Tag Archives: George Orwell

Almost a “One Man Terror”

In my library is a compilation of Hemingway’s works as a journalist, entitled “By-Line: Ernest Hemingway” (Scribners 1967).  I came across it in a used bookstore in lower Manhattan years ago, although I suspect the bookstore is no longer there, as is the case with most independent book proprietors nowadays.  The compilation cost $8.50 and bore the following inscription circa 1967: “love and kisses always”, from Ann to Dad.

I pulled the book off the shelf the other day and flipped to no article in particular.  The one on which I landed turned out to be a dispatch from Hemingway’s days covering  the Spanish Civil War.  The piece is illuminating not only because of what it says but also how it is said.  It gives the reader the feeling that Hemingway conveyed to him or her what was in his mind at the moment, and that he did not have to, or at least chose not to, censor his thoughts out of fear, an exercise that is almost non-existent with most of today’s journalists.  The article, in substance, is classic Hemingway: a how-to for those who want to be real, i.e., manly, do-right, wartime correspondents, bubbling with an undercurrent of violence.  Whether Hemingway’s own journalism in this piece, by which he describes what he claims to be the true state of affairs in Madrid as of Sept. 1938, is credible or just a way for him to make his point against the weasel-y journalist and subject of his ire is another story that is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say that Orwell, through his own encounter with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, had his doubts about Hemingway’s tough-guy image with which he is famously associated.

The piece is entitled Fresh Air on an Inside Story, published in Ken magazine on September 23, 1938.  Here it is in full:

I met this citizen in the Florida Hotel in Madrid in the end of April of last year.  It was a late afternoon and he had arrived from Valencia the evening before.  He had spent the day in his room writing an article.  This man was tall, with watery eyes, and strips of blond hair pasted carefully across a flat-topped bald head.

“How does Madrid seem?” I asked him.

“There is a terror here,” said this journalist.  “There is evidence of it wherever you go.  Thousands of bodies are being found.”

“When did you get here?” I asked him.

“Last night.”

“Where did you see the bodies?”

“They are around everywhere,” he said.  “You see them in the early morning.”

“Were you out early this morning?”

“No.”

“Did you see any bodies?”

“No,” he said.  “But I know they are there.”

“What evidence of terror have you seen?”

“Oh, it’s there,” he said.  “You can’t deny it’s there.”

“What evidence have you seen yourself?”

“I haven’t had time to see it myself but I know it is there.”

“Listen,” I said.  “You get in here last night.  You haven’t even been out in the town and you tell us who are living here and working here that there is terror.”

“You can’t deny there is a terror,” said this expert.  “Everywhere you see evidence of it.”

“I thought you said you hadn’t seen any evidence.”

“They are everywhere,” said the great man.

I then told him that there were half a dozen of us newspaper men who were living and working in Madrid whose business it was, if there was a terror, to discover it and report it.  That I had friends in Seguridad that I had known from the old days and could trust, and that I knew that three people had been shot for espionage that month.  I had been invited to witness an execution but had been away at the front and had waited four weeks for there to be another.  That people had been shot during the early days of the rebellion by the so-called “uncontrollables” but that for months Madrid had been as safe and well policed and free from any terror as any capital in Europe.  Any people shot or taken for rides were turned in at the morgue and he could check for himself as all journalists had done.

“Don’t try to deny there is a terror,” he said.  “You know there is a terror.”

Now he was a correspondent for a truly great newspaper and I had a lot of respect for it so I did not sock him.  Besides if one should take a poke at a guy like that it would only furnish evidence that there was a terror.  Also the meeting was in the room of an American woman journalist and I think, but cannot be positive on this, that he was wearing glasses.

The American woman journalist was leaving the country and, that same day, he gave her a sealed envelope to take out.  You do not give people sealed envelopes to take out of a country in wartime, but this stout fellow assured the American girl the envelope contained only a carbon of an already censored dispatch of his from the Teruel front which he was mailing to his office as a duplicate in order to make sure of its safe arrival.

Next day the American girl mentioned that she was taking out this letter for him.

“It isn’t sealed, is it?” I asked her.

“Yes.”

“Better let me take it over to  Censorship for you as I go by, then, so you won’t get in any trouble over it.”

“What trouble could I get into?  It’s only a carbon of a dispatch that’s already censored.”

“Did he show it to you?”

“No.  But he told me.”

“Never trust a man who slicks hair over a bald head,” I said.

“The Nazis have a price of 20,000 [pounds] on his head,” she said.  “He must be all right.”

Well, at Censorship it tuned out that the alleged carbon of a dispatch from Teruel was not a carbon of a dispatch but an article which stated, “There is terror here in Madrid.  Thousands of bodies are found, etc.”. It was a dandy.  It made liars out of every honest correspondent in Madrid.  And this guy had written it without stirring from his hotel the first day he arrived.  The only ugly thing was that the girl to whom he had entrusted it could, under the rules of war, have been shot as a spy if it had been found among her papers when she was leaving the country.  The dispatch was a lie and he had given it to a girl who trusted him to take out of the country.

