Wednesday August 23, 2017

The Orwell Tapes, Part 2

George Orwell in Spain during the siege of Huesca, 1937.

George Orwell in Spain during the siege of Huesca, 1937.

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

He was a brilliant, eccentric, complicated man; a colonial policeman, a critic and journalist, a dishwasher, a fighter in the Spanish civil war, a teacher and a shopkeeper - and one of the most influential writers of our time. His name was Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. Who was the man who gave us 'big brother', 'thoughtcrime', 'doublethink', whose name looms so large in this era of mass surveillance? Part 3 airs Wednesday, August 30. **This episode originally aired April 11, 2016.


"From a very early age, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.  Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four, I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."

In this episode "To write and to fight", we follow Orwell as he sets out to investigate poverty in the depressed industrial towns of the north of England. He returns to marry the love of his life and then risks it all by going off to fight in the Spanish civil war. Spain gave Orwell a belief in Socialism and a hatred of Communism. What he saw in Spain would inspire him to write his most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984.

Orwell died in 1950. But here are five reasons why he is still very much with us today:

1. Big Brother is watching you

"Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape, 'Big Brother is watching you.'" George Orwell, 1984

1984 by George Orwell

Is he watching you now? And if so how would you know?  And even if you did are you too much in love with modern technology to care? With sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go are we all complicit in allowing a new era of mass surveillance?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange once asked an assembled group: "Who here has an iPhone, who has a BlackBerry, who uses Gmail?" Most of his audience raised their hands.

"Well, you're all screwed," was his terse answer.

Fugitive Edward Snowden concurs: "A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought," he said, in a 2013 Christmas message posted on YouTube. 

2. Power corrupts

"The creatures looked from pig to man, from man to pig … but it was impossible to say which was which." George Orwell, Animal Farm

Does changing the people in power actually change anything? Orwell's pen here was aimed at 1940's Soviet Union, but the pattern repeats and its relevance never dates. Take Ukraine in 2014, or 2004 or 1991.  

As Mark MacKinnon of The Globe and Mail wrote in March 2016, of the situation in Ukraine: "There's a revolution. Hated oligarchs are overthrown. The people celebrate. Then a new batch of politicians takes power and spoils it all."

3. Encountering the 'other'

"I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler," George Orwell, reviewing Mein Kampf 

It took courage for Orwell to write that in March 1940 with Hitler poised to invade Britain. Demonising your enemy, to Orwell, was easy, lazy and self-defeating. He believed understanding Hitler was the best way to defeat him. 

"Hitler knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety … and in general, common sense; they also want … occasionally … struggle, self sacrifice, drums and loyalty parades," Orwell wrote.

What is the appeal of today's Hitlers? Do we demonize them too much and understand them too little?

4. Socialism has 9 lives

"Socialists don't claim to be able to make the world perfect. They claim to be able to make it better." George Orwell, in a December 1943 column for Tribune

After two world wars and the Great Depression, capitalism was discredited and socialism offered hope, a so-called different kind of politics.

Socialism flourished for a while but, in recent decades, it's seemed a faded relic from another era, vilified and ridiculed by many. And then Bernie Sanders and U.K. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn came along and Orwell's ideas and ideals are alive again, back on centre stage.

5. Don't shoot the messenger

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don't want to hear." George Orwell, preface to Animal Farm

Speaking truth to power is as dangerous and difficult today as it ever was. In 2015 Amnesty International supporters across the world wrote 3.7 million letters, messages, emails and tweets in aid of prisoners of conscience — people jailed for telling someone in power what they didn't want to hear or to be heard by others.

Orwell Tapes - Steve Wadhams

Producer Steve Wadhams (right) with associate producer Edward Trapunski (left). They worked together on "George Orwell: A Radio Biography". The series aired on January 1st, 1984. (CBC)

Guests in this episode: 

  • Victor Alba, took Orwell around Barcelona in 1937.
  • Fred Bates and Olga Bates, villagers in Wallington where Orwell had a cottage.
  • ​Fenner Brockway, helped Orwell get to Spain.
  • Esther Brookes, lived in Wallington cottage after Orwell left.
  • Stafford Cottman, fought with Orwell in Spanish civil war.
  • Patricia Donahue, friend.
  • Bob Edwards, fought with Orwell in Spanish civil war.
  • Kay Ekevall, one of Orwell's girlfriends.
  • Mabel Fierz, helped Orwell get his first book published.
  • Frank Frankford, fought with Orwell in Spanish civil war.
  • Livia Gollancz, daughter of Orwell's first publisher.
  • Lydia Jackson, friend of Eileen, Orwell's first wife.
  • Jon Kimche, visited Orwell in Barcelona.
  •  William Krehm, Canadian journalist who met Orwell in Spain.
  • Sam Lesser, Communist party member – highly critical of Orwell.
  • Carlton Melling, helped Orwell research poverty in Wigan public Library.
  • Sydney Smith, showed Orwell around Wigan.
  •  Victor Stacey, was in room next to Orwell at Tuberculosis Sanatorium.
  • Julian Symons, friend.