Orwell Intentioned

Question: What is the highest rhetorical honor that can be paid to a political and intellectual critic today? The answer seems clearly to be that so-and-so is "the Orwell of his generation." One sees this apposition applied to this writer or that on occasion; it is always reverentially and somberly placed, and invoked in such a way as to assume that everyone reading -- everyone -- agrees instantly that George Orwell is God.

I admire Orwell a great deal myself. But I always wondered, why him and not, say, Albert Camus? Camus, like Orwell, was an ardent foe of fascism and Stalinism. As for imperialism, the student left of the 1960s put Camus on trial and found him "wrong on Algeria," but today his writings seem to have adumbrated the difficulties that modernization would encounter in that part of the world pretty intelligently.

Or what about our own Randolph Bourne? A courageous critic of World War I who argued that war would lead to an even greater catastrophe down the road -- not at all bad, considering that he died in 1918, before Versailles -- Bourne was also impressively advanced in most of his views on race and diversity. Yet I've never heard anyone called the Randolph Bourne of his generation, and if anyone were, few would care.

It is said that we celebrate Orwell because he stood firmly and presciently against fascism, communism and imperialism. That he did, and those stances are very much worth celebrating. But I've always suspected something else in Orwell worship. And that something else tells us a good deal about the times we live in, about what is expected of a liberal writer today and about a criticism of current liberal authors -- Joe Conason and Al Franken, among others -- that is just now bubbling to the surface.

Orwell was best known, in his day and ours, as one who was not afraid to criticize his own side, who even relished doing so. The excesses and follies of the British left were constant topics. Much of this writing, too, was brilliant and brave. I will never forget how struck I was, shortly after the Tawana Brawley episode, to be reading a review by Orwell of a Sean O'Casey novel. Orwell noted that it was in fact a very bad book, but that reviewers on the British left had been gentle with it. He then went on to remark that the British left's pitying condescension toward all things Irish -- remember, Irish independence was relatively fresh at that point -- did neither side any good. One could have plugged in "white left" for "British left" and "African American" for "Irish" and been reading a very up-to-date critique of some left-wing defenses of Brawley and her handlers.

I would argue that this tendency toward self-criticism, finally, is what our time really appreciates about Orwell. While he had gone so far as to take a bullet in the neck for the Workers Party of Marxist Unification during the Spanish Civil War, he usually found something not to like about the parties of the left when it came to British politics. In his letters and articles -- of which I've read many but by no means all -- he rarely made actual, pragmatic commitments in British electoral politics. He could not bring himself to join the Labour Party; for a while, he joined a tiny offshoot called the International Labour Party, but he quit even it after a year or so because he found it too compromised.

It is instructive that Orwell is hailed today on the basis of things he was against, not things he was for. This is far less an indictment of Orwell than it is of our age.

Our time is distinguished by two characteristics. First, it is an age of dispassion, detachment and ironic distance. Second, it is the postliberal era, a time when presumptions that held sway in society for half a century have come under harsh re-examination. These circumstances leave the liberal political writer painted into a corner. It is unfashionable today to take one's own side. It is assumed that only the stance of ironic distance -- a stance that embraces no actual commitments and instead flings acid at both sides -- has access to the truth.

Conason and Franken are neither ironic nor distant. They are committed liberals. (And while Franken is of course a comic, he is very serious about his new book, which I know because I happened to be down the hall from him at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government while he was working on it.) To Jack Shafer, writing in Slate last week, this makes Conason and Franken, by definition, propagandists, virtually indistinguishable from the Sean Hannitys and Ann Coulters they attack. "Their primary mission isn't to uncover lies and reveal the truth," Shafer wrote. "If it were, they'd chart the deceptions and propaganda emanating from both political wings. Their only goal is to win one for their side."

Notice especially the middle of those three sentences. I would not argue that liberals should abandon self-criticism; I've engaged in a lot of it over the years, and will continue to. But why should that be the definition of credibility? Aren't there others? Rush Limbaugh spreads vicious lies about the Paul Wellstone memorial. Al Franken corrects them. The Republican right doles out phony propaganda about its history on race, class politics, a whole host of things. Conason calls them on it -- as he did on Whitewater, about which he was prescient and dead right (though he suffered no small amount of ridicule back in 1995 and 1996 for having the courage to say so). From the one side, lies; from the other, attempts to correct the historical record. That, too, is a form of credibility, and I have trouble seeing why such authors are supposed to give equal time to liberalism's flaws in order to get their credibility tickets punched. (Needless to say, I think you should buy both books if you haven't.)

They want to "win one for their side"? More power to them. A third distinguishing characteristic of our age is that the avatars of contemporary conservatism want to wipe every vestige of liberalism from the face of the earth, just as Rameses ordered Moses' name removed from every obelisk. They are serious about it. Someone needs to push back. Irony and dispassion won't bar the gates. Commitment will. I will always have great admiration for Orwell, but maybe we need to enter an age that finds additional role models.

Michael Tomasky will become executive editor of the Prospect in mid-September. His columns appear on Wednesdays at TAP Online.