How ‘Orwellian’ Became an All-Purpose Insult

From The New York Times:

After the events of last week, one has to wonder whether Josh Hawley — for all of his prep school polish and Ivy League degrees — was fully cognizant of what he was doing. The Republican Senator from Missouri apparently assumed he could have it all: Hitch his star to Donald Trump’s, attempt to overturn November’s presidential election, and prove his down-home bona fides by giving the mob that later invaded the Capitol a raised-fist salute — while also presenting himself as a Very Serious Thinker who had written a book about the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt and was about to publish another titled “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” What he got instead was mostly revulsion from his congressional peers and a canceled book contract.

An irate and incredulous Hawley took to Twitter, calling the publisher’s actions “a direct assault on the First Amendment.” In peddling specious claims of voter fraud, he said he had merely been doing his duty, “leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity.” He insisted that his publisher was taking its cues from “the Left” and trying to silence him: “This could not be more Orwellian.”

One might come up with things that are in fact “more Orwellian” — including the bland euphemism “voter integrity,” which typically serves the cause of disenfranchisement and not voting rights. (Just as one might question whether a single publisher scrapping a single book contract amounts to what George Orwell’s novel “1984” describes as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”) But Hawley was taking part in the long tradition of invoking Orwell’s name as a cudgel for settling scores and scoring points. The next day, after Twitter permanently suspended the president’s account, his son Donald Trump Jr. announced (on Twitter) that “free speech no longer exists in America” and “we are living in Orwell’s 1984.”

In the meantime, the novel “1984” — in which a totalitarian regime crushes dissent through violence and the perversion of language — shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Hawley may have bungled the rollout of his own book, but it looked like he helped buoy the sales of someone else’s.

It’s an irony that Orwell, ever alert to the stubborn discrepancy between reality and high-flown fantasies, might have appreciated. Or perhaps he would have despaired that his last novel, published in 1949, less than a year before he died, had been pressed into service as an impulse purchase (by anxious book buyers) and a weapon (by cynical politicians). Sales of “1984” are a barometer of national worry — they surged in 2013, after Edward Snowden revealed the vast scope of the surveillance state; and again in early 2017, after Kellyanne Conway, then serving as an aide to President Trump, defended demonstrable lies by calling them “alternative facts.” Even if Hawley’s critics have argued that his use of “Orwellian” is itself Orwellian, there’s a reason it’s become an all-purpose epithet, a go-to accusation. Americans in 2021 might not agree on much, but everyone can agree that the world depicted in “1984” is a dystopia — which is to say, it’s obviously and indisputably bad.

. . . .

Throughout his writing life, Orwell had been preoccupied with consensus reality — its necessity and vulnerability. In “Homage to Catalonia,” he chronicled his experience as a volunteer for anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War, watching as the Republicans devoured their own. Once their shared understanding of the world began to break down, they started denouncing one another as liars and traitors to the cause. “In such circumstances there can be no argument,” Orwell wrote. “The necessary minimum of agreement cannot be reached.”

. . . .

Dictionary, the term “Orwellian” started as a literary critic’s playful shorthand, when the writer Mary McCarthy used it in a 1950 essay to describe a fashion magazine that had no “point of view beyond its proclamation of itself.” The word has since been used to describe such varied phenomena as the euphemistic jargon of the nuclear industry, the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and a ’60s-era kitchen appliance that turned powdered mixes into coffee and soup.

You don’t need to have read “1984” to grasp why someone is calling something Orwellian, even if you disagree with the assessment. But someone who hasn’t read the book may be more susceptible to the manipulation of the term. Hawley, Trump Jr. and others on the right deploy the word to complain about “cancel culture,” but the novel itself isn’t so much a treatise on free speech absolutism as it is a warning about the degradation of language and the potency of lethal propaganda.

. . . .

Still, even that is a flattened description of a novel that is more sophisticated than the leaden morality tale it’s often made out to be. In his illuminating book “The Ministry of Truth,” a biography of “1984” and its influence, Dorian Lynskey makes a persuasive case that the novel is structured in a way that heightens its ambiguity. Yes, the brute force of totalitarianism is an inextricable theme, but the novel’s narration — with its texts within texts — also enacts its own phantasmagoria, a world where both everything is true and nothing is true. Lynskey credits Orwell with anticipating what Hannah Arendt would describe in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published a year after Orwell died: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

But the periodic invocations of “Orwellian” generally have less to do with the specifics of the text than with the writer’s noble sheen — Orwell as a stalwart man of the left who was never seduced by the extremes of either side. As Lynskey puts it, “To quote Orwell was to assume, deservingly or not, some of his moral prestige.” In 2002, Christopher Hitchens wrote a short book titled “Why Orwell Matters” that extolled Orwell’s independence of thought, implying that Hitchens himself was Orwell’s rightful heir. A year later, Hitchens was part of the chorus in favor of invading Iraq — a cause he would unwaveringly support until his death in 2011, even after the stated pretext for the war turned out to be a sham.

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell discussed the blight of “dying metaphors” — those well-worn phrases that allow us to mouth off without paying much heed. The examples he gave included “Achilles’ heel,” “swan song” and “hotbed.” Had he lived long enough, he may well have added “Orwellian” to the list.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Perhaps, PG missed something in the OP, but, while the author criticizes others for misusing “Orwellian”, PG didn’t note any clear definition of the term the author did provide.

