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December 17, 2011 / glencoyote

Christopher Hitchens

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” – George Orwell 1984

The death of Christopher Hitchens occurs as I am in the midst of teaching a unit on the language of democracy and totalitarianism using the Occupy movement and 1984 and Animal Farm as the context and texts. Although my familiarity with Orwell extends back forty years to my own high school English classes, it was Hitchens’ 2002 book, Why Orwell Matters, that sharpened my current sense of Orwell’s value. Hitchens’ thorough demolition of Raymond Williams is entertaining (he quotes Williams on Animal Farm: “the issue of government lies between drunkards and pigs”), but it is Hitchens’ emphasis on the opposition to ‘actually existing socialism’ and the respect that the intellectuals of those movements had for Orwell, that frames the difficult and important space Orwell occupied as an anti-totalitarian socialist.

It is with reverence that one contemplates Orwell’s negotiation of a world riven by the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin from the frustrating vantage of Tea Party America in 2011, as it is with respect that one considers the avalanche of words expended by Hitchens as he engaged in his own political and cultural wars.

The title of his 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, captures the Hitchens battering ram style. In this season of Republican jesters who would be President, Hitchens’ description of the Mormon faith should be required reading.

Of course his position on the invasions of Afghanistan & Iraq was wrong and wrought out of the kind of euphemistic abstractions (“cleanup and rescue of Afghanistan”) that he often skewered so effectively in other contexts, but even then I admired the breathtakingly reckless passion that seemed to animate it – and of course the writing, the preposterously polemical and overbearing writing that was so much fun to read.

In the news today I learn that the disappearance of the 100 watt incandescent lightbulb has been delayed by brave resisters of government intrusion. A certain Mr. Miller captures the sentiments of some would be dragon slayers when he declares that, “I think I need to stock up more.” “It’s another invasion of personal liberty by our government.” There are many impulses to metaphor that must be suppressed here, but I do wish that it were possible to feed Mr. Miller to Mr. Hitchens.

postscript 12/18: Vaclav Havel died today. He was one of the important figures of the opposition to actually existing socialism listed by Hitchens when describing Orwell’s influence. Read “The power of the powerless.” And, from a source I don’t often cite, a piece that draws the connection between Orwell & Havel, albeit with a libertarian spin that makes sense.



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  1. Chris Campe / Aug 28 2012 1:45 am

    While I was pursuing a Poli Sci degree in the early eighties and wading through socialist professors of one stripe or another, one of them, tired of my feeble attempts to engage him in intellectual battle suggested, given my proclivities, to read “Homage to Catalonia.” What a gift that was and I have been forever grateful. Wow! Here was a Socialist who could look reality in the eye and courageously speak the truth. Just relaying what was happening in the name of socialism was unforgiveable at the time. Precious few leftist intellectuals in mid-century were to follow his lead and risk ostracism to their eternal shame (I know many fought in other areas but, come on, Stalin). There have been very few of the right brave and clever enough to offer such a basting of the right.
    Oddly, this honesty has lent such credibility to Orwell for me that I had to, overtime, open my ears to what he was saying that supported his Socialist beliefs. This is an ongoing project. Currently, I find both camps to be inadequate in naming and facing our major problems. I have admired and learned a great deal from Havel, Camus, and Christopher Lasch ( others of similar strength. All, to my mind, brave and independent thinkers. I know there are many that preceeded Orwell but he does occupy a special place in that bloody century. I have not read enough of Hitchens but your admiration of his writing will remedy that. Your blogs are very interesting. Send some suggestions.

    • glencoyote / Aug 28 2012 3:20 am

      Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed the link to Bacevich’s article on Lasch. I wish I had as much confidence in the eternal renewal of populism. Homage to Catalonia was also the book that turned me into an Orwellian – to negotiate that treacherous time with political clarity and moral authority!

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