was the twentieth century blueprint for totalitarian rule from the outset and took from the French Revolution the Jacobin-Blanquist model of a tightly knit elite who would force humanity to freedom by force and terror.

That was certainly a "contradiction" but one inherent in what Robespierre termed the "despotism of liberty".

This was precisely what Orwell meant by doublethink. The crude either-or choice between either Soviet Communism and Hitler's Nazi totalitarian regime which  presupposes that Soviet totalitarianism was the only effective alternative to Hitler which it certainly was not ( though those who see Stalin's victory in Eastern Europe as mandating Soviet occupation).

Here is assumed that states such as interwar Czechoslovakia and Poland somehow needed to have Communism and a One Party State imposed on them and the democracy that Czechoslovakia had between 1918 and 1938 was somehow inferior to the fictional "People's Republic" after 1948.

The logic behind the "so do you prefer Hitler" pose when faced with those who sought to rationalise Soviet totalitarianism was indeed satirised by Orwell in Animal Farm when the Pigs offer false alternatives when the animals complain about the erosion of promised freedoms thus,

"but you wouldn't want Jones back would you ?"

To which Jim Nolan responds, as self righteously as he can manage,

You're quite sure that "Jones" was Hitler? I thought that was "Frederick"? I thought that "Jones" was the Czar, the regime you're busy defending against the Bolsheviks. Am I wrong?

When you read it again more carefully, ask yourself - where is Lenin? Is he a composite part of the character "Snowball" - or a composite part of the character "Old Major"? If you can make a very good case for one or the other, then you can use "Animal Farm" as a stick to beat the Russian Revolution.

Note here that whilst Nolan is not writing Orwell off as others who apologise for Soviet Communism do, he still sees any attempt to portray Orwell as having had doubts about the Bolshevik Revolution as necessarily meaning that this is a de facto defence somehow of Tsarism ( ie "reactionary" ).

No, because I did not state that Jones was Hitler as he clearly was not. Jones represents the old regime of the Tsar before the Russian Revolution. I was talking of the logic behind the Pigs attempt to present their continued authority in terms of binary logic.

The point being that the Pigs offer either-or choices in the manner that certain apologists for totalitarianism do when they chastise people for questioning the authority of the Pigs to define the present in relation to the past and that those who even question it are, indeed, thoughtcriminals..

Next, the logic of the Pigs clearly represents the degeneration of the Revolution from its early stages into the regime of Stalin, a criticism which was far more clear and expounded at length in 1984 when Orwell did satirise the logic of the oligarchical collectivism implicit from the outset on the Bolshevik Revolution.

It has to be remembered that Orwell himself was wrestling with the notion that there may well have been something wrong with the way the Bolsheviks hijacked the Russian Revolution to serve their own ideological ends ( which he touched on elsewhere in one of his essays ).

It seems clear that Old Major was an amalgam of Marx and Lenin, which suggests that the main thrust of Animal Farm is the way the Revolution was perverted. There was nothing in it dealing explicitly with any original sin in the Russian Revolution as such when he wrote it in 1945.

Orwell's view of the Revolution had indeed darkened by the time he wrote 1984 shortly before his death in 1950 when Eastern Europe had fallen under Stalinist "model" dictatorships and the Cold War was in full swing across the globe and the spectre of thermonuclear annihilation posing a new threat to the survival of the human race.

Yet those who berated 1984, such as Isaac Deutscher ( who wrote Trotsky's hagiography in his Prophet Trilogy ), still clung to the notion that Lenin's Revolution had been perverted by Stalin and failed because Trotsky, a.k.a Snowball in Animal Farm had been expelled from the Soviet Union.

With hindsight it is now known that this was a myth and it seems Orwell had grappled with this as he was writing 1984. One of the messages of his last work seems to have been that if force, fraud and terror are used to overthrow a regime, then the resulting Revolutionary regime may well be as bad or worse.

On Politics and the English Language.

Mr Nolan also was unhappy about this claim I made,

'Orwell defended literature against politics and what is know known as "political correctness".