That night at the Gran Via restaurant I told the story  to a number of hard-working, non-political, straight-shooting correspondents who risked their lives daily working in Madrid and who had been denying there was terror in Madrid ever since the government had taken control of the situation and stopped all terror.

They were pretty sore about this outsider who was going to come into Madrid, make liars out of all of them, and expose one of the most popular correspondents to an espionage charge for carrying out his faked dispatch.

“Let’s go over and ask him if the Nazis really put a price of 20,000 [pounds] on his head,” someone said.  “Somebody should denounce him for what he has done.  He ought to be shot and if we knew where to send the head it could be shipped in dry ice.”

“It wouldn’t be a nice looking head but I’d be glad to carry it myself in a rucksack,” I offered.  “I haven’t seen 20,000 [pounds] since 1929.”

“I’ll ask him,” said a well-known Chicago reporter.

He went over to the man’s table, spoke to him very quietly and then came back.

We all kept looking at the man.  He was white as the under half of an unsold flounder at 11 o’clock in the morning just before the fish market shuts.

“He says there isn’t any reward for his head,” said the Chicago reporter in his faintly rhythmical voice.  “He says that was just something one of his editors made up.”

So that is how one journalist escaped starting a one man terror in Madrid.

If a censorship does not permit a newspaper man to write the truth, the correspondent can try to beat the censorship under penalty of expulsion if caught.  Or he can go outside the country and write uncensored dispatches.  But this citizen on a flying trip was going to let someone else take all his risk while he received credit as a fearless exposer.  The remarkable story at that time was that there was no terror in Madrid.  But that was too dull for him.

It would have interested his newspaper though because oddly enough it happened to be a newspaper that has been interested for a long time in the truth.

 

Happy Birthday, George Orwell!

Today is George Orwell’s birthday.  He was born on June 25, 1903 and would be 110 today if he had octogenarian genes in him.  Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite, as Orwell succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 46.

The following is a passage from a book by George Woodcock who was a good friend and colleague of Orwell’s, entitled The Crystal Spirit: a study of George Orwell.  It tells the story of Orwell in his post-Animal Farm days, when he was finally able to live a life unrestricted by the burdens and stresses of poverty and financial insecurity that came with being a writer.  It is the story of a man who was compassionate, humble and principled up until the very end.  And, it involves absinthe.  Happy Birthday, George Orwell!

Debating Government Surveillance

Recently, we learned that our  government is engaged in secret data mining, telephone metadata collection programs.  News of these programs were provided by a former private government contractor to the Guardian and also to the Washington Post, although only reporters from the Guardian had direct and personal access to their news source.  Why the Guardian, you might ask?  Because Snowden, like many other Americans, just don’t trust their country’s news outlets, even the most respected ones like the New York Times.  The commercialization of news in this country and its emphasis on the bottom line have transformed many reporters to nothing more than mouthpieces for the government and large corporations.  But don’t just take my word for it, read about it for yourself in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report on American Journalism.  Because of this, we can also expect that any debate that might be had on the morality, necessity and legality of the NSA’s data collection programs will end before it even begins.  How else can you explain the following leed to this recent New York Times article published only 2 days after the Guardian first broke news of the NSA’s telephone metadata program:

In early September 2009, an e-mail passed through an Internet address in Peshawar, Pakistan, that was being monitored by the vast computers controlled by American intelligence analysts. It set off alarms. The address, linked to senior Qaeda operatives, had been dormant for months.

Investigators worked their way backward and traced the e-mail to an address in Aurora, Colo., outside Denver. It took them to Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old former coffee cart operator, who was asking a Qaeda facilitator about how to mix ingredients for a flour-based explosive, according to law enforcement officials. A later e-mail read: “The marriage is ready” — code that a major attack was planned.

What followed in the next few days was a cross-country pursuit in which the police stopped Mr. Zazi on the George Washington Bridge, let him go, and after several false starts, arrested him in New York. He eventually pleaded guilty to plotting to carry out backpack bombings in the city’s subway system.

It is that kind of success that President Obama seemed to be referring to on Friday in California when he defended the National Security Agency’s stockpiling of telephone call logs of Americans and gaining access to foreigners’ e-mail and other data from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other companies.

The government itself could not have put it better.

Or consider the headline to yet another post-NSA leak story by the Times: “Debate on Secret Data Unlikely, Partly Because of Secrecy”.  But what incentive would a reporter from say the Times or NPR even have in digging deeper?  Very little.  Emotionally, they may feel betrayed that Snowden went with a British-based news outlet rather than one inside the U.S. to publish his leaked documents.  So screw him, he’s nothing but a traitor and should be prosecuted as such, is perhaps the sentiment across many U.S.-based newsrooms.  Practically, these reporters have little to gain and much to lose if they were to try and corroborate or even expand on the leaked materials.  This is because the government sources who will be the focus of such efforts are also the same ones on whom the reporters increasingly rely for their own stories — through unofficial or official “leaks” — and hence livelihood.

