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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Orwell Centenary Talk

John O Farrell • Linen Hall Library, 25th June 2003


It is an honour to stand here this evening, in this building which is dedicated to the ideals of the enlightenment and the constant cultivation of the independent mind, this outpost, separate from the careerism of the academy and the internal rigidities of the tribal jerk, of what the Czech humourist Jan Werich called the “struggle against stupidity, the only human struggle that is always in vain, but can never be relinquished.”

This building takes sides, as did the man who we are gathered here today to mark the 100 years since his birth. George Orwell discomfited his friends, betrayed his class, treated women like chattel, loathed “pansy poets”, dissed “vegetarians, sandal wearers, feminists and other cranks” and touted for British Intelligence. He played fast and loose with the facts. His great epics of reportage of the 1930s included more invented and distorted facts than the entire fictional career of Jason Blair of the New York Times.

We should honour this man. He had a greater duty, an attachment to the truth that inspired two generations of dissidents in the moral swamp that passed for intellectual life in the Peoples’ Democracies, aka the Soviet Empire. As Orson Welles said of Jimmy Cagney, “it isn’t real, but it’s true.”

Someone else inspired by Orwell was the author of the then-definitive denounciation of the theory and practice of Stalinism, The Great Terror, published in 1968. Around the same time, Robert Conquest penned in verse:

Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.

Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,
For how they hated him, who huddled with
The comfort of a quick remedial myth
Against the cold world and their colder minds.

We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
-And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction to be most abhorred.

He shared with a great world, for greater ends,
That honesty, a curious cunning virtue
You share with just the few who don’t desert you.
A dozen writers, half-a-dozen friends.

A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.

While those who drown a truth’s empiric part
In dithyramb or dogma turn frenetic;
-Than whom no writer could be less poetic
He left this lesson for all verse, all art.

Around the same time, another seeker after truth was less concerned with the stitch-ups, the tortures and the vanishings from history that occurred in Moscow and Barcelona in 1937, than with the shifty rationalisations among the liberal imperialists who intellectually underwrote the “savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam.”

Noam Chomsky was taking his fellow members of the academy to task for shirking their responsibilities. “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”, he wrote in 1967, and that responsibility is greater than the rest of the citizenry:

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than … the ‘responsibilities of peoples’, given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.”

Chomsky famously believes that the adage of ‘speaking truth to power’ is a crock, itself a device to comfort the afflicted, while leaving the comfortable, comfortable. Power already knows the truth. It does not need to be told what it is doing already. Since Plato, the role of intellectuals, priests, teachers, journalists, columnists and backbench MPs is to spread the Word, and the Word is Good, and some truths are ‘not ready for the public’ to think about, all by themselves, so the public need some help.

Sometimes the facts are selected, some are withheld and some are invented. It depends on whose power interests we are talking about. Orwell was largely concerned about the state getting its mucky fingers on the past through the medium of the present day’s mediators. Perhaps that is why, when Horizon magazine asked some writers in 1946: “Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?” Orwell’s response was a terse warning: “The less truck a writer has with the state, or any other organised body, the better for him and his work.”

Things have changed a bit, since then. The situation has gotten both better and worse. The spread of democracy and western liberal values, particularly over the past 15 years, mean that a free press and free universities are becoming the norm in most states, worldwide. Those two values are at the minimal treshold for membership of the European Union, thus slum populist democracies like Turkey and Romania are cleaning up their act in the hope of joining the rich man’s club. In states going the other way, towards totalitarianism, the treatment of the press is a reliable indicator of power’s attitude towards the aspirations of the people. We have seen this in Zimbabwe, in many of the states in what used to be Soviet Central Asia, in Belarus, in the gunsights of US forces in Iraq and the Irish government’s appalling castration of the Freedom of Information Act.

The bad news is the concentration of media power in corporate hands, unaccountable to anybody who may wish to change its operating ideology of International Monetary Fundamentalism. Fewer and bigger corporations control more of the broadcast and print media, and the result is a retarding of the voices and views we can see or read.

Shareholders are there to be bribed by dividends, and not worry about the downsizing (very Orwellian) of newsrooms. Instead of international stories that may nudge one’s conscience or consciousness, we get branded telethons of celebrities with products to plug us all into, as we devour live sport from the camera angle of our choice in the vain hope that the incarcerated saddoes in the Big Brother house either shag or shoot each other so we can switch off, and read a book, or something. The weird thing about Big Brother is that it turns us, the viewer (the voyeur) into Big Brother. We can see them, all the time, checking their thoughts for criminal tendencies, such as wanting to have a proper conversation about something real.

