Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Hello and welcome to the 150th episode of So to Speak, the free speech podcast, where every other week since April of 2016, we’ve taken an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. As always, I’m your host, Nico Perrino. If you had asked me when we started this show if we would still be going strong five years later, I would’ve been a bit skeptical. Surely, I couldn’t come up with 150 ideas for a niche show about free expression. But here we are. The ideas keep coming, and a growing-thousands of you are still tuning in every months, so I thank you for that.
Now, for today’s very special show, I thought we would take a deep dive into the life and work of a man whose writings have shaped so much of how we think about the idea of freedom, not the least of which are the freedoms of conscience and expression. That man is Eric Arthur Blair. Now, if that name doesn’t ring a bell for you, surely you’ll recognize his pen name of George Orwell. Orwellian, Big Brother, Thought Crime, Newspeak, Memory Hole. These words and phrases have become a regular, some might say overused part of our political lexicon since the publication of Orwell’s final and most popular book, 1984.
But Orwell’s musings on free expression and ideas of freedom in general permeate his previous, and lesser-known writings as well. And who better to join us today to discuss Orwell’s life and writings than the author of Orwell’s authorized biography, Michael Shelden. Michael is a professor of English at Indiana State University, and if I could’ve dreamed up an alternative career for myself, it might’ve looked something like Professor Sheldon’s.
Not only did he write an authorized biography of one of my personal heroes, Orwell, a biography I should note that was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, but he also wrote a biography of Winston Churchill called Young Titan, and some of you may know from my references on the past show, I’m fascinated by the life of Churchill, and have traveled to Blenheim and Chartwell, the war rooms, and other notable Churchillian locations.
But those aren’t Professor Shelden’s only biographies. He’s also written award-winning ones on Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Graham Green. And for the cherry on top, Professor Shelden is also an Indiana University graduate, earning his PhD there in 1979, you recalled it. I was an Indiana University graduate as well. So, Professor Shelden, thanks for coming on the show!
Michael Shelden: It’s great to be here!
Nico: So, to get a start, it’s probably best to sketch a brief outline of the life of Eric Blair or George Orwell. He was born in 1903 in India where his dad worked in the Indian Civil Service. And a year later, he moved back to England where his family lived a relatively comfortable middle-class life, didn’t they?
Michael: They did, and it’s probably by the way, a little deceptive to say that his father was in the Indian Civil Service. What he was was a police official basically for the opium trade.
Michael: He helped to police the growing, the refining, all of the things that went into creating opium that really helped to sustain the Indian Empire for the British. It brought in an enormous amount of revenue. And it’s important to note that because Orwell felt I think enormous guilt in later years, that his father’s pension and much of their security when they were young, financial security came from this pretty noxious trade in opium, most of which ended up going to China.
Nico: Did he ever grapple with that in his writings?
Michael: Well, alluded to it almost as the skeleton in the family closet, that he didn’t really want to acknowledge straight out that his father had been part of this supervision of the opium trade. And it was actually I don’t think until my biography that that was fully explained that that was in fact his father’s actual job within the Indian Civil Service. So, I think it was best left unsaid for many people, including some of his admirers, because it’s a sticky subject once you get into it. It really wasn’t something the British should’ve been doing at all, but they needed the money, and they got a lot from it.
Nico: Eric Blair spent much of his childhood at elite boarding schools, first St Cyprian’s, and then Eton. How formative were those experiences for him? Particularly his experience at St Cyprian’s, where at least it seems to be suggested from your biography that that’s kind of where his aversion to domineering authority seemed to first take hold, or we first kind of got an instinct for that?
Michael: You’re right. At Eton, he actually had a great deal more freedom. Since I worked on this book so many years ago, I was able to talk to a lot of people who had known him personally, and most of those people I’m sorry to say are dead now. But one of them, David Aster, had told me that there was a kind of a sort of liberal chaos at Eton for certain boys who were advanced in their studies already, and they were allowed so much freedom that Orwell actually liked being at the most privileged school in England. He didn’t think much of the privileged life that often went with that, but he did enjoy being at Eton.
What he did not enjoy was the boarding school that prepared him for Eton, which is as you say, St Cyprian’s in Eastbourne. It’s a lovely location. I’ve walked the grounds. There’s not much left, because a great fire destroyed the school, much to Orwell’s glee, in the late 1930’s. The fire just leveled the place. But it has a gorgeous location on the South Downs in England. And yet, for Orwell, it was hell. And it was hell, because he was treated savagely by the head mistress especially, who wanted him to gain glory for the school by winning a scholarship to Eton. He did in fact do that, but at a great price to him.
He felt bullied. He felt that in fact, the head mistress and many of the boys at the school who were her favorites were probably the prototypes for Big Brother. The people who spy on you, and push you around, and say they’re doing it all for your own good.
Nico: Yeah, and he also seemed to resent the fact that he was there almost as a special privilege or act of charity, right? Because his parents couldn’t afford the tuition. So, he was there on a sort of scholarship that he seemed to grow to resent.
Michael: And for the publicity that the school wanted to get more rich parents to send their boys to their school, they wanted star pupils who could win these scholarships to Eton or Harrow or one of the other big schools. And that’s what Orwell’s job was supposed to be before the fact that he was allowed to go there at reduced fees.
Nico: After graduating from Eton, he decided to go off to university. Or, he decided NOT to go off to university, I should say, in part because his family couldn’t afford it. And instead, he went to Burma where he served for five years in the Imperial Police. Isn’t that kind of an odd choice for a man who would later become known for his sort of civil libertarianism and anti-authoritarianism?
