March 3, 2009

Politics and the English Language

Orwell: All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays

In a column on the most famous essay included in this new volume, 'Politics and the English Language' (1946) Robert Fulford drops the rather original suggestion that Orwell's failure to notice Churchill's splendid wartime speeches--in an essay eplicitly devoted to rigorous analysis of double talk and obfuscation in the political rhetoric of his day--was a proof of Orwell's reverse snobbery. Que?

Truth is you could make a pretty good case for Orwell as both a snob and a reverse snob on the basis of any number of things he actually wrote. (Perhaps he was simply being narrowly self-consistent--his upbringing was shabby-genteel, either lower-upper or upper-lower class depending your pov--which afforded ample room to despise the true lower and true upper classes both.) But to argue he was expressing contempt for Churchill by not winkling him into an essay he couldn't have fit into logically--what possibly is the point? He wrote enough words actually about Churchill--admiring and critical both--if that's your litmus test for his response to the upper classes. What would he have accomplished by heaping praise on Churchill as a master political rhetorician in an essay otherwise completely taken up with negative examples? taken it down a blind alley for a paragraph or two before it to its proper course? And how could he possibly have praised Chruchill fulsomely enough to satisfy Rob, 63 years later?

'Most important, the English language had just given the greatest political performance in its history, turning away from England's shores the most formidable of all military machines, Germany's.
' In the hands [sic] of Winston Churchill, language ralllied the British, sustained them through desperate years and led them to victory. It was the supreme political accomplishment of Britain in modern times.
'How could Orwell, writing at precisely that moment, have ignored this central fact of England's existence?'

--Robert Fulford, NatPost Mar 3, 2009

If this hyperbolic gush acknowledges Churchill's role in defeating Hitler, it's hard to imagine what Orwell or anyone, writing at the time with nothing but facts to go on, could have written that wouldn't have struck Fulford as grossly inadequate recognition. Did Churchill's speeches galvanize? yes. Were they the sole force that did? no, though they were a key focal one. At the base level what galvanized the British was simple recognition that Nazism was anti-human and a danger to life and alll human liberty. Was British resistance to Hitler crucial? yes. Was it sufficient? no, anymore than Churchill's language was sufficient in itself to defeat Germany's war machine. Troops moving over air, sea and land were also required, and support troops supplying them in a thousand areas. And they were galvanized, not hypnotically and zombifically driven, by Churchill's powerful rhetoric, and obliged to make complex decisions day by day, hour by hour, that Churchill's speeches could give them no specific guidance on. Some of the credit for their actions--my mother's and father's among the rest--belongs to them as free agents; they weren't simply windup dolls driven forward by a master rhetorician's impulsion. Churchill would have been repulsed by that suggestion, and so should every free citizen.

In one of his essays or columns during the war Orwell spoke of a most-probably-apocryphal story going round about one of Churchill's most famous speeches: ". . . we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!” It was widely rumoured that when he went off mike he added, "We'll throw bottles at the bastards, we've got nothing else." Orwell thought, rightly I'd say, that for such a story to circulate was a strong indication the depth and breadth of affection there was for Churchill, across all class lines. Even more interesting is how stark a topper it is, and what ferocity of resistance it utters. Churchill felt that impulse and fed it, but he didn't originate it: it came from a wider place than any individual, great or small, could occupy alone.