The Boys Who Cried Orwell

Everything is Orwellian, apparently

George Orwell is back in vogue, if he ever really went out of vogue. Our political, media, and literary classes are fond of invoking Orwell’s name at every opportunity, as if reading ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ could possibly help anyone make sense of this moment. We all remember the scene in ‘1984’ where a guy wearing Viking horns and furs stormed the Capitol while people beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher. If only we’d heeded those warnings.

Usually, it’s the left who invokes Orwell at moments of crisis, as conservative intellectuals and writers are as rare as a snow day in Texas. But in the last week, right-wing smarty pants have also been blathering on about Orwell.

“This could not be more Orwellian,” said Missouri Senator Josh Hawley upon the tragic cancellation of his upcoming nonfiction book about the dangers of Big Tech.“It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. Only approved speech can now be published.” Ah, yes, I remember well the scene in ‘Animal Farm’ where Snowball refuses to publish Napoleon’s memoir after Napoleon backs an attempted coup. We all remember the chilling slogan of ‘1984’: “Big Brother is deplatforming you but you can find an alternative platform where your millions of followers can still read your words.”

Ted Cruz is one of our great Orwell invokers, calling Big Tech restrictions on right-wing sites like ZeroHedge “Orwellian.” Cruz is one of the least-victimized people in American history, despite being a record-setting shit-weasel. Americans have heard ten times more words from him than they ever did from Frederick Douglass. There is no boot stamping on his face forever, or even for a minute.

Ted Cruz, trapped in an Orwellian reality.

That said, Ted Cruz is not Orwellian himself. He is just a political opportunist. But if you believe our media, George Orwell created him out of clay, like a Golem. Ted Cruz Goes Full Orwell, says a piece that continues to go around the Internet. But how is Ted Cruz Orwellian, and why? Because he says things that are self-serving and untrue? He is a politician.

We can’t seem to decide what George Orwell meant. Did he warn about government and corporate censorship of speech and ideas? Was his main concern political language that created new terms that are the opposite of truth? Everyone finds the Orwell they want to find.

In July, conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens bloviated that tearing down statues was “Orwellian”. Last year, liberal New Yorker writer Louis Menand referred to ‘1984’ as “a book of prophecy,” saying that Big Brother exists in our televisions, and not just as part of the reality show that has been running around the world for decades.. This was before the impeachment crisis and COVID and Trump-sponsored insurrection, so he decided that Orwell had presaged collusion with Russia. Now people are quoting Orwell as part of the election fraud deepfake, but during the post 9-11 period, Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan were fond of pompously invoking Orwell to decry the evils of Islamofascism. The boys (plus Michiko Kakutani) love to cry Orwell. It makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about.

We now exist in a time of Peak Orwell, where everyone, on every side of every political debate, summons the pallid ghost of the former Eric Blair to make their cheap political points. That reached its apogee on Monday as Ron Charles, the book critic of The Washington Post, published a piece with the incredible headline, ‘Conservatives crying ‘Orwell’ are downright Orwellian.’ Apparently, even saying Orwell’s name is enough to summon his specter. Charles begins by quoting the terrifying authoritarian former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer, last seen on Dancing With The Stars. If only we had stopped Sean Spicer back in the day by calling him Orwellian to his face. Then none of this would have happened.

Charles says that the Trump Administration uses political language to distract from reality. Fact check: True. He goes after Hawley, who he hits with all the accuracy of someone throwing a basketball at the side of a barn. He accuses him of the “old Orwellian 3-D strategy: Denial, Deceit and Distraction.” Possibly, or possibly Hawley was just a dipshit Senator on the wrong side of history who was trying to save his own ass.

Why can’t it all be true, or untrue? Trump and his supporters engage in linguistic jiu-jitsu and distort reality. At the same time, we’re completely free to criticize the government at whatever volume we want, using the most obscene possible terms, in front of audiences ranging from two to millions, without any consequences. Big Tech censors ideas of people it considers dangerous, and yet I can find hundreds of examples of people decrying that censorship across the ideological spectrum, from all over the world. Donald Trump has said and done horrible, seditious things since the election. But what does have to do with George Orwell? Are these really Orwellian times? Or are they just unprecedentedly weird?

The smart book people gargle quotes from ‘1984’ in their smart-people articles. Meanwhile, most of us are just hiding in a corner, trying not to get COVID, stuck in place like some sort of abandoned Second Life avatar, hoping that everyone will just shut the hell up and leave us alone.

Who knows what Orwell would say or think about our current situation? He’s been dead for 70 years. Joe Biden was a middle-aged man when Orwell wrote his last words. If we brought him back today, he’d probably spend an hour trying to figure out how to work his iPhone, and then he’d say, “I think I’d rather be dead again, goodbye.”

Our reality is so confusing, it’s downright Kafkaesque.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “The Boys Who Cried Orwell

  • January 13, 2021 at 8:27 pm

    I really love the wit of this piece and the way you tied it up. The careless misuse of the term “Kafkaesque,” going back longer than anyone can remember, is much like the current craze. If everything is Kafkaesque, then nothing is. Same with Orwellian.

    But Bret Stephens does have a point. Features of our heritage are being thrust down the memory hole, and it is disturbing.


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