De­mys­ti­fy­ing ‘Or­wellian’ in our new dystopian age

- Bar­bara VanDen­burgh George Orwell · Twitter · Donald Trump · Donald Trump, Jr. · United States of America · Missouri · Simon & Schuster · Congress of the United States · Turkey · Amazon · University of Southern California · California · Southern California · Los Angeles · Spain · India · Soviet Union · Leni Riefenstahl · Paris · London · Simon & Schuster · Francisco Franco · Bernie Sanders · Catalonia

The use – and mis­use – of the term over­sim­pli­fies au­thor Ge­orge Or­well’s in­ten­tions.

Chances are, you’ve seen Ge­orge Or­well’s name thrown around a lot in the past week on so­cial me­dia, ei­ther by con­ser­va­tives in­vok­ing his name with sin­cer­ity or by lib­er­als pok­ing fun at con­ser­va­tives for its mis­use.

On Fri­day, when Twit­ter per­ma­nently sus­pended Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Twit­ter ac­count, his son Don­ald Trump Jr. was quick to in­voke Ge­orge Or­well. “We are liv­ing Or­well’s 1984,” he tweeted. “Free-speech no longer ex­ists in Amer­ica. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a cho­sen few.”

When Sen. Josh Haw­ley, R-Mo., lost his book deal with Si­mon & Schus­ter af­ter Wed­nes­day’s Capi­tol Hill riot and his widely per­ceived role in help­ing in­cite it, he had some words for what he called the “woke mob” at his would-be pub­lisher. “This could not be more Or­wellian,” he tweeted in a state­ment.

Cheeky Twit­ter users have been quick to crit­i­cize the in­vo­ca­tion of Or­well from peo­ple who, like most of us, prob­a­bly haven’t dusted off a copy of “1984” since high school.

“As we all re­mem­ber, Or­well’s ‘1984’ is about an old man who gets banned from a bird-themed so­cial me­dia site af­ter reg­u­larly en­cour­ag­ing vi­o­lence,” tweeted the pro­gres­sive think tank Gravel In­sti­tute.

“Start­ing a Go Fund Me to buy con­ser­va­tives some Or­well books,” wrote @ClueHey­wood.

“My son just de­scribed hav­ing to clean his room as pos­i­tively ‘Chorewelli­an,’” tweeted TV writer Gen­nefer Gross.

“1984” rose to the top of Ama­zon’s top-sell­ing book list over the week­end. On Mon­day, it reached the No. 1 spot. Not bad for a book pub­lished in 1949. Too bad few peo­ple cit­ing the book’s dystopian hor­rors in earnest seem to un­der­stand the us­age.

The term “Or­wellian” has be­come lazy short­hand for ex­er­cises of au­thor­ity with which one dis­agrees. When a pub­lisher drops your book be­cause your brand has be­come toxic, it’s Or­wellian. When an in­ter­net plat­form en­forces its terms of ser­vice and kicks you off, it’s Or­wellian. When a store has you re­moved from the premises for re­fus­ing to wear a mask dur­ing a pan­demic, it’s Or­wellian.

“It tends to be a kind of catch-all for re­pres­sion,” says David Ulin, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of English at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and for­mer book edi­tor of the Los Angeles Times. He has read and stud­ied Or­well’s works ex­ten­sively, and he finds Haw­ley’s and Trump’s Or­well name-check­ing not just in­ac­cu­rate but ironic.

“There’s a real irony in the fact that some­one who paid such at­ten­tion to clar­ity in lan­guage – Or­well’s whole thing was about trans­parency in lan­guage, that lan­guage needed to be ab­so­lutely clear like a pane of glass – that a writer like that be­comes a rhetor­i­cal tool for the peo­ple who would have been at the point of his lance,” Ulin


“It’s ac­tu­ally al­most counter-Or­wellian,” says Pallavi Ye­tur, a psy­chother­a­pist with a mas­ter’s de­gree in cre­ative writ­ing whose the­sis was on Or­well and how his life ex­pe­ri­ences formed the way he thought about gov­ern­ment. “In fact, Don­ald Trump Jr.’s tweet is Or­wellian be­cause he is us­ing lan­guage as a way to con­trol peo­ple’s opin­ions about some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing in his fa­vor, and that’s pro­pa­ganda.”

“Or­wellian” is prob­a­bly the most widely used ad­jec­tive de­rived from the name of a writer (Kafkaesque might come close), yet so many are us­ing it wrong. It helps, first, to un­der­stand who Or­well was and the deeply held po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions that fu­eled his writ­ing.

Or­well hated fas­cists so much he went to war with them

“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,” Or­well wrote in his 1946 es­say “Why I Write.” That was the year Or­well joined a left­ist mili­tia to fight in the Span­ish Civil War against Francisco Franco’s mil­i­tary up­ris­ing in Spain.

Eric Arthur Blair was born to Bri­tish civil ser­vants in In­dia, a mem­ber of what he called the “lower-up­per-mid­dle class.” A deeply moral thinker and writer, Or­well didn’t sit com­fort­ably in his priv­i­lege but was a com­mit­ted demo­cratic so­cial­ist, “along the lines of a Bernie San­ders,” as Ye­tur de­scribes him. He also was, Ulin says, a bril­liant critic of pre-World War II Bri­tishl iso­la­tion­ism.

