George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation

Summary:  None of our problems are unique.  Even the problems of Empire, and the distorting effect of global power on our minds.  Today we have some insights from George Orwell, examining the effect of cancerous nationalism on a nation’s thinking. Change the names and it could have been written today.  If you cannot see this, please at once broaden your sources of information and open your eyes!

Excerpt from “Notes on Nationalism” by George Orwell (May 1945)

The following are the principal characteristics of nationalist thought …

Indifference to Reality

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

The Liberal News Chronicle published, as an example of shocking barbarity, photographs of Russians hanged by the Germans, and then a year or two later published with warm approval almost exactly similar photographs of Germans hanged by the Russians.  The News Chronicle advised its readers to visit the news film at which the entire execution could be witnessed, with close-ups. The Star published with seeming approval photographs of nearly naked female collaborationists being baited by the Paris mob. These photographs had a marked resemblance to the Nazi photographs of Jews being baited by the Berlin mob.

It is the same with historical events. History is thought of largely in nationalist terms, and such things as the Inquisition, the tortures of the Star Chamber, the exploits of the English buccaneers (Sir Francis Drake, for instance, who was given to sinking Spanish prisoners alive), the Reign of Terror, the heroes of the Mutiny blowing hundreds of Indians from the guns, or Cromwell’s soldiers slashing Irishwomen’s faces with razors, become morally neutral or even meritorious when it is felt that they were done in the ‘right’ cause.

If one looks back over the past quarter of a century, one finds that there was hardly a single year when atrocity stories were not being reported from some part of the world; and yet in not one single case were these atrocities — in Spain, Russia, China, Hungary, Mexico, Amritsar, Smyrna — believed in and disapproved of by the English intelligentsia as a whole. Whether such deeds were reprehensible, or even whether they happened, was always decided according to political predilection.

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should — in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 — and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied

Footnote:  An example is the Russo-German Pact, which is being effaced as quickly as possible from public memory. A Russian correspondent informs me that mention of the Pact is already being omitted from Russian year-books which table recent political events.

In 1927 Chiang Kai Shek boiled hundreds of Communists alive, and yet within ten years he had become one of the heroes of the Left. The re-alignment of world politics had brought him into the anti-Fascist camp, and so it was felt that the boiling of the Communists ‘didn’t count’, or perhaps had not happened.

The primary aim of propaganda is, of course, to influence contemporary opinion, but those who rewrite history do probably believe with part of their minds that they are actually thrusting facts into the past. When one considers the elaborate forgeries that have been committed in order to show that Trotsky did not play a valuable part in the Russian civil war, it is difficult to feel that the people responsible are merely lying. More probably they feel that their own version was what happened in the sight of God, and that one is justified in rearranging the records accordingly.

For more information

Other posts about our broken observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop:

  1. What do blogs do for America?, 26 February 2008
  2. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  3. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  4. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  5. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  6. Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009
  7. A new news media emerges for our new world, unseen and unexpected, 9 July 2009
  8. The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009
  9. Attention fellow sheep: let’s open our eyes and see the walls of our pen, 16 October 2009
  10. America’s broken OODA loop in action: a swarming attack by ankle-biters in our intelligentsia, 26 February 2011
  11. A look at an enemy of America, and a discussion about the execution of al-Awlaki, 13 October 2011 — Facts are less important than our tribal loyalty.
  12. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011

17 thoughts on “George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation”

  1. Horribly true. Maybe there is hope for us though , in Wikipedia . I dont know how reliable it is but seems to present a more critical view .
    Maybe kids could leave school as soon as they could read , and be left to wikipede the rest of their education themselves . Tell them it was very wikid and ban it , so they got curious.

    1. “There is always hope.”
      — Aragorn to Haleth (Son of Háma) before the battle of the Hornburg

      “When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to hope at all. We simply do the work.
      — Derrick Jensen in Endgame Volume I: The Problem of Civilization, p.330

      “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.”
      — Helen Keller, Optimism (1903)

  2. Orwell has been right about so many things. Unfortunately.

    I was just reading some comments from Hillary Clinton about how the Iranian government has no respect for the rule of law, has a rigged judiciary that amounts to the government doing whatever it wants, that holds people in prison indefinitely without representation, and extracts confessions by torture. All I could think was that they could say exactly the same thing of us.

    1. Several months ago, a filmmaker named Clive Ogilvie posted a film on YouTube called “I Am Not Moving” which made this precise point: that a lot of the criticisms our government has been leveling against foreign governments in terms of how they respond to political protest could be directed back at them for the way in which they have responded to Occupy Wall Street and other political protests right here at home.
      Transcript from The Daily Kos:

      Hillary Clinton (HRC): The people of the Middle East like people everywhere, are seeking a chance to contribute and to have a role in the decisions that will shape their lives. Leaders need to respond to these aspirations, and to help build that better future for all. They need to view civil society as their partner, not as a threat.

