What Josh Hawley doesn't get about George Orwell

George Orwell

Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of "Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party" and "Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist." The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)The English writer George Orwell, who died more than 70 years ago, is experiencing a resurgence of popularity among the political right. Last week, Donald Trump Jr. reacted to Twitter's decision to ban his father from the social media platform with a tweet of his own: "We are living Orwell's 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what's left is only there for a chosen few."

Laura Beers
Minutes earlier, Josh Hawley -- the Missouri senator and outspoken proponent of Trump's false claims to have won the 2020 election, who offered a raised fist to those assembled outside the Capitol, just hours before the mob turned violent and forcibly breached the building's defenses -- had responded to the news that Simon & Schuster had decided to cancel his book contract with a tweet. "This could not be more Orwellian" he wrote. "Only approved speech can now be published. This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don't approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have."
    On Wednesday, Anthony Shaffer, retired military intelligence officer and adviser to the Trump campaign, accused the BBC's Evan Davis of using "Orwellian language to change what happened" when Davis described the president "inspiring insurrection, sedition, violent attack on Congress."
    Orwell opposed censorship, not only official state censorship, which was "obviously ... not desirable," but the informal censorship of the media. As he wrote in an unpublished 1943 essay on "The Freedom of the Press": "If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face."
    Sen. Josh Hawley gestures toward a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered outside the US Capitol to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden's electoral college victory Jan. 6, 2021. Some demonstrators later breached security and stormed the Capitol.
    Yet, while Orwell opposed censorship, he abhorred the corruption of language by political leaders intent on masking dubious or amoral actions behind either the anodyne language of bureaucracy and legalese, or the emotional language of patriotism. One of Orwell's deepest laments was that, during his lifetime, "political speech and writing" had become "largely the defense of the indefensible." Most likely Orwell would not have supported either the de-platforming of Trump, or the cancelation of Hawley's book contract. But he likely would also have despised both men for their cynical abuse of the English language.
    More straightforward would have been his reaction to Shaffer's disingenuous effort to invoke his name to delegitimize the BBC's characterization of the events of January 6. In his classic 1946 essay "Politics and the English language," Orwell wrote that "Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."