Michael: Very odd. He was following in his father’s footsteps at a time when he still hadn’t sorted out for himself what 30 years of life in the empire would be like for him, what it had been like for his father. He didn’t want to go to university, because in part, he was rebelling against the very educational system that he had excelled in. He had this natural streak of rebellion that I think said to himself, “I can forego this. I can make it just on my studies at Eton.” And in fact, that was the case with many boys who didn’t have the idea of rebellion at heart. They just thought they had received enough education to see them through life, at that time in the early 1920s.
But there’s also a secret reason for it, and that is that he had fallen out of a relationship with a young woman named Jacintha. Again, one of the people I was able to interview. She lived in what the British call a, “Caravan.” What we’d call a trailer. And it was parked in the front yard, the front garden of a house by the sea in England. And I went and interviewed her, and cats were walking all over my head, because she had all of these cats. She was quite a colorful character. But when she was in her teens, she was in love with Eric Blair, and he was in love with her, and something went wrong. They parted as a kind of romantic gesture, I think.
He believed he would leave England for a few years, go out to the far east, and do the sort of French Foreign Legion thing. You know, disappear into the tropics, and see what came of it. So, there was that. And it cost him five years of his life that he ended up hating that he had been a part of that system, but again, it was part of his education for his books.
Nico: Yeah, you suggest in your biography that it was his experiences in Burma that really started to develop his political philosophy and his disdain for censoriousness. You write I believe that he was struck by the prevalent self-censorship that occurred in Burma, and upon his return to the west, you write that, “He almost forgot how different life could be in a world where free expression was taken for granted.” It’s as though he felt that imperialism sort of required a sort of self-sacrificing, and that after he got back from Burma, you note that he committed to thinking and acting freely. So, what was it in Burma that left this sort of impression upon him, that he couldn’t think, and he couldn’t act freely?
Michael: Well, as he discovered, any time you join a large bureaucratic organization that’s devoted to a certain mission – this could be in business, it could be in government – you’re expected to show a certain amount of loyalty and allegiance to that mission. And so therefore, if it’s to make Burma a British colony and keep it that way, you can’t exactly express the idea that that’s not a good idea to have Burma as a British colony. That it was ungovernable.
Nico: Yeah. Did he go to Burma with that idea, or was it a idea that developed in his time there?
Michael: I think he had little idea of what he was getting into when he went out there, but his mother’s family had come from that area. They had been traders out there. And he just had this romantic notion that sailing up the Ayeyarwady and taking his post in Burma would be a very romantic adventure for a young man. Not an uncommon idea for a lot of men of his generation when the empire was still thriving. But I think he quickly learned that he couldn’t ignore the facts of the situation, that the Burmese hated having the British there, or many of them did, and that he felt his job was pretty sorted.
One of the things I discovered in going through many of the old manuals for the police service was that one of their jobs was to maintain a network of surveillance to try to catch malcontents before they started a rebellion. So, Orwell was early on in his 20’s part of a kind of 1984 system on a primitive level of supervising a society that was under the thumb of a foreign power.
Nico: His next set of adventures after he came home from Burma after those five years – and I should note that he asked to be relieved of his commission in Burma, and it was granted – but his next set of adventures was as a tramp in Paris and London.
It was sort of a voluntary poverty, at least that’s how it comes across in your biography, ‘cause his family had some money, and he had the means to earn it as well, but it was this sort of voluntary poverty that provided I think fodder for his first book obviously, Down and Out in Paris and London, but a lot of the writings that would come later. Why did he give up a good job in Burma, and decide to become an impoverished tramp of all things? Was it purely for the literary fodder that it would provide for the career that he ultimately wanted?
Michael: I think he discovered that his ambition early on in life to be a writer was worth pursuing when he realized he had made an enormous mistake going out to Burma. So, when he came back, he actually was on a medical leave. He had gotten dengue fever in Burma, and it was debilitating in those days. Not much to treat it. And so therefore, he had a legitimate reason to return to England and be on about a six month medical leave. But in that period, he decided yes, he wanted to write something, he didn’t know quite what, but he wanted to write it about people who were on the other side from what he had been on. As the imperial policer officer in Burma, he had been on this privileged level.
And I think again, it was the reflections he had in his mind about what it meant to be privileged that made him go to the opposite end of things. In this case, to become voluntarily a tramp, and to wander not only the streets of London, but the countryside in order to discover what it was like to be at the bottom of society.
Nico: Down and Out was published in I believe 1933, but Orwell’s kind of development as a writer – at least, it comes across in your biography – was a long time coming. He didn’t grow up a literary prodigy. You I think make a note in your biography of noting that his early writings left something to be desired, and it was only through the development of his craft that he became really one of the best SAS diplomatists the world has ever known. So, he wasn’t like a Mozart. He wasn’t born a brilliant writer. Would you say that’s true?
Michael: I think he had a native talent for writing, but he had a big obstacle in his way, which was he had become so committed to fact. He loved hard fact, truth. He loved the things he said that are right under your nose that you should see, but we often don’t see. And so, that’s probably not the best thing to feel when you’re gonna write fiction, because it’s not fact. So, he struggled wanting to write novels, because that was the predominant form for commercial success. And yet, it was tough, because he struggled to take what he had known in life and turn it into some fictional shape so that Down and Out in Paris and London is listed as nonfiction.
But he tries to treat it in some respects as fiction to tell a story essentially, rather than to write an essay about poverty or something of that kind. He tries to structure it into a story. And it really doesn’t quite work. And the early novels also don’t quite work in that way. So, he was constantly moving back and forth between some fictional subject that he wanted to write about based on fact, and not quite merging fact and fiction in the way that he wanted. Just to jump ahead, he finally saw the problem when he wrote about in Animal Farm fable-like characters. People that – I mean, they’re not people, they’re animals. So, you don’t have to worry about being sued for libel.
