The Daily Camera [Boulder, CO], 25 June 2003
Alarmed civil libertarians raise the specter of Big Brother as the federal government intrudes on the freedom and privacy of American citizens in the name of fighting terrorism. A critic of left-wing attacks on freedom of speech warns us to beware of the new thought police. Around the world, this biting quote remains as fresh and relevant as ever: Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One hundred years after his birth, George Orwell speaks to millions of readers beneath the hum of public life. The author of 1984 and Animal Farm not only warned us eloquently against totalitarianism, but equipped us with language to resist and ridicule the enemies of freedom, abroad or at home. The particular battles he waged against imperialism, fascism and Stalinism have faded into the past or assumed new forms in the present, but Orwell's stubborn voice of conscience transcends the time in which he lived. One measure of his influence is the continuing battle over his legacy. Political factions of almost every description have tried at one time or another to claim Orwell as their exclusive property. The effort always fails, as it must. Nobody can trim Orwell to fit the demands of an ideology; his achievement rests on his independence of mind.
He was born Eric Blair on June 25, 1903 in India, where his father was a civil servant. He grew up in England, served as a policeman in Burma, worked odd jobs in Paris and London, reported for British newspapers and fought in the Spanish Civil War. All of those experiences found their way into his journalism, essays and novels. All shaped his view of the world and of writing. Orwell was a patriot who wrote affectionately of his country but despised saber-rattling nationalism. He was also a socialist who opposed Stalinism and scorned what he regarded as the illusions of left-wing intellectuals "their generally negative querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power." Above all, he was a writer of surpassing honesty and clarity, wedded to old-fashioned notions of objectivity and truth. In "Looking Back on the Spanish War," he commented on lying in time of war: "This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world .... I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written."
Approaching the 100th anniversary of Orwell's birth, one magazine article referred to his "wintry genius." But the remarkable thing about him, as the critic Lionel Trilling once wrote, is that he was not a genius, and certainly not a saint. He rose above the ordinary through the force of his integrity and will. George Orwell approached his work with a simple determination to think honestly, observe faithfully and write clearly, whatever the cost to anyone's preconceptions, including his own. As a writer, he was not first of all a man of the left or right. He was simply Orwell, a challenge to every reader and a rebuke to ideologues of every stripe.
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