Thursday, October 09, 2008

The People Crowded Around You Are So Disturbing That I Can't Hear What You're Saying

George Packer, after discussing the verbal (and intellectual) pollution that is cluttering the heads of news-followers in this election season, says that "On November 5th, you’ll need to clear your head of a great deal of accumulated nonsense. I would suggest a long, deep, surprising drink of Orwell."

Now, I love Orwell's essays -- and think that all the wonderful things Packer says about them are true. I'm also interested in checking out the two-volume edited edition of Orwell's essay that Packer is plugging in his blog post, even though I already have several collections of Orwell's essays on my shelf.

But somehow reading Packer plugging Orwell makes me cringe.

It's like hearing someone you know to be a rabid German nationalist and antisemite talk about the brilliance of Nietzsche prose and metaphysics. Nietzsche's prose and metaphysics are, indeed, fine and fascinating things, and Nietzsche is well worth taking long, deep, surprising drinks of. But when you hear someone you know to be a German nationalist and antisemite praise him, what you instantly think of are the misappropriations of Nietzsche by the proponents of those causes -- misappropriations because Nietzsche detested both German nationalism and antisemitism; but, still, powerful misappropriations because his writings were used by opponents of both of those causes.

Orwell has been held up in recent years as the patron saint of neocons -- particularly self-identified liberal (or formerly liberal) neocons. Former Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, for example, wrote a whole book on Orwell. Now, I don't happen to think that promoting neo-imperialist American policies, aggressive wars and the rabid madness of the Bush administration are causes which Orwell would be glad to see his name raised in support of -- any more than Nietzsche would have been glad to have been cited as a foundational thinker for German nationalists and antisemites. But until Orwell's Walter Kaufman comes along and frees Orwell from his kidnappers,* there is a stink on his writings that bear no relation to the texts themselves, but are so strong that they make the texts themselves hard to stomach.

Now, I've liked Paker's writing since before he began promoting stupid, aggressive and criminal wars. His book Blood of the Liberals is a fascinating meditation on the shifting nature of liberal (and conservative) politics over the Twentieth century. -- And I've not read Packer's book on Iraq, The Assassin's Gate, which reportedly describes the occupation in scathing terms (without ever saying that maybe the opponents of the war were right to oppose it).

But George Packer supported the Iraq war -- a war that, it has been forgotten amongst all the raptures about the supposed success of the Surge (™ McCain campaign), resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, most of them Iraqi. He wrote disparagingly of those who opposed the war before it started.

So I find that his recommendation that I read Orwell makes me rather want to avoid doing so. Not because Orwell would have been an American neo-imperialist, nor because I disagree with Packer about Orwell, but because the conjunction of an unapologetic Iraq war proponent, known for his disparagement of anti-war voices, with Orwell simply makes me queasy.

Perhaps Packer's two-volume selection is a good one. But I think he was a poor choice to edit it regardless. And perhaps it would be a good idea for us all to read some Orwell after November 4. But I think Packer is a poor spokesman for that notion, associating as he does with Orwell's appropriators, appropriators who have enlisted Orwell in a posthumous cause that has led to horrific results.

I'm probably being unfair to Packer here. Packer was a reluctant supporter of the war, and has been a fine journalist in Iraq (as well as elsewhere). He's a far cry from dead-enders like Hitchens.** Still --

Perhaps for a while Orwell should be promoted by different people.

* Cue reference to the famous first line of Orwell's essay on Dickens, that Dickens is a man "well worth stealing".

** On the other hand, he was one of those promoting a US invasion of Burma a short while ago, so who knows.

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