He can create a story that’s based on Stalin and Hitler and all of the totalitarians, but he doesn’t even have to refer to these people or their sympathizers in England. He can create this fable-like situation with the animals that can convey that. And in 1984, he writes about the future. So, the future’s very much based on the past, but that was his solution, to take the fiction outside of this world, and try to insert the fact into the fiction without tying it to the world that we know. It’s a brilliant solution.
Nico: Well, you suggest one of the practical realities of writing at the time too, one of the things that surprised me in reading your biography is how concerned writers were, and publishers more importantly at the time, about the potential for libel actions, and how much those concerns shaped Orwell’s work and what he could and couldn’t publish.
I mean, for example, as you note, it limited his ability to write explicitly, autobiographically in for example Down and Out and Burmese Days. So, can you talk a little bit about how libel actions influenced writing at the time? ‘Cause I don’t think it’s something that writers today at least in the United States struggle with as much, although books go through pre-publication review by lawyers for those sorts of things. But not it doesn’t seem to the extent that Orwell’s books did.
Michael: It’s always been worse in England. It’s worse or better, whichever way you look at it. You can get sued and pay a lot of money over libel to this day in England, because their laws are stricter about that. So, the publishers in those days who were operating pretty much on a shoestring like Orwell’s publisher was Victor Gollancz who ran this very small house. They lived in fear of losing massive amounts of money in a successful libel suit. So, they were extremely careful, and wanted to make sure that Orwell wasn’t taking too much of what he had known for example in Burma, and putting it into Burmese Days, even though many people did recognize certain characters and other things from out in Burma.
They read the book out there, and they thought, “Ah, I see. This is based on so-and-so.” But it was tricky, because you really could pay a huge financial penalty. And it wasn’t just Orwell, it was many people. But Orwell experienced it in a greater way, because he was trying so hard to merge those lines between fiction and fact.
Nico: We’re in the 1930s now, and one of the things that struck me about your biography is it didn’t seem like the Great Depression had a big influence on him. Or at least, it wasn’t discussed much in the biography. Obviously, the Great Depression had an effect on us here in the United States, but it was a worldwide depression as well. So, was there anything from the Depression, that era, that influenced Orwell and his career trajectory, or was it something that he was able to skirt more or less?
Michael: It was in fact, of course, a worldwide depression, but a little bit better in England. Not quite the impact on English society that it was on American society. In fact, whereas America went toward a very liberal administration with Franklin Roosevelt, the British ended up with Stanley Baldwin who was a conservative character, a Tory. And that then led to Chamberlain, and to Churchill.
So, it wasn’t quite the same situation in England, and therefore though poverty was clearly a problem, and many people were disadvantaged, it didn’t register as much in Orwell’s life, or the life of most people in Britain until the war came along which really had much greater damage on the British economy than certainly we had in American on the war. We suffered during the depression, they suffered during the war and afterward.
Nico: In 1936, Orwell set out to fight in the Spanish Civil War against fascism. And this was an important experience for Orwell for many reasons, not only because he was of course shot in the neck, but also because of the group he was fighting with. I believe it’s pronounced the POUM, right?
Nico: And that group became outlawed, and he and his wife Eileen were surveilled, and had to go on the run. And it gave Orwell, at least as I understand it, one of his earlier impressions of the motives of the Soviet Union and it’s international effects. Later, Orwell published Homage to Catalonia about his experiences. But it wasn’t easy for him to publish Homage to Catalonia because of his criticisms of the Communist and Socialist factions in the Spanish Civil War. So, can you talk a little bit about that?
Michael: Well, just to go back to our discussion of the economies, even though Britain was doing a little bit better in the Depression than the United States, there was a great deal of attention given, especially by the intellectual class to changing the economy, and making it more socialist. And certainly a lot of sympathy for what was seen as a true revolution in Russia under the Soviets. And so, Orwell began to try to figure out where he stood in all of this. And at one point, he thought, “Well, perhaps socialism, not of the Soviet variety, but a more homegrown, English variety would be the future.”
And just because there was no great struggle in England at that time over trying to change the society radically, he went to Spain to try it there. To be a part of a radical transformation of Spanish society. It didn’t work, and he learned that it wouldn’t work probably, and he learned it painfully, because he joined a group that was – they were more anarchists and libertarians than they were true communist, but they were aligned with the left. And because they weren’t quite pure in their ideology, they quickly became a target of criticism in Spain by the Soviets and their sympathizers, who targeted them in the end for persecution. Some of their people were arrested, died in jail, were executed.
And Orwell got caught in the middle of all of that. And it was like waking up in a nightmare to realize that whatever you called your movement, whether it was socialist, communist, capitalist, this lust for power and to regiment everyone in society, and issue orders, and make them all do the same thing, that was the thing to be afraid of. And regardless of the ideology, it came to the fore. And he realized that. And that really galvanized his attitude as a writer, that he then from that moment on wanted to write about people who weren’t just under the thumb of someone, but even when they were living in a fairly free society, felt that they couldn’t speak freely.
That they couldn’t always voice their opinions. So, today in England, there is a quotation of Orwell’s carved into the wall of the BBC headquarters, and next to a statue of Orwell. And they seem to be very proud of this, that Orwell once worked for the BBC, which we’ll get to later.
Nico: Yeah, I’ve got a question about that.