I mean, can you imagine Twat A turning to Dupe B and saying: “Jesus, it’s almost July and my uncle is gonna be marching at Drumcree in defence of his civil and religious liberties. I hope the peelers or the fenians don’t crack his head open.” Or, “Did I ever tell you that the reason why I am such a pathetic attention seeker and went into this fish bowl is that my tyrannical father used to bugger me and my drunken shrew of a mother ignored my pleadings?” Or. “That Tony Blair is a lying cur.”

However. Another good sign is the internet, a force for incredible good in the world and the side of globalisation that the green black & red left tend not to dwell upon, despite depending on it for their international (and internationalist) support base. Chomsky may not get out much on CNN, NBC, ABC, the BBC or Fox News, but he is more widely read than ever.

The internet has given some encouragement to those of us in this behavioural sink who try to cling on the such universal human values as the right to know everything we want to know, to read stuff that we don’t want to hear, and to laugh at ourselves. The Portadown News and the Blanket websites are glimmers of encouragement among a provincial-minded media that is largely happy to tell us what we want to hear. Much print media in Northern Ireland fits the criteria set out by Marshall McLuhan 40 years ago. “People don’t read a newspaper”, he wrote, “rather they slip into it like a warm bath.”

Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger, made a mockery of the Saddam-ite terror gang’s attempt to muzzle its own people. When Comical Ali’s goons tried to censor Al-Jazeera, the satallite warriors told the Baathist thugs to go and fuck themselves, in so many words, silencing all transmissions from Iraq for 24 hours until the cretins caved in, just in time for the arab public to witness the ignominious collapse of the rotten house of Hussein (may Allah spit on his grave, soon).

Al-Jazeera did not speak truth to power. For the first time arabs and muslims could have their television set tell some truth to them, after decades of lies and self-serving nationalism served up to them by their wastrel rulers. Al-Jazeera passed the Chomsky test, and our rulers couldn’t handle that truth, especially when it showed the reality of modern war; namely that smart Western bombs kill children, and dumb Iraqi bullets kill British and US troops. When remembering George Orwell, we should pause for a moment and pay silent homage to the journalists killed by that most mendatious of Orwellian terms, ‘friendly fire’, just as we should remember Farzod Barzoft, the Observer journalist hanged for spying by Saddam, justified at the time by the Pope’s guest Tariq Aziz, and ignored by the British and American governments of the day.

In the preface written for the Ukranian edition of Animal Farm, Orwell gives a potted version of his life, his colonial background, how he became a socialist “out of disgust” with class oppression rather than “any theoretical admiration for a planned society”, his Damascane moment in Spain where the Stalinist purges threatened him and his wife and where many of his POUM comrades were killed by other ‘anti-fascists’, and his disgust at his return to England to find “numerous sensible and well-informed observers believing the most fantastic accounts of conspiracy, treachery and sabotage which the press reported from the Moscow trials’… And so for the last ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.”

In a preface written for the first English edition, but not published until 1972, the “renegade liberal” gets it in the neck for holding a “tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods”, the extremists in defence of liberty who in wartime advocated the internment of suspicious foreigners and British fascists and would soon mutate into cold warriors or fellow travellers. “For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet regime may be the generally-orthodox one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

This is a hard test, much more difficult than it appears to the sensitive souls who write op-eds, do slabber spots for the radio or read mind-flattering magazines like Fortnight, or the New Statesman (who refused to publish Orwell’s account of the events of the mini-Terror in Barcelona), or Horizon, or Gangrel, for which Orwell wrote these words in 1946: “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” He tested his own beliefs and preconceptions and those of his friends. As Conor Cruise O’Brien admitted 15 years later, “you knew that certain things he said were true, because you winced when you heard them.”

Who can claim that wince-making quality these days, and in this neck of the woods?

Take the ‘debate’ over Iraq.

Was it invaded? Certainly.
Was the UN bypassed and international law trashed? Sure.
Are the Iraqi people liberated from a murderous and racist kleptocracy? Absolutely.
Was it about oil? Damn right.
Were the chemical and biological weapons a real threat? Obviously not.
Are the other local despots very, very worried? You bet.
Should Tony Blair and the US neocons used a better excuse for toppling their former client dictator? Yes, and there was no shortage of excuses.
Are we now subjects of the most powerful empire known to man? Get used to it.

