Who Is Today's Orwell, Today's Churchill?

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Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom

By Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Press 2017

This is a fundamentally flawed book. This is an extremely important book.

What threatens us today? Climate change? Yes. Inequality? Certainly. Discrimination? Sadly, still a scourge. What about totalitarianism? The desire to rule so as to erase history, dictate facts, demand allegiance—that desire did not vanish with Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein. That desire seeks expression today, from Washington to Moscow, from Budapest to Lhasa.

George Orwell and Winston Churchill shine in our contemporary eyes as champions in the fight against twentieth century totalitarianism. There is Orwell on the left, a partisan in the Spanish Civil War, a lifelong critic of imperial practices and habits of mind. Here is Churchill on the right, a defender of the ideals of freedom and the British Empire during Europe’s darkest hours. They were both British, they were contemporaries—one can easily see why Thomas E. Ricks wanted to write a book about them.

Except that their lives didn’t intersect. Projects like this work when the author is able to show us the way independently important yet dissimilar characters caromed off of one another in ways that influenced history. Think of Teddy Roosevelt going camping with John Muir, or Nixon meeting Mao in Beijing. The problem with Churchill & Orwell is that Churchill and Orwell enjoyed a clean miss throughout their lives. They never met. They never spoke. They did not correspond. The closest they came to one another was when Orwell admitted that Churchill was seeing things clearly during the war, and Churchill, after Orwell’s premature death, read and praised Animal Farm. Consequently, Churchill & Orwell is two interleaved books: one about Churchill, one about Orwell. It is a gloss of the career and major writings of each, a quick, Cliff Notes run through their lives penned in an accessible and easy style. It does not have a lot of depth—if you have read Manchester or Jenkins on Churchill, you will not learn anything new here.

And yet.

Ricks’ work is worth reading. He elucidates why Churchill and Orwell were so extraordinary, both in their own times and in the lights of history. In so doing, he limns a portrait of the types of individuals we should seek and honor in our own, fraught moment. Each man was blessed with a capacity to see and understand the truth of what was happening before him. Each was determined to understand the facts of the matter, often doggedly so, and then adjust his actions based on those facts in combination with his unwavering principles.

Such an approach to the world sounds simple enough. I, and probably you, would like to think that we, too, are similar paragons of virtue. Yet such an approach to the world in life and in fact is exceedingly rare. Few among us are able to do what Churchill and Orwell did. Our civil society is filled with dogma, cant, rationalization, ideology, and willful blindness on all sides. These are the hobbling human characteristics of our time, just as they were eighty years ago. A critical distinction between then and now is that from this distance we can see the 1930s and 1940s for what they were. Few can perceive the historical import of the moment in which they live. But this too is an important moment, potentially even a fulcrum point, in human history.

Churchill is celebrated today for his unwavering conviction that Great Britain was engaged in a battle of good against evil, and that good could and should triumph. Today we wonder how anyone could believe otherwise, yet his was a wildly unpopular view in Great Britain. Most of his contemporaries disagreed on both counts. And thirty years before Tom Wolfe was celebrated for creating “New Journalism,” Orwell was a pioneering experiential journalists, an Imperial police officer in Burma who wrote about the rot of imperialism, and a derelict-by-choice who described the life of the poor in Down and Out in London and Paris. Orwell too was broadly unpopular, a critically and commercially marginalized writer for almost his entire career because he described largely unpleasant truths. He had a devilish time getting his last and greatest works, Animal Farm and 1984, published at all (isn’t this true of most transformative works, though?).

Through it all, both men maintained an ability to see and to describe the truth of what they were seeing. That was their great gift to the cause of freedom. Each man has been lionized and coopted posthumously and endlessly. That’s all well and good. We might do better, though, to look to our present moment. Who is our Orwell today? Philip Roth? Margaret Atwood? Glenn Greenwald? Who is our Churchill? (Here I have no ready list of names, only faith that she will arrive when we need her.)

Human societies tend toward tyranny. A cursory understanding of history makes this plain. Self-government, liberalism, the rights of the individual, freedom—these are but nascent human enterprises, the mere chrysalis of a better society. They are easily crushed, and the forces that will crush them do not sleep. Our greatest work as civilized people is to summon our better angels and battle endlessly—for this will not end—our species’ innate tendency toward corrupting, absolute power. We have not outgrown the struggle that defined, and was defined by, Winston Churchill and George Orwell. We are still living within it.