Christopher Hitchens is out to save America. He's brought the cross of St. George-Orwell, that is-along on the crusade. He's everywhere in the American media lately, lending his accent and vast self-importance to the cause of Freedom.
You might wonder why imports like Hitchens are center-stage in the U.S. these days. You'd think a country of 300 million could find somebody to make a coherent case for the war in Iraq. But you'd be wrong. Ever hear 'em try? Bush sounds like an Okie fruit picker on glue; Cheney mumbles like a hanging judge at the end of a long day; and Rove, their PR chief, won't talk on mic because he knows he'd come across like the scoutmaster trying to explain why he had to share a tent with your son. We're hopeless.
Hitchens: Tagging along with Orwell
And that's why a used-up hack like Christopher Hitchens, whose main distinction in the English literary world was his alacrity in betraying friends when advantage loomed, has been able to jump the Atlantic and get greeted (and paid) like the second coming of Edmund Burke. He speaks for the tongue-tied Bushite majority, who aren't so much silent as choked with sullen, mule-headed determination to show up the "elites" even if the whole country crashes and burns in the process. Since they can't actually SAY that, they've got nothing to say.
That's where Hitchens comes in, giving hate a voice. Hate deserves a hearing, after all. And these Brits make it so fuckin' suave, as Frank Drake would say. Maybe it's the accent, maybe it's all that history or buggery or the tea, but damn! They hate so good.
Our native haters can't cut it next to Hitchens. Next to him, Ann Coulter's just a goofy Carol Burnett. You watch her and realize she's just flirting, clowning for the boys. And poor old nodding, blithering Limbaugh-compared to Hitchens, Rush comes across as a 50-year-old AV club geek trying to impress his crusty old homeroom teacher by bitching at the hippies.
We'd better face it. American communication skills are sly, smiley stuff: lobbyist lunches, jollying up the tame press corps with a few fake back-slapping sessions. As Twain said, a double load of buckshot in the back is our idea of single combat.
Americans have been falling in unrequited love with these glib visiting Brits since frontier days. Every time a 19th-c. British author overspent on child prostitutes or laudanum, he or she embarked on an American lecture tour to repair the family finances, following Dickens' path from one muddy American boomtown to the next. At every stop the author would let the yokels adore him for a few minutes, then retire to make careful notes on the locals' ignorance, foul table manners and general stupidity for the scathing book to be published once safe in London.
And the Yanks fell for it every time. After wining and dining their distinguished visitor, the social elite of Podunk would order copies of the noble visitor's account, hoping to see their names in print-only to be stunned at the lecturer's sketch of Podunk as a stinking backwater, and brief description of its leading lights as an "execrable mob of beasts."
I'll bet an appendage Hitchens hates his groveling audience of American suckers just as much as his Victorian predecessors did. His earlier books are remarkable for their strident anti-American tone-and I mean compared to other books by British Trotskyites. In other words, he's rabid, folks. He'd hit that nuclear trigger and vaporize your sweet hometown in a second, ya suckers. Hitchens' orc-like understudy, Mark Steyn, who now poses as a champion of the U.S., was less discreet than Hitchens, describing our country (in an article gloating over the Atlanta bombing) as "the United States of losers and bozos." You know we're low on spokespersons when these are our star players.
Americans talk for consensus; for Brits, it's a martial art. From birth they train for a world of casual verbal cruelty matched in America only by inner-city blacks. (Which is why only blacks in America have the verbal inventiveness to match the Brits.) Just compare a British tabloid with the U.S. variant: our Enquirer peddles mostly fantasies, dreams of self-transformation injected into an audience that still hopes to be "special." The British rags don't bother with Disney stories. They peddle pure steel-toed hate, two-minute Oi songs in prose form. Every article designates a hate-object for the mob to chase down and kick to death.
Hitchens' American fans have no notion of these habitats where the Brits hone their hate. Instead, most of us encounter Brit hate in contexts that make it look good: pop songs, comic novels, or those sharp, tough essays the Brits seem to do so much better than us.
I'm thinking here of the high-priest of British hate, George Orwell.
Orwell: Common bigot, uncommon liar
I'm sure many of you, like me, encountered Orwell's essays in your first year at college, and found them the only readable selections in the Norton Reader, that huge sampler of civil sermons. In that gooey context he stood alone.
Hitchens has written a book, Why Orwell Matters, coyly laying out his claim to be Orwell's heir-this generation's brave lone Brit facing a world of ideologues. The real subject, of course, isn't Orwell but Hitchens himself.