All of the above reasons were trotted out with predictable selectivity by opponents and supporters of the war, all made sincerely and with minimal thought, as the left bleated, the ex-left demanded liberally armed intervention and the right crowed their triumphal distortions. All claimed Orwell’s spirit during the row, and it is pointless to try and conscript his ghost, but one is tempted to think of one of his favourite Revivalist hymns:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known.

Instead, the level of debate continues to be marked by glib we-told-you-so pieties from peaceniks sneering at the looting of the Baghdad museum of antiquities, and the shifting and shifty rationales for invasion by the war party animals.

A half-honest reflection by a literate individual would instead surmise that the colours of truth and justice are shades of gray. For example, the juggling of two statistics; the (perhaps) 3,000 civilians killed while being liberated versus the average of 1,200 civilians killed by Saddam’s system every week. In net terms, that justifies cluster bombs and friendly fire, but who would want to want to play with that bloody abacus?

We in the west profited from our arming and logistical support in the 1980s. We got cheap oil and the mad ayatollahs were contained. We turned a blind eye in 1988 to the gassing of the Kurds we betrayed since the 1920s, and continue to betray in Turkey. We owed them a favour. We also owed the Iraqi Shia for our treachery when they rose up in 1991. It was a debt of honour signed with the blood of upwards of 300,000 murdered by Saddam as our boys went home to ticker tape parades in 1991. Call me a blood wet liberal, but that debt was worth paying.

Orwell was, naturally, a product of his times, his class, his reading and the things he saw. The times they have a-changed, and the complacency that reigned in the West from the Fall of the Wall until September 11th 2001 have distanced us from the passions of the era in which Orwell dwelt (and partly shaped). The period 1917-1991 was stuffed full of the brightest lights shining from different corners. Rereading the missives of a random few, one is taken aback by the combination of knowledge and sheer passion: Leon Trotsky, Arthur Koestler, EP Thompson, Simone Weil, Isiah Berlin, Antonio Gramsci, Conor Cruise O’Brien, WH Auden, Raymond Aron, Rosa Luxemburg, Michael Foucault, Frantz Fanon, Hannah Arendt, Melvin Lasky, Noam Chomsky…

What marks Orwell out from all of the above is the attachment to a prepackaged Higher Cause. He had the knowledge of how the great competing systems worked, and that seemed to drive his passion. As Mary McCarthy noted in an astute 1969 review of his collected essays and letters “Blair-Orwell detested and resented every form of power; in politics, he loved rubbing his opponents' noses in reality, the opposite of the corporate or individual will, just as in language he hated abstraction, the separation of mental concepts from the plurality of the concrete.”

The distillation of his experience among the tramps, the miners, the imperial policemen, the intellectuals and the murderous attentions of the Comintern in Barcelona in 1937 were two essential and utterly timeless essays that should be compulsory reading for any student of politics, literature, media, theology or science.

The Prevention of Literature and Politics and the English Language were respectively published in January and April 1946. They were written at the end of the greatest test of the century’s belief systems, The War, as it would be called in shorthand before the hi-tech dupes of Islamic Fascism flew us into the war we are living through right now. (Orwell once famously opened one of his greatest essays with the line: “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” A current version might go: “… highly civilised human beings are flying at me…”)

The Prevention of Literature starts by assaulting his friends, rounding upon the speakers at a rally for freedom of speech whose “net effect …was a demonstration in favour of censorship.” He loathes the “continuous war atmosphere” that “conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official.” Economics and politics have conspired to turn those “rebels” who should be most questioning into opponents of “the idea of individual integrity.”

The essay is a ferocious assault upon the temptations and ghastly effects of totalitarianism, presciently pointing out the “schizophrenia” such a state depends upon to survive. In 1978, Vaclav Havel would pen a bitterly funny equivalent chunk of samizdat entitled The Power of the Powerless that would energise the dissidents of Poland as well as Czechoslovakia, based upon the lies such systems depend their subjects to tell themselves; that lying to yourself about your state (personal and nation) is alright because everyone else knows that it is a lie. “It might be possible for large areas of one’s mind to remain unaffected by what one officially believed”, thought Orwell.

