For Christmas, my mom got me the book I’d been waiting more than a year to buy, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, by David S. Reynolds. It came out in late 2020, but it’s a 1,000-page tome, and, like all of Reynolds’s books, I wanted to take time to absorb it. For most of 2020 and 2021 I was just coping with, you know, life, so I kept putting Abe off.
Reynolds writes long, detailed books about the cultural forces that shaped major developments in U.S. history, focusing on the 19th century. Even before our current struggles with the blight of nativist authoritarianism, I had long thought the 19th century was pivotal for understanding our country’s self-image and destiny. (How many articles have you read in the last five years that say we are re-living the 1850s? Yeah, me too. But they’re not wrong.) So, Reynolds, I have discovered, validates many of my assumptions about how to read U.S. history.
Anyway, the “fierce rush of life” (Wodehouse) still keeps me from writing much of anything serious here, which is probably just as well. One thing this blog has taught me is that I’m still in the process of purging all the tedious, precious, and otherwise horrible writing that is still inside me and which must be gotten rid of before I can do better. Onward ho.
But yesterday I had a bit of the old feeling again–where I read something trenchant and profound, go on a trail run, and discover a bunch of connections between what I just read and real life. So here it is.
We all love formulas. They simplify our problems. Or they clarify something annoyingly vague about reality. (A friend of mine wrote this wonderful post about trail running that opens with a discussion along these lines of the Hegelian dialectic. Sound intimidating? Well, check out my friend’s post and discover that you already know what the Hegelian dialectic is, and it’s everywhere. Then go show off to your friends.)
But I digress.
As Abraham Lincoln was trying to figure how to turn his opposition to slavery from a fuzzy moral intuition into an actionable political platform in the mid-1850s, he ultimately settled on the following formula. The challenge to America must be posed as (1) the “naked question” and (2) the “central idea.”
These were–and are–deceptively simple terms. For Lincoln, the naked question was, Can America remain true to its founding principle of human equality while extending slavery into its expanding territory? The central idea was equality. Lincoln did not just mean that the idea of equality was central to resolving America’s conflict. He meant that the idea of equality must be made to occupy the country’s political center, so that abolitionism could be a centripetal force rather than a centrifugal one.
I haven’t finished Abe yet, so I won’t dwell on all the ways Reynolds argues this was an ingenious formulation of America’s basic political identity crisis. Read the book, if you have time. It’s awesome.
What I wanted to say today is how well I think Abe’s formula applies to almost any challenge in everyday life. Not just a political genius, Abe is also a self-help guru, waiting to be discovered. As countless bumper stickers and inspirational posters tell us, almost everyone is struggling with a hard problem. On many days, the problem might seem irresolvable because it is intractable. We can’t get our hands around it because we can’t get our mind around it.
About two-thirds of the way through my trail run yesterday–where inspiration often hits me–it occurred to me that the things I struggle with the hardest in plain old life are susceptible to Abe’s political analysis.
Think about it: for anything big that is in the way of your happiness or well being, it can probably be put into Abe’s formula. What is the naked question? And what is the central idea? Not some zany, extreme idea, but something you can make sense of, something around which you can organize your life’s energy and priorities.
Like Hegel’s dialectic, once you grasp the naked question-central idea, you can apply it usefully almost anywhere. Last week, days before I read about Abe’s formula, I read this insightful analysis by The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson about what’s wrong with America. And when I thought about it yesterday out on the trail, Voila!–it hit me that Thompson was putting the problem precisely in Abe’s terms. The naked question: Why is America failing so clearly at the same core national priorities we used to be good at? The central idea: Abundance. Thompson argues that if we put abundance at the center of a new national agenda, we can rebuild our national greatness and decency.
Even though Lincoln felt an extreme moral repugnance about slavery, he calculated that making his outrage the centerpiece of his political agenda would fail. It would fail the whole nation. Abolition, the actual goal, could only be brought about by putting something politically viable at the center.
I won’t go into the depths of Lincoln’s genius, except to say, read Reynolds’s book. Again, it’s awesome. Today’s idea is how useful Lincoln’s political analysis can be to us ordinary folk. Try it: Think of a big, tangled problem that holds you back and see if you can break it down into a naked question and a central idea. It works.
George Orwell could be cold eyed and occasionally cold hearted. His strangely affectless reaction to his wife’s death during a routine surgery in 1945 was even more stoic than the English code of stiff upper lip called for. He mentioned Eileen’s death briefly in perfunctory letters to his closest correspondents and then went back to writing an essay on nationalism, one of his best.
As a lifelong socialist, Orwell knew that the struggle to end all forms of man’s domination over man would require sacrifice, and, in one of his off-script moments, he seemed to relish the prospect of London’s streets “running red with blood” (of aristocrats, presumably) when the revolution came.
One can take this kind of exercise too far, but it is possible to imagine Orwell exploring his own cold-bloodedness when in 1984 he has Winston Smith agree, a little too eagerly, that he is willing to kill and commit all manner of cruelties for the cause of bringing down Big Brother. (This is the scene in which Winston is trying to join the underground Goldstein rebellion, which turns out to be a setup.)
However idiosyncratic Orwell’s subjective experience of grief may have been, though; and however zealously he accepted a commitment to fight and die for liberalism, he was, I believe, more deeply devoted to a counterpoised set of ideas and feelings which today we call the sanctity of life.
Orwell was always most in his element when writing about the rights of the powerless. Look at the situation of any nameless, faceless suffering person, he often wrote, and you will see that the rights they lack have been expropriated by others who have the power to restore them. Human suffering is not inevitable, or at least it should not be accepted as such. Orwell was constantly reminding us citizens of the rich, developed, liberal world that we are not mere witnesses to the suffering of the downtrodden, but that we often share responsibility for stripping them of the very rights that could protect them from deprivation.