So when war broke out in Spain, Or­well saw it as his moral duty to kill some fas­cists. “When I joined the mili­tia I had promised my­self to kill one Fas­cist – af­ter all, if each of us killed one they would soon be ex­tinct,” Or­well wrote.

His ex­pe­ri­ence in the Span­ish Civil War wised Or­well up to the fail­ures of Soviet com­mu­nism, whose tac­tics of op­pres­sion and ob­fus­ca­tion mir­rored those of the fas­cists the com­mu­nists were fight­ing de­spite ex­ist­ing on op­po­site ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. The op­pos­ing ide­olo­gies were two sides of the same to­tal­i­tar­ian coin, each fla­vor of un­demo­cratic au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol in­tol­er­a­ble to Or­well. “He was very wary of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism from the left as well as from the right,” Ulin says.

Or­well’s ex­pe­ri­ence in the Span­ish Civil War crys­tal­lized his pol­i­tics, which formed the lit­er­ary fab­ric of ev­ery­thing he would write there­after.

So what’s ‘1984’ about, and what makes a thing ‘Or­wellian’?

Newspeak. Dou­ble­think. Thoughtcri­me. Big Brother.

“1984” is of­ten re­duced to its base com­po­nents, the catch­phrases and slo­gans of the fic­tional gov­ern­ment in Or­well’s dystopian al­le­gory for Soviet to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. The take­away is of­ten: Op­pres­sion bad, lib­erty good.

But Or­well’s book is much more so­phis­ti­cated. Or­well was in­ter­ested not just in com­mu­ni­cat­ing the bad­ness of to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes but also dis­sect­ing how they suc­ceed through the ma­nip­u­la­tion of lan­guage.

“He was re­ally most con­cerned with lan­guage and how lan­guage was used in a pro­pa­ganda type of way or as a means of con­trol,” Ye­tur says.

Or­well ob­served that to­tal­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments can­not sim­ply im­pose their wills; they must in­doc­tri­nate. Their suc­cess re­quires com­plic­ity. “He’s re­ally sharp on the ways in which peo­ple get in­doc­tri­nated,” Ulin says.

Which brings us to the term “Or­wellian.” If Haw­ley’s book deal get­ting can­celed and Trump get­ting booted from Twit­ter aren’t Or­wellian, what is?

“’Or­wellian,’ in the most ortho­dox way, is about lan­guage as a means of con­trol,” Ye­tur says. “A Nazi pro­pa­gan­dist like Leni Riefen­stahl ... that’s some­body who’s us­ing words to in­voke feel­ings, to in­voke al­le­giances, to dis­credit ene­mies.”

Ulin be­lieves “1984” is rel­e­vant to our po­lit­i­cal mo­ment. “There are as­pects of the novel that are quite rem­i­nis­cent, in­ter­est­ingly enough, of Trump­ism, even though (Trump’s) right-wing,” Ulin says. “Things like the dis­sem­i­na­tion of false in­for­ma­tion, the use of in­for­ma­tion to ob­fus­cate rather than il­lu­mi­nate.”

He also sees shades of “1984” in so­cial me­dia. In the book, Or­well in­vents “Two Min­utes Hate,” a daily event in which video of the en­emy is pub­licly screened and the au­di­ence is en­cour­aged to stir it­self up into a froth of rage. “That kinds of re­minds me of what we see in terms of so­cial me­dia mob men­tal­ity, and this ex­treme QAnon type of con­spir­acy the­o­rists,” Ulin says, “work­ing on peo­ple’s most neg­a­tive and vir­u­lent emo­tions and us­ing that as a way to con­trol them but also to make them feel as if they are be­ing heard.”

What else you should read

“1984” and “An­i­mal Farm” are Or­well’s great­est hits and cer­tainly worth re­vis­it­ing (or read­ing for the first time; we won’t judge). But Or­well was also a pro­lific es­say­ist, lit­er­ary critic, jour­nal­ist and colum­nist, and much of his best work is in his less flashy non­fic­tion.

h “Homage to Cat­alo­nia”: Pub­lished in 1938, this per­sonal ac­count of Or­well’s ex­pe­ri­ences fight­ing in the Span­ish Civil War is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing ev­ery work that fol­lowed. “If you had asked me why I had joined the mili­tia I should have an­swered: ‘To Fight against Fas­cism,’” Or­well wrote, “and if you had asked me what I was fight­ing for, I should have an­swered: ‘ Com­mon de­cency.’”

Down and Out in Paris and Lon­don”: Or­well lived in pur­pose­ful poverty for a time in Paris and Lon­don, two of the world’s wealth­i­est cities, and wrote about his ex­pe­ri­ences in this 1933 mem­oir. “He made the choice to go to Paris and Lon­don and work low-end jobs and live that life, to im­merse in it, be­cause that’s where his sym­pa­thies were,” says Ulin.

h “Pol­i­tics and the English Lan­guage”: This 1946 es­say is a short and es­sen­tial read on the im­por­tance of clar­ity of lan­guage. It was cen­tral to both Or­well’s writ­ing and pol­i­tics, be­cause he saw the two in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. Cor­rupt lan­guage, Or­well wrote, can also cor­rupt thought. “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.”

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 ?? AP ?? “1984” is back on best-seller lists.
AP “1984” is back on best-seller lists.

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