Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book #2: Why I Write

George Orwell wrote Why I Write while "highly civilized human beings [were] flying overhead, trying to kill [him]."

England had been sucked into World War II; the U.S. had not yet entered. Orwell had already published Animal Farm, but had not yet written 1984. It was fascinating to get into his thoughts at that moment in time, especially predictions he made (hoped for, at least). He was convinced, for example, that if Great Britain emerged from the war victorious, it was destined to become a socialist nation, including state ownership of vital industries.

"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936," he said, "has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."

Full disclosure: I know I'm meant to write about a book I finished this week, but I actually finished this book a month or so ago, during the height of the controversy surrounding the grand jury verdict about Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, and wanted to include it in this project. I couldn't help but read many of Orwell's words through the lens of that situation and others and the larger context on which they shed light.

Over and over as I read his assessment of what had led up to the point he and his compatriots found themselves in, I was impressed by how thoroughly American ideas and sensibilities are rooted in British ideas and sensibilities, and how so many of the observations he made could be written today, about either country.

One passage, for example, that particularly struck me:
Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in 'the law' as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything wrong', or 'They can't do that; it's against the law', are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else. . . . Everyone believes that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root.
And there we have the deeply fundamental reason why some people are rising up to protest law enforcement overreach and some people are rising up to defend law enforcement, and why some people, like me, are doing both.

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