George Orwell: Why I Write

George Orwell: Why I Write

A friend is reading a collection of George Orwell essays I recommended called Facing Unpleasant Facts.  Because I wanted to be able to talk about the book intelligently, but it had been some time since reading it, I decided on the van ride home today to reread a couple of his best essays, including Why I Write.  You can read the same essay at the above link.

Orwell was probably better than any writer, in the English language, at getting across big ideas in clear direct language.  In this essay Orwell not only provides a window into his motivation for writing, but the motivation for writers as a whole. He also makes the case for writing as truth telling.

Another reason I love Orwell is that he was very realistic about how to achieve political goals.  He is often misunderstood, due to readers’ selectiveness, as his writing is crystal clear.  Orwell considered himself a democratic socialist, but he often criticized the left for their approach to achieving their goals, especially in the language that they used.  I can’t help but feel that Orwell is greatly missed in these tumultuous times.  Luckily his writings are still here, still powerful, pointing the way.


An Argument With Ta-Nehisi Coates

Watching Ta-Nehisi Coates on Charlie Rose.  Coates is a writer for The Atlantic and has also written books, including the book Between the World and Me, a book that is written from a father to a son about the struggle of being black in America.  Overall I like Coates.  I have read a lot of his stuff.  I am always happy to see people that are wielding new ideas.  There is a lot that I agree with him about.  However, I felt really frustrated with some of the things that he said on Charlie Rose.

I am going to paraphrase a little.  But Coates said he did not believe in the quote, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  On one hand I do agree with him that justice is not destined.  It takes a lot of people working really hard for the world to get better.  However, Coates was against the idea because he viewed that each individual life is an arc in and of itself and when someone dies that arc is over.  When Martin Luther King was shot, his arc was over.  When Malcolm X was shot, his arc was over.  Coates is using this kind of argument to make people realize the pain and cruelty that people face.  Even if they are trying to make the world a better place, if other people rob them of their life their arc is over.  They don’t get to see the promised land of a better world.  So he is trying to say we need to make the world better now.

In a certain way this is true, but I think it is short sighted.  As a argumentative tactic, I think it has its merits.  But I think it denies the nature of the world.  Now I’m not talking about magical thinking, of casting sight into the unknown.  I’m not talking about looking down from heaven and seeing your work coming to fruition over time.  But all human lives end.  I think a great deal of good comes out of casting an eye towards, if not eternity, than at least a short term future, some of which you will not see.  I’m almost uncomfortable in saying that we are part of a bigger chain, of attaching a bunch of feel good language to an idea, though one can make that argument.  I’m talking about in the face of the inevitable, as we are fragile beings that even under the best of circumstances will not be around very long, of trying to reach for something bigger.

Whether someone gets cancer or gets shot, they die.  Now if someone gets shot before their time, there is obviously something extremely wrong with that.  But judging someone’s life by by the fact that they die, a death that was inevitable at some point, is like judging a day by the sun coming up.  (Though judging how someone faces death, or what they die for is not.  And you can certainly judge others that cause death.)  I think it is what people do that matters, not only in the space of their own life, but in the benefit it has on the future.  Did they raise their kids well, did they create something that other people will benefit from, did they stand up for others in a way that might have even put them in great harm?

There is a George Orwell Essay called A Good Word For the Vicar of Bray.  (You can read it if you scroll down here.)  In it Orwell talks about the King of Burma, who killed many during his lifetime, but who also planted trees which would be enjoyed for generations to come.   Often the road to hell can be paved with good intentions, and sometimes someone that is a barbarian in their own life can actually unknowingly benefit others through the passing of time.  The world is strange and we will never figure it out in the short time we are here.  The idea wasn’t that we should do whatever we want and hope for the best.  Orwell was trying to get the reader to plant trees, something that would be of good to those down the road.

And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.

Are we reaching, trying, scraping towards something better while we are here?  Are we trying the best we can given our limited knowledge, our own chemical imbalances, our own place in a strange system that we were born into?  Can we shake off the fear of death and inevitable defeat and try to make the world better, if not for a friend or a loved one here and now, than for someone down the road, who we may never know?

I understand what Coates is trying to say.  I think he is someone trying to get at the truth and he is able to uncover part of it.  The problems he talks of are real and need addressed.  However, I can’t help but feel he is missing something too.

Shooting an Elephant: Donald Trump and George Orwell

Donald Trump's Son

Do Elephant’s Weep?

So much about Donald Trump is said in the above photo, which came out awhile ago, of his son smiling while holding an elephant tail.  Granted, people shouldn’t always be judged by their offspring, as sometimes children go wrong even with the best of a parent’s intentions.  However, Trump has come out in defense of his son.