So far I am not telling you anything you do not know about Orwell. Even if you’ve never read a word he wrote, you know he was one of the 20th century’s greatest advocates of human freedom. He believed in his heart and defended till his death what Franklin Roosevelt famously called the four freedoms–freedom of speech and worship and freedom from fear and want.
But, somewhat behind the scenes, Orwell was also a moral entrepreneur. He observed certain human sins and wrote about them in new ways, which would eventually germinate into whole new movements.
Presciently, Orwell wrote about moral outrages against three groups that had never received focused political attention before: the child, the medical patient, and the criminally convicted. His brief, subjective observations posited the unusual idea that these groups were possessed of rights, which could and should be enshrined in law. In each case, I believe, Orwell’s germ of a concept is rooted in a deeper idea that there are no second-class humans–that every life is sacred.
Let’s look at each one, starting with the convicted criminal.
In one of Orwell’s first widely read essays, “A Hanging,” he recounts how in 1926 he was detailed as a colonial policeman in Burma to assist in hanging a man convicted of an unnamed crime. As the police march the condemned man toward the gallows, and the convict reflexively sidesteps a puddle, Orwell’s narrator (probably fictionalized–we believe Eric Blair, colonial policeman, merely watched the hanging and did not participate in it) has an epiphany:
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working –bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.
Albert Camus would eventually turn this sentiment into a philosophical position (with the publication in 1957 of Reflections on the Guillotine), which, in turn, became a political movement against the death penalty. Orwell said it first. The “solemn foolery” of an ongoing human life is beyond the authority of the state to deliberately cut short. Over the years, several ancillary arguments would be added to the case against capital punishment, including the salience of wrongful convictions, but they would all build on Orwell’s original idea that the reasoned, deliberate decision to kill an already incapacitated human is always immoral. It is unspeakably wrong.
In 1929, 25-year old Eric Blair lay on a bed in one of Paris’s worst, poorest hospitals, ostensibly being treated for pneumonia. The man in the bed next to him has died and the color has drained from his face: an eerie prefigurement of Orwell’s own death by tuberculosis in 1950.
Earlier, the hospital staff have “processed” Blair with the offhanded sadism of prison guards. They interrogate him, take his clothes, and dispatch him across an icy courtyard to search for his assigned ward in the dark of a February night. Blair’s medical treatment, when it comes, is clinical and medieval. The doctor regards him as a repository of “procedures” about which he (Blair) is uninformed and over which he has no say. The nurses and orderlies mechanically call out the numbers of the patients dying around Blair. The man who would become Orwell is literally waiting for his number to come up. The “medical professionals” charged with his care are plainly indifferent to his fate and, if anything, seem inconvenienced by his presence.
Blair escapes the hospital’s horrors as soon as he has the strength, not waiting for a discharge.
The writer George Orwell would live to see the beginning of a sea change in medicine, which he wrote about in “How the Poor Die,” the 1946 essay in which he recalls his experience in the Paris hospital. The name of his essay says it all. The poor die in miserable conditions, often with no healthcare. What most of us regard as the normal, humane mode of medical care is actually a privilege which we pay for in money. It is not a universal human right.
But today we are closer. The World Health Organization declared in 1947, “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” Much more significant than these fine words, most developed countries have decided to act to protect healthcare as a right. In Canada, Europe, Australia, and much of Asia, people have access to the highest attainable standard of healthcare, funded by the governments, often in efficient, single-payer insurance schemes.
As Orwell lay dying of tuberculosis in the long winter of 1949, he recalled a conversation he’d had with the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge had remarked to Orwell that “anyone” who’d lived in Asia had stepped over the bodies of dead children in the street and had in effect grown callous to such horrors. It leads Orwell to observe:
I read recently in the newspaper than in Shanghai (now full of refugees) abandoned children are becoming so common on the pavement that one no longer notices them. In the end, I suppose, the body of a dying child becomes simply a piece of refuse to be stepped over. Yet all these children started out with the expectation of being loved and protected and with the conviction which one can see even in a very young child that the world is a splendid place and there are plenty of good times ahead.
Orwell then reflects that his own society was not so different, not so long ago. Londoners might not have unthinkingly stepped over the corpses of children in the street, but they very clearly valued children’s lives less than their own. “One of the differences between Victorians and ourselves,” Orwell reflects, “was that they looked on the adult as more important than the child. In a family of ten or twelve it was almost inevitable that one or two should die in infancy and though these deaths were sad, of course, they were soon forgotten, as there were always more children coming along.” It was simple math.
But with that simple math came a tortured truth, or at least something regarded as the truth. Adults, as fully-developed persons, were accorded full protections against life’s hazards and full support for their onward movement. Children were treated as second-class humans because they could not be relied on to survive and return the adults’ investments in them.
Today we have turned this formula on its head. It is more the potential of children that we exert ourselves to protect rather than the already-realized value of the adult. Even in Orwell’s day, he recorded, [T]he death of a child is the worst thing that most people are able to imagine.”
But it was not math, not the changing actuarials of the postwar 20th century, that made Orwell a champion of the child. It was his own brief but intense experience as a father. Orwell loved and, yes, doted on his son Richard (it’s in his letters). It is fair to say that Richard was the last love of Orwell’s life. Eileen had already been four years gone when Orwell soliloquized in a 1949 essay that the one redemptive experience of being human was “fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” It must have been the five-year old Richard he had in mind when he wrote this. The heartbreak of leaving Richard behind was the inevitable price of being human, but it was worth paying.
In the last two years of his life, what Orwell most deeply regretted was his declining ability to play with Richard. The pair had worked together on their patch of farm on the island of Jura, and they had gotten into adventures and misadventures together.
