What would Orwell do?

Instituting the Winston Smith Memorial Medal for Dishonest Language in the Service of Unspeakable Actions (see previous post) led me to reflect on what Orwell would have thought about current events.

I was tempted to say merely that anyone on the pro-war side who didn’t strongly denounce the use of torture should be ashamed to invoke Orwell’s name in support of his position. If anything violates the “ordinary human decency” that Orwell firmly believed in, torture does, no matter who the victim is. (And I would add that support of torture, even, or perhaps especially, torture under euphemisms, fits very poorly with the “moral clarity” that has been claimed as a good consequence of 9-11.)

But on reflection I think the problem faced by the Orwell-loving advocates of war (including Christopher Hitchens and the undersigned) is much deeper than that. It isn’t really possible to imagine the author of Homage to Catalonia supporting the war we are about to wage; it’s too obviously a war of calculation rather than one of sheer necessity.

If the weather in the Spring of 1940 had been a little bit better, and if Japan hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor, Germany and its allies might well have wound up in total control of the entire Old World. Orwell recognized that as a possibility, and he was prepared to subordinate almost everything else — even the anti-Americanism he never bothered to conceal — to the cause of preventing it.

Political Islam simply doesn’t pose that sort of threat. Orwell would have hated Saddam Hussein and everything he stands for, but he also would have hated what we’re about to do to the population of Baghdad under the rubric of “Shock and Awe.”

That isn’t enough to make me change my mind about the wisdom of displacing Saddam Hussein by military action if bluff fails, and there’s no reason it should be enough for Hitchens, either. But it ought to limit the amount of vituperation he, and other Orwell admirers, are prepared to direct at those who have come down on the other side. Just imagine, before hurling your next insult, that one of those peace demonstrators is named Eric Blair.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com