I recently read All Art is Propaganda, an edition of George Orwell’s critical and political essays from a bit before to just after WWII. The moral crisis he experienced as a British writer at that time yields endless lessons to someone like me, writing as an American today. Speaking of today, I felt an acute need to skim the highlights I archived while reading the book. Its title is an aphorism that Orwell repeated, but I think he said it best in his essay on Dickens:
All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.
After the skimming this one stuck out, from Wells, Hitler and the World State. In it Orwell criticizes a newspaper column by Victorian sci-fi master H.G. Wells that laughs off the idea of the Nazis ever gaining any real ground against Britain. Orwell says that we shouldn’t underestimate the old powers of ethnic nationalism and fascism, because they can sweep the world before we realize they’re there. I don’t really know what I mean by “we”, probably something like “educated liberals.” But that’s the point:
The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action. The people who say that Hitler is Antichrist, or alternatively, the Holy Ghost, are nearer an understanding of the truth than the intellectuals who for ten dreadful years have kept it up that he is merely a figure out of comic opera, not worth taking seriously.
Hmm. Well that tragicomedy has set deep roots in UK and US politics as of this writing. I fear I might be doing a disservice to Orwell’s love of brevity here, but I need to include this excerpt from his essay Writers and Leviathan, because it reminds us that before criticizing anything, we need to sacrifice at least half our pay:
A modern literary intellectual lives and writes in constant dread — not, indeed, of public opinion in the wider sense, but of public opinion within his own group. As a rule, luckily, there is more than one group. But also at any given moment there is a dominant orthodoxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin and sometimes means cutting one’s income in half for years on end. Obviously, for about fifteen years past, the dominant orthodoxy, especially among the young, has been ‘left’. The key words are ‘progressive’, ‘democratic’ and ‘revolutionary’. While the labels which you must at all costs avoid having gummed upon you are ‘bourgeois’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘Fascist’. Almost everyone nowadays, even the majority of Catholics and Conservatives, is ‘progressive’. Or at least wishes to be thought so. No one, so far as I know, ever describes himself as a ‘bourgeois’. Just as no one literate enough to have heard the word ever admits to being guilty of anti-Semitism. We are all of us good democrats, anti-Fascist, anti-imperialist, contemptuous of class distinctions, impervious to colour prejudice, and so on and so forth. Nor is there much doubt that the present-day ‘left’ orthodoxy is better than the rather snobbish, pietistic Conservative orthodoxy which prevailed twenty years ago, when the Criterion and (on a lower level) the London Mercury were the dominant literary magazines. For at the least its implied objective is a viable form of society which large numbers of people actually want. But it also has its own falsities which, because they cannot be admitted, make it impossible for certain questions to be seriously discussed.