Every parent, of course, grieves the prospect of leaving their children to fare without them, so it is worth putting Orwell’s more particular regret in the context of his writing. Orwell knew he was not long for this world even when Richard was as young as five. But being bedridden not only limited Orwell’s ability to protect and express his love to Richard while he was still alive; it threatened Richard’s “conviction that the world is a splendid place with plenty of good times ahead.” Orwell once piercingly wrote that he didn’t want Richard to think of him as someone who is always sick and unable to play. He wanted Richard to have everything a child deserves, even if one of those things was an optimistic delusion of wellbeing that waxes during the high tide of life and then wanes with age. Orwell thought children deserved to see the world as a good place, and they should be helped to find their deepest fulfillment in it. They are not mere replacement workers, soldiers, or handmaidens.
Children have rights, then. The United Nations says so. I believe Orwell was prophetic in intuiting those rights based on his own experiences of war, poverty, politics and, most importantly, fatherhood.
Indeed it is not giving Orwell too much credit to recognize that many of the rights movements that would mature at the end of the 20th century–including the rights of convicts, patients, and children–are foreshadowed in his writings 50 years beforehand.
There is no “straight” history of the United States. The standard version is the one told from the perspective of organized money; it is not just a plain, objective recounting of facts.
In his 1980 masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn informs the reader from the get-go that his perspective will be different. He will tell the story of America from the view of Americans who were on the receiving end of oligarchy–the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the silenced, excluded and ignored. The ninety-nine percent, if you will.
(And by the way, in 1980, assuming that America was an oligarchy turned out to be a pretty good working hypothesis. In 2014, two Princeton economists–stout guardians of the status quo if anyone is–concluded that Zinn’s assumption was sound: our country was run by a small group of economic elites with exclusionary access to power.)
I am heartily enjoying re-reading of Zinn these last couple weeks. To me it’s a puzzle that so many “ordinary” Americans seem allergic to Zinn, or any kind of critical retelling of our history. (1619 Project wars, anybody?). If we are indeed the home of the brave, why should we fear hearing voices from the past that have been forgotten or marginalized or blotted out? Can our faith in our founding ideals not withstand the testimony of ordinary, powerless people?
I don’t do a lot of flag-waving, but I would only want to belong to a country that keeps digging up its past and trying out new versions of its history. Any other kind of country is not free–and is also deeply uninteresting, which is another kind of problem.
If the authorities get the people to forget all the “irrelevant” facts that have been winnowed away to create the official version of history, eventually the unofficial version will simply die away. Memory and public record are the only things that enable us to think honestly about who we used to be and how we have changed. If the authorities can manipulate those two things sufficiently, they can create a history of themselves that is impervious to examination. Future Princeton economists will not get to call them oligarchs. We will be forced to believe their version as the only one. It will be as if the state’s antagonists never existed. And weren’t we born from an antagonistic movement? Didn’t Jefferson himself say that a democracy needs rebels?
So with that thought in mind, today I want to showcase Zinn’s recounting of the history of Haymarket Square. As an American living abroad most of the last 30 years, I’ve been quizzed more than once about this event. Almost every developed country east of the Azores celebrates May Day. The date is renowned as a victory of labor over capital.
Furthermore, almost every educated European also knows two slightly incongruent things about Haymarket. They know that the events in Chicago are venerated almost exclusively by the political left, and they know that America today is curiously devoid of memories of Haymarket. It’s not just that we have forgotten about it. We don’t seem to want it in our history. We even moved our version of Labor Day to a whole new month to keep it free of socialist taint.
Generally speaking, my interlocutors are not setting me up for a gotcha moment when they ask about Haymarket. They genuinely want to know how such basic information about it could have been purged from the public consciousness in the very country where it happened. It’s puzzling.
Zinn introduces his retelling of Haymarket by recalling a poem of the day, “My Boy.” It goes
I have a little boy at home,
A pretty little son;
I think sometimes the world is mine
In him, my only one . . .
‘Ere dawn my labor drives me forth;
Tis night when I am free;
A stranger am I to my child;
And stranger my child to me.
When we think of the labor movement, we think of strikers demanding two things–higher pay and better conditions. But the subject of this poem doesn’t just want a job that’s better remunerated or safer or easier for him to do. He wants a life. He wants his everyday not to be dictated to him so that it prevents privacy, agency, and normal human bonds of love.
By 1886, labor movements across the country were gaining momentum. The workers had nothing to lose but their chains, to paraphrase a Certain Someone. Zinn recounts that, from the days of Revolutionary America onward, laborers had worked 12 to 16 hour days and many considered a mere 9-hour shift on Saturdays a godsend. They were paid poverty-level wages across almost all industries.
As the Industrial Revolution gathered force, producers’ need for labor skyrocketed, and by the Civil War, cities across America (mostly in the north) became huge slums of the working poor. Contrary to Horatio Alger Myths, there was no way up and out of the slum, and this was by design. The system needed those masses of the powerless, immiserated poor to stay where they were and spend their every waking hour working.
When the American Federation of Labor called for nationwide strikes on 1 May 1886, it had the explicit goal in mind of ending the working person’s entrapment in a workday that permitted no private life, no time to be anything other than a factory hand. One group in Chicago that answered the AFL’s call, indeed, anticipated it, was the Central Labor Union. Led by two Marxists, Albert Parsons and August Spies, the CLU had published a manifesto the previous year. Here is the main part of it:
Be it Resolved, That we urgently need the wage-earning class to arm itself in order to be able to put forth against their exploiters such an argument which alone can be effective: Violence, and further, Be it Resolved, that notwithstanding that we expect very little from the introduction of the eight-hour day, we firmly promise to assist our more backward brethren in this class struggle with all means and power at our disposal, so long as they will continue to show an open and resolute front to our common oppressors, the aristocratic vagabonds and exploiters. Our war cry is “Death to the foes of the human race.”
Even without the advanced state of sleep science today, common sense and normal, bodily imperatives tell us we need about eight hours of sleep each night. The oligarchs of 1886 America said that’s all we needed, period: eight hours of sleep and 16 hours of work. You would have had no use for any life outside the factory and your meager bed. You are a mere extension of the machine you attend.