A case in point was Erich Honeker, the late assassin-in-chief of the former German Democratic Republic, who spent his final, brokenhearted days in the Chilean embassy in Moscow (Oh irony! Compounded!). In 1993, I met an ex-member of the politbureau of the Staatspartei of the GDR at, appropriately enough, a conference of the European Network of the Unemployed. A true believer in what most Ossies called ‘former times’, but smart enough to learn from change, I asked him when he realised the game was up. He told me that in 1987, the Stasi had taken aside the handful of the politbureau that could handle the scariest fact about the 17 million citizens of East Germany: That two million had risked ruin and persecution by openly applying for exit visas to the west. As far as Honeker was aware, only 5,000 had dared make such a public declaration of ‘treason’. Remember that this man had put up the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent ungrateful citizens escaping westwards “like thieves in the night”, to quote the excuse in the (discarded) East Berlin Museum of the German People. When such a proportion of the citizenry were willing to defy the schizophrenia of daily life and honestly confront the lies of power, the sense of failure of those in the know among the GDR’s ruling class was soul-crushing.

Hoenker was told the truth two years later, in person, by Gorbachev in June 1989, as they publicly kissed into being and out of reality the 40th anniversary of the German workers’ state, like a cliched scene in a bad mafia movie. That is why, when the protests started in Dresden that September, the apparat knew that the example of Tiananmen Square could not apply. The game was up.

As a corrective to the habits of the totalitarian mind, Orwell penned Politics and the English Language around the same time as the above essay. “The point is that the process is reversible… If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration; so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” The essay is a How-To guide to avoiding writing the bulk of political language which “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearanace of solidity to pure wind.”

Orwell uses an initial tactic for which he is usually overlooked; humour. He takes apart some examples of “bad” writing from the political and intellectual press of his day, deconstucting each so that some or all are shown as failing various tests.
Dying metaphors, (Ring the changes on, toe the line, etc - “a sure sign the writer is not interested in what he is saying”),
Operators, or verbal false limbs (render inoperative, be subjected to, etc, “the elimination of simple verbs”),
pretentious diction (“except for the useful abbrevations ie, eg and etc, there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English”),
meaningless words (“human, dead, natural in art criticism; freedom, patriotic, justice, in political discourse”).

It goes beyond the mechanics of writing, and adds on the question why one should want to write in the first place. “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

To do all that, of course, requires an independent mind, uncluttered by party lines and prepackaged causes.

This is a form of ‘policing language’ that is miles away from the ninnying nannies of political correctness on US campuses or the victims’ industry in Northern Ireland. It is a form of self-discipline that frees, rather than oppresses, the imagination. “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.” Avoid the pitfalls of bad language, and you can think through politics with a mind less cluttered by cliches and evasions: “Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.”

During that summer of 1946, after the publication of Animal Farm, Orwell could look back on his writing since Spain as wanting “to make political writing into an art.” He believed that he had finally succeeded with Animal Farm, and informed readers that “I hope to write another (novel) fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.” The book was published in June 1949, six months before he died of Tuberculosis. The title came from inverting the last two digits of the year in which he wrote 1984.

It is true-ish that 1984 did not happen in 1984. Much of it was happening in 1948 in Prague, Warsaw and the Gulag. It was going on in 1984 in Guatemala, Iran, East Timor, the psychiatric hospitals of Leningrad and mining villages in the north of England. It is still being lived in Zimbabwe, North Korea, Belarus, Tibet, West Papua, Palestine, in the minds of the Talibanate of the Islamic world, the “for us or against us” mentality of the Warriors on Terror, the propaganda of corporate globalisation and the monocultural ghettos of loyalist and republican Belfast.

Before being stolen by IBM and sugary drinks advertisers, ‘Think’, ‘Free Your Mind’ and ‘Believe nothing, question everything’ used to be useful advice. Reclaim the clichés (as well as the streets). In an age without ideologies, Orwell is the perfect starting point, not for understanding a world unforseeable half a century ago, but for the templates for resistance to the ordered thinking of the New World Order.

Thank you.


John O’Farrell edited Fortnight magazine from 1995-2002. He is now a full time campaigner on European issues. He can be contacted at Thanks and acknowledgements to The Yoke, which published parts of this in late 2002.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

1 September 2003


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Orwell Centenary Talk

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