As for the NSA-Snowden story itself, I noticed that sales of George Orwell’s “1984″ have skyrocketed since the government’s Big Brother-esque ways were first revealed in the press.  The comparison is of course immediate and not altogether unjustified.  But I do not think Orwell himself would have rejected the kind of surveillance that the government has since admitted to practicing — at least not in a scenario that would  in fact require such prophylactic measures.  But  situations that would actually require such sweeping and secretive data collection efforts — that is, one where there is a real, imminent and extremely lethal threat to the security of the nation as a whole  – are few and far between.  And those on which governments often rely to justify their intrusive actions are, for the most part, contrived; used by the powerful to remain so.  As James Madison once said:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

(Thanks to Stephen Walt, who referenced this quote in a recent blog post.)

So we begin where we first started: debating the morality, legality and necessity of the NSA’s data mining/telephone metadata programs and perhaps the NSA itself.  Make no mistake.  The status quo is by no means inevitable, and it certainly should not be accepted as such.  I recently finished reading Tony Judt’s “Ill Fares the Land” in which he makes precisely this point, albeit in the context of the economy and less so in terms of national security.  But his observations and exhortations to action are no less relevant.

We have entered an age of insecurity — economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity.  The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed.  Insecurity breeds fear.  And fear — fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world — is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.

All change is disruptive.  We have seen that the specter of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil.  Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences.  Men and women will be thrown back upon the resources of the state.  They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for ‘security.’  The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state.  It is thus incumbent upon us to re-conceive the role of government.  If we do not. others will.

As for the parameters in which such a debate should take place, I would quote from the following diary entry (from 4/27/1942) of George Orwell, who discussed the sorry state of commentary and analysis with respect to war-related news (then, World War II):

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 a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any suffering except self-ptiy and hatred of Britain and utterly indifferent to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.  [...]  Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests.  What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency.  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.

Orwell on Immigration

I have written extensively over the past year or so about the effects of a seminal Supreme Court decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, which, aside from its constitutional underpinnings, deals directly with another matter of great import: immigration. I recently came across a thoughtful passage from George Orwell — perhaps my favorite writer of all time — in which he offers his thoughts as to the origins of anti-immigrant feelings. It isn’t a particularly novel observation; in fact, the exact opposite might be true. However, it is worth recounting here; if anything, because, as Padilla itself makes clear, immigration continues to be a topic of public interest and also because Orwell continues to impress me, and hopefully others, in his perceptiveness and prescience.

[Orwell begins by recounting a conversation that he had overheard between two relatively well-off Scots in which they attribute a number of Scotland's problems to the influx of the Poles. Among other things, the Poles are blamed for unemployment; the housing shortage, declining morals, etc. Orwell then proceeds to offer the following thoughts on this discussion:]

One cannot, of course, do very much about this kind of thing. It is the contemporary equivalent of anti-semitism. By 1947, people of the kind I am describing would have caught up with the fact that anti-semitism is discreditable, and so the scapegoat is sought elsewhere. But the race hatred and mass delusions which are part of the pattern of our time might be somewhat less bad in their effects if they were not reinforced by ignorance. If in the years before the war, for instance, the facts about the persecution of Jews in Germany had been better known, the subjective popular feeling against Jews would probably not have been less, but the actual treatment of Jewish refugees might have been better. The refusal to allow refugees in significant numbers into this country would have been branded as disgraceful. The average man would still have felt a grudge against the refugees, but in practice more lives would have been saved.

So also with the Poles. The thing that most depressed me in the above-mentioned conversation was the recurrent phrase, “let them go back to their own country.” If I had said to the two business-men, “Most of these people have no country to go back to,” they would have gaped. Not one of the relevant facts would have been known to them. They would never had heard of the various things that have happened to Poland since 1939, any more than they would have known that the over-population of Britain is a fallacy or that local unemployment can co-exist with a general shortage of labor. I think it is a mistake to give such people the excuse of ignorance. You can’t actually change their feelings, but you can make them understand what they are saying when they demand that homeless refugees shall be driven from our shores, and the knowledge may make them a little less actively malignant.

[UPDATE: I neglected to identify the source of this passage by Orwell; it formed a part of Orwell's regular column in Tribune, a left-leaning British periodical, and which carried the common title, "As I Please."  This was from As I Please 70, January 24, 1947]

Tony Judt, Historian and Public Intellectual, Dead at 62

Photo courtesy of Pulsemedia.org

Tony Judt, the historian, intellectual and teacher, died on Friday.  Mr. Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease, in September 2008 but continued to teach, write and lecture up until the time of his death.  Mr. Judt considered himself lucky that much of his work required not the use of his hands, as is the case with many other who have been afflicted with the disease, but his mind, which was left relatively untouched by the ravages of ALS.  Although I have never met Mr. Judt (we exchanged emails once), he often comes to mind as one of few  intellectuals today who most closely embodies that traits of another intellectual giant of our times, George Orwell.  Courageous, honest and introspective, Mr. Judt belongs to the rare breed of intellectual who is not only competent and intelligent enough to reconstruct and examine the foundation of our society in all its flaws and imperfections but  is also bold enough to publicly confront those defects head on without pretension or self-aggrandizement.  Mr. Judt was 62.