My views on animal rights are evolving.  I am by no means on the far left of this debate, though I seem to be slowly drifting in that direction the more that I read.  However, it has been documented that elephants have complex emotional and social lives:

Elephants are highly intelligent animals that display complex social behaviors such as greeting ceremonies, group defense, submission, tactile contacts, vocal communication, scent communication, social play, courtship, mating, birthing, parenting, communal care, teaching, threat displays, charging, and fighting. 

I find the above photograph highly disturbing.  Here is a person with all the advantages of wealth, going to a foreign country, killing an animal that is thought to experience grief, and holding a piece of its corpse up while smiling into the camera.

The above photo is not only disturbing, but sad.  It’s sad that a human being would travel so far and spend so much money just to kill something so beautiful.  The life of an elephant is natural.  There is something highly unnatural and troubling about the actions of this human being, a person that if we were to trace our family tree far enough back in time we would be related to.

Writing is about coming to clarity, about being able to communicate something you are feeling in a way that others will understand it.  I don’t feel that I can yet explain exactly why I find the above photo so troubling.  Perhaps in time I will.  But in our country, when so many people are still suffering, the behavior above seems to display a great lack of empathy, a kind of moral stupidity, if not outright, downright cruelty.  With so much money, is this the best that you can do?  If someone says that being rich makes one superior in anyway, I will laugh in their face.

As a side note, one of my favorite pieces of writing is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in which Orwell had to perform the title duty while stationed in Burma.  As usual with Orwell, he is able to make a seemingly simple story communicate a great deal.  You can read it here.  It it possible that the above photo reflects upon our society in the same way that Orwell’s story reflects upon his own?  

More Posts On Donald Trump Include: Donald Trump Will Turn Your Mind Into Rat Soup


Thoughts On Better Call Saul and Big Ideas in Entertainment

I found myself rewatching Breaking Bad this morning, starting at the beginning.  It’s amazing how entertaining this show is given that this will be the third time I’ve seen this season.  Also, as almost everyone knows, for a show this entertaining it sure was able to deal in some really heavy themes.  I think that is what makes it so great, that it works on different levels, from base entertainment to American tragedy.

I finished Better Call Saul the other day.  Seeing the whole season now has made me want to watch Season 2.  There were several times in the first season that I wasn’t so sure about the show.  The acting has always been excellent.  I’m used to modern TV shows taking a little time to develop and find their voice.  After the amazing ride of Breaking Bad I determined that I was going to give Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt, even when the show was slow.  Several seasons of Mad Men have taken a little time to develop, only to pick up steam in the second half and be unbelievable.  Modern TV, when its at its best, can have almost the detail of great literature.  Mad Men definitely falls into that realm.  I think what Better Call Saul ended up doing throughout the season was great, but it really took me the full season to become invested on an emotional level, where Breaking Bad had an opening episode that hooked you from the start.

I think that any kind of art form has to work on an emotional level first.  If it can expand your mind, deliver big ideas, on top of that, all the better.  I want to get something more than just being entertained out of something if possible.  However, I think if a writer, musician, painter, can pull you in on some way that is emotional, especially if they have a big idea, it is going to have a far greater chance at affecting how people think.  George Orwell is brilliant not only for his ideas, but for his clarity and readability too.  Even if he is talking about something highly intellectual, I am always struck at how the way he writes pulls you along with him.  It’s almost as if you are arriving at the conclusion with him.

That doesn’t mean that every moment of a book or TV show or whatever has to be easy.  I like to be challenged.  I like to hear that weird soundscape in the middle of an album of pop songs, for a show like Mad Men to take its time developing characters so the emotional payoff is bigger by the end, to see a play that has an act that sets the stage for later. Only fools need everything spoonfed to them.

I just got done reading Voltaire’s Candide.  It was written in the 1700’s.  There is a reason, beyond the big ideas contained within, that it has lasted several hundred years.  It is highly entertaining as well as being highly intelligent.

One thing I realized is that one will never ever read every book that is ever written.  One will never hear every piece of music ever created.  One will never see every show that or movie that has ever been made.  Therefore you must choose what you expose yourself.  It’s fine to watch or listen to things that are escapist at times.  The brain needs downtime if it is going to function on a higher level at other times.  But one should seek things out that help to understand the world around you.  If you are looking to understand something in a very specific technical way, then that is a different matter.  However, if you are looking for some kind of broader understanding of the world, there is no reason that one can’t enjoy oneself while doing so.  If you are interested in something, or some idea, or just looking for new ideas, the chances are there is someone that has communicated what you are looking for in a way that is enjoyable too.  A great journalist, dramatist, or songwriter, can do more than one thing at a time.

