News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Some comments on the George Orwell essay Not Counting Niggers published in July 1939. Early on, before I found Henry Mencken, Orwell was my favorite author because he was always interesting, always thinking, always had something fresh to say. Furthermore, I always had the feeling that he could back up everything that he said because in some of his essays you come across a phrase or reference which would then, in another essay, be expanded into several pages. I was consistently impressed.

Now, however, having made an effort to understand the world around me and how it actually works, and in the process discarded nearly everything I had learned in the newspapers and exchanged it for what I've discovered in library books, now, on coming back to George Orwell, I find him far less convincing and appealing than before..

Through finding authors with superior wit, authors such as Wilde, Twain, and Mencken, I came to find Orwell not just plainspoken but also just plain. Having made the obvious discovery that humor requires sadism, my guess is that Orwell generally denied himself the opportunity to be amusing, at least in his writing, feeling that attacking someone when they were down, as is the usual way with comedy, is tantamount to gloating. Not to mention that he probably realized that the humorous are taken much less seriously than the seriously dull. Besides this, there is a hint of the prude, i.e. the failed cavalier, who failing at sex, turns to politics for power, to impose what he can not achieve via persuasion.

On the other hand, Orwell certainly found other writers amusing, Mencken for example. Presumably, Orwell was unable to fully unearth the matrix of values required to generate humor and/or when he attempted wit, he felt guilty of being unfair and unsportsmanlike, i.e. sadistic. This is worth pointing out because it seems to me that Orwell suffers from a rather broad ignorance of human nature. Although he shows definite talent for picking out wordsmithery, this is completely different thing from observing and understanding human behavior, particularly at the individual level. After all, Orwell was known for being a skirt-chaser, but an unsuccessful one. The wit and humor of Oscar Wilde and Henry Mencken enabled them, and neither were pretty-boys, to amicably overcome their prey. This must naturally have made for a view of life which was less sullen, less moralistic, and less sympathetic; and, instead, for a more cynical, vigorous, and Olympean perspective.

I also think that key to understanding Orwell and his outlook on life, is his excessive focus upon what is allegedly morally correct. Moral this and moral that (ex: moral courage), especially when used as a weapon to flog others is no less a fraud than flashing the race card. Both are a dodge and a fraud, whose principle utility is to twit the overly socially conscious and shut down the show with that favorite utility of compassion fascists and philanthropoids, sympathy for the meek.

Morals clearly vary from place to place, time to time. For example, the dynastic Chinese and the Aztecs both made cannibalism into a formal institution and developed moral schemes to accommodate it. The thugee religion in India was a moral scheme developed by a tribe to rationalize the killing of travellers in order to rip them off. One had to kill one's victims with sacred weapons before emptying their pockets. In the same way, capitalism has earned a bad name because it does not adhere, apparently, to the prevailing moral scheme. But the prevailing moral scheme is, in many ways, simply a hand-me-down from an agricultural era that predates capitalism. For example, the notion that money is bad and that money lenders are mean-spirited and evil folk.

Capitalism is a scheme that, in order to be properly understood, requires one to develop an understanding of systems. Through so doing, a great deal in the world starts to make sense and becomes predictable. And, in the process of becoming familiar with systems, bits and pieces of morality start to go out the window. In those areas of one's understanding rendered intelligible by systems, morality has no more place than hay in a car garage, because cause and effect is no longer perceived in terms of the anthropomorphous.

A case in point is male domination over women. It's the late Marvin Harris's hypothesis that this moral scheme served to insure that men were martial and brave to facilitate warring with other tribes. Women were more important than men, because they bear children, and thus shouldn't be risked in military campaigns. For men to fight, they had to be trained to be aggressive and brutal. Naturally, this trait was retained in the after-hours and women, lacking training and encouragement in brutality and insensitivity, were dominated by roughhousing males. In modern nations, wars are no longer fought by every male member of the 'tribe'. Furthermore, nation states require and tend to achieve stability, crucial for modern economies to function. Naturally morality has changed with the times and women play a more frontline role. In other words, modern morality is not the product of fairness and enlightenment. It’s the other way around. Fairness and enlightenment facilitate the strengthening of a system (capitalism) which is inherently superior both martially and in the provision of resources. In other words, as always, morality is simply that system of taboos and positive values that enhances the power of the tribe when fighting to survive in an inclement environment. In brief, morality is whatever works; whatever works is morality.

