Taking George Orwell's Name in Vain
George Orwell is one of my favorite writers of all time. For many reasons. People generally quote his novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, for which he is most famous. They are incredible, but I think his essays are what put me over the top.
One of my favorite – most obnoxious and probably pretentious – things to do is point out to people who use the word "Orwellian" that he would absolutely loathe that his name had become one of the "verbal false limbs" for which he excoriated political writers in his essay "Politics and the English Language." To be fair, though, people are generally being fairly obnoxious and pretentious when they use "Orwellian" in conversation so I don't feel terrible about it.
Orwell is wielded with particular enthusiasm by people on the right decrying social welfare programs and things like that as "Orwellian" – which we are meant to understand as evocative of "Big Brother" and the totalitarian government of Orwell's 1984. But part of Orwell's irony lies in his complexity. He was a police officer in imperial Burma and abhors physical coercion. He wrote frequently of his experiences in the jails and poor-houses of London and penned one of his most famous essays, "How the Poor Die," after an experience in an urban public hospital.
Orwell often considered himself a socialist and wrote sympathetically about communist movements. He travelled to Catalonia to fight alongside a hodge-podge of marxist and socialist groups against fascism. But what he abhorred most and lampooned at every opportunity, was dogma. Orwell absolutely detested ideological conformity whether he found it in fascists or in socialists, communists or religious zealots. Orwell was enormously skeptical of power but his heart broke for the poor. He excoriated the government for its failure of the indigent and working poor but ridiculed communists for their dogma.
I've recently started going through his essays more systematically and have found such gems as:
"The basic trouble with all orthodox Marxists is that, posessing a system which appears to explain everything, they never bother to discover what is going on inside other people's heads."
... and ...
"This kind of petty tyranny can, in fact, only be defended on the theory that a man poor enough to live in a common lodging house thereby forfeits some of his rights as a citizen."
... and ...
"... he will perhaps not be pleased when I say that he is too decent a human being to be 'ideologically' sound."
It's that combination of deliberate and immediate and visceral empathy for the poor with his ridicule of dogmatic ideology that I think makes the use of his name – as it most often appears – particularly absurd. Those who wield his name in service of a rigid dogma that would see the poor ignored or chided or underserved commit an offense of the type that irritated Orwell most and most certainly take his name in vain.