Bob Rae is the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations and most recently the author of What’s Happened to Politics and Tell Them We’re Human.
I began reading the works of George Orwell in my early teens, starting with the allegorical novella Animal Farm and the dystopian science fiction of 1984. I was hooked, and bought every red Penguin paperback edition of Orwell I could find. I have been reading his works, and reading about him, ever since.
Working at the United Nations has me thinking of Orwell and his observations more frequently these days, (I took note of what would have been his 119th birthday in late June). The UN at its best can be an institution that serves the greater good, but it has also, especially in recent months, been a place where words are twisted and lies abound. As certain state actors attempt to rewrite history and facts are turned on their heads, I often look to Orwell for guidance and wisdom.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing “special military operation” to “destroy Nazism” by attempting to annex eastern Ukraine is a case in point. At the UN we’ve also become accustomed to constant attempts by the Chinese government to insert President Xi Jinping’s thoughts into official resolutions, compromising and qualifying commitments to human rights, democracy and the rule of law by making them subject to the “spirit” of the “equality of nations” and “mutual respect.” (Translation: Stay out of our business).
In 1946, Orwell wrote: “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: The only check on it is that sooner or later, a false belief bumps up against a solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
The limits of what is now called “confirmation bias” were never so well described.
Orwell was born Eric Blair, in India in 1903, the son of a career civil servant who worked in the opium trade. Educated at prep schools and Eton College, the young Blair went to work as a police officer in Burma (now Myanmar), but resigned after five years and returned home to become a writer. He had no money, no status, was estranged from his family and struggled to find his voice.
But find it he did. He followed the down-and-out citizens of Depression-era England and France, writing about poverty with sociological imagination, personal empathy and increasing political engagement in describing the dark side of empire and industry.
His incisive political observations were perhaps most solidified, however, by his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It has been said of those who fought in Spain that they were “premature anti-fascists” in their opposition to dictator Francisco Franco. But as he recounted in his 1938 memoir Homage to Catalonia, Orwell eschewed both the fascist and communist ideals of the two main opposing sides, and instead joined an anarchist group fighting in revolutionary Barcelona.
Unlike so many on the left who fell under the spell of communism, Orwell received his inoculation from that ideology in Spain. He understood the use and misuse of language, how propagandists could select words and arguments to distort meaning, lie and deliberately confuse. After being shot in the neck and coming very close to losing his life in a fight against fascism, Orwell realized while recuperating that he and his wife, Eileen, were under surveillance by the Spanish Communist Party. He saw friends die on the battlefield, but also tortured as prisoners of the communists, who labelled them “objectively fascist” for dissenting from Stalinism. He witnessed the sheer brutality of tyranny.
Orwell’s writings put him at odds with the prevailing political correctness of his time. He warned of the dangers of the growing reality of totalitarianism, with his instinct proven correct in the decades that followed. In the macabre alliance of the Soviets and the Nazis in the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in 1939, he saw a display of contempt for the spirit of democracy. The prevailing themes of Orwell’s best-known works reflect his deep anger over the presence of tyranny all around him – lies and deceit, propaganda and mass surveillance, the rewriting of history, the curbing of personal freedoms; themes that still resonate today, often in terrifying ways.
In the darkness, though, Orwell still found faith in humanity. In one of his poems, he described an encounter with a fellow soldier in Spain: “But the thing that I saw in your face/ No power can disinherit./ No bomb that ever burst/ Shatters the crystal spirit.”
We would do well to remember his words in these trying times.
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