When the CLU had the temerity to assemble thousands of strikers in Haymarket Square, Chicago on 1 May against this idea, the authorities sent out the police, as usual. Many strikers quit under fire, many others were arrested. Spies wrote a fiery pamphlet calling for stiffer resistance, and on 4 May, a smaller group of protesters turned out. What they didn’t know is that an agent provocateur was among them, and at the end of the gathering, he threw a bomb at the police, killing seven of them.
With no physical evidence to identify who threw the bomb, the public prosecutor went after Parsons, Spies and six other CLU leaders. The lack of evidence was no barrier to achieving justice. Zinn recalls, “The evidence against the eight anarchists was their ideas, their literature; none had been at Haymarket that day except Fielden, who was speaking when the bomb exploded. A jury found them guilty, and they were sentenced to death.”
As Christopher Hitchens reminds us of the Catholic Church, it is worth worth remembering what it was like when it was strong, even though it seems docile today. The Inquisition and the Church’s other atrocities cannot simply be tossed down the memory hole.
I take a similar lesson from Zinn’s history of the contest between labor and capital in 19th-century America. Give capital enough power, and it will deny that you are even a human being. It will find a way to deprive you of a life of your own, and it will pay for “respectable” courts to convict you of thought crime if you demand more. For that is indeed what Parsons and Spies were convicted of. They were hanged in 1887. They were executed for thinking that workers deserved to have their own lives–a third of their day in which they could love, loaf, read, garden, or do whatever made them them. It is vital that we be able to recall a time in our history when this idea was deemed so dangerous that the state dispassionately killed its authors.
Parsons and Spies did not win the eight-hour work day alone, but they did spearhead its victory and made the ultimate sacrifice for it. I quoted their manifesto at length on purpose. It’s a discomfiting document. Its authors are Marxists, and their prose shows it–turgid, militant, straddling a line between peaceful protest and violent rebellion. It is an all-American document. If you feel entitled to your eight-hour workday, as I readily admit I do, take a moment to remember that the bravest, most committed partisans of this privilege–all-American Marxists–were hanged for bringing it to you. That is the meaning of Haymarket Square for me.
For students of Orwell, Howard Zinn’s 1980 masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, provides an endless source of inspiration and reflection. All history writing, Zinn argues, is recounting facts. But choosing the facts to recount is shaped by ideology. So when you look back at the stories that historians tell–or when you want to tell a new story of your own–you must try to be critical and candid about which ideology is at play.
Orwell wrote that his only talent was a “power of facing unpleasant facts.” And this talent was not merely an idle form of pessimism. Orwell’s most militant attacks on the status quo were calculated, deliberate and, yes, optimistic. He saw around him a society of fundamentally decent people but who were blind to the mass thievery, subjugation, and brutality of colonialism, which provided their income. Orwell wrote over and over again that the English people’s comfort and gentleness–national virtues which he sincerely admired–were based in a widespread ability not to see what was right in front of their noses. He wanted them to do better.
Orwell was also devastatingly frank about his own ideologies. Near the end of his life he wrote in an essay that since 1936, when he had gone to Spain to fight for the republic, everything he published had been “propaganda” for social democracy. Of course he believed he was writing the truth, but he didn’t believe that any writer could work completely objectively: it was impossible to write about anything of importance, Orwell believed, from an ideologically neutral perspective.
From the moment you crack open A People’s History of the United States, you see Zinn exuding a kind of intellectual courage that would do Orwell proud. The standard view of American history is not factually wrong, Zinn writes, but it dissembles, overshadows or understates so many unpleasant facts that it ends up telling a deeply warped version of how our country came to be. Every single-volume history of the United States that we had been presented with before 1980 invites its readers to avoid seeing what is right in front of their noses.
All honest historians know, Zinn writes, of Columbus’s cruelty and greed in “dealing” with the native Arawak people of the West Indies. Columbus himself records that one of his first acts was to “take by force” several Aarawaks to interrogate them about the location of gold. He also records how he enslaved thousands of Arawaks and sent them back to Spain. Tens of thousands more were to follow. Many were simply massacred. Once Columbus landed on their shores, the Arawaks’ history became one of subjugation, enslavement and death.
The standard histories do not lie about such devastation; one historian even calls it genocide. Another says Columbus “had his faults” but must be remembered for his seamanship. What the historian accomplishes by this kind of subterfuge is, Zinn writes, worse than lying. The loyal historian
refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.
But he does something else–he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and them to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important–it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world. . . . To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice.
To weigh and arrange the facts of history in a certain way is an ideological choice. And just as Orwell tells us plainly that his writings are all “propaganda,” Zinn tells us what his ideological choice is: he will tell the history of America focusing on the lives of the forgotten, subjugated, murdered, silenced and oppressed. Such a history may not give us a perfect picture of who we are or how our country came to be, but it would–and does–go a long way toward correcting a historical narrative shaped only by the ideology of conquest, money, and property.
By the time Orwell wrote 1984, near the end of his life, he was very much over God. He had been for a long time. He recalls in a 1947 essay, “Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true. But I was aware that I did not love him. On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs.”
Young Eric Blair was rebelling against the most outrageous commandment in Christianity–to love, fear, and worship the very God who had created him sick with sin. It was a crazy-making idea. A sane, whole person cannot love his tormentor, certainly not on command, and young Blair knew it. “[A]t the middle of one’s heart,” he believed, “there seemed to stand an incorruptible inner self,” and this self had to stay sane, even if it meant living with the consciousness that he was a mere mortal animal, mastered in the end by time, fate and chance, not bound for victorious, eternal glory.
