Salvo 05.30.2024 5 minutes

Cancellation At the Service of the Lie, Part I

George Orwell

The alarming effort to discredit George Orwell.

A striking feature of a debased democratic order is the alacrity by which long esteemed political figures, authors, works of art, and cultural practices can suddenly be subjected to vicious “cancellation” efforts. Fortunately, these attempts do not always succeed, at least completely and irrevocably. But they do serious damage to our capacity to admire excellence (and tried and true wisdom) and to sustain the vigorous debate and disputation that is essential to free political and intellectual life.

The examples are at once numerous and revealing. Icons of American egalitarian democracy such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson are treated as non-persons in elite circles today, caricatured beyond recognition. The new racialists confuse Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, with a run-of-the-mill racist, a potential candidate for membership in the Ku Klux Klan. The play Hamilton, which premiered in early 2015, went from being celebrated as the greatest musical of its generation, a moving tribute to multiracial democracy and the promise of the American Founding, to being denounced as racist almost overnight. It was even half-cancelled by the author of its book, music, and lyrics, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, in a display of cowardice that taints his original achievement.

In contrast, J.K. Rowling, the author of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter book series, has stood her ground as the cancellers have come after her. Rowling deigns to defend the eminently commonsensical view that being a woman has something to do with biological sex. For this she is subject to endless derision but admirably refuses to be cancelled. Even the once widely hailed feminist pioneer Germaine Greer has been snubbed and denounced by ideological activists who cannot abide her defiance of “trans” orthodoxy, with its inevitable elimination of “woman” as a meaningful designation. Gratitude is clearly not a virtue in a milieu that specializes in abolishing the personhood of those with whom they disagree. The list of those whom the ideological mob has come after is legion, and new cases, one more alarming than the other, can be added to the list with each passing week.

But who would have thought George Orwell would become a target of the ideological mob? He was a self-described “democratic socialist,” and the anti-totalitarian Left never disowned him. He, of course, made them nervous with his deep and abiding hostility to communism, his contempt for “smelly little orthodoxies” and the ideological corruption of language, his distrust of left-wing intellectuals, his cultural conservatism, and his unapologetic English patriotism (for all of this, see Orwell’s still relevant 1941 essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn”). From time to time, though, the Left would misappropriate him for their own contemporary purposes. Walter Cronkite once wrote an introduction to 1984 claiming that Richard Nixon was the new incarnation of “Big Brother” who would usher in totalitarianism, a ridiculous assertion not uncommon to liberals and radicals at the time. And after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, 1984 became a momentary bestseller as the Left prepared themselves for an inevitably “fascist” future.

The Left’s attitude toward Orwell himself, however, is in the process of changing dramatically. As John Rodden reports in an important if alarming article in the May 2024 issue of the New Criterion, Orwell is under sustained and systematic attack by leftist activists, academics, and ideologues throughout the Anglophone world. Unease has been replaced by zealous hostility and open mendacity toward the great anti-totalitarian English writer and consummate defender of political decency.

As Rodden notes, the floodgate opened with the 2023 publication of the Australian writer Anna Funder’s book Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life. Anna Funder is a crude ideologue and purveyor of hate. The book is a limitless screed which accuses Orwell’s quite varied male biographers of covering up his real status as sexual predator, wife abuser, homophobe, and all-round evil man. His first wife Eileen is said to be the genius behind his works (she typed them). Since a high school poem by Eileen once mentioned the year 1984 (her high school 50 years hence) she is said to be the mastermind behind that book, too. Not satisfied with her risible presentation of Orwell as an “idea thief,” she also charged him with being an abominable sexual predator. The fact that he found homosexuality distasteful adds grist to the mill.

But instead of being exposed for the crude, ideological concoction that it is, Funder’s tome has been lauded by major newspapers (especially in Britain) and in academic and intellectual magazines and journals as a revelation and the uncontested final world on the subject. John Rodden rightly fears that these lies and distortions have already trickled down to high school classrooms, where Orwell has remained a popular choice for required summer reading, signaling that his days “as a canonical literary figure” may very well be “numbered.”

Rodden rightly calls for a vigorous, truth-based counterattack. He ends his chilling account of the ideological mob at work by citing Orwell himself. In June 1949, six months or so before his death (“as Stalin’s armies threated to overrun all of Europe,” as Rodden puts it), Orwell laconically summarized the lesson of 1984: “the moral to be drawn from this dangerous situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” Pertinent words for this and every season, a noble call to action for all those who wish truth, decency, and civilization to survive the present ideological assault.

Interested readers should know that this essay is the first of a three-part series on “Lies, Misappropriations, and Attempted Cancellations.” The next essay will address Anne Applebaum’s strange recent efforts to transform Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, still the greatest philosophical account of the nature and origins of totalitarianism, into a remarkably prescient account of Putin’s Russia! In her 2024 introduction to the book, Applebaum completes her transformation from a passionate, eloquent, and well-informed anti-communist journalist/historian into a polemical scourge of all things Russian. There is just one problem—Russian autocracy is not twentieth-century totalitarianism. Russia is not the Soviet Union, even if unfortunate residues of the old order persist and the regime has hardened considerably since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war. But distinctions matter and must be respected for the sake of historical accuracy and measured political judgment. Applebaum is clearly using—and abusing—Arendt for her own purposes.

A subsequent essay will address Casey Michel’s crude (if widely discussed) effort in Foreign Policy (April 7, 2024) to portray Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, modern Russia’s greatest advocate of “repentance and self-limitation” and a critic of empire in any form, into a covert advocate of “imperialism” and “revanchism.” In the process, Michel willfully distorts Solzhenitsyn’s humane and calibrated views on the question of Russian-Ukrainian relations. By making Solzhenitsyn “Putin’s Spiritual Guru” (Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, 2008), Michel makes abundantly clear his intention to discredit and not understand the great thinker as he understood himself. But can a truly free and decent civilization survive if intellectual life becomes merely a weapon in the hands of those with an ideological agenda ready at hand?

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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