      President Obama (BHO): I want to take this opportunity to update the American people about the situation in Libya. Last month, protesters took to the streets across the country to demand their universal rights and a government that is responsible to them and responsive to their aspirations; but they were met with an iron fist

      HRC: Freedom of assembly, Freedom of expression and Freedom of the Press, are pillars of an open and inclusive society, there is a clear responsibility, by the Egyptian government to hold accountable, those responsible for these attacks

      BHO: For months, the Iranian people, have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights. We call upon the Iranian government, to abide by the international obligations, that it has to respect the rights of it’s own people. We call for the immediate release of all that have been unjustly retained. I am confident that history will be on the side of those that seek justice.

      HRC: We are against violence and, we would call to account the Iranian government that is once again, using it’s security forces and resorting to violence, to prevent the free expression of ideas from their own people.

      BHO: Instead of respecting the rights of his own people, Ghaddafi chose the path of brutal suppression. Innocent civilians were imprisoned. And in some cases beaten … campaign of intimidation and repression began

      OWS Protester Female: “I have not been read my rights, I have not been told why I am being detained.

      OWS Protester Male: “We want to know the people who are in there. We want to know all their names, and what they are being charged with.

      OWS voice “He can’t breath officer, please get off his neck.”

      HRC: It is the responsibility of the government of Libya, to respect the universal rights of their own people; including their right to free expression and assembly. … Demonstrators have been beaten, attached, it is absolutely clear that the Syrian government is running out of time

      OWS Protester Male: Each new depiction of the abuses of the police on the first amendment, the more people will show up here in NYC, and the more waves of occupation will spread across this county And you should be proud of that police, because you participating in our media publicity campaign. Thank you for attending.

      BHO: What is absolutely clear, it that we are witnessing history unfold. It’s a moment of transformation, that’s taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change. They have turned out in extraordinary numbers, representing all ages, and all walks of life, but, it is young people who have been at the forefront. A new generation, your generation, who want their voices to be heard.

  3. I think my country needs a Ministry Of Common Sense , staffed by a dozen retired bus drivers , with the power to veto anything they want .

    Bomb Libya or Iran , Abu Quattada stay , Gary McKinnon extradite , privatise the NHS , feed exponential amounts money to the EU , hi-speed trains or the Olympics , etc etc — Sorry , mate. Cant do that on this route . No.

  4. I don’t understand why it should be such a colossal revelation, let alone a gloomy one, that people tend to view events through the lens of a perspective. It isn’t possible to take any positive action in this world without selecting values and priorities, and once one has values and priorities, all actions must be judged according to that standard. Furthermore, it is not possible to take positive action in this world without hurting somebody. Even Jesus whipped the money-changers. So justifying distasteful events, such as drawing a distinction between murder and self-defense, is an unavoidable part of human existence.

    Most people will deny or ignore information that would be hard to fit into their current system of values because analyzing it would be hard work and it is most often beyond their ability to make an accurate judgement. Most people are also bad at calculus. I do not view either state of affairs as a tragedy.

    People’s powers of reasoning have always been weak, and the same bucket of fallacies and blind-spots applies equally to nationalists and pacifists. The best we can do is be aware of our own weaknesses and try to understand the reasons behind the fuzzy math of others.

    1. Agreed. This is one of the great themes of the FM website. Stated more broadly, we have built our society on a structure of lies and over time come to more easily accept lies — in part because only lies are congruent with the lies we’ve come to accept. This week’s post provides some examples.

      For more about this see America – how can we stop the quiet coup now in progress? – section 9: America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop)

  5. “The rebel undoubtedly demands a certain degree of freedom for himself; but in no case, if he is consistent, does he demand the right to destroy the existence and the freedom of others. He humiliates no one. The freedom he claims, he claims for all; the freedom he refuses, he forbids everyone to enjoy. He is not only the slave against the master, but also man against the world of master and slave.”

    From Albert Camus’ The Rebel – An Essay on Man in Revolt (1951)

    The problem is that we always try to find ways to dehumanize the opposition in order to justify what we do to them. Our leaders are generally careful not to use outright dehumanizing language on entire groups of people anymore, but there is always a subgroup who does not deserve dignity because of the actions they have taken or the ideals they espouse. This is then expanded upon to include direct and indirect support as well as the “civilian” population who we kill and justify as being necessary to get the demons.

    The only remedy to this is to respect the humanity of our enemies regardless of what they have done to us. Too many of our leaders and fellow citizens are ready to discard that humanity if the person in question is a “terrorist”, they think that to respect their basic humanity is both weak and dangerous. They forget that its not about them or what they “deserve”, its about us and the lines we draw for ourselves that make us noble and worthy of survival as a nation.

    FM note: you can download this for free from Scribd.

  6. Taking perspective ultimately serves our enlightened self-interest (both as individuals and in a geopolitical sense). Ten years ago civil liberties groups protested the illegal rendition of foreigners (suspected terrorists) being practiced by the US gov’t. If people cared or remembered this they might connect that the extension of this to American citizens is merely the chickens of perspective coming home to roost (sorry for butchering that metaphor). Obama at least tried to close Guantanamo and bring its prisoners to America to stand trial, but didn’t have the political capital to do it. Our two parties trade power and forget that the powers they enact for themselves may be used in far more sinister ways by future leaders with a more dictatorial bent. The suspension of habeas corpus is wrong. This is ethical three-card monte.

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