Monday, January 19, 2009

Orwell and the inauguaration, again...

Nothing like a foot or more of snow in 24 hours to allow time for reflection. Especially as it's still falling, and as today is Martin Luther King Day. No need to break out the tractor until it stops.

Yesterday I wrote about unformed, unscripted moments, but particularly about George Orwell, and how, in one completely unscripted moment in 1941, when few Britons thought their democracy would even survive the decade, he was able to see into the future and predict with what seems to be massive confidence, the moment we are now experiencing. I managed to surround this interesting point with a lot of dross about other things, so let me excise the thesis statement at the heart of the matter so we can look at it more clearly:

"The whole English-speaking world is haunted by the idea of human equality, and though it would be simply a lie to say that either we or the Americans have ever acted up to our professions, still, the idea is there, and it is capable of one day becoming a reality. From the English-speaking culture, if it does not perish, a society of free and equal human beings will ultimately arise."

(From The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Part III.)

The important phrase is "...will ultimately arise." Not "might," or "could," but a flat, confident, certain "will."

How, given that Britain remained in 1941 the greatest imperial nation (and therefore oppressor) the world had ever seen despite German bombs and U-boats, and given that the US in 1941 still tolerated Jim Crow violence and inequality (and would for many more years), could Orwell have such confidence? The notion that an idea latent in society can remain dormant for years, or at least un-influential, and yet so haunt a society that it will one day be forced to live up to it, is compelling, and was surely at the center of Martin Luther King's philosophy, especially as revealed in his "I have a dream speech."

What are the great ideas latent in today's Anglo-American society that remain to be fulfilled, but will ultimately, inexorably come? Would Orwell have found them? Or did he, and we've forgotten?

I think most Americans and Britons and members of the other English-speaking, or closely linked nations such as Canada, India, Australia, know, down deep in their hearts, that with intelligence, hard work, and careful policy, poverty can be eliminated worldwide. Most poverty today results from the obstinate refusal of elites in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and elsewhere to depart from their positions as leeches on the flesh of their own peoples. Most of us know that capitalism and entrepreneurship has a role to play in eradicating, but we also know that honest, democratic, technically competent government will be required. Orwell advocated for a more stringent social control over the market than most of us would see as necessary today. But he would have had stronger words for characters like Mugabe than we have seen so far from our leaders.

Most of us still believe deeply in free speech and action for the individual and wish to see it become universalized. This deep and abiding faith separates us from the French, who cannot yet tolerate the sight of a muslim headscarf in a classroom; the Germans, who have a list of state-approved names that families must use; the Russians, who cannot yet imagine themselves without a Big Brother government; or the Chinese, for whom youthful energy must always kowtow to the old and the Party, and for whom corruption seems inevitable. And on and on. The leading role of our nations, particularly the US and India, in the development and deployment of the Internet, the mobile phone, and other technology that enables free speech and free political action, is just the latest manifestation of this deep and characteristically English-speaking idea. Orwell, with his critique of Big Brother, and 1984, worked tirelessly on freedom of speech. His early experience as an imperial policeman in Burma made him ever suspicious of censorship, internal or external. I can imagine the Internet as the ultimate source of the downfall of, say, theocracy in Iran, or the spread of democracy in China. Orwell made good use of the media he found available to him in his time, the book, the pamphlet, the radio talk. I expect he would have welcomed the Internet. He would have worried, however, about how it could be used to monitor and control, as well as to speak freely.

Then there's safety and the family. Most of us understand somewhere deep and quiet that the main outcome of economic effort is, or should be, directed to making a comfortable, safe home life. Orwell had a thread of writing and praxis devoted to this, and could extol the homely virtues of a cup of tea or the perfect pub, or even British "cookery." He was an habitual gardener, animal-keeper, hunter and fisherman, and believed that food production was as much of a right, and as much of a base of national security, as free speech or fire-arms keeping. He even advocated for widespread gun ownership as a means to protect democracy, discourage the Gemran invader, and encourage reform in the reactionary.

(Some of our democratic politicians today might consider this one anew.)

This is all interesting conjecture, and I had better break out that tractor and move some snow.

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