One of Orwell's pet themes is the immorality of capitalism. Indeed capitalism does not jibe well with the pre-modern moral scheme, be it the impoverished villages of the Sinai -- which gave us ‘it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get into heaven’ -- on through to the reductio ad absurdum of the latter: the impoverished cities of medieval Europe were even the rich were poor by modern standards: medieval gentry often had to make do with room and board inferior to that of today’s barn animals. This was in large part because profit-making in general, and banking (usury) in particular, was forbidden. Contemporary Arabia is by and large very poor because lending money with interest is forbidden. Without lending, no banks. Without banks and entrepreneurs have very little access to startup money. Without entrepreneurs, the modern economy does not function. The climax of high-living is the Amish; something that not even Marx, despite his theories to the contrary, was ever going to put up with in fact.

Without the modern economy, you have high populations which cannot be served by traditional economies; thus one has poverty and starvation and the concomitant political uprisings, coup d'etats, civil wars, religious fanatics, and the rest of the primeval mess that suddenly became familiar via explanations for 9/11.

Which brings us back to the primeval worldview of George Orwell. For example, he states, Like everyone of his school of thought, Mr. Strait has coolly lumped the huge British and French empires -- in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting cheap colored labor -- under the heading of democracies!

If there's a problem with exploiting cheap colored labor then surely there's a problem when one exploits cheap noncolored labor, whether in a democracy or not. That's problem number one. The second problem is that exploitation is part and parcel of how capitalism works. When I purchase any product I'm being exploited. So what? I'm exploiting the person from whom I'm buying the product. That's the whole point. Failure to understand this is a failure to understand the nature of buying and selling, markets, capitalism, etc.

The next sentence includes the following: Here and there in the book, but not often, there are references to the "dependencies" of the democratic states. "Dependencies" means subject races. It is explained that they are to go on being dependencies, that their resources are to be pooled among the states of the Union, that the colored inhabitants will lack the right to vote in Union affairs.

Two major problems here: prior to colonization, what were these dependencies but subject races. Does Orwell really imagine pre-colonized peoples to have been free? Where the English tribes free prior to the arrival of Rome? Was he that ignorant of contemporary anthropology? The only democracy that I'm aware of in North American amongst the native Indians was that of the Iroquois who were famous for their raiding parties and for their love of torturing captives. In India, the practice of sutee, the burning of live wives with their deceased husbands' cadavers, only came to an end with the entry of the British. It was the British empire that ended the aforementioned thugee religion. It was only with the end of the Ching dynasty, which came about largely due to the pressure of the European nations, that widespread, popular, and pervasive cannibalism ended in China. It was only with the entry of Japan into Korea that indigenous slavery, which swallowed up five to 10% of the domestic population, came to an end.

Again, one wonders what sort of reading George Orwell did. Was he in fact a fraud? Heresy, I know, but it's a sort of rule of thumb that prominent intellectuals who exhort socialist goals are frauds.

Orwell also complains about the ... British and French empires, with their 600 million disenfranchised human beings, would simply be receiving fresh police forces; the huge strength of the USA would be behind the robbery of India and Africa. Well, the present situation in Iraq, one hopes, gives the lie to the notion that one can impose democracy upon people, that people know enough to consistently want what is in their best interest. Afghanistan too.

Clearly this is a very naive notion; and not just today but then too. The contention that setting people free, regardless of their education or national economic scheme and then expecting them to act sanely (i.e. in accordance with our own eccentricities), to revamp their outdated taboos and replace them with respect for the law and a new set of ethics, to toss off racism and replace it with multiculturalism and gay rights, to wipe the slate clean of xenophobia and love hated enemies who've killed their family or clan members, while also accommodating themselves magnanimously to the widely varying moral and religious standards of other narrow-minded blinkered yokels such as themselves who also claim to have the one and only true faith, surely stretches credulity to the breaking point.