Why did Orwell, a committed liberal, do so little to promote the cause of secularism, which seeks to pierce the very first authoritarian code we are taught as children and, in a sense, fathers all the rest? Orwell writes almost nothing in his maturity about the benefits of losing one’s religion. It seems that once he had outgrown the idea of God at the age of 14, he dropped it entirely.
Well, that’s not exactly true. He did write a whole novel about theism and atheism, A Clergyman’s Daughter, but it is remarkably thin stuff, theologically speaking. It pivots on no towering clash of ideas, is harrowed by no Dostoevskyan “furnace of doubt.” It is much more English than that. After Orwell’s heroine, Dorothy, stops believing, he describes her change in meteorological terms:
There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith–as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind.
Today we might say it was Orwell’s “lived experience” as a liberal democrat that caused his faith to vanish without fuss or ceremony. Arguments and logic played no role in his mental liberation, so he made no point of promoting them. Just give people time to outgrow the myths and superstitions of religion, and they will do so, he seemed to be thinking.
Although this passivity, I believe, characterized Orwell’s abiding attitude most of his non-believing life, I was wrong to think he let A Clergyman’s Daughter express his last word on Christian theism. The closing chapters of 1984 aim a savage blow directly at the core imperatives of Christianity. Furthermore, it is clear that the dying Orwell still hates the very things that outraged him as a school boy: the commandment to love and worship a sadist who claims the power to bend reality itself and who demands the subject, under pain of torture, connive in this self-aggrandizing fraud.
Everyone who has read 1984 recalls the broad outline of what happens to Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love. O’Brien tortures him to the point where he believes–with apparent genuineness–that 2 + 2 = 5.
But I hadn’t noticed until my latest re-reading the specificity with which Orwell attacks certain Christian principles as inherently totalitarian.
Evangelical Christians’ belief in a “young earth” created by God and fully furnished with familiar animals is well known. The most literal interpretation of this dogma is the basis of James Ussher’s famous “calculation” that the earth was created on 23rd October 4004 BCE.
Although I’ve read 1984 a dozen times or more, I’d never paused at the episode where O’Brien propounds Big Brother’s version of the same theory. Winston cannot accept O’Brien’s claim that the party has fully mastered material reality and indeed “make[s] the laws of nature.” Winston objects that the party cannot even achieve military mastery of the whole planet, which is itself “a speck of dust” in the vast darkness of the universe. How could it possibly claim to make the laws of nature?
“Nonsense,” O’Brien replies, “The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.”
When Winston objects that the “rocks are full of bones of extinct animals” that were alive long before humans, O’Brien rebuffs him with words that could come straight from a creationist pamphlet, “Have you seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth century biologists invented them.”
It is not just the substance but mainly the logic of O’Brien’s argument that indicts Christian dogma. The human mind is a blank slate, according to both Christianity and Big Brother. Agents of good and evil contend to inscribe things on the slate. Inscribe enough things, and a narrative takes shape. If one side gains the power to blot out everything written by its opponent, that side completely and utterly controls the narrative. It might as well control all of reality.
Winston knows this. In his job at the Ministry of Truth, he blots things out for a living, revising old books and newspapers to reflect the ever-changing party line. If the party expels an official, the facts of the official’s life are edited to fit his status as an enemy and traitor. All evidence that he once was good goes down the memory hole. In the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, O’Brien explains to Winston that revising books and newspapers is just the beginning of what the party can do. Controlling history is good, yes, but controlling all of reality is the party’s real objective.
Furthermore, there is a shortcut to achieving this control. There is no need to expand the Ministry of Truth to be able to revise all the world’s texts. “We control matter,” O’Brien intones, “because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do.”
Christianity, and indeed most religions, make the same naked invitation to power that O’Brien is making. When O’Brien says that scientists “invented” the fossil record, he opens the field for the individual to believe any alternative facts or theories whatsoever. Convince the individual that objective, mind-independent reality has no authority to rule his thought, and you become that authority. This is the power of cults, conspiracy mongers, dictators, and, yes, religions. It puts the faith-bearer at the center of a universe that makes no sense without his consent.
But how do you get a sane, reasonable person to believe the impossible–really believe? Perversely, it all comes back to the “Christian” commandment to love one’s tormentor.
In the interrogation room, Winston is belted to something like a dentist’s chair; electrodes are attached to his body, and they are used to administer whatever strength of shock O’Brien chooses. O’Brien has a pain dial.
Even though Winston knows it will draw another shock, he cannot accept O’Brien’s philosophy that there is no earth without man, no reality without minds to shape it. Addled by prolonged torture, Winston cannot articulate his objection. O’Brien fills it in for him, and goes on to explain the articles of faith under duress:
“I told you, Winston,” he said, “that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing; in fact the opposition thing. “All this is a digression,” he added in a different tone. “The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not the power over things, but over men.” He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: “How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”
Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.
“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?”
The most pitiful scene in the terrifying next-to-last chapter in 1984 is when the emaciated, pain-wracked Winston accepts the comforting embrace of O’Brien, who has turned off the pain machine. In the moment of relief, the only thing that matters to Winston is that O’Brien–his tormentor over so many days that Winston can’t count them–is the author of his release from pain. In a foretaste of 1984‘s last horrible revelation–that Winston comes to love Big Brother, not just obey him–Winston in that moment loves O’Brien.
Any creed that invites us to love the author of our misery because he ipso facto has the power to relieve our misery is totalitarian. It expresses a wish to have our emotions invigilated and commanded by someone else. It tells us we would be better off if someone more powerful than us were to take control the seat of our privacy. Put us together again in new shapes of their choosing. Not our will but theirs be done.
Of course I’m not saying that just because Christianity is a gateway to the darkest of totalitarian attitudes that the faithful must follow that path. All the Christians I know are too decent and polite to believe the worst, privacy-canceling parts of their creed. But those worst parts are still there, an open invitation to power–a hideous strength, as C.S. Lewis might put it. For my part, I still believe, as Orwell did, that at the middle of one’s heart is an incorruptible self that must expose and stand up to such outrages.