How Music Intersects With Culture and Politics

I’ve noticed as I’ve done this blog that I get the most hits from the posts I write about music.  (Though not always.)  This might lead you to believe that at some point I am going to get smart and turn this into a music blog.  But I’m not going to.  You see, you don’t get great artists like Chuck D, Bruce Springsteen, or Morrissey, because those artists are unaware of the cultural and political situations that are around them.  In fact those artists are great because they each reinterpret their surroundings through their own unique lens.  You don’t get Fight the Power or World Peace is None of Your Business or The Ghost of Tom Joad if those artists aren’t paying attention to what’s shaking on the hill.  Meanwhile although the best music can always connect on an emotional level even if you aren’t getting everything someone is talking about, you can’t really understand the full impact of a lot of records if you have no clue what is going on in the world.  Music and culture/politics is a two way street.  A lot of the all time great records never get made without those artist being attuned to the times.  As a listener you also get so much more out of records if you understand what is going on around them.

There is a collection of George Orwell essays called All Art is Propaganda.  I want to play with that and twist it and say that all music is political.  Even the banal country song that is just about the singer’s truck, or the mundane rap song that is just talking about what the rapper is drinking or driving, is political.  It’s not revolutionary, but it is political.  It’s basically telling you that everything you are being told on TV is OK.  Don’t think too much.  Buy things and you too can live the dream.

When is a pop song just a pop song?  Never.  Motown produced a lot of great love songs, but that was a black run label that was trying to cross over to white audiences, where a great deal of the money was, during the Civil Rights era.  They were making young white teens daydream about black stars.  They were showing young black kids that they could be successful.  During those times of division they were bringing people together.

Now that being said, you can totally, as a listener, just enjoy something on a purely emotional level.  Some music just has a physicality that you get off on.  I’ve been listening to a lot of TV On the Radio lately.  I know that some of their stuff is political, but I am mostly getting off on the sonic inventiveness of their records.

However, what you get out of something and what it is, is two different things.  If you were reincarnated in another country and didn’t understand English, you might still be completely captivated by just the sound of Chuck D’s voice, but that wouldn’t change what he was saying.  (And just the sound of his voice is like a god damn cannon going off!)

So I’m not saying that you have to look for the political in all music.  It’s fine to love a record because it just lifts your spirits.  There are plenty of records that do that for me and nothing more.  But again, that is different from saying that the culture at large didn’t shape those records.  It is there under the hood if you want to dive in deeper.

So if you are a huge music fan, like I am, and you want to understand why certain records get made, or you want appreciate a lot of records on a different level, then you need to understand what is going on out there.  Meanwhile, if you are a musician and you are creating something, you can’t help but be shaped by the times that you live in, even if it is not explicit in your work.  You can’t separate music, or any art, completely from the world at large.  Even a lot of those gospel or soul records, those that allow you to transcend your earthly problems for a couple of minutes, were often shaped by those who were suffering themselves.  Whatever music you are into, it was definitely not created in a vacuum.

Language, Red Necks, and Culture

If you go into a really conservative part of the Bible Belt, you will see that fear, guilt, and shame run rampant.  Of course I am painting with a wide brush, because no area is monolithic.   However, as a generalization, this rings pretty true.  These feelings that I listed are the results of years of religious and cultural repression. 

Have you ever played whack-a-mole?  It is the game where you hit moles that pop up with a mallet.  As soon as you hit that mole, another one is popping up somewhere else.  You can suppress some human emotions, but other ones will come out in their place.  When people in these regions are suppressed,  or oppressed,  because of various institutions, I believe it leads to a lot of the strange behavior that we see in this country.  They are so obsessed with people’s sexual orientation, because their own sex lives have been burdened with so much guilt and shame. 

That’s not to say there aren’t good people in these regions.  Often, these people are super generous and kind, even more than some liberals can be.  The problem is this generosity only usually extends to those that are part of their community or tribe. 

One of the great problems of the modern age is that we are in an increasingly interconnected world that faces global problems, but this local and tribal outlook still exists.  The world has become interconnected faster than societies can adapt. 

One of my favorite history books is Empire of the Summer Moon.  It is largely about the Comanche Indian Wars in Texas.  In the earlier days, before the six shooter was introduced, surviving as a Texas Ranger was almost like natural selection.  Only the toughest and best survived.  Why Am I talking about this?  Because the bravado that is so prevalent in Texas, I believe, comes out of this period.  At one point you had to bold and tough to survive. 

But the world changed so much in the last 150 odd years this trait, which was once a necessity for survival, is now an impediment to our country.  150 years ago isn’t that long ago.  It is my great grandparents.  In the late 1800’s people didn’t even know what existed at the north pole.  Now we can see into the farthest reaches of space.  The world has moved on, but a large part of our culture has not. 

If we are going to overcome the challenges of this century we need to change culturally.   This is not an easy thing to do.  Especially when people are struggling, they cling to their culture and identity as a way to keep their bearings. 