Most decent American liberals, who continue to revere Orwell but hate Hitchens, reject Hitchens' link to Orwell. I wish they were right. But you see, I've been looking over Orwell's letters, essays and novels, and I'm afraid Hitchens' claim can't be so easily dismissed. In fact, only a very indulgent reading of Orwell's work can sustain his reputation as a socialist, an anti-imperialist, or even an independent thinker. Under close examination, all the components of Orwell's reputation dissolve, and the brave maverick looks dismally like a stunted, sneaking reactionary.
I'll start with a classic Orwell essay, "Shooting an Elephant." It's a vivid, simple story about how the young Orwell was forced by the pressure of an expectant Burmese crowd to shoot a harmless elephant. Orwell's surface thesis, laid out in the concluding paragraphs, is that Imperialism turns the Imperialist into a puppet in the hands of the natives. Here's the first paragraph:
In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people-the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
After reading the mild civic homilies of the Norton, this raw hate entranced me. Orwell talked like Ted Hughes' hawk would after a few brandies: no mercy on the underdog Burmese, no "understanding" about their motives. And the suave way he shrugs off his notoriety with a joke-"the only time in my life I have been important enough for this to happen to me"-no young literary man could resist this persona; this is who you want to be.
Yet:I did worry about that description of the Burmese. I mean, it was sort of racist. But reading on, I saw it was just part of a strategy, a double twist where first Orwell zaps you with his anti-Burmese descriptions, then balances them with a paragraph about his loathing for "the Empire [he] served." It was such a risky, raw strategy I felt proud to have spotted it. Moving up through the ranks, I taught "Shooting an Elephant" for years as a classic of rhetorical structure.
Now I think I read it wrong, rejecting the "obvious" in favor of cooptation by the author. In fact, I was exactly the sort of sucker Orwell had in mind, a half-bright provincial trained to miss the obvious and cleave unto the far-fetched. By teasing this sort of reader with that shock intro, then reassuring him ("Don't worry, I'm anti-Imperialist"), Orwell got me to ignore the biggest and most important feature of the essay, Orwell's sheer simple hate for the Burmese. It stuns me to realize that I helped a generation of students overcome their simple, correct instinct (some poor honest kid would always ask, "Isn't this:kinda racist?" and be talked into seeing the Emperor's glorious wardrobe by me). Ah, if only somebody rewarded grad students for seeing the obvious, instead of the febrile and unlikely.
Along with the race hatred, there's another obvious feature of this intro: the way it dramatizes Orwell himself, a sensitive young white man alone in a crowd of evil aliens. That habit of dramatizing himself never changes. It's a constant in Orwell's work; the only difference is that the scene shifts from Burma to Europe, and the hostile crowd consists of fellow intellectuals trying to lure him into one of the orthodoxies they have cravenly embraced.
In "Shooting an Elephant," his isolation is literal; no other Englishmen seem to be on duty in Moulmein on the day the elephant gets loose. Alone, Orwell succumbs to the crowd's pressure and shoots the elephant. But he is the real victim, forced to do violence to his conscience.
The argument is contagion. The Burmese are so vile that they infect the hero; he and his comrades should give up Burma simply to avoid infection. Of course, the story hints that they don't have a choice; the Empire is doomed anyway. In fact, the Empire is an object of pity: "I did not even know [as a young man in Burma] that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it."
The Burmese are entirely devoid of sympathy; they're the winners, recipients of free elephant steaks and spectators at a pachyderm murder free of charge. Occupation seems to be a lark for them, a chance to indulge their caddish habit of cheating at sport.
If you've read anything about the British conquest of Burma, you'll have a different reaction: you'll wonder why Orwell's Burmese opponents didn't jump him at midfield and gouge his eyes out. God knows, they had every right. Britain started swallowing Burma bit by bit in the early 19th century. The Raj would have preferred to take the entire country in one blow, but the Burmese managed to avoid war until 1885, when the Brits got impatient and sacked the Burmese capital, burned the palace, booted the royal family out and celebrated with an orgy of tabloid headlines and cartoons showing the Burmese as big-eyed, stupid frogs bayoneted by Tommies.
Orwell never dramatizes a moment like that in any of his works. I'm inclined to choose the dull, obvious explanation for this odd silence: the man was a reactionary, Imperialist racist.
