This week in London, the annual George Orwell Lecture was given by the Islamist writer Tariq Ramadan. Where is one to start?
George Orwell was against religious censorship. Tariq Ramadan campaigned successfully to cancel a production of Voltaire’s play Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete in Geneva.
Orwell was a rational man. When Ramadan taught at the College de Saussure he argued in favour of Islamic biology over Darwin.
Orwell risked his life fighting for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists. Ramadan is a coward when it comes to fighting fascism. In November 2003, on French television, the future French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Ramadan to condemn the practice of stoning women. He would not. Ramadan squirmed: “I have called for — because I know my position is a minority one within the Muslim world today — a moratorium so that there can be a real debate between Muslims.”
Orwell opposed state control and religious indoctrination. Ramadan would like the former to impose the latter. He wants Muslim parents to control the content of state school programmes according to “Islamic values”.
The organisers of the Orwell Lectures ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves. Don’t care about the above? Or, do they find Ramadan’s tongue-twisting political language blurring discourse so merrily that the most blatant distinctions between the two men no longer appear to matter?
Certainly, though, priorities are amiss. Forget Ramadan. If you wish to examine why Orwell still matters, you need only hear the final line of Bertolt Brecht’s parody of Hitler’s rise and fall, Arturo Ui: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
Be it Islamism, NSA or the hysterical out-cries of the reactionary far left, challenges will not be resolved by reactionary celebrities. The Orwell Lecturers should try harder to find new voices:
I hope that Dr Borkenau will write a longer and better book on approximately the same subject. The present one, in spite of some brilliant passages, seems to have been hastily written and has faults of arrangement. Nevertheless Dr Borkenau is one of the most valuable gifts that Hitler has made to England. In a period when nearly all books on current politics have been compounded of lies, or folly, or both, his has been one of the few sane voices heard in the land, and long may it continue.
It’s not just bad politics, it’s lazy.
Would Orwell hate the cliché to which his pseudonym has degenerated? How much contempt would he have for those seeking seances with him in the blogosphere? Well, as he says in Animal Farm, “the only good human being is a dead one.”
Like a true Marian martyr, Tom Chivers announces his heresy proudly amid the brewing thunderclouds:
He clearly was one of Britain’s greatest ever writers; an extraordinary novelist and journalist, a fierce and clear voice warning against totalitarianism, and prophetic, in a way. But I get a bit annoyed when he gets quoted as an authority on how to write – most especially, when the “laws” from his essay “Politics and the English Language” get bandied about as THIS IS HOW YOU DO WRITING, GUYS.
For the record: it’s not. I don’t claim to be any sort of authority. But even an idiot like me can see that his rules make no sense.
Well, Orwell definitely wasn’t “all that” but he was a sizable portion. Enough, I think, for me to play the apologist.
Orwell bold, Chivers below:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
Never use a figure of speech which “you are used to seeing in print” is a bit weird. For example, you could make the case that “figure of speech” is a figure of speech, since the things it refers to are not literal figures, ie physical shapes or written symbols, but metaphorical ones. And you’ve definitely seen it in print lots and lots. And there’s nothing wrong with it. “Don’t resort to cliché” is what he means, but it’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying.
Bit of a crafty point. Alluring casuistry, in any case. “Figure of speech” is not a cliche; it is a phrase in its own right. It’s a term which is both technical and standard English. It is a plea to originality, not just the trope to “avoid cliches” – John Rentoul gets it.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
Language Log nails the “Never use a long word” and the “Never use a foreign phrase” one neatly by pointing out that “when a shorter one will do” or “an everyday English equivalent” are entirely subjective terms. In the very same essay, they point out, Orwell talks of “scrupulous writers”. Could he have said “careful”, Language Log wonders: “Not quite the same meaning, of course. But would it have done?” Similarly, foreign and technical words have subtly different meanings to the English equivalents: there are no true synonyms. “Don’t show off by using needlessly fancy language”, again, is so obvious and unhelpful that it doesn’t need saying; it’s little better than saying “write well”.
