Hitch, Kim and the Legacy of Eric Blair

What with Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong Il dying so hard one upon the other, I found myself yesterday reading an essay by Hitchens from a couple of years ago about the Hermit Kingdom. The essay ends thusly:

Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.

I read that last sentence over again, two or three times. It’s a well-written sentence, with a rhythm that marches you, the reader, on to its inexorable conclusion. It’s also a sentence that owes something to Hitchens’s own political and literary idol, George Orwell; I thought particularly of the ending of Homage to Catalonia, when Orwell returns to England, more specifically to

. . . the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal Weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

A magnificent sentence, a famous (and correct) warning urged onward paradoxically by its very soothing cadence. But in the context of the book that precedes it, it’s a bit puzzling what the warning is. Homage is, after all, a book that complicates one’s relationship to the Republican cause in Spain, at least if one goes in with sympathy for it. Orwell went over to fight Fascism. He didn’t change his mind at all about Fascism, nor about the justice of the Republican cause – but he came to lose much hope of success for that cause, not only because of the inept fractiousness of the Republicans but because their own greatest ally, the Soviet Union, apparently preferred the Spanish Left to lose if the alternative was for Moscow to lose the Spanish Left. Orwell was trying to wake England up not simply from the threat of Fascism but from a kind of “it’s a pity they can’t both lose” attitude toward the struggle between Fascism and Communism, when it looked far more likely to Orwell that they would both win.

But the sentence is better remembered than the argument behind it. That is a danger of well-written sentences – a danger that Orwell himself was alive to. Indeed, well-written sentences can obviate the need for argument altogether.

Read that Hitchens sentence again. “This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.” Was he serious? This horror show is in our future? North Korea? A state universally acknowledged – including by its own principal ally – to be not only a terrible place but a colossal failure and a model for nobody? North Korea is a nasty and intractable problem, and could yet prove to be a serious problem, but from the perspective of Olympus it’s an oddity, a curiosity, a freak, not the future. It’s interesting to speculate what Orwell would have made of the persistence of this dystopia that he feared might cover the earth, and what he would make of our world more generally; I feel quite confident, though, that one thing he would not have treated North Korea as is a matter of urgency. But that – the posture of urgency – is all there really is in the Hitchens piece.

Hitchens professed to admire Orwell, and in large part for Orwell’s ability to combine a posture of urgency – of a call to action – with a distaste for propaganda, a commitment to clear-seeing and clear-speaking. But it is past time for us to recognize that this commitment can become a pose, and that, just as Joyce (or Stephen Daedalus, at any rate) felt that all art that moved one to action was, on some level, pornographic, so too all journalism that moves one to action is, on some level, propaganda, and is still propaganda, even if aimed at an obvious evil.