In Orwell’s autobiographical essay about his boarding school days, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he tells of a formative experience. It’s slightly embarrassing, as many of our childhood memories are.
He’d been sent on an errand in town and made an unauthorized trip to a sweet shop to buy chocolates. The detour to the shop wasn’t the only illicit part of his adventure. The few pennies in his pocket, although his, were supposed to have been “paid in” to the school’s headmaster.
This practice of “paying in” was allegedly for the safekeeping of money, but it was really to deny the poorer boys the freedom to spend as they pleased. When young Eric Blair would ask for any of his funds (once, to buy a model airplane), the headmaster would demur, telling Blair the object of his desire was not the “kind of thing” a boy of his station should be buying.
But buy the chocolates young Blair did. He was taking an enormous risk. At school he had already been beaten violently with a cane, for a mere classroom blunder. Blair was now crossing the line into real crime, as he understood it. His pulse quickened. Then, Orwell relates
As I came out of the shop I saw on the opposite pavement a small sharpfaced man who seemed to be staring very hard at my school cap. Instantly a horrible fear went through me. There could be no doubt as to who the man was. He was a spy placed there by [the headmaster]! I turned away unconcernedly, and then, as though my legs were doing it of their own accord, broke into a clumsy run. But when I got round the next corner I forced myself to walk again, for to run was a sign of guilt, and obviously there would be other spies posted here and there about the town. All that day and the next I waited for the summons to the study, and was surprised when it did not come.
A few sentences later, Orwell releases himself from the grip of this childhood vision of terror. It was a silly thing to believe. Of course, he observes, there were no networks of spies scouring every street for guilty-looking little boys, trying to catch them breaking the rules. But the headmaster had already got inside young Blair’s head and taught him to believe this paranoid fantasy, or at least to suspect it.
Did Orwell ever let go of this suspicion?
In the opening chapter of 1984, Winston Smith dutifully presents himself to the Telescreen when summoned. Later he tries to hide from it. He wants to admire a diary he had bought recently, an item he knows is contraband. He sneaks around a corner, out of view of the Telescreen, and does his best to stay utterly silent as he gazes on the diary’s beautiful, creamy-white pages. He can’t help himself: he writes out the first few words of his rebellion. Did the Telescreen hear his pencilscratch? He doesn’t know.
In time the reader comes to understand that the agents manning the Telescreen can also monitor people’s heart rate and perspiration. Big Brother can know much more about the people of Oceania then they think they are revealing. Today we would call these kinds of tells “biometric signatures.” The oldest biometric in the book is the fingerprint; it identifies a person uniquely. New sensing and computing technology have evolved other signatures. Added to the list are: gait, pupil dilation, face- and voice recognition, and who knows what else. They can all tell some agent on the other side of the Telescreen who you are as you walk down the street, and probably much more.
Furthermore, biometric signatures can be cross-referenced with other data points that we constantly ooze into the information ecosystem, such as phone metadata, online purchases, social media posts, home address, tax- and police records, car registration, and–again–who knows what else. Are you starting to see a theme?
Orwell saw it. Faced with the unknowable power of Big Brother’s surveillance agents, he has Winston reflect, “It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.”
Orwell is right back on that street in the England of his boyhood. His fear of the sharpfaced man was not so silly after all.
The sentence that fixes Winston in this spy-watched world is one I have vastly under-appreciated, and I have spent a decade actively appreciating the sentences in Orwell’s books. In 1984, Winston doesn’t know that Big Brother’s agents are all-seeing. But his reasonable suspicion is enough. He lives his life, Orwell writes, as if they are “watching everybody all the time,” and he bends his thoughts to accommodate this fear.
I was about to close this post by writing that it “hardly needs saying” that we live in a society shaped by the very condition young Eric Blair imagined and about which the mature Orwell wrote. The sharpfaced man really is who we thought he was. We are watched all the time by agents capable of discovering an indefinitely large body of information about us. But as Orwell also wrote, it sometimes takes effort to see what is right in front of our nose. So it needs saying: the power we have given to companies and governments to watch us and learn about us has not just eroded privacy (as we often read it is doing). It has plainly revoked a certain amount of privacy. In so doing, it has changed who we are. We are the kind of people who live with the suspicion that “they watch everybody all the time.” Maybe this is our God now, slightly less than omniscient but still doing the most invasive part of his job.
I have to a great extent fallen off line in the last few months. This was mostly because I was busy. And, no, I am not about to announce my departure from the grid. The world is a social place, and I live in it. Part of who I am is online, is out there in the information ecosystem, vulnerable to all kinds of surveillance. I don’t honestly believe I will ever walk down a street and have my gait, voice, or face linked to my online identity, but it could happen. We’ve created that condition; we’ve allowed it to happen.
If I could think my way in to young Eric Blair’s thoughts and rerun that scene outside the sweetshop, this is what I would have him say to the sharpfaced man: “Fuck off, I’m just buying chocolates here.” It might have worked in 1915 England. But it wouldn’t work today. The sharpfaced man is an offscreen nobody, and he already knows how much money we have, what we spend it on, what kind of chocolates we like, and that we’re supposed to be in school, not out on a lark. We’ve already told him all that. It’s conceivable he watches us all the time.
In 1947, as Orwell was writing and rewriting drafts of 1984, he took time to turn out the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” an autobiographical reflection on his years in English boarding school. Its description of his school’s filth, snobbery, and intellectual fraudulence were so raw that Orwell held it back from publication. He knew it would invite scandal and, probably, recrimination.
The essay did precisely this when it came out after Orwell’s death. Several of Orwell’s peers thought he had exaggerated for literary effect and came to the old school’s defense.
Controversy aside, Orwell’s interpreters generally take “Such, Such Were the Joys” as a peroration of the major themes that would appear in his masterpiece, 1984.