Perhaps that should have been more precisely expressed and Mr Nolan then went on to quote Orwell by arguing,

"Political correctness" like this?

    Is there anything that one can do about this? One can at least remember that the colour problem exists. And there is one small precaution which is not much trouble, and which can perhaps do a little to mitigate the horrors of the colour war. That is to avoid using insulting nicknames. It is an astonishing thing that few journalists, even in the left-wing press, bother to find out which names are and which are not resented by members of other races. The word 'native', which makes any Asiatic boil with rage, and which has been dropped even by British officials in India these ten years past, is flung all over the place. 'Negro' is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One's information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have just been carefully going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word 'Chinaman' wherever it occurred and substituting 'Chinese'. The book was written less than a dozen years ago, but in the intervening time 'Chinaman' has become a deadly insult. Even 'Mahomedan' is now beginning to be resented: one should say 'Muslim'.

- George Orwell, "scourge of political correctness" for those who control the past.

"I think Orwell wouldn't have recognised "political correctness" as a phenomenon requiring its own name. He'd have considered it to be part of decency".

Now I understand that but that is why I put "political correctness" in inverted commas. It has become one of those words bandied around by some to mean that decency is a form of "thought control", which it clearly is not, though some might like to pretend otherwise.

However, one point about Orwell's defence of free speech is that 'erroneous thought is the stuff of freedom' in the words of his biographer Ben Pimlott. There are those who would define "political correctness" as a form changing mentalities or thoughts by redefining language ( that's why the term is used after all ).

American universities are full of such ideologues who would like to proscribe thoughts by what they term "policing the literature" . There are terms such as "Islamophobe" which are used to delegitimise criticism of Islamism or even certain aspects of Islam by wrongly conflating it with criticism of Muslims as people ( i.e individuals ).

Those who question what is meant exactly by "multiculturalism" too, as opposed to, say ,cosmopolitanism, can be mechanically written off and denigrated as "racists" or "bigoted" simply because the far right use the term 'multicultural' as a blanket term of derogatory abuse for a society with immigrants in it.

My own view is that even if decent people should not use offensive terms for other people as mark of civilised behaviour, those who do not hold to such opinions should not be arrested or prevented from speaking as otherwise we have no means of clearly understanding how they think.

It is through questioning the meaning of terms that we can understand better the world around us and avoid hatred and bigotry. Obviously, that was too much for Mr Nolan who snarled,

"Conflating" my foot, the conflation is inescapable. You might believe gossip about Samir up the road or listen to rumours about Samir up the road, but all prejudice against Samir the Muslim is prejudice against what he has in common with all "Muslims as people".

It is often the case that when people are losing an argument, that they resort to malicious insinuations. Orwell referred to it as the attitude of "sniff, sniff are you a good anti-fascist", a sort of search for guilt and thoughtcrime as opposed to actually listening or following carefully what a person has actually written

Without realising, Mr Nolan  seems, in his view, to have detected a "prejudice" He writes the "conflation is inescapable" only because he has already decided upon the catch all validity of the term "Islamophobe" to mean just anybody who is critical of any of the precepts of the religion as a religion ( which I did not offer )

Now that could apply also to the Orwellian use of the word "Islamophobe" to describe those who criticise a political ideology supposedly based on Islam and who do not have any dislike of classical Islam as a religion ( as I do not because it's a multi-vocal religion no less than Christianity is and not some unified monolithic belief system ).

The use of the word "Islamophobe" is a vague blanket term. It does not distinguish between criticism of the precepts of a religion or of a political ideology which happens to present itself as representing all Muslims ( which it certainly does not ) . In which case the term is mendacious and, yes, Orwellian.

There are those who are anti-Muslim and that would mean the far right who often hide behind the idea of "criticising a religion" when they really want to peddle hatred of Muslims. In which case "anti-Muslim" sentiment would be the fitting term. Not "Islamophobia" which implies some mindless irrational fear of something defined by those who fling it about.

In which case criticism or dislike of the religion of Islam could be considered "anti-Islamic" in the same way as critics of the Catholic Church are "anti-Catholic" without necessarily hating or having some visceral dislike of Poles or Irish people, though that might be present and would be wrong. 

