Monday, June 28, 2004

George Orwell and Ray Bradbury in Farenheit 9/11

’In accordance with the principles of double-think it does not matter
if the war is not real. For when it is, victory is not possible. The
war is not meant to be won, but it is meant to be continuous.’ (George Orwell, 1984; quoted at the end of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11)

I'm getting over mild food poisoning from a Portuguese restaurant in Boston, so I don't really have the energy to substantiate the title of this post. [Update: I did it here and here] But it seems to me that it might be worth someone's time to look at the relationship between Orwell's writings in particular and Moore's influence on American popular culture. Both figures are flawed, and were/are widely attacked for questioning the 'party line'. Both change their minds about things often, and are full of intellectual and philosophical inconsistencies. That said, both Orwell and Moore also reset the profile for politically-engaged intellectual activity in their respective times and places.

I know less about Bradbury and I have to admit (Morris Zapp moment here) that I've never read Farenheit 451. So I obviously can't say much about it. However, it's worth noting that the only writer Moore quotes in F911 is Orwell.

At the end of his ugly 'review' of Moore, Christopher Hitchens (clearly eager to renew his credibility with the right after his trashing of Reagan) has this passage on Moore's use of Orwell:

Perhaps vaguely aware that his movie so completely lacks gravitas, Moore concludes with a sonorous reading of some words from George Orwell. The words are taken from 1984 and consist of a third-person analysis of a hypothetical, endless, and contrived war between three superpowers. The clear intention, as clumsily excerpted like this (...) is to suggest that there is no moral distinction between the United States, the Taliban, and the Baath Party and that the war against jihad is about nothing. If Moore had studied a bit more, or at all, he could have read Orwell really saying, and in his own voice, the following:

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States

And that's just from Orwell's Notes on Nationalism in May 1945. A short word of advice: In general, it's highly unwise to quote Orwell if you are already way out of your depth on the question of moral equivalence.

To me, this is the only thing worth taking seriously in Hitchens' essay.

Still, I don't think he's right. I tend to agree with the passage quoted from Orwell's Notes that pacifism cannot be a universal principle. But it's unclear that Moore's is a pacifist film, or that Moore himself is a pacifist. And it's also urgent to remember that most people who opposed the war in Iraq did so not out of 'intellectual pacifism' but out of a strong suspicion that the WMD was spin, and that unilateral invasions pose a threat to international order. Finally, the lines quoted by Moore in the film are from 1984, and the analogy works quite well within the logic of the film.

Really the best way to develop this would be to take a look at Orwell's journalistic work near the start of World War II, when it wasn't at all clear where things were going. Hitchens doesn't do this.


Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

You're kidding, right ? Orwell far outclasses Moore! Or is my reading a mistaken one ?

I saw 9/11 last night, and Moore's movie was full of lies, half-truths and (a few very important) truths. A well-wrought partisan polemic, which I thorgouhly enjoyed [a guilty pleasure ;) ].

Lots of contradictory assertions, e.g., Iraq/Afghanistan wars as a result of the Bush familys' venality. The Bushes, Moore claims contradictorily, ignored/coddled terrorist states and attacked them, for the sake of financial gain! But certainly Moore's right about the ethereal nature of the WMD's, etc.

In any case, I was almost as fascinated by the crowd that turned out to see the movie. Based on the location, I'd guess that a substantial fraction of the audience were 'Reagan Dems.', on the national level. Equally as surprising was the demography of the group: Young couples to old folks, and everything in between.

Moreover, the audience was quite attentive throughout the movie. I'd estimate that at least a quarter actually cheered at the end of the movie. Based on this crowd--by no means staunch lefties--I'd say there are significant doubts about Bush, at the least!


Anonymous said...

Moore quoted Orwell perfectly. North American society truly is a heirarchy. The war effort is a way of sustaining the heirarchical structure of this society and preserving the status quo for the truly rich.
Stop trying to prove your credibility in a useless profession.

Anonymous said...

anonymous above said it very well.

If you're not gonna try and do anything for the weaker members of society, you should go and get a real job, and a conscience

Anonymous said...

And here's the quote everybody visits here looking for:
"It's not a matter of whether the war is not real, or if it is, Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia but to keep the very structure of society intact."
George Orwell

Amardeep said...

I don't know why you folks think my job is a joke: I'm a teacher. Somebody has to transmit knowledge to the next generation.

Guess you guys are just jealous!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add that 1984 is a Dystopia, meaning a picture of the future that evolved in a bad way.
1984 os the most extreme Dystopia.
Everything in it is 1000 times worse than "in this case" the Sviet Union.

So what I am saying is that 1984 has brilliant observations based off true facts in real life but what he is saying is not to be taken 100% literally.
It is true that war is a lot of times for the benefit of a higher class , but that being the only reason for a war can only exist in the world Orwell created.

Therefore, it is a complete bullshit from Moore to compare america/bush to a stalinistic Empire ruled by Big Brother.