A tribute to Orwell

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

If readers will indulge me, I'd like to recount the story of a well-known man. Someone whose image has been remembered even as his example is almost always forgotten.

If you can, picture a man in his early thirties. A man who, though fairly young in years, is maybe even younger in experience. A tall gangly guy who is known to swim nude in the canal of his hometown without a trace of embarrassment. A guy who might get lost for an afternoon in a Rudyard Kipling poem without noticing the time pass.

In short, someone who might be called naive.

The year was 1936. This particular guy then called himself a socialist.

Socialism was what made sense to this guy. He thought "the world is a life raft with provisions for everybody." He believed the role of government should be dividing these provisions. He fully expected a revolution.

This guy liked to show his solidarity with the proletariat as only a man-child could. He slurped his soup like the lower classes, hung out in flop houses and tried really hard not to take gifts of money from his wealthy aunt. In this he usually failed, but at least he tried.

Soon enough, as always happens with earnest young men, his principles were tested. Civil war broke out in Spain. Socialists had taken control of the north part of the country and were said to be building a classless society there. With the aid of the Soviets, Spanish socialists were battling a virulent form of fascism threatening to spread throughout Europe.

If ever there was a cause made for people of conviction, he thought, this was it. So he caught the train to Barcelona and joined the fighters.

He endured the hardships of war. He shivered through nights on the frontier and helped train Spanish soldiers no older than children.

But the war he was fighting was a farce, he soon decided. Most of the casualties came from boys accidentally triggering their rusty weapons or rolling over on hand grenades.

Still he fought on because he believed so strongly in the cause.

And for this loyalty he was duly rewarded with a fascist bullet through the throat. Just skimming his jugular, the wound left him on death's doorstep. His war was over.

Upon his eventual return to England he had changed. But it wasn't the senselessness of war that stayed with him. It wasn't even the decisive victory of Franco and the fascists that kept him up at night. Instead it was what he had seen of socialism come to life. What he had seen of the side for which he fought.

He had seen in Spain that the Soviet Union, then the world's greatest champion of socialism, had transformed into a brutal, power-hungry totalitarian state. He had seen that the Soviets would never create the classless society he dreamt of.

In a flash, this man known to us now as George Orwell vowed that he would spend the rest of his life fighting the evil he had seen. He would later write books like "Animal Farm," and "1984," attacking this sort of totalitarianism. His efforts made him an outcast in intellectual circles. He didn't mind.

Now he is a symbol of moral clarity in an ambiguous time. He is idolized by both the political right and the political left. He is read by high schoolers everywhere.

But no one seems to remember what got him here. No one seems to remember that he earned his status by questioning what he called "smelly orthodoxies." People forget that this great polemicist earned his place in history by never belonging to a political "team."

In today's climate, we could sure use a few more Orwells.

TJ Greaney is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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