Sunday, June 25, 2017

Orwell Commemorative Essay 2017

Welcome to this year’s installment of my annual appreciation of George Orwell.  It is occasioned by his birthday.  This year’s festschrift will feature his book Down and Out in London and Paris. 

Of course, this is the Orwell who is known for the book 1984.  Sales of that novel spiked briefly following Donald Trump’s election to the presidency.  But that was merely a vainglorious gesture by the well-read crowd, a response to Trump’s penchant for peddling “alternative truths.”  A more meaningful gesture and a more effective dissent to the Trump presidency requires a good deal more than this.  It would require a thoroughgoing examination of the roots and fruition of a political form known as OLIGARCHY.  And that word seems to have disappeared from popular discourse after its brief vogue during Bernie Sanders’ moment, and that other moment when the brilliant economist Thomas Piketty brought attention to it.   

I think this passing away of interest in oligarchy owes to something more significant than America’s short attention span.  There are many reasons that apply to many classes of person for not wanting to gaze too long at the fact of oligarchy.  Too many Americans will recognize themselves in it.  Those loathsome purveyors of Identity Politics, who cast the African American as a sort of Noble Savage in naïve ignorance of the racist undertones of it, they are oligarchs.  They graduate from Harvard and use the word “privilege” as a cudgel against intellectually inferior ideological opponents who reject the idea that our country’s political misfortunes can all be laid at the feet of white working-class men.

Harvard is its own sort of Ministry of Truth.  It broadcasts a critique of privilege even as it denies a living wage to its service staff.  The ideology of Identity Politics focuses attention on those evils catalogued by Secretary Clinton – as embodied by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” deplorables who ignorantly fail to respond to her message.  And conspicuously left out of that list of offenses is the systematic creation and exacerbation of poverty by a handful of politically powerful individuals who happen to be her campaign donors.  

All this brings me back that book, Down and Out in London and Paris, in which Orwell avoids the grand themes that distinguish his better-known works.  Instead, his attention is turned to the most prosaic of topics: the brute fact of poverty.  

Orwell had long struggled to earn a living.  But in March of 1929 he fell gravely ill.  After, his money had been stolen from him not by the culprit identified in the book but by a young demimonde that he’d invited back to his room and which he’d kept silent about until years later.  He had recourse – he could have borrowed money to restore himself to bare respectability – but he chose to join the ranks of the homeless, to learn firsthand how they lived.  

He was obliged to sell or pawn his clothes and wear the clothes that one can afford to allow to become dirty.  And donning the durable and inexpensive clothes that poor people wear, Orwell immediately observed a change in how others perceived him.  His experience was reminiscent of that outlined by seminal Identitarian tracts such as Black Like Me (John Howard Griffins’ account of impersonating a black man) and Gentleman’s Agreement (Laura Hobson’s fictional imagining of a man impersonating a Jew).  

 Assuming the identity of a poor person, he found that the community of the poor began calling him “mate” for the first time and readily accepting him as one of their own. 
And women treated him differently.  “For the first time I noticed,” Orwell said, “how the attitude of women varies with a man’s clothes. When a badly dressed man passes them they shudder away from him with a quite frank movement of disgust, as though he were a dead cat.”  

In our present Identitarian age we are told a great deal about how men as a group conspire against the legitimate ambitions of women to become full participants in society.  But we hear little about how Harvard graduates conspire against the legitimate ambitions of the poor to become full participants in society. 

Orwell also learned that devotees of organized religion conspire against the poor, seeing poverty as a vulnerability that can be exploited.  There is no free biscuit and cup of tea without first listening to a lengthy proselytizing sermon.  Just as today, the poor are expected to believe certain things before their needs will even be acknowledged.  The white poor are expected to believe that the needs of poor blacks take precedence over their own needs.  They are expected to believe that their poverty can be alleviated if they themselves attend the right vocational training classes, or relocate without a moment’s hesitation when work leaves their hometown.  Yes, that is what our opinion leaders tell us.  The Rust Belt breadwinners would be better off if they became itinerant laborers.  It’s a lie, and not even a carefully concocted lie.  But one needn’t bother to come up with convincing lies to tell the poor since so few poor people are willing to believe that they are poor and those who do are desperate enough to believe anything they are told.

Orwell also spoke about homosexuality in this book.  He recounted a time when he was staying at a “spike” – a sort of homeless shelter for casual (itinerant) laborers.  He was placed in a room without beds with a stranger.  That other man, at about midnight “began making homosexual attempts upon me—a nasty experience in a locked, pitch-dark cell.  He was a feeble creature and I could manage him easily, but of course it was impossible to go to sleep again.”

But Orwell wasn’t as homophobic as one might expect of a man of the 1930s.  Instead, he listened respectfully.  “For the rest of the night we stayed awake, smoking and talking.  The man told me the story of his life—he was a fitter, out of work for three years.  He said that his wife had promptly deserted him when he lost his job, and he had been so long away from women that he had almost forgotten what they were like.  Homosexuality is general among tramps of long standing, he said.” 

Today, adventitious homosexuality is found among prison inmates and young women who can’t endure the demeaning conditions of heterosexist white male supremacy.   

No, I am not advocating the view that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” or an immoral behavior.  Homosexuality is a reflection of a natural human hunger.  It is like the hunger for food.  No one has the right to tell a starving person what to eat or what to refrain from eating.  But one must wonder at signs that this starvation exists even among the affluent daughters of privilege.  Where am I going with this?  Oh, perhaps I am wondering whether too many men these days are wearing the wrong clothes and are beneath a woman’s consideration.  Or maybe I am tired of being told what to believe and what not to believe.  I am trying to place myself in the position of those deplorables that Secretary Clinton decided weren’t worth the trouble of courting as Democratic voters. 

As Quixote tilted at windmills, I will tilt at shibboleths.  You're apt to be offended and read no further.  But as millions of poor of diverse race and gender were dying of alcohol poisoning, suicide, and opioid overdose, our nation was preoccupied with the question of where transgendered persons ought to be allowed to urinate.  And I remain angry.