It depends on looking at what exactly has been written by a person on its own merits or lack of it. That, I think, was one of the lessons of Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language. It is one that needs to be constantly learnt again and again to preserve civilised standards of public discourse.

If a person is against Islamism ( as many Muslims are ) then he could be "anti-Islamist" or anti-Wahhabi or merely a critic of Islamist ideology, though which kind of Islamism would need to be outlined carefully in order to carry critical weight and precision. The danger comes when people start allowing ideological concepts to do the thinking for them.

Politics and The English Language Revisited.

Mr Nolan clearly was not satisfied with the comparison between the terms anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic. Again, what is being discussed here is not how to rationalise intolerance at all but to make distinctions between different forms of opposition to a creed as opposed to an ethnic group for the purposes of accurate classification of certain strands of opinion.

  The "religion of Islam" is not equivalent to "the Catholic Church". The "religion of Islam" might be in the same category as "Latin Christianity" (or as "Reformed Christianity" or "Orthodox Christianity" or "Judaism" and so forth). You are conflating an organized entity, with office-holders and bank accounts and property portfolios and landholdings on the one hand with a religio-ethnic identity on the other.

This is more Orwellian style evasion. I have criticised the blanket use of the word "Islamophobia" as Orwellian because it acts as what Orwell termed a meaningless word in Politics and the English Language, just as "reactionary" became a term of abuse in Communist circles for anybody who was opposed to Communism.

I did not say the "religion of Islam" is "equivalent" to "the Catholic Church". How can it be ? Now by this stage anyone who reads this ( which I doubt ) might be bored senseless by all this apparent pedantry. However, it still seems important to be objective in trying to distinguish criticism of a religion from some form of atavistic ethnic hatred.

For unless we are going to get into the absurdity of calling those who criticise Islam as a religion as "anti-Mosqueovites", those who are hostile to Islam as a religion have to be called something to differentiate them from those who are hostile to Muslims because they are from Arab countries or Asia e.g the BNP.

If Mr Nolan's logic is followed no distinction between criticism of the religious precepts and criticism of Muslims as individuals is possible and so anti-Judaism would be exactly the same to anti-Zionism. And by extension when anybody who criticises the actions of Israel they must, in some sense, be "anti-semitic".

Therefore, criticism of Islamism, which is a political ideology that many Muslims would not necessarily agree with in the same way Jews are often opposed to Zionism, would not be different from criticism of Islam as a religion and somehow an intolerant hatred of Muslims. Meaning that sensible and reasoned discussion becomes impossible.

So I'm not "conflating" criticism of an institution with a religio-ethnic identity in the way Mr Nolan clearly is attempting. This would be "anti-Muslimism" ( an ugly word I know ). And Islam is not exactly a religio-ethnic identity in the same way Judaism is often held to be as there are different branches and sects within Islam ( Shia, Sunni, Druze etc ).

If that were the case we are faced with the absurdity of assuming that an atheist who regards himself as anti-Christian, therefore, despises "white Christian civilisation" , an assumption that many Christian fundamentalists in the Bible Belt of the southern states of the USA might see as "anti-American", Godless Communism or both.

So Shia Islam would be equivalent to Catholicism and we can talk of anti-Shi'ism in the same way as anti-Catholicism if I can refine my previous point a bit more. Even so, we would surely not call those who consider themselves "anti-Christian" as racist or xenophobic and nor should we necessarily consider those who are "anti-Islamic" as such.

Naturally, followers of Al Qaida are certainly "anti-Christian" no less than an atheist but hardly in the same manner. In which case Christian fundamentalists who despise all other religions and atheists could retort that criticism of them is "Christianiophobia". And to my knowledge this is not a word ( yet ).

If anything being precise about this terminology is part of a case for tolerance which means that even if a person dislikes a religion it does not mean he has a hatred of an ethnic group. This is what is problematic about "Islamophobia" because if we accept than word we would then have to accept "Christianiophobia" or "Judeophobia" as meaningful terms.

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