This says something about boarding school, doesn’t it?
It’s true, the big ideas of 1984 are all there in outline in Orwell’s essay–the concept of thought crime, the use of violence to cow and control the individual, the material poverty imposed by authoritarian rule, the willful mass forgetting of history, and, overarching all of it, the despot’s blind need to abolish privacy.
I could easily write an essay about these themes, and it would please myself.
But why? For the life of me I don’t understand how, as a nearly 55-year old man, I still enjoy the academic exercise of matching up bits of text in one piece of literature to corresponding bits in another piece. The outcome usually manages to be both shallow and pompous. (Here we have Orwell anticipating Big Brother in the person of his former schoolmaster, Sambo.) I suppose it’s like the pleasure of fishing; simply going through the motions is always rejuvenating even if the motions are old and worn. The experience remains deep and vital. It touches something timeless. I do not care that I am such a poor literary critic. It’s the only thing I care to be in my down time.
What remains fascinating about reading “Such, Such Were the Joys,” (which I have probably read a dozen times) is that we can see in high definition how Orwell became the author who was about to write 1984, and consequently was to become one of the towering intellectual figures of the 20th century. Orwell’s school experience crystallized the two big ideas whose contraposition framed 1984: on the one hand a ruling system that is set up to erase individual conscience and, on the other, a thinking individual who is unable to surrender to the system’s demands.
“Such, Such Were the Joys” is full of reminders that the process of becoming Orwell was not much fun. One bald testament: “But at any rate, this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.”
The narrative opens with a bleak reminiscence on the eight-year old Blair’s bedwetting, which he had earlier outgrown but which recurred under the stress of school life. Eric Blair the eight-year old child prayed to God for the bedwetting to end, because he found that he had no control over it despite his most desperate efforts. It mortified him, naturally. The schoolmasters told him he was to blame for it, and they beat, harangued and intimidated him. It was, as he said, impossible for him to do the right thing, but he nonetheless felt himself to be in the wrong.
Okay, that was the situation, as Vivian Gornick might put it, but what was the story? What was it like inside young Eric Blair’s head? “All through my boyhood I had the profound conviction that I was no good, that I was wasting my time, wrecking my talents, behaving with monstrous folly and wickedness and ingratitude . . . .”
If we have doubts that the child is the father of the man, Orwell reports that this attitude stayed with him past childhood. He recalls,
The conviction that is was not possible for me to be a success went deep enough to influence my actions till far into adult life. Until I was about thirty, I always planned my life on the assumption that not only was any major undertaking bound to fail, but that I could only expect to live a few years longer.
Despite the pessimism that darkened his emotional life for so long, though, Orwell–or, better to say, Blair–found the very thing in school that steeled him to struggle on toward hope and light and a decent, happy existence. A child cannot go on for years opposing his adult authorities at every turn, and young Blair made the necessary compromises to please and placate his teachers and even seek the warmth of their approval. He occasionally even fawned on them, as prisoners will fawn on their jailers. But, as he said,
all the while, at the middle of one’s heart, there seemed to stand an incorruptible inner self who knew that whatever one did–whether one laughed or snivelled or went into frenzies of gratitude for small favors–one’s only true feeling was hatred.
Why hadn’t young Blair known that there was such a thing as the “middle of one’s heart” a place where he was his inviolable self? Because, as he recalls, beliefs in early childhood are underwritten by pure authority and not necessarily the light of reason. “A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness,” he writes, “but it has no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgments. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and power of the adults surrounding it.”
Twice in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Orwell characterizes the inner life of the young child in boarding school as a mass of “irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings.” And adults choose this life for children and administer it, make it a reality. Or at least they used to, before this kind of school experience began to be abolished by law, enlightenment, and common decency.
“Dad, would you ever send me to a boarding school?”
This was the question, posed to me a week ago, which became a topic of conversation and, eventually, the occasion for these present scribblings.
My answer came straight from my heart, and in a way, straight from Orwell. The abiding sin of sending young children off to boarding school is that it removes them–arbitrarily, as they must see it–from the sanctuary of the home, which is a better place for them than any other place on earth. The great contrast between home and early 20th century English boarding school, Orwell wrote in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is that
Your home might be far from perfect, but at least it was a place ruled by love rather than fear, where you did not have to be perpetually on your guard against the people surrounding you. At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a goldfish into a tankful of pike.
Orwell became the leading public intellectual of the 20th century because of discoveries forced on him at boarding school. Eventually he would conclude that (1) politics was the only thing that could improve humanity, but (2) all of politics, even the “good” side, is a realm of “force and fraud and secrecy.” It was a lesson that enlightened a half-century of thought about–and struggle for–the survival of democracy. But it cost him his childhood.
So my answer to the question, “Dad, would you send me to boarding school?” was the same answer Orwell gave, a clear and resounding no. Orwell adopted an infant orphaned during World War Two and named him Richard. He took every measure he could to ensure Richard’s childhood would happen in a place ruled by love, not fear.
Orwell probably never had a full grasp of his own approaching greatness; widespread appreciation of his thought was just building as he began actively to die, of tuberculosis, in 1948. But what he did know from early in his career was that he had “a power of facing unpleasant facts.” He must have known, too, that this power sprang from his childhood experience being flung, a small goldfish, into a tankful of pike.
The life Orwell gave young Richard, while he could, was the opposite of this Darwinian nightmare; he kept Richard in a place ruled by love. Orwell wanted an everyman for a son; he did not want another Orwell. And neither would I. The young will find their own trials in life, the things that steel their minds, heighten their senses, and build up their resilience. We need not force these things on them and call it an education.
I admit I’m as much a slave to filthy lucre as the next guy.
In fact, I’ve had my mind on my money and my money on my mind a lot recently. It’s probably because of this that I’ve noticed a different kind of wealth accruing right beneath my nose.