Michael: Yeah. And the quote is, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” It seems like a fairly simple statement. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” But it’s the most radical sentiment I can imagine, because imagine if you or I left this conversation, and devoted ourselves for the next year to telling everyone exactly what we thought, whether they liked it or not. We’d end up probably with no friends, and maybe we’d get fired from our jobs, and not be employable because people don’t really want that. They don’t want to hear that. And that’s why it’s such a radical sentiment.
And it’s still a question of whether we’d be better off always telling the truth, or shading the truth, or downright lying. But certainly, once you get into – and this is what he discovered in Spain – once you get into a situation where there are high stakes for the success of some ideology, or some movement, then it’s so important to shut up the people who’ve got dissent in mind, who want to question what you’re doing. You have to shut them up, because if they keep talking, they may take your followers away from you. They may sow enough doubt to undermine the movement. So, Orwell was trying to find a way after Spain to enshrine this notion of absolute freedom of speech.
And I know that that’s still a fairly radical notion, ‘cause people want to make conditions to freedom of speech. But he was almost absolute in his belief in it, because he had seen what had happened when people were denied that right, and were told to shut up, or go away, or be imprisoned, or executed.
Nico: Yeah, and he memorialized that so to speak, or fictionalized that with Napoleon and Snowball and Animal Farm about a decade later. The thing that strikes me is that he absolutely lived this motto too, for the most part, right? I mean, he could’ve made a lot more money by being a more doctrinaire socialist. He could’ve pleased his publisher Victor Gollancz. Would’ve gotten a lot more books and essays published. But he bucked the trend. And his ingroup, so to speak, the Gollancz and the other left wing writers and intelligentsia of England, I mean he had no trouble cutting against the grain with them.
And that seems to be a thread throughout Orwell’s writings, is that despite of socialist sympathies, he was not a party man or a man of faction. He was unwavering in his criticisms where he thought criticisms were warranted, particularly criticisms of Stalin’s regime and the Soviet Union. And such criticisms – actually, I was just reading it – inspired perhaps his most prominent essay on free expression called The Prevention of Literature. It’s one of his lesser-known essays. But it criticized the stifling orthodoxy of the English intelligentsia. It also criticized monopolies and corporatism.
But it’s hard for a modern reader to appreciate I guess – and this is something that I was grappling with when I was reading your biography – the difficulties that these critiques of the Soviet Union would’ve led to for someone like Orwell – In our time, there’s no trouble that comes from criticizing Stalin or Hitler or any other authoritarian leader. But at the time, there was sympathies.
Or if not for it, how these regimes manifested themselves, at least for what they were trying to achieve. So, can you help us understand that zeitgeist? I mean, speaking of Animal Farm, he had a dreadful time trying to get that published, right? It was only when he went to his fourth publisher or fifth publisher that he was able to get it published, precisely because of the parallels that we was drawing with his fictionalized Animal Farm and the Soviet Union.
Michael: The thing to bear in mind is that the sacred cows in society change from generation to generation.
Michael: And for many people, Stalin had become a sacred cow because in their delusion, he was seen as the champion of the ordinary person, building a model society in the Soviet Union. In fact, he was one of the most murderous dictators in history, and it was destroying the Soviet Union from within. But if you said that in the west, they thought that that automatically put you on the other extreme as being the robber baron capitalist type who didn’t give a damn about the poor or the oppressed. So, there wasn’t a good middle ground. But we see that today.
I mean, if you are a Republican, a Democrat, a Progressive, whatever you are, it’s not always very safe to try to question your movement, because others will quickly regard that as being disloyal, and somehow undermining the movement. So, the sacred cows today are certain things that the media say are now wonderful, but if you question that, you’ll get into the same trouble that Orwell did.
It’s difficult to publish books today not as you say on Stalin or Russia, because that belongs to the past, as far as many people are concerned, but we still have people that if you questioned – because they’re so widely accepted – you would get into enormous trouble. I remember Chris Hitchens who I got to know a bit was so –
Nico: I’ve got a picture of him on my wall, –
Michael: Yeah, there’s Chris.
Nico: – right? I don’t know if you can see that. Yeah, he’s –
Nico: – riding through Central Park without his feet on the pedals, which I guess what a petty law that they had in Central Park. You had to keep your feet on the pedals. And he did a future story I think for vanity fair where he just broke all of these petty laws that New York have. And so, it’s a beautiful picture. I got it from the actual photographer himself –
Nico: – of just what it means to buck authority.
Michael: That’s Chris. And –
Michael: – he was a great admirer of Orwell. He wrote a book called Why Orwell Matters, which is very good. But think about him writing criticizing in a whole book Mother Theresa.
Nico: Which he does. Which he titled The Missionary Position.
Michael: Yeah. Talk about sacred cows. But that’s the point. You want to be able to take on any figure of authority, no matter how respected they are, because of the principal at stake, which is that dissent is crucial to liberty. If you don’t have a large number of people in your society who feel free to question the prevailing orthodoxy, or as Orwell once called it, “All the smelly little orthodoxies of this world,” he actually used that phrase to refer to what he believed was groupthink.
And of course, we still have that problem very much with us. And its effects can be so corrosive, ultimately it stops people thinking for themselves, which is where in 1984, the thought police come in. Because the ideal of that kind of tyranny is to stop you from thinking what you want to say before anyone tells you not to say it.
Nico: Yeah, and the interesting thing, you have a quote in the discussion of the difficulties getting Animal Farm published. There was a whisper campaign almost to try and prevent other publishers from taking the book after Victor Gollancz refused his option to publish it. And Orwell recognized this and wrote that, “To write in plain –” Well no, that’s not the quote I wanted to – where’s the quote here? I scrolled too far down on my notes. He said, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.” And that seems to be kind of a theme in his thinking about free expression.