Once you've admitted that possibility in reading Orwell, the evidence is everywhere. And the passages which are supposed to "balance" the anti-Burmese vitriol with anti-Imperial details look very weak-intentionally weak, perfunctory. Here's Orwell's list of the wrongs of empire from "Shooting an Elephant": ":convicts huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos:" That's the best he could do? Where are the actual Imperialists, George? All you've got here is a bunch of Burmese wretches whose crime seems to be making your younger self feel bad.
Apparently they're not fit to have a master like you.
In fact, Orwell's thesis, which I once found so clever, is a cliche of Imperialist apologists. I developed an eye for these the hard way; they kept coming up whenever the Irish were mentioned in my favorite British books. I'd be reading along, happy little Anglophile that I was, and suddenly my favorite authors would spew hatred for us, the Irish and the Catholics. It not only hurt, it puzzled me for years. They were the winners, the ones who did the massacres; isn't it the victims who are supposed to be angry?
Years later I heard a joke that explained it concisely. An Irishman has been bayoneted by a British soldier, and as the Mick dies slowly in a ditch the Brit kicks him over and over, cursing him and wishing him a painful, slow death. With his last breath the Irishman asks, "Why are you so angry at us?" The Brit leans down, whispers, "You swine, we will NEVER forgive you for what we've done to you."
It's one of those jokes-a lot of Irish/British jokes are like this-that are more true than funny. The Empire was a lot of things, from piracy on a global scale to Evangelism, but as its more concrete benefits started looking short-lived after 1918, its value as a point of pride, a shared happy dream, became relatively more important. Bumming the Imperial high was the last worst crime a native could commit.
And the Irish, glory to them, taught all the other conquered tribes how to turn the Empire's story around, and turn defeat on the field into victory among the conquered hearts and minds. So the quickest way to see petulant Imperialists in action is to look up that fatal word "Ireland" in the index of any British book.
It's a painful lesson. Most of them don't even mention Ireland, no matter how central it might be to the topic. Those who do specialize in the sort of squeamish concessions I find in Orwell. I remember a classic case, Antonia Fraser's Cromwell bio. Cromwell's passage across Ireland was a genocidal horror, culminating in the sale of thousands of Irish women and girls into sex slavery in the West Indies (where some shared the auction block with early African shipments) and the confiscation of every decent acre of land on the island. Along the way, the Lord Protector-famed for mercy to defeated enemies in Britain-committed savage massacres, the biggest at the town of Drogheda. The slaughter at Drogheda is too well known to leave out entirely, so Fraser grudgingly mentions it, then comments that the real shame of Drogheda is that it stained Cromwell's glorious reputation, it diminished him. Apparently it was a far less serious matter for those who were massacred. Just another day at the office for them. A mere bagatelle compared to Oliver's soiled rep.
That's vile enough, but how is Orwell's thesis in "Shooting an Elephant" any less so? Orwell has made generations of nerdy readers so happy that we didn't bother to notice he doesn't consider wogs human.
Orwell alludes to the wrongs of Empire hundreds of times. But never does he dramatize them, and that's the key. We're dealing with a brilliant mob orator, a specialist in rousing hatred. If he wanted to indict the Empire, he'd retell the conquest of Burma so movingly that Kipling would sob.
Instead, Orwell limits anti-imperial evidence to a phrase or two, often buried in his famous lists. You find them sandwiched between a Stalinist lie, a Catholic falsehood and a Fascist propaganda claim. The quick equation-favorite device for defenders of the indefensible.
These lists are never meant to attack the Empire. They're simply a quick shot of the many ideologies our hero, the brave loner George Orwell, resists so nobly, the last free mind in Europe.
And this too is a lie. Orwell was never the only maverick around, and every time he implies that his colleagues all joined some totalitarian club, he libels them and shames himself. It's true that in the mid-1930s huge chunks of the Continental intelligentsia chose sides among Stalin, Hitler and the Pope; but even in more factionalized worlds like France, there were many independent writers doing very well. Celine, a real loner, with more mad courage than a reactionary like Orwell could even imagine, became famous at the very worst phase of Leftist hegemony in the Parisian scene without following any party's line.
For English writers, the situation was far less dire, thanks to the aversion to abstract ideas which Orwell claimed as a national trait. If Orwell was censored, it was because Orwell cherished his persecutions. In fact, by sticking with Communist-affiliated publishers like Gollancz, he ensured a steady supply of persecution stories, which he disseminated via his letters, always reinforcing the growing legend of St. George. Best of all, Gollancz was a pushover of an antagonist, and the books always got printed. Persecution and publication, a crusader's dream world.