Perhaps nobody really knows what Orwellian means any more. It may have fallen into the category of fascist or communist as a general insult directed toward someone with whom a speaker or author disagrees.

PG can easily think of self-described communist governments today that operate in the same manner that governments that formerly defined themselves as fascist did with someone acting as supreme leader for life, rubber-stamp party faithful, etc.

Certainly, at least in the United States, fascism has become less popular than communism in that there are a handful of people willing to call themselves communists and support a Communist Party, but no one of which PG is aware who belongs to a Fascist Party (although it’s possible the Communist Party or parties are better at PR than fascists are.)

One of the regular visitors to TPV who has performed serious scholarly research on Orwell and hi writings sent PG an email saying that most people misuse the term, Orwellian and PG can’t disagree.

PG doubts that very few could read 1984 and think Big Brother was a cool guy and they would like to live in a place like Oceania. As for himself, PG thinks he’ll pub Orwellian up in his mental attic where it can collect some mental dust (which is proliferating in PG’s brain at a rapid pace – he blames Covid).

4 thoughts on “How ‘Orwellian’ Became an All-Purpose Insult”

  1. “PG thinks he’ll pub Orwellian up in his mental attic”

    I read this and thought, pub… go and drink to mull the idea over with his friends. I assume you meant ‘put.’

    All the best in these troubling time where retreating to the pub to sit out the storm is probably the best course of action.

  2. How does one determined that ‘Big Brother’ is lying?
    You might have proof; however, that proof can disappear, and there is no residual objective evidence that it ever existed.
    The only ‘evidence’ you have is the sworn memory of those that saw the event, even thorugh all objective proof is gone (I might add, by the hand of the State that claims it never existed).
    I would argue that, in those cases, the FACT that the State tried so hard to hide their actions constitutes sufficient proof, much as the case of a suspected burglar who has hidden behind the dumpster, near a discarded bludgeon, dripping with the homeowner’s blood, and with a wad of cash that he has no explanation for having on his person, can be convicted on that basis.
    Much like the case of the de-pantzed preacher caught in a sleazy motel room with a half-naked lady of the evening, common sense says that he isn’t just trying to persuade the woman to embrace Jesus Christ as her personal savior.
    The Dems in GA WERE caught, on video, after having told a provable lie about a broken water main, and having kicked out all of the observers that were of Trump’s party, counting votes, dragging the ballots out from under tables (and, never actually justifying the chain of evidence in their inclusion), and – what a miracle! – counting enough votes to give the state to Biden.
    Is it POSSIBLE that this was all innocent? Sure. But, the mere fact that the decision had been made to continue the count, in the middle of the night, WITHOUT impartial observers, by itself says “no”.
    Same with the count that took place with workers holding up boards blocking any oversight of the events – COULD there be an innocent explanation? The mere fact that it was done gives rise to reasonable doubt.
    But, the fact that the statehouse had to be forced to hold a hearing, refused to give the GOP the power to supoena the people on video (who, in fact, refused to appear), did not conduct a full search of all electronics – phones, computers, voting machines – and did their best to keep any of the events of the election from seeing the light, their opponents might be somewhat justified in thinking they had something to hide.
    (Keep in mind, this is behavior that has been repeated, year after year, with protests by the GOP in districts solely controlled by Dems. And, yet, no court ever finds it worthy of taking a look at in depth. And, the higher courts use that refusal to justify their not stepping in.
    If this had happened during the Civil Rights era, when the Democratic Party was working overtime to keep Black people from voting, there never would have been a change.)
    Just as the leadership of the Party hid their memory-holing of history.
    So, yeah, he is justified in referring to this as “Orwellian”, given that the official branch of government spent so much time and money acting surrepticiously.
    Understand, I’m NOT saying that this was a rigged election.
    It’s just that an election that was rigged would have had similar anomalies.

    • Whether the times are Orwelian or not is debateble but thst were are in on the cusp of a real world Seldon Crisis isn’t.

      Rigged election or not, they aren’t denying how they tied up the Senate since they said it loud and openly before the Georgia runoff: “We’ll give everybody $2000 if we get control of the Senate.”

      That line has been crossed before repeatedly but never so openly and in forums tbst won’t be swept under the rug. DeTocqueville was correct: the republic would remain strong as long as the masses weren’t allowed to vote themselves the public largesse. Well, they weren’t just allowed, but encouraged.

      History will not be kind.

  3. Most people misuse the term? Okay then, I won’t feel bad, especially as PG’s scholar-of-Orwell friend also did not define the term. I always thought the term referred to whether or not reality is permitted to be acknowledged.

    If there are four lights, and the Powers That Be insist there are five, and insist you must say there are five, this is Orwellian. From the very beginning there were five lights in this room, never just the four, and to think otherwise makes you an ist-or a -phobe, but certainly you are crazy to say there are four.

    When you are told to compliment the fit and cut and color of the emperor’s clothes, and are never to point out he’s not wearing any, this is Orwellian.

    Bonus round: His imperial majesty was always “wearing” Fashionable Designer’s clothes, until five minutes ago when the designer was unpersonned. It is not possible to stay a step ahead of which style or designer is In and who is Out, because the Powers That Be decide what the emperor is wearing over a game of fizzbin.

    That’s what I always thought Orwellian meant. I’m prepared to stand corrected, as it’s been ages since I last read 1984.

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