BY MATTHEW HERBERT
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we are taught as children. And it’s good advice. Much great literature and moral theorizing tells us, very sensibly, that we must look inside people’s hearts and minds to understand what’s going on on the surface.
George Orwell looked as deeply into the human mind as anyone, at least when it came to politics. He admired many of his critics and ideological enemies and thought their beliefs should be given careful, deliberate consideration. But he also believed there are times when you go with your gut–when you can see evil right in front of your nose.
Take goose-stepping. In a 1940 essay, “England, Your England,” Orwell observed:
One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim.
Sometimes the evil you can perceive aesthetically is not so clear cut, but it is still there. Charles Dickens, Orwell wrote, was constantly hitting out against a wickedness he couldn’t quite define. Of his more prosecutorial novels, Orwell wrote, “What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, ‘an expression on the human face’.”
His own camp did not escape this kind of criticism. When Orwell insulted certain English socialists as “juice-drinking sandal-wearers,” he was not merely indulging his own in-born conservative attitude. He knew that his fellow leftists’ ostentatious weirdness would put off the great majority of working people they needed on their side if they were ever going to win elections. Orwell firmly believed that to most of the working class, “a crank meant a Socialist, and a Socialist meant a crank.”
But here Orwell was basically just saying, don’t look silly if you have a serious point to make.
Back to the evil that can be directly apprehended in surface appearances. From the first time I watched the video of Donald Trump clomping across Lafayette Square to hold an upside-down Bible aloft in front of St. John’s Church, I thought not only was it a naked, sacrilegious abuse of power, but also that its ugliness was part of its essence. It was the hideous core of Trumpism saying to all its opponents, “Yes, I’m ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me.”