Why, other than the urge to play crusader, did Orwell haunt the Leftist presses? Because, he tells us, he was a socialist. Really? The closer I look, the less convincing a socialist he makes. In fact, socialists rank high among his many hates. The only good socialists in any of his works are the dead ones he knew in Catalonia. Live leftists disgust him, especially English ones, as shown by his brilliant attack on Leftists in Road to Wigan Pier.
So once again, let's invite the obvious: Orwell is lying when he calls himself a socialist. And again, once the possibility is admitted, the evidence piles up. Read Orwell's correspondence with poor Victor Gollancz over Wigan Pier and you see the stolid, loyal Gollancz trying desperately to understand why his star writer spent so much time vilifying his fellow socialists in a book commissioned by them. Read that exchange and you'll never buy Orwell's version of himself as simple, honest man. He's the Satanic diva, pushing Gollancz into objections which allow Orwell to play the lone, misunderstood hero.
But if he never was a leftist, why did he call himself one? For Orwell, the red star was protective coloration. It allowed him to smuggle his hates into print, gave them a fine radical gloss, and spared him the cold, clear readings his essays deserved. (Only academics believe that writers want to be understood. Writers want to be misread to their advantage.)
Ah, but what about Spain? Orwell put his life fighting for POUM in the Spanish Civil War. He got himself shot in the neck-pretty high risks for a phony socialist. How do I explain that one?
Actually, it's simple. Orwell went to Spain to fight for his most deeply held belief, yes. Unfortunately, that belief wasn't socialism but the nastiest, most puerile of the tribal hatreds English babies learn in the cradle: anti-Catholicism.
The revolution in Catalonia was unlike any other socialist rebellion before or since. Its fury was reserved for priests, nuns, churches and monasteries, and the anarchists Orwell loved were famous for inventing new ways to kill clerics. That's what drew Orwell to Catalonia: the chance to help the men who were disemboweling priests in Barcelona and winding their guts around the altars. At last, a chance to smite the bloody Papists, the whore of Rome, Eric Blair's oldest and dearest hate. Not since Cromwell had an English Papist-baiter had such an opportunity to torment the filthy priests. Naturally, Orwell was on the first ship he could catch. It wasn't about socialism, it was about the chance to kill "a stinking RC" (Orwell's description of Wyndham Lewis).
Orwell's hatred of Catholics is so blatant that it's frightening. I wonder what kept his fans from seeing it. Here's a quick sample of St George in Ian Paisley mode:
Nearly all our anti-clerical feeling is directed at the poor, unoffending old C of E. If ever a word is raised against Rome, it is only some absurd tale about Jesuit intrigues or babies' skeletons dug up from the floors of nunneries.
Here we get class snobbery mixed with religious bigotry: Orwell's objection to the prevailing brand of Catholic-baiting is that it's crude, mob hate, not the sleek variant he wants. Note too the sentimental exemption for the dear old Church of England, which never hurt anybody except for a few million Irish Catholics.
There's something about Catholics that sets off a chain of atavistic old-maid responses in Orwell, as here, when he jumps from exulting in his chance to smear the bloody Papists to maundering about his garden. This guy is seriously creepy, like Miss Marple if she lived in the Shankill Road:
I had the great pleasure of reviewing [two pro-Catholic books]:It was the first time I have been able to lay the bastinado on a professional RC at any length. I have got a few square feet of garden, but have had rotten results owing to rain, slugs and mice.
And again, in a later letter, wandering from the Inquisition to updates on the local hedgehog:
I found Vacandard's history of the Inquisition quite interesting:It appears:that the pendulum in Poe's story was actually used:Torture [was dropped] in the middle of the 18th century, but the Pope did not formally abolish it until 1816. Our hedgehog has disappeared.
I don't even want to think about the thought processes that led Orwell from the tortures of the Inquisition to that lost hedgehog. Perhaps the Jesuits got it.
Back in my naive Anglophile days, these sudden blurts of hate for our Church hurt quite a bit, but nowhere near as much as the sudden fits of vicious anti-Irish hate I came across. Of course, they go together, "Catholic" and "Irish," which has always been handy for the English bigot.
