In the decades since his death in 1950, George Orwell’s name has become synonymous with the desire to resist tyranny and totalitarianism. His books have been taught to generations of students, and the lessons contained in them have inspired some of the world’s greatest thinkers and political leaders. But now, as his work enjoys its latest renaissance, he’s become something quite different: the victim of cultural appropriation.
This is obviously stretching the accepted definition of that term, which usually refers to situations when “members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.” But the treatment of Orwell’s work by far-right conservatives is transparently exploitative and disrespectful, and their efforts to weaponize Orwell’s words in the service of arguments and ideas he would never have supported is an insult to his memory. Rick Scott, the Florida senator who invoked Orwell’s name during his address to this year’s CPAC conference in August, is just the latest example of this deeply irritating trend.
The work to which these Orwell-enthralled conservatives are most commonly drawn is, of course, 1984. They seem to think its critique of authoritarianism and the provisional role truth plays in its shadow validates their maximalist view of free speech on anything from COVID-19 conspiracy theories to bigotry directed at minorities, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. Any attempt to curtail hate speech or contain the spread of misinformation is, in their eyes, a textbook example of the “thought police” from the book’s fictional superstate of Oceania.
Take Twitter’s long overdue decision in January 2021 to ban Donald Trump from its platform. “We are living Orwell's 1984,” his son Don Jr. tweeted. “Free-speech no longer exists in America.” Twitter, of course, is a private business, not an arm of the government, and it can ban anyone it wants. As Washington Post book critic Ron Charles noted, Trump Jr. was still speaking freely to his 6.5 million followers. “Irony is having a heyday,” he said.
It’s not just American conservatives who are misrepresenting the meaning of Orwell’s name and words. In the video announcing his leadership aspirations, Pierre Poilievre had a copy of 1984 sitting behind him on his bookshelf. And back in February 2020, then-CPC leader Andrew Scheer told Parliament: “George Orwell’s 1984 was supposed to be a cautionary tale about the evils of big government, not an instruction manual for this prime minister.”
This is a profound misreading of that book’s message, although hardly a surprising one coming from someone like Scheer. After all, the most obviously Orwellian moments of the last few years have actually come from people like Trump. When his administration’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, claimed his inauguration drew the “largest audience ever” on his first day in office, Trump set the tone early. “Easily disproved by widely available visual evidence,” Charles, the Washington Post book critic, wrote, “Spicer’s fib fulfilled Winston Smith’s prediction in 1984: ‘In the end, the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.’”
Make no mistake: those on the right who invoke Orwell’s words in the service of their own are hypocrites of the highest order. Orwell, after all, was an avowed democratic socialist, and socialism is one of the right’s favourite bugbears in 2022. He would have been steadfastly and vocally opposed to the sort of authoritarian impulses that increasingly animate both the Trumpist leaders who now run the Republican Party and their imitators and admirers here in Canada.
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,” Orwell said in his 1946 essay “Why I Write.”
And while 1984 and Animal Farm have traditionally gotten most of the Orwell-related attention, the book that everyone should be reading — the book that most clearly speaks to the moment we’re in right now — is 1938’s Homage to Catalonia. His coverage of the Spanish civil war, and his participation in it, was the ultimate act of speaking truth to power — especially when it came to his own side of the ideological fence. His criticism of the excesses of the Stalinist forces, and by proxy the movement that it represented, did not make him popular within the political circles he tended to run. Orwell, to his eternal credit, didn’t care.
This is hardly some literary or historical footnote, either. As Derek Dunn, a reporter with the Arnprior Chronicle-Guide, wrote back in March, the conditions Orwell documented in Homage to Catalonia seem to be returning with a vengeance. “Violent thugs are taking root in Europe. Confidence is building among similar people in North America. They smell chaos in the wind and are goaded on by far-right politicians and media personalities.”
Opinion: These days, as his work enjoys its latest renaissance, George Orwell’s become something quite different: the victim of cultural appropriation, columnist @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver.
Our salvation from this gathering storm is the same one that Orwell prescribed in his book: the unflinching truth. The late Christopher Hitchens, who probably admired Orwell as much as anyone who ever lived, wrote about Orwell’s unique capacity for honesty in a 2012 piece for Vanity Fair. “By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.”
In an age of rampant misinformation and bad-faith actors, we need those qualities more than ever. “Freedom,” Orwell wrote, “is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”