Now that the sub-Saharan African nations have been set free, now that the Arabian nations are free, what has become of their freedom? They surely had a great deal more than while under the boot of the English. When the Japanese pulled out of Taiwan, a despotic Chinese régime came in whose first steps included massacring all the intelligentsia, grossly debasing the local currency to wipe out the indigenous people's savings, and then restructuring land ownership under the guise of fairness in order to give land to their cronies and collaborators. But even this is civilized behavior compared to the rape, looting, massacres of partition era India and Pakistan, and the horrendous civil wars which have been taking place ever since in sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, had colonialism have been allowed to remain in place for a much greater length of time, as in Hong Kong for example, many of these countries could have achieved a peaceful post-independence era and been in a solid position structurally and economically for the 21st century. None of the nasty régimes in Africa had to be. One of the greatest mistakes of WWII was Roosevelt's decision to destroy the British empire via bankrupting it. Roosevelt, whose father made his money in the opium trade, was a typical second generation rich family scion, mocking the parvenus and bumpkins who made their own money and fortunes in life. Thus, not understanding how economies worked, he thought the solution very simple. It was an Orwell solution. Set free the "niggers" and everything will work itself out. Fifty years later, that has proven to be very shallow thinking indeed.

Orwell makes a number of other ignorant comments, such as: It is not in Hitler's power, for instance, to make a penny an hour a normal industrial wage; it is perfectly normal in India, and we are a great pains to keep it so. This motive strikes me as being improbable, not to mention physically impossible to achieve. You can't control wages in a relatively free economy (as the colonies of East Asia typically enjoyed, propaganda to the contrary). How could Orwell have believed this sort of nonsense, given the broad reading that he had done?

Perhaps one of the best evidences of Orwell's misunderstanding of the world around him are the predictions that appear in his essay. He wrote the following in July of 1939:

The British and Russian governments are still haggling, stalling and uttering muffled threats to change sides, but circumstances will probably drive them together. And what then? No doubt the alliance will stave off war for a year two. Then Hitler's move will be to feel for a weak spot or an unguarded moment; then our move will be more armaments, more militarization, more propaganda, more war-mindedness -- and so on at increasing speed. It is doubtful whether prolonged war preparation is morally any better than war itself; there are even reasons for thinking that it may be slightly worse. Only two or three years of it, and we may sink almost unresisting into some local variant of austro-Fascism. And perhaps a year or two later, in reaction against this, there will appear something we have never had in England yet -- a real fascist movement. And because it will have the guts to speak plainly it will gather into its ranks the very people who ought to be opposing it.

Farther than that it is difficult to see.

Of course, predicting the future is enormously difficult. But my point is not to cavil at his lack of accuracy, but to note the direction in which he believed the future would move. In other words, he believed that England would become fascist due to the war threat, when in fact it became quite the opposite. Orwell had a millenarian, almost apocalyptic outlook. Ergo his book 1984. Ergo his familiar rural, primeval outlook, so much like an agnostic former Christian. He was an eager believer.

Again, perhaps Orwell's unfamiliarity with the day-to-day psychology of the plain folk (his superior intelligence probably made the proletariat an annoyance for him at best), his incompetence picking up women, his ignorance of capitalism and colonialism, and his failure to understand that his morals were feudal (as Marx states boldly in the second page of the Communist Manifesto) and that ethics are far better suited for the modern world, led him far, far astray.

And he was very bright , but sometimes I wonder just how sincere? How sincere about acquiring a working knowledge of the world, in the sedulous manner that Henry Mencken when about it. For Mencken did the obvious: he read widely about music, medicine, law, religion, and politics. He mastered a second language, and competently translated Nietzsche's The Anti-Christ into English, and regularly wrote short fiction, essays, newspaper articles, and book reviews, while also writing biography, a philology series, an exegesis of religion, a book-length condemnation of democracy, and so on and so forth. And, Mencken had no problem getting women or money, mingled regularly with the movers and shakers, be they literary, business, or political. He ran a newspaper, ran a magazine, and so forth. He had a much broader understanding of the world, was far more adventurous in his thinking (not letting morals, indignation, heckling, or law suits get in the way) and strikes me as the much more intellectually curious, enlightened, and readable author. Orwell's primary limitation, as far as I can see at the moment (which is none too far), was his pessimistic temperament, his class fear, and his righteous moral strain which prevented him from considering all of the options available for explaining and interpreting events. He was too proper to be wholly effective. And it is many of the immoral explanations which most intelligibly explain our world. They were right under his nose all the time, if only he'd taken the time, and squelched his moral squeamishness, to look and find them. How much better a writer he would have been had he done so.

Biff Cappuccino

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