He wasn’t as often concerned, although he clearly was, with the officialized top-down blunt hammer brutal sort of censorship that we think of. The government, this big goliath, coming down on the David. And while that does exist, he seemed to be also concerned with the more subtle. It’s like this culture of censoriousness that becomes baked into the personal psyche through subtle forces. And he experienced this when he was at the BBC. We talked about that earlier. He was working on the eastern service there. And you’re right, it was the routine, institutionalized nature of the censorship at the BBC that Orwell found intriguing and depressing.
The effect of working at such a place was that it eventually became impossible to think of putting any words on a paper without considering the response of the censors. Censorship does not have to be strict to induce this thought. It only needs to be present in some form, and to be applied with regularity. And I thought that was just kind of a brilliant synopsis that you had of kind of the culture of free speech as we sometimes discuss it at Fire, and how a culture that doesn’t live up and advocate for these values, or recognize these values, to who’s often slip into a culture of complacency and orthodoxy.
And Orwell writes about this in his essay Freedom of the Park. “If large numbers of people,” he writes, “believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech. Even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” So, can you talk a little bit about his time at the BBC, and his thinking about freedom of speech in that respect?
Michael: It’s funny, I’ve done a lot of interviews with the BBC and with the CBC in Canada over the years. And they all believe that they’re following Orwell’s model. They all believe that they’re out to tell the truth. Everybody likes to think that. And they were reluctant to see how they have censored themselves, and intaking certain viewpoints that are accepted largely in society. What you need to do in order to be a true figure like Orwell is voice the opinions that are not popular. The opinions that don’t have a constituency. That in fact are maybe outrageous. That takes guts. That takes courage. And Orwell did it in his life, he did it in his writings.
It seems today yes, as you say, it wouldn’t take that much courage to point out that Stalin was a thug, but when Stalin at the time that Animal Farm was being circulated for trying to find a publisher, when Stalin’s forces had formed the Eastern Front to try to crush Germany, he was seen as a hero, and the Soviet Army as a heroic effort to spare British and American lives so they wouldn’t have to fight their way into the streets of Berlin. So, Orwell would get a lot of this stuff of, “How dare you criticize Stalin and the Russians when they’re dying –“Stalin wasn’t in any danger – but, “when they’re dying on the Eastern front to defeat our common enemy?”
So, you see where you get this kind of thing. It happened when people were expected to support the Diem government in Vietnam, for example, even though they were murderous thugs. It’s, “My murderous thug is better than your murderous thug” kind of thinking. And you have to be the one person who says, “Why do I need to align myself with any of these murderous thugs?” And when you speak like that, you destroy whole policy initiatives. You undercut things that people have invested their lives in, or their careers in. And they don’t like that, and they will come after you like nobody’s business. And that’s what Orwell discovered. As I said, the sacred cows change from generation to generation.
It’s not attacking Stalin that was the issue, it was attacking someone you were not supposed to attack at that moment in time. And you know we have at least two dozen of those things in our society today, and woe begone the person who is going to say, “I raise my hand. I will voice the opinion that is rarely voiced and see what happens.” And as we now know through media of all kinds, you can get silenced pretty quickly.
Nico: Yeah. There is that famous meme that goes across the internet of the crowd of onlookers raising their hands to Hitler, Sieg heiling him, and then there’s the one guy who’s standing in the crowd with his arms crossed. It almost seems like George Orwell at least within his literary crowd.
Michael: That’s a perfect example, but the great skit in Life of Brian, the Monty Python film, where the supposed Christ-like figure says to a huge crowd, “You all need to think for yourselves,” and they repeat back to him, “We all need to think for ourselves.”
Nico: I had seen that in your biography, that you had interviewed John Cleese who has turned out to be one of the biggest advocates for free expression in England. A guy I’d love to interview one day. He’s getting older at this point. But this kind of sense of not being able to buck your community, or buck your faction, I mean it speaks to kind of the tribal nature that we all have, and the uniqueness of someone like George Orwell, who seems to be so confident in himself that he doesn’t need that sort of community, or that sort of praise from the people that he respects, or maybe doesn’t respect.
But the one thing that was kind of interesting to me in your biography is how much he really bought into the war effort. When World War 2 broke out, he wanted to do his part. It just seems like that one point in his life where he does kind of go with the flow, right? He does kind of go with the flow of society.
So, can you talk about that, and what might’ve motivated him to do that? Was it Hitler? Was it the particular threat of fascism which he had fought against in Spain? Or was it the motivating words of Churchill? It’s actually interesting in your biography, I was looking for the name Winston Churchill to come up, and it never came up. So, I’m kind of curious to also get your thoughts what he thought about Churchill.
Michael: He didn’t think too much of Churchill as a person, because people don’t realize if they don’t know Churchill’s history so well that up until the time he became prime minister in 1940, most people considered him a phenomenal failure because of the way he supposedly had bungled the Gallipoli Expedition in 1915. But we won’t get into all of that.
Nico: Yeah, I could ask you whether you think it was a brilliant tactical move or doomed to failure.
Michael: Well, the sad fact is at the Navy, he was organizing the attack on the strait of the Dardanelles. What happened after he lost his post at the Admiralty was that the military, the army got involved in trying to secure the peninsula, the Gallipoli. And so, therefore, that fiasco really wasn’t under his watch. But he was blamed for starting the whole business, which to some extent is true. He did come up with this idea of trying to get through the Dardanelles and attack Turkey, Germany’s ally. But we’ll push all of that aside, –
Michael: – only to say that once the war started, and the bombs started falling, it’s pretty hard to remain pacifist or neutral when friends are being killed on the home front because of the German bombing. People forget that for almost 60 nights straight in September and October 1940, London was bombed every night. And great fires broke out. Thousands of people died in horrific deaths. And Orwell was sympathetic to all of that, and wanted to stop that, as many people in Britain did. So yes, he was mobilized in his own mind to join the war effort to stop Hitler. No question about that.