Oh, now. “Subjective”. One of the most important roles of the polemicist is to act as the medium between dry academia and people; it’s a theme of which Orwell is most embracing. Animal Farm warmly invites Stalinism into English circles; it’s how my 10 year-old self, ignorant of communism, managed some level of understanding of the Russian Revolution. That ‘s to say nothing of the layman’s venture to the imperial world in Burmese Days or the critique of capitalism via Comstock’s romance in Keep the Apidistra Flying. Perhaps it’s why many see him as a better journalist than novelist given how successfully he blurred the two professions.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
Three: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” should, by its own rule, be “If it is possible to cut a word, cut it.” Or even “Cut words where possible.” Is that better?
No, because it’s less memorable. It might be valid a statement but it neglects Orwell’s literary purpose that the “possible” considers.
Even if it were better, wouldn’t that prove the point?
4. Never use the passive when you can use the active
“Never use the passive” is complete nonsense and Orwell uses it regularly himself because there is nothing wrong with it.
Sure – but the active does usually add urgency, as many journalists would do well to remember. And it’s not as though he’s dismissing the passive, the implication being that the active is not always appropriate – as in rule 3, “possibility” does not have a doctrinaire definition. Many people don’t think about that; others do. As Chivers says, it’s “subjective” – and Orwell is fully aware of the difficulties of exercising rules on polemical grammar.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
Five we’ve dealt with; see two.
Me too, I think. But I’ll add something further about jargon – because Chivers himself avoids it very well, especially given how much effort to which the government has gone to cloud the technical changes it’s making to the NHS. Jargon is a diagnosed symptom of intellectual constipation.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous
Six: So what you’re saying, Mr Orwell, is that applying rigid rules to writing is unhelpful and silly? At last we agree.
The point behind Politics and the English Language was to explore how one may be used to transmit the other. Wordplay does not create meaning in and by itself. Better to write an important point poorly than a terrible one crisply.
Some writing is good, and others is bad; and in so rich a language tepid generalisations for each are the best we can hope for. Of course, any rules can therefore inevitably be reduced to “largely empty” advice. I am, after all, partly playing devil’s advocate here because some of Chivers’ criticisms are very valid. I simply mean to show that pedantry and application do not necessarily obscure the importance of the points Orwell is making.
Anyone, after all, who treats Orwell’s rules dogmatically breaks the point behind the first. (Hence six.)
Confused, puzzled, dazed? Watch this terribly exciting video instead.
What Orwell probably didn’t realise when he sat down to write his rules for making tea was that he was contributing to the humanistic philosophy of the cuppa. Would it be Aristotelian tea? Platonic tea? Socratic tea? No, that’s quite silly. But still, it’s true that his article was somewhat essentially humanistic: in ways I love and would rather pretentiously advocate. What do I mean? Is Mark really comparing making tea to humanism? I believe he is.
The Good Book by Professor A.C. Grayling – whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet – lays down a huge volume of what the author calls “secular laws”. That is to say, humanist values that dispense of divine instruction, and as a corollary they dispense with the sense of predetermined “absolute” laws. Religious critics always claim that without supernatural justification for universal laws, they can’t hold as fact: objectivity, and therefore any moral purpose to law, falls apart to blurry subjectivity. Readers of this blog will know, full well, that I hate this process; there are objectively moral laws that ought to operate in this world, as the Good Book attempts to illustrate. As a basic starting point, these might include: no murder, no rape, no pedophilia, no racial/sexual discrimination. We don’t need God for this.
Now Orwell, in writing his rules for tea, is doing the same. Writing on the presupposition that there are no agreed laws for tea making – given the absence of an almighty, omnipotent, omniscient Tea Father – he tries to establish an empirical science behind how one should travel from leaf to drink (e.g. “the water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact”). As it happens, most of his rules do the trick.
I’m not so convinced about the Ceylonese vs Chinese debate, but it’s true the milk should be added to the tea, rather than the other way around; that there should be no sugar, ever; boiling water; made in small amounts; no strainers. In other words, appreciate your tea. And read Orwell’s rules.
Just don’t name a blog after it. (That’s my job.)