Commonplace Book #27

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases–bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand should to shoulder–one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.  And this is not altogether fanciful.  A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.  The appropriate noises are coming out of the larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.  If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may not be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utter the responses in church.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946) cited in Alan Jacobs, How to Think, 95-96.

7 thoughts on “Commonplace Book #27

  1. Orwell probably saw a lot of mindless propaganda but it was as much right-wing as anything. Orwell was fighting against the brutal, right-wing, quasi-fascist and heavily Catholic army (aristocratic Nationalists lead by General Francisco Franco following a military coup) that had overthrown the legitimate democratic-republican government. Franco enlisted military might from Nazi Germany and Fascist Spain to wage bloody war against his own people in order to set up his totalitarian regime.

    Upwards of 30,000/50,000 to 200,000 Republican forces and their civilian supporters were killed and many more were imprisoned and used for slave labor.

    Stalin did provide material supplies to the Republican side which did include Spanish communists as well as democratic/Republican loyalists. Whatever mess Stalin made of the Soviet Union he was, in this instance, supporting the legitimate government.

    “The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”
    — George Orwell, Why I Write 1946

    You might be interested in a series that is currently being run on PBS called, ”The Dictator’s Playbook”. Free viewing on line.

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    • Dear Jim in STL.

      I don’t know if you have ever read Homage to Catalonia, but Orwell’s main target is the Soviet-backed faction. He was instead affiliated with the POUM. Orwell and most historians realized that Stalin and large parts of the international left were not ultimately concerned with preserving the democratic Spanish Republic but rather establishing a Soviet client state.

      It goes without saying that Orwell was also an opponent of Francisco Franco. He would not have been tied to the POUM had he been a nationalist supporter. Furthermore, we all know that there were atrocities committed by both sides. The Nationalists were brutal as were many on the Republican side. I am sure you have read the stories of leftist activists pushing Catholic priests off cliffs and bridges and murdering the religious.
      Franco took aid from Germany and Italy; he also took oil credits from a large U.S. petroleum company. He cobbled together an international logistical support system and a domestic coalition to insure his victory. He was a pragmatist. No one is saying that he was a saint; he was undemocratic and cruel. I personally think he was not so much a fascist as a ruthless medievalist who longed for the old Golden Age of Spain rather than a 20th Century fascist state. He used whatever resources he could muster to achieve that end. He took aid from the devils Hitler and Mussolini but never joined the AXIS powers. Franco was ultimately only for Franco and his vision of Spain.

      In any case, the Orwell quote used by Alan Jacobs might fit any extremist movement but after the collapse of international fascism in 1945, I don’t see how you cannot see that it perfectly describes the dogmatic left. Unfortunately, there seems to be a resurgence of these mindless robots today. Again, I recommend Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.for an insight into this mechanical leftist duplicity.

      James

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      • My point being that he was writing against totalitarianism, whether the roots are of the left or right, and in defense of what he called democratic socialism, a position that many of the left in America are touting.

        There’s a great deal of irony in your characterization of the dogmatic left while ignoring the sharp rise of today’s dogmatic right. Why is it that so many conservatives and conservative Christians throughout history, as well as now, have and still crave the strong arm of the governments under which they live? Why are so many American Christians so enamored of Vlad Putin? They thrive on the idea of usurping the state’s coercive powers to instill a minority ideology and to secure a narrowly defined order and closed society and to advance their conservative agendas against the general interest of the people as a whole?

        The left that you villainize generally seeks to advance the worth and dignity of the individual and protect the rights of the many over the few. They are concerned about the poor, the infirm, the imprisoned and the elderly. They work to protect and project the voice of the otherwise voiceless against the powerful. And many do it as an act of Christian witness in the name, and many will argue, the footsteps of Jesus.

        When someone like Franco would fight Jesus, who was in his ministry fighting the powerful in defense of freedom of consciousness and expression and the worth and dignity of the people*, to protect the power of the Church something’s wrong.

        Almost sounds like Founding Father talk (see what I did there?).

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        • Dear Jim in STL,
          I respectfully think you have mischaracterized conservatism. Classic conservatism speaks for limited government at all levels. It does not advocate strong arm Putin types. “The government which governs least, governs best.” Wasn’t that Thoreau? Most increases in government bring a corresponding decline in individual liberty. Obviously, I like someone to inspect the airplanes I board and the meat I eat, but the monstrosity we have now in Washington has gone light years behind the original legitimate vision of our founders. It is out of control and is going go bankrupt the country.

          Contrary to its assertions, the left has no monopoly on compassion. Have you ever seen the statistics about charitable giving by voting blocks? Republican voters are far ahead. I had to laugh in 2000 when Al Gore was running for president and decided to reveal his charitable giving. As I recall, it was around $300.00. He was Vice President at the time and that’s pathetic.

          In terms of social programs to aid the truly needy, I know no conservatives who callously want to throw widows and orphans on the street. Conservatives just don’t believe in having the taxpayers place a cellphone and a charge card for gourmet food in every home. If I may be personal here, I will say that my wife grew up in a family with an itinerant, seldom-employed, lazy father. They were always able to obtain cans of mystery meat, shortening, flour, and vegetables from the local welfare office. Her father’s indolence was the cause of the problem, but no one starved or lacked lacked emergency medical care. A serious left-wing government would have put him to work using the raw power of the state in its coercive utopian scheme. The problem is that it wouldn’t have stopped there. Commissars are never content with limited power.

          I twice read your final thoughts about Franco, Jesus, and freedom of conscience and am not quite certain what your point is. Please clarify it if you have time, Jim.
          Thanks,
          James

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  2. Orwell probably saw a lot of this mindless leftist behavior when he was in Spain fighting on the Republican side during the civil war. In fact, Soviet-aligned militia men who probably spouted this type of rhetoric even tried to kill him.
    I have not read the essay which Alan Jacobs quotes, so the roots of Orwell’s quote might come also from experiences outside of Spain. In the meantime I recommend Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.

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