That was pretty easy to do. It was this question of whether Stalin was an effective or even a desirable ally that created the problem. And even within the war against Hitler, he wanted to be able to point out things like the questionable nature of bombing Dresden, for example, or bombing German cities to the extent that they did, and firebomb campaigns. So, you always need somebody – I’m surprised societies don’t realize this – you need someone like Orwell who’s fearless. And I noticed one point recently, a few years ago, that some Labour leader in Britain was questioning Orwell’s commitment to the Spanish Civil War, that he went there just because he wanted to gather material.
Which is not the only reason he went there. But they were sort of questioning him as not being a true friend of the working class. And I said in a video lecture I gave about that that it was interesting, in the entire article about how Orwell wasn’t working class enough, they never mention that he paid almost with his life in Spain for this cause. He got a bullet through the throat, and barely survived.
Once you mention – talk about facts – once you mention the fact that Orwell, unlike many people, didn’t go there merely to posture, he fought in the trenches and was severely wounded, and nearly died, once you point out that fact, it becomes a little harder to say, “Well, he wasn’t committed enough.” How much more committed do you need to be, right?
Nico: Didn’t he also want to go back too? But the situation with the POUM kind of became –?
Michael: Yeah, he was a wanted man. So, he had –
Michael: – to – they were going to kill him. We now know that from the various archives that had opened up in Russia, that he was a wanted man. He knew it, and probably would’ve been at least imprisoned, if not killed. Because he was dangerous as a writer who was speaking up against the Soviet presence in Spain.
Nico: I wanna talk a little bit about his experiences with censorship in England. This is to say government censorship. One of the kind of quirks of this whole discussion is that his wife Eileen worked for the censorship department in Whitehall during World War 2, which I found to be unique. She didn’t censor him. At least, there’s no suggestion of that. But wartime censors did. For example, one of his – what was it called? The London Letters columns was censored for a bit he had about the lynching of a downed German pilot, which I think you write in your biography he might’ve inserted just to kind of test the censors.
Michael: He did, mm-hmm.
Nico: There was even a raid on his home library where a number of books were taken, although I think you said they were later returned, which – and he kind of thought that was all very silly. But in the end, he became a vice chairman of this – what was it called, Freedom Defense Committee?
Michael: Yeah. No, he –
Nico: So, he seemed to have been motivated at least by some of the experiences during World War 2 to take an interest in how the government was approaching censorship of common citizens, and authors, and whatnot.
Michael: You know, there’s a case for censorship in wartime, because you don’t –
Michael: – want to exactly say, “And by the way, around June the 6th or the 7th, we’re going to invade the mainland.” I mean, you don’t want people giving your plans away. But it really wasn’t about that. It was more the question of revealing things that weren’t supposed to be revealed of a moral or a political nature. It wasn’t military strategy that he was trying to compromise, it was the moral and political attitudes about the war that he wanted to be free to question. It seemed a legitimate area of questioning. So, for instance, when angry British farmers lynch a German pilot, he wants to be able to say, “What do you think of that? What does that say about us? What does it say about warfare?”
We always need those people. We needed them during the Iraq episode, we needed them certainly in Afghanistan, we needed them in Vietnam, we need them all of the time to question what it is that we’re doing so that we don’t go straight off the cliff in any of these episodes, and end up thinking, “What was that about?” So, it’s interesting that so much effort is put into silencing dissidents like Orwell when in fact, having that chorus of dissenters is often the most valuable thing you can have.
But it moved – and for Orwell, I think we need to get to this – it moved into an area that he thought was so dangerous that he struggled to find a way to explain, “What was gonna happen if you started to censor people so much for their moral political other kinds of thoughts that you didn’t agree with, social opinions, whatever?” And that was when he came up with this formulation that eventually, people would say to you, “Two and two is five.” And you would say, “No it isn’t.” And you’d say, “Oh, it isn’t?” That’s our view now. It is five. And either you agree with that, or there’s something wrong with you.
He worried that you could actually end up – and he talks about this in The Prevention of Literature, by the way – with scientists, with respect to people who normally would need to work with numbers just to fire the missile for the dictator, that they would finally be persuaded that if told, they would say, “Yes, 2 + 2 = 5.” Or, to take better examples, you’d say, “Yeah, if we do this, we’re gonna suffer that.”
And it would be plain. It would be plain that if you did something, you would suffer. And yet, you were told not to say that, even though it was evident. So, what he uses in 2 + 2 = 4 is it’s literally the most elementary kind of equation. And yet, you would be told, “You can’t say that that equals four, because that’s not the party line.”
Nico: Yeah. It’s actually interesting that you bring up the difference between the humanities as we think of them, and then the science, because you’re starting to see a little bit of the politicization of science as well. We’ve talked about it in past episodes. The American Medical Association has this health language guide that it’s now putting up that is kind of trying to guide doctors to how they can insert equity statements into their general statements about medicine.
I won’t get into that, since we did it in previous episodes as well. But since you’ve moved to 1984, I want to start talking about it. It seems to pull together so many different threads from Orwell’s life and writing. We talked earlier in this conversation about Big Brother kind of being a callback to Mrs. Wilkes or Flip. Wikles. I forget her name.
