Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Appeals to Orwell -- Attacking the Weak, Flattering the Strong and Evaluating Every Contact on the Basis of Advancement

In "Why I Write" (1946), George Orwell put together a remarkably honest dictum on the topic of his ongoing literary activities.

Writers, after all, have plenty of motivations -- much like actors and circus clowns -- with the upshot, for many, that they want to Do Good. Somehow. And writing is the way they have found to do it.

Let's let Orwell speak for himself:

[After a lengthy and humorous description of his background and how he came to writing, he states his personal (and generalized) motivations...]

  • (i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

  • (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

  • (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

  • (iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

  • It's hard to argue with Orwell on those four broad motivational points; every writer I've known has shared them to one degree or another, and these motivations are shared by many other professionals as well. I mention actors and circus clowns in part because of my own long association with such people through the Show Business (one of my previous careers), and by and large, they share many of the same motivations as writers and so many others who seek to have some kind of impact on people.

    Egoism is the main point. Orwell, to his everlasting credit, is fully aware of his own egoism in becoming a writer. Makes no bones about it. His insight that the mass of humanity is not particularly egocentric, selfish or self-obsessed is interesting. From the indications of his writing in this essay and other works, he came to this insight through his contacts with the lower classes of Britain, the servile masses of Burma, and his experiences in Europe between the Wars -- particularly during the Spanish Civil War. "They" -- the unselfish masses -- are not like "us:" The egoists. The self-obsessed. The Writers.

    Further to his credit, Orwell does not judge the unselfish mass of humanity to be lesser than himself and his kind. For his time and his culture, that is amazing.

    But in other works, such as "Notes on Nationalism," he proposes that the British intelligentsia -- of which he is of course a part, though he insisted on his own independence of mind -- is largely captivated with the notion that the Oppressed Peoples of the Empire and the World are actually better than their Betters who rule over them with guns, an iron rod and the lash.

    How is an Empire established and how is it maintained and ruled? There were only ever a handful of British colonial officers ruling over vast seas of Natives around the globe, and how it was done is of some interest today as American and British Ruling Class interests conspire to put Our Brown Brothers under the gun, the iron rod and the lash once again in a sort of cracked reimposition of the Empire in those areas where the Lessons of Democracy obviously didn't take.

    How could a handful of British soldiers and colonial officers have managed it?

    Given that the reimposition is being handled by relatively even fewer Americans and Britons -- leaving out the other nations' few and proud -- than the deed was first done, we may wish to reflect on how it was managed to begin with and that may differ from the way it is being done now.

    Attacks on the weak was one of the most obvious means the Empire was established and maintained. Flattery of the strong didn't hurt. And evaluating every contact in the field of interest on the basis of how it could be used to advance the aims of the Companies and the Crown was fundamental.

    We see much the same going on now in the attacks launched against the weakest states and peoples: Iraq and Afghanistan most prominently, but including Somalia and the few enclaves of the Palestinians and other Lesser Peoples of the Middle East. Probing for weaknesses in the Other is ongoing, and more and more states and peoples will be added to the list of territories to conquer as time goes by. Iran, of course, is in the gunsights as we speak, and there will be more weak and weakened states to be gathered in to the New Empire.

    Flattery of the strong was one of the keys to British success in building its Empire in the 19th Century. While weak Native states and tribes would be attacked brutally and mercilessly, strong ones would be flattered and persuaded with gifts and the preservation of status, revenues and control. By this means, loyalty was purchased or otherwise obtained. Thus, for example, India could be ruled effectively through Native agents, simply by convincing a sufficient number of Native princes to submit to the Crown and be rewarded. It worked well enough so long as the Natives did not rebel, but as is the way of these people, rebellion was commonplace, and each one became harder and harder to suppress.

    Finally, as Britain trolled the earth for new conquests, their agents evaluated every contact they made with the Natives on the basis of how those contacts could be used to advance their aims and ambitions. They became very adept at recognizing who could be used to their advantage, who could be ignored, and who would have to be taken on and defeated.

    All of these factors and more are once again in play as Anglo-American Imperial might asserts itself.

    Yet the lesson from the failures of the British Empire was never really learned either in Westminster or in DC. No, in those realms, the Empire was a success, and withdrawal from Imperial control was only made necessary by other events. For example, the two world wars.

    Just look at India today if you need an example of the success of the Empire. It is free, self-governing, democratic and an economic powerhouse. Any former colonial officer would say it is so because of the example of the British. Had India not been put under the Crown, think what a mess and what a failed state -- or states -- it would be today.

    So God Bless the Queen, and don't you forget it.

    But the Imperial Road is the wrong road according to Orwell. The road of liberation and Democratic Socialism is the right road.

    How you get from one to the other is the problem.

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