Orwell hates the Irish too, of course, but much more slyly. Most of them he classes with tramps as human waste; only the Nationalists, the rebels, earn his active hate. It boils over in a strange context, his review of Sean O'Casey, in which he bizarrely turns O'Casey into an Irish Nationalist and attributes O'Casey's English fame to guilt (when in fact O'Casey's plays and memoirs were grimly devoted to revenge on the Nationalists, who seduced O'Casey's hero, Connolly).
But his most revealing slip came when he had to pick a name for the apparatchik-interrogator villain for 1984. Consider the real names of the men who have governed Britain-and then explain why Orwell named his villain "O'Brien." Bad conscience trumped sense yet again. He hates the O'Briens so much that he foolishly imagines they're going to rise to the top in the coming Soviet Britain and take their revenge on the Orwells (or should I say the Blairs). It's silly-but then Orwell is quite a silly man.
Other than these outbursts, Orwell adopts the usual British strategy for dealing with Ireland: clipped, sullen admissions, always vague and brief, that some things were done that were not entirely nice, then a quick change of subject. On the greatest massacre of all, the "Famine" of the 1840s, he adopts the usual strategy: dead silence, just like every other British writer before 1980.
That's the thing about Orwell's Imperialism: it's perfectly ordinary stuff, distinguished only by the socialist persona he invented to speak it. As an example of literary dissembling, Orwell belongs with the great forgers. But as a man of ideas, he is truly beneath contempt. His ideas are simply the hatreds of his nursery, hidden by an elaborate self-glorifying backstory.
In 1984 Orwell's provincial xenophobia led him to come up with the worst dystopian prediction in history, when he depicted Soviet totalitarianism led by the Irish rebel O'Brien as England's future. Oblivious to the huge cruelties of Britain, he went far afield again-as when researching the tortures of the Inquisition-to find his bogeyman. It was a typically fatuous self-indulgent, reactionary impulse. The xenophobia starts in the very first line of 1984, the famous opening: "It was a cold, bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen." Oh the horror of the continental (Papist) 24-hour clock! Anything but that! He was lucky in his tuberculosis. If this fool would have lived any longer, his stupidity would have become obvious to all.
The story Orwell sold the world in his essays and books centered on his lonely ideological odyssey-an evolution that never even got started. From youth to death, Orwell kept his cherished hatreds, all born of an astonishingly fatuous blend of British populist stances from the late Empire. His crises are those of a secretive, cunning child.
Consider one recurrent dilemma, mentioned dozens of times in his works: whether to stand when "God Save the King" is played. This is, first of all, a spy's dilemma, born of bad faith. Moreover, it's a silly one, since only a schoolboy would imagine risking exposure to satisfy a sentimental habit.
And that's Orwell: a maze of lies, maintained with adult skill and considerable talent, in the service of the most tawdry middle-class prejudices.
And so, we have to concede that Hitchens has the right to claim Orwell as ancestor. Like brothers, they share many traits, all of them vile. Indeed, it's shocking (and kind of sickening) to see how slavishly Hitchens has worked to advance Orwell's deepest hatred: the bloody Papists. Would you be surprised to learn, dear reader, that Hitchens has written an entire book vilifying Mother Theresa, a charming little tome he christened The Ghoul of Calcutta. Yes, in a world full of villains, she was his pick for Public Enemy #1.
It's that relentless, unashamed hate that makes Hitchens a true heir of Orwell. And Hitchens is right, too, when he reminds us that Orwell matters. Hell yes, Orwell matters! Because America has landed itself where he started: defending the indefensible, reviving his Imperial project. Orwell was loyal to his hates, and that mad persistence in a hostile environment made him a master stylist (so good he seemed "simple") pushing the most remarkably puerile list of hates in literary history: Papists, wogs, women (don't get me started on Orwell and women!) and lefties; a twit's list of enemies, a fool's list.
America is now neck-deep in a war so stupid that nothing in our native speech can contain, let alone defend it. Enter Mister Hitchens. He's channeling Orwell, he says, and alas, he's right. Until now, it was easy and harmless to let Orwell be a dead saint. But Hitchens called that bluff; when he says he's come to do Orwell's work, the evidence says he's telling the truth. Because Orwell's work, once you tear off the camouflage, is fanning the hate of a fading Empire for a disobedient, turbulent world where the wogs refuse to obey it. The worst news America could ever receive is this: Hitchens really is Orwell's heir.
John Dolan is the author of Pleasant Hell, published by Capricorn Publishing. You can order it on amazon.com, or pester your local book shop.