Editor’s Note: 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.
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.”
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 As he wrote in an unpublished 1943 essay on “The Freedom of the Press”: “If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are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.”
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.”
The term Orwellian, used correctly, is a shorthand for the perversion of language to mask truth and defend the indefensible, the most concise example of which is the government’s mantra in Orwell’s “1984”: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” “1984,” in addition to being an indictment of totalitarianism, is also an indictment of the displacement of plain truth with political doublespeak. It’s a warning of the societal danger of rewriting insurrection, sedition and violence as patriotism and protest.
Trump Jr. and Hawley’s tweets rolled into my feed as I was finishing the syllabus for an undergraduate history seminar, “George Orwell and the Making of the Modern World,” which will explore the early 20th century taught through Orwell’s writing. Not for the first time, I was reminded of Orwell’s continued relevance, and more broadly, what his work reveals about the importance of truth and language in political discourse in America and beyond.
I teach in the US now, but I taught my first class on Orwell in 2016 in the United Kingdom as that country was consumed by the bitter referendum campaign over whether Britain should leave the European Union. Brexiteers famously campaigned with a giant red bus emblazoned with the slogan “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.”
It was a knowingly false equation, that money “saved” by withdrawal the EU would be directly available for investment at home – akin to Big Brother’s 2 + 2 =5 in Orwell’s “1984” – but one that the Remain camp seemed unable to neutralize. The distortions and untruths of the Brexit campaign only underscored the enduring relevance of Orwell’s quip that, “Intellectual honesty is a crime in any totalitarian country; but even in England it is not exactly profitable to speak and write the truth.”
Four years later, I was teaching in America. This time, my students and I were discussing Orwell in the context of a Trump presidency that has frequently been denounced by the left as Orwellian for its embrace of lying and “alternative facts,” but also in the context of a newly emergent “cancel culture” on the political left which has been perceived as Orwellian by public figures with far more credibility than Sen. Hawley.
I can report that the extremist political rhetoric of the 2020 election campaign as well as the growth of demagoguery and totalitarianism around the globe has only spurred undergraduates’ interest in Orwell; the course I’m finalizing is full and has a waitlist.
I first read George Orwell in middle school, during the dying days of the Cold War, when “Animal Farm” was considered an ideal vehicle to teach American students about the perils of Soviet totalitarianism and to inculcate the virtues of America’s commitment to free speech and the protection of political dissent. I went on to read “1984” in high school English, where my teacher made analogies between Big Brother and Joseph Stalin and the cult of personality and spelled out the connections between Newspeak and Room 101 and Soviet censorship and the torture and repression of the Gulag.
Donald Trump Jr. is a year older than I am. Josh Hawley is a year younger. For American children of our generation, the Orwell whom we were taught in high school was a Cold Warrior, an anti-Communist crusader against thought policing and dictatorial repression. If I had left Orwell behind in high school, I can imagine having sympathy for Trump and Hawley’s claims that their First Amendment rights have been suppressed by a left-wing media establishment they deemed “Orwellian.” After all, to quote the inscription beside the statue of Orwell outside the BBC’s headquarters in London, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
But I didn’t leave Orwell behind. In college, I read Orwell’s indictments of racial oppression, based on his own experience as an imperial officer in Burma, and his writings on unemployment and poverty in Britain and France. Crucially, I read Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s memoir of his decision to volunteer alongside the Trotskyist POUM party in Spain in defense of the Spanish Republic against Franco’s coup, only to discover that the POUM’s worst enemy was arguably not Franco but the Stalin-backed Republican government which was intent on extinguishing their POUM “allies” with physical persecution and vicious propaganda.
Orwell’s memoir sought to dispel the propaganda and rehabilitate the POUM’s reputation as champions of democracy. To his dismay, he found that his publisher Victor Gollancz would not publish the book, despite accepting the truth of Orwell’s narrative, for fear of upsetting the Stalin-backed government and undermining the Republican cause. Orwell, like Hawley, saw his book contract canceled – and ultimately published the book through a small press that shared his political sympathies.
The more Orwell I read when I was young, the more I came to appreciate that, even above freedom of speech, Orwell was dedicated to defending the truth. In the world of “1984,” where Big Brother insists that 2+2 =5, “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.”
Published in 1949, Orwell’s “1984” is set, not in Communist Russia, but in Oceania, a dystopian Anglo-American superpower constantly at war with Russia (Eurasia) and China (Eastasia). In setting his novel in a version of Britain, Orwell is underscoring the point that political repression and dishonesty are not the preserve of Soviet totalitarianism.
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The students who are enrolled in my class this spring were born well after the end of the Cold War. Their interest in Orwell is driven presumably less by his political relevance as an anti-Communist tribune than by the question of whether modern political culture, with its information silos, lies and alternative facts, has become the dystopian nightmare that Orwell envisaged.