Nico: Was it Wilkes? Yes. Surely, the Ministry of Truth had something to say about England’s Ministry of Information. There’s allusions to of course disinformation campaigns. What was Orwell trying to accomplish or say with 1984? Because you’re skeptical that he was trying to predict the future, right? Was he just trying to put together in a novel form his political philosophy in kind of the way that maybe Ayn Rand did with The Fountainhead, or Atlas Shrugged? Or was he trying to do something different here?
Michael: I think the future is the last thing he was interested in as a futuristic science fiction thing. We’re 1984 not that far in the future from 1948 when he wrote it. He just switched the digits. He took the 48 and switched it around. Because it wasn’t originally called that, it was called “The Last Man in Europe.” And it was more about the fight to resist these forces of censorship and tyranny in that post-war period. And if you read it that way, it’s very much sort of a World War 2 or post-World War 2 book with rationing, and intermittent bombing, and domination of the world, and to superpowers. All of those things that were emerging at the end of World War 2.
So, it’s very much a 1948 book is what it is. But as I said earlier, putting things far enough into the future freed him to be far more outspoken than if he had said it in contemporary Britain in 1948, and seen things as they were at that time in a kind of box. The future enabled him to open that box up, to spread it out back to the past, and as far in the future as our period. It’s amazing how much 1984 still speaks to us today, but it’s partly because of his work by the way at the BBC where he understood in the early attempts at the BBC to create television, they were the real pioneers. They had a working television transmission in the late 1930s.
But he was aware of that work, and I think he understood how going forward into a future that was still pretty dim, you could get to the point where there would be kind of a mass digital transformation of society, which is what we’re seeing, where you would go from the analogue period where if you wanted to play a record, you had to put a record on a turntable, to a period now where if I want to play music, I press a button. And the music’s a file. So, I don’t even have to see the record album. It’s just there. Or I don’t have to read a book anymore. I can flip through it on a Kindle if I want to. In other words, we’re being freed from a lot of that analogue culture.
And that makes censorship so much easier, because you can delete accounts. You can change words. You can airbrush things. And of course, Orwell was fascinated by the attempts of Stalin to airbrush his enemies out of pictures where he had once stood with them.
Nico: Yeah, the commissar vanishes, I believe. I read about that.
Michael: Yeah, the commissar vanishes. So, you see in 1984, he’s able to talk about all of those things, but they’re rooted in 1948 and in his own past. But he found – and this is the brilliance of it – he found a way to do I think what every writer wants to do: Really open up. To be free to say pretty much what you want to say, because you feel that the form is right, the tone is right, the style is right. And I’m not talking about just censorship, I mean finding your voice as a writer. And he certainly found his voice in the essays leading up to 1984, and then in the book itself.
And all of this is happening at a kind of warp speed based on what happened to him in the ‘40s that as I say galvanized a lot of his thinking so that even though he was dying of Tuberculosis as he wrote the book, he pushed through to the very last minute. And the book is published six months before he dies.
Because he feels so desperate that not only does he need to get this message out, his time has arrived as a writer. He knows that. He feels it in his bones. And he’s finally found a way to say the things he always wanted to say. And I think for every great writer, there is that moment where you sort of think, “Yeah, I was hitting on all cylinders. I finally found it.” And I think that was the case with Orwell.
Nico: Yeah. It’s such a shame, right? ‘Cause I’m reading your biography, and it talks about all of the sales figures for his previous books, Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Down and Out, and they’re a couple thousand here and there, right? And then, he gets Animal Farm which is this huge success. It also seems to be so different from everything else he has written. So, the suggestions that maybe Eileen had a hand in that I think are interesting. Eileen, his wife who passed away at 36, and we can talk about that I guess. And then, there’s 1984 which is published – I think it was June of 1949, and he died in January of 1950.
It’s just such a shame that you lose him right then, when he seems to start producing his best work. But in a certain sense – and I’ve always kind of had this feeling – that when you lose someone too soon, they take out a larger than life persona. You think of it with assassinations of John F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, or Abraham Lincoln. When you lose someone when they go out on the top, they seem to have a staying power that someone who slowly drifts away does not. But I do think he did predict the future in a certain extent about 1984, even if he didn’t intend to do so.
You can look at what’s happening in China right now, where you have the tennis star Peng Shuai who criticized the former Vice Chancellor of the Chinese Communist Party, or Vice President I should say, of sexual misconduct, and then she just disappears. You can’t even find her name in China, right? And then, maybe the closest parallel to 1984 is what you see in North Korea, where much like you have Big Brother on the screen in every home, you have the Kim dynasty on the walls of every home in North Korea as well, and you see these parades where people are doing the things that you saw happen in the fascist regimes in the 1930s and 40s.
Just this overt, overly dramatic praise of their dear leader. So, he was right on a certain sense, but then he was maybe – some of the disinformation campaigns take more disinformation routes, like what’s happening with Russia right now. Anyway, we could draw parallels between 1984 and regimes all day, but it is interesting to see that right after Donald Trump was elected, the book was on the bestsellers list again. So, it seems to be that when people have concerns about their civil liberties, people return to 1984. And it’s a shame that he never really got to see the success of 1984, right? I mean, it was a pretty early success, but he died six months later, right?
Michael: Well yes. And not only that, but even before Trump in 2015, and I believe ’14, when early revelations of the amount of data collection being done by the government, by the NSA raised fears, then suddenly 1984 shoots to the top of Amazon. And at one point, there was a bit of a bruja because I think inadvertently, but who knows, 1984 disappeared from the Kindle a few –
Nico: Oh, geez!
Michael: – years back. And people thought, “Uh oh!”