I’ve been keeping track these past few months of certain monetary investments that tend to be measured in years. As in, that was a good year for the S&P 500, or that was a crazy good year for real estate.
The salience of year-long segments–the way we almost automatically valuate things over that time period–naturally made me think of the pandemic we are emerging from. Okay, it lasted longer than a year, but looking back, I think you could say that the core of the experience, the uncertainty, the anxiety, the not knowing which way was out, lasted a good, solid year. It did for me.
Obviously, the pandemic had unexpected consequences. Too many to count. But here’s one I was totally unprepared for: I actually acquired a kind of wealth during lockdown that I would never trade away for anything. And I didn’t even notice what it consisted of until I started going back to normal life and I had to start letting go of it.
This is what it was: Togetherness. Every member of my family was constantly gathered under one roof in one another’s company. I know what you’re going to say. Of course it sucked, in numerous ways. We had stress, we occasionally had too much of one another, and we grieved in mutually unintelligible ways the things that were missing from life. We had formless feelings of loss.
But me personally, as a mid-sized mammal responsible for the propagation of the species and the provisioning and protection of the home unit? I had a sense of control I will probably never have again, and with it came better, nobler things like intimacy, familiarity and the discharge of the most important duties. I went to “school” five days a week with my son. Who gets to do that?
Now the family is starting to go off and do their own things, as they will. It is what is supposed to happen, of course, but it’s disorienting. I got so used to the feeling that I was protecting them. It was probably mostly an illusion, but it was part of the experience.
People get used to anything, to paraphrase Camus, and I got used to lots of bad things over the last year. But I gained great stores of wealth too. Twenty twenty was a very good year. I acquired riches that won’t rust or be eaten by moths, or taxed for that matter. I think when I look back on the pandemic I will remember first and foremost the parts I ended up cherishing in a weird way and how I didn’t want to let go of them.
The most striking achievement of the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is that, unlike other jihadist groups, ISIS actually ruled a piece of territory, a caliphate meant to unite all Muslims under Koranic law.
Its brutal, iconic founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took his name from his boyhood home, Warrick tells us, Zarqa–a “gritty” industrial town in northern Jordan. His formative experience was in Jordan’s largest prison, al-Jafr, in the burning southern desert.
ISIS might never have come into being had Zarqawi not found refuge in 2002 in a highly unusual place, the Zagros mountains of northern Iraq, nestled among two groups of people who had little love for jihadists–the predominantly secular Kurds and the Shi’ite Iranians, just across the border to the east.
ISIS arose in the “Sunni Triangle,” a restive area west of Baghdad, home to Saddam Hussein’s familial tribe; it made its caliphate’s capital in Raqqa, Syria; and in a stunning blow, it conquered Mosul, Iraq, a city of more than a million people, in one day. At its height, ISIS’s caliphate comprised an area larger than Israel and Lebanon combined, as Warrick reports.
In 2014 and 2015, foreign ISIS volunteers streamed into northern Syria through Turkey in such numbers that Turkey’s southern Hatay Province became infamous as an ISIS way station. Camouflage-clad jihadists openly shopped for combat gear in local military surplus stores.
Given this profusion of geography, how, I wonder, did a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about ISIS come to feature only a single, highly impressionistic map? The story of ISIS is its meteoric rise from secretive terrorist group hiding in safe houses to a functioning army capable of openly controlling territory (and eventually losing it–a part of its history that postdates Warrick’s book).
In most ways Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS is highly commendable. In fact, I don’t even mind that it undeservedly won the Pulitzer, because the story Warrick tells is one that needs wider awareness. If the Pulitzer gave it a push, good. After years of thick books and studies on post-9/11 terrorism and endless analyses of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a presumably weary public still needs to know that our entanglement with Sunni jihadism is not over.
Indeed this is the source of my discontent with the lack of detailed maps in Black Flags. The fact that I knew the places Warrick was describing without looking at a map was a constant reminder that his book seemed to have been written for people like me, with enough background to take in the narrative at speed. It should have been pitched to an audience that hadn’t yet come to grips with the ways 9/11, the Iraq war, the Arab Spring, and the Syrian civil war shaped ISIS in all its unique specificity.
Or maybe I’m over-emphasizing this weakness. A friend of mine who fought against ISIS’s forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq, read Black Flags recently as someone who knew the objective facts up close but wanted a big-picture interpretation of what it all meant. Experts, soldiers and the general public alike have been left to wonder whether the “global war on terrorism” begun 20 years ago has come to an end. Black Flags keeps that question front and center even though it does not–cannot–answer it.
Another weakness of the book, which my friend drew out, is the strong impression it gives of a journalist who rushed out a gripping story that should have been more deeply reported. Many developments that clearly called out for deep primary sources were instead given thin washes of secondary source material. Indeed many of the pivotal events described in Black Flags are simply recontextualized quotations from the memoirs of, among others, King Abdullah of Jordan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And even where the experiences described are intimately reported, there is a disappointing poverty of on-the-scene sources. The descriptions of ISIS’s brutal Sharia enforcement regime, which included horrific public punishments including crucifixions, come from a single witness. Warrick also underexploits the vast trough of information that ISIS published about itself. Not that this material should be taken as reliable narration of ISIS’s history, but the fact that Warrick makes only one glancing reference to Dabiq, ostensibly the caliphate’s newspaper of record, belies a rush to publish. Half the story of ISIS was its own edifice of grand delusion, which deserved a closer look.
All that said, Black Flags is nonetheless a very good book that deserves to be read. It moves fast and keeps the narrative crisp. It’s possible that Warrick judged wisely when he (or his editors) decided to keep it short, at 316 pages. It could have been a better book with 200 more pages, I believe. But what do I know? The more people who read Black Flags the better, and maybe they wouldn’t want to read a “better” book.