Friday, November 17, 2017

A Political Shakespeare?

Looking back at the pleasure I always took in teaching Shakespeare's tragedies, I realize my attraction to The Bard had a great deal to do with his eerily penetrating insights into human nature, arrived at long before the advent of modern psychology. Similarly, for a non-fiction titan, I have long looked to George Orwell for his ability to pierce the patina of civility that hides what are often monstrous political realities.

On Literary Hub, Kristian Williams has published an essay discussing Orwell's Notes on Nationalism, which he wrote in 1945. Considering the fraught nature of political discourse and alliances we see today at both ends of the political spectrum, Orwell's insights, like those of Shakespeare, seem timeless.

First, Orwell defined his term:
By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly—and this is much more important—I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.
That definition alone paves the way for his theme.
Elsewhere he describes nationalism more simply as “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”
In nationalism, Orwell was considering ties that go beyond state affiliation:
... “the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation. . . . It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.”
Clearly, one does not have to look far in the world today to see why those can be such poisonous allegiances.
Within this framework, Orwell lists three “principal characteristics of nationalist thought”:

1. “Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit.” His special mission is to prove that his chosen nation is in all respects better than its rivals. Therefore, even to the outer limits of plausibility, any question may be traced back to this central issue. No detail is indifferent, no fact is neutral.

2. “Instability.” The content of the nationalist’s belief, and even the object of his devotion, is liable to change as circumstances do. “What remains constant in the nationalist is his own state of mind”—the relentless, reductive, uncompromising fervor. The point is to keep oneself always in a frenzied state concerning vicarious contests of honor, whether indulging in spasms of rage over perceived insults or in sadistic ecstasies celebrating some new triumph. It is the single-minded intensity that matters, not the ostensible cause.

3. “Indifference to Reality.” Nationalists achieve by instinct the kind of doublethink that the denizens of Airstrip One cultivated by conscious effort: “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakably certain of being in the right.” His fundamental belief, he feels sure, must be true; therefore, the facts will have to be made to fit it.
I won't insult you by pointing out the obvious truth of these observations, but one needs only check out social media, the blogosphere and online commentary to get some quick and easy examples.

There is much, much more to essay, but I will end with this powerful paragraph, which could have been written yesterday, taken from Orwell's diary:
We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting [forward] a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends. . . One notices this in the case of people one disagrees with, such as Fascists or pacifists, but in fact everyone is the same, at least everyone who has definite opinions. Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless toward people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests and sympathies. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on or off like a tap according to political expediency. . . . I am not thinking of lying for political ends, but of actual changes in subjective feeling. But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.


  1. .. quite remarkable .. a great read n reference !
    Hopefully, I mentioned Animal Farm in my recent comments..

    FYI - I am still seeking best metaphor or analogy per toxic 'public serpents' - I am looking deep into parasitic examples.. and so far lamprey eels re,ain top of list. The Cuckoo bird is useful.. as its offspring raised under false pretenses will often turf the host young fledglings from the nest.

    I don't wish to insult pigs or rats or even rabid dogs
    Septic tanks seem close, as do tailings ponds
    as do sewers or plugged toilets

    Of course when the objects of my disbelief
    arrive armed by having 'god on their side'
    or old snot white supremacy
    or vast 'economic neo-liberal theory'
    I may become rude or sarcastic..
    But then, folks like Jason Kenney
    Stephen Harper, Ray Novak, Peter Kent
    et al & among other Reform-a-Tory grifters
    strike me as insults to Canada eh ..

    In the hallowed words of one mr Thomas Mulcair
    'they take us for fools' ..

    I can't really load up re young middle aged Justin
    There's so much residual garbage & political pollution
    from Herr Harper's royal reign
    that we need more years to appraise the vast remediation
    involved.. much less begin the salvage operation

    When rhe rot scatters into Alberta via unelectabe as PM
    Jason Kenney.. I fear the worst..
    BC is - so far - free of Harper's farmhand Christy Clark
    tho she sold herself to so many patrons
    its hard to know where her ideology runs too
    presuming she even has a shred of ethics
    And same in Saskatchewan & Manitoba
    Who are all these political parasites ?

    For now.. lamprey eels.. or sea lice
    and firmly latched on to the hosts..
    .. us ..

    1. Your imagery stands out as most appropriate for the times in which we live, Sal. Thank you.

  2. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs. Perhaps paranoiacs, narcissists and sociopaths. But those whose opinions we need to hear are inevitably powerless.

    1. Interesting, isn't it, Mound, that what Orwell describes seems even more relevant today than when he wrote? I blame, in part, the false sense of power the various social media have conveyed. The extremists may sound likes giants, but these piddling parasites, these walking shadows, derive their power more from the apathy of 'good' people than anything else.