Nico: “We’re living it!”
Michael: Yeah. It is true that if a certain film like Gone With the Wind becomes suddenly unacceptable to people because of the way it portrays race, there now is the fear that the film is accessed by so many people digitally, not because they have the DVD anymore, or whatever. So, there’s a fear that certain things could just disappear. That people would go looking for them and would not find them unless they collect them and hold onto them.
Nico: That’s like what happened with Dr. Seuss –
Nico: – recently.
Michael: Any one of these things fits that mold. So, what Orwell saw was a tendency that was just a tendency when he was writing the book, which has gotten fueled by all these events of recent years to become a real movement that we need to be worried about, the willingness of our betters to tell us what we can say, read, write, whatever. And that’s the brilliance from 1984. When I wrote my biography in the early ‘90s, people said, “Well, Orwell’s probably had his day. 1984 has come and gone. The Soviet Union has fallen.” They saw him as a cold war –
Michael: – figure. But since then, he’s become far more of a prophet about what happens when societies start to toy with that “2 + 2” equation, and suddenly tell you it’s 5. That they’ve moved into this digital future where numbers and everything can be manipulated in a way, the on / off toggle switch can be manipulated so that you are told, “This is the way it is.” You think, “I’ve found Gone With the Wind at your site last year. Where is it now?” “Oh, it was never here.”
I mean, I could easily see people saying, “Well, what movie? What did you say it was? Gone with the what?” That’s the real fear at the basis of this, that things would disappear. And remember what Winston Smith’s job is. He puts things down the memory hole in 1984 at the Ministry of –
Michael: – Information, which is –
Michael: – a ministry of lies. “Ministry of Truth.”
Nico: Do you think Orwell would’ve hated how he’s kind of become a stanza – I mean, he’s now become an adjective, right? Orwellian. Do you think he would’ve hated that sort of thing, or – well, what do you think he would’ve thought of it?
Michael: Oh no. That was the whole point of creating a pseudonym. To make the writing separate in and of itself. That’s why he’s buried if you go see his grave in England, it’s, “Here lies Eric Arthur Blair.” There’s no mention on that stone that George Orwell ever was alive. Because he wasn’t. He was a construct that lived for 17 years only in the titles and the names of the books.
Nico: So, I have to ask you, because I visited Islay off the coast of Scotland, and taken the ferry past Jura. And I don’t know if you’ve been to Barnhill. I have not. But I’ve seen Jura. And it is a bleak place. I mean, it’s beautiful I’m sure at many times of the year, but if you’re in those oceans taking the ferry – I went to Islay ‘cause I like Whisky and – if you like peated Whisky, that’s where you go. But I almost looked at that island and thought, “I could see how someone could live there in 1984.” Which is what he was doing.
Michael: He was at the end of the Earth, as far as –
Michael: – he was concerned. And it is a beautiful island. And by the way, if you like whisky, there’s now a Jura brand of Whisky that’s doing pretty well.
Nico: I can see that.
Michael: Yeah, I’ve been all over there to Skye and all of those places. They’re magical if you don’t mind it raining all of the time.
Nico: Yeah. I went in May, which is the perfect time of year to go, because it’s light for most of the day. The bluebells are glowing. But the seas are rough, and you could just see them crash against the cliff faces, and if you look at Jura in particular, you can’t see any sign of human life when you’re going by it. And I think you can still rent out Barnhill, and it’s much the same as it was –
Michael: You can.
Nico: – during Orwell’s day. Yeah no, still no electricity. You have to cook on a gas stove.
Michael: There is a generator now.
Nico: Oh, is there really?
Michael: Yeah, mm-hmm. But you can see how if you’re sitting there typing, it’s easy to type as a title of your book, “The Last Man in Europe.”
Michael: ‘Cause you would feel that at the end of that island.
Nico: I wanna ask you as kind of a find question here what it was like to write the biography of Orwell. Because he’s taken on sort of mythic status, right? And people have their impressions of him. And then, it’s your job to tell them the truth about the man. It was also interesting that you could write about a guy like Orwell while many of his contemporaries are still alive. Your book came out in 1991. So, can you talk about that experience? I always like hearing about the experience of creation. Especially in a project like this.
Michael: It was like living another life. I’ve written six or seven biographies, and I feel like I’ve led seven or eight lives at least, because you get immersed in this other life, and you get to know it. So, for example, talking to you today, I don’t have to look at anything, to reference anything. It’s almost like I’m talking about my grandfather or something.
Nico: I was worried when we were doing this. I was like, “He wrote this book 30 years ago. Is he gonna remember again?”
Michael: Well, I revisited it for the great courses out of D.C. where we did a whole series on Orwell updating my biography by these video lectures I gave on his life. So, it’s stayed with me, and I’m asked to talk about it all of the time, but it really was as though I had entered someone else’s life and acquired at least a grandfather.
Nico: So, I think we have to leave it there. We’re about an hour in. I want to thank you Professor Shelden for taking the time to do this. I know it’s the end of your semester, and you must be a busy man. But I think this is a fascinating conversation. I’m glad we got to do it for the 150th episode of So to Speak.
Michael: Thank you!
Nico: That was Indiana State University professor Michael Shelden. His authorized biography of George Orwell is simply called Orwell. This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. You can learn more about So to Speak by following us on Twitter at twitter.com/freespeechtalk or liking us on Facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. We also take email feedback at So to Speak at the fire.org.
And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast or Google Play or wherever else you get your podcasts to help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time – and I should say next time will be in the new year ‘cause I’m taking a slight break here for the holidays – until next time, I thank you all again for listening.