George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, wrote a critique of socialism.  However , he was a socialist.  He just realized that in order to get people interested in socialism you had to meet people where they were at.  He saw many on the left as being too academic, in the sense that they were talking about a belief he shared in ways that would never reach the average person who would benefit from these beliefs. 

In order to reach more people Democrats and liberals need to think about the language that is used.  Frank Luntz, a completely vile Republican pollster, has realized this.  For instance, people that were for the estate tax were much less likely to support the death tax, when they are the same exact thing.  But people were more willing to tax a rich person’s estate than to tax someone for dying.  Only the language had changed. 

Mark Twain once said that, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.”  The left needs to start with something as basic as language if there is any real hope for progress in the future. 

The reason I view Frank Luntz as vile is because he uses his talent to muddy the waters. He is only interested in his own financial interests and of keeping those in power who don’t have the best interest of people at heart. You can use language to either distort the truth or to shine a light on it. He does the former.

The Essence of Being Human

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.  – George Orwell in Reflections on Gandhi

Comic Radicals on the Left

I give the right a lot of shit on this blog.  I don’t feel guilty about it as the new right is batshit crazy.  However, there are those on the left that are figures of fun as well.  Even those that I agree with politically can often feel like another species when confronted with face to face.

One time when I was looking for a part time job to supplement my music career, I applied at Green Peace. (I want to say that I have no problem with Green Peace.  This story focuses on one particular office, although that office was typical of some other left wing organizations I have been to.)  First of all I wore a suit and tie to the interview, because it was an INTERVIEW.  I am someone that only wears ties to interviews, weddings, and funerals.  Most of the people looked at me like I was in the FBI when I walked through the door.  I instantly felt like I was in the Man in the presence of a bunch of radicals, even though my politics are in many ways as far left as Green Peace.  But these were very comical radicals as they all looked like they were trying to outdo each other in the how poorly they were dressed category.  I’m a jeans and t-shirt guy 99% of the time.  But they looked like they were having a contest to show how much they did not live by societies standards.  I’m talking sweaters with holes in them and jeans that were more ill-fitting than the jeans I have seen on homeless people.

The boss was the same, and yet somehow different.  He looked like a coffee house communist intellectual.  High and tight haircut, ratty sweater, thick 1950’s looking glasses, and an overly serious expression on his face.  In fact I don’t remember him smiling the whole time.  And this was a group interview, so even if he didn’t like my shit, he should have liked someone!

We were interviewed in a circle.  Questions that I had mentally prepared for, like why I would be good at this job, were never asked.  (If I had been asked I could have told them that I grew up with an environmentalist Dad talking over those issues nightly, I believed in Green Peace’s policies, and I had experience raising money, which is what the job was for.)  But we were asked who our political heroes were.  Not expecting that question I said Robert Kennedy off the top of my head, as most of my political heroes are people that are writers or artists.  I said this not because I am not aware of some of the earlier ill informed policies that Kennedy had supported, but because he was someone that was smart enough to evolve and change and become more progressive as he grew older.  Wrong answer!  I should have said Gandhi like the office boss.  Is there any more easy typical self-righteous answer that you could give than Gandhi?  Plus, Gandhi, for however great he was on so many things, had some pretty backwards ideas about women.  So clearly this intellectual wasn’t as smart as he thought.  His answer was no less complicated than mine, he just didn’t know it.

Anyway, I didn’t get the job as I clearly didn’t pass the holier-than-thou interrogation.  The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.  It was like a contest between people to show how righteous they were.  Even worse than this righteousness was a complete lack of any humor.  If you are going to take a hard look at the injustice of the world you need a sense of humor.  Not only because you need it as a shield against the insanity that is out there, not only because it will endear you to people that otherwise might turn away from your beliefs, but because there is so much absurdity out there, that the horrible is often outright funny.  These people, clearly without knowing it, were the exact kind of people that give the left a bad name.  Someone like that office boss was going to turn as many people off to his cause as he was going to turn on, if he ever interacted with the public at large.

George Orwell, who believed in socialism, spent a great deal of his time criticizing the left, exactly because of people like this person.  Orwell believed in the ideas of the left, but he was highly critical of how people went about trying to implement them.

That day was dispiriting.  We both wanted to “save the planet”, but if we succeeded, I was glad it was big enough that I would never have to see that fool again.


Writing Doesn’t Have to be Complicated


I just started reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  I’m not very far into it.  It’s clear that she has a laser-like mind that is an excellent bullshit detector.  However, one thing that actually surprised me is how simple her writing is.  The ideas inherent in her work are complex, but they are delivered clearly and directly.  Occasionally she will use a German or Jewish word without explanation, and you would need to have at least a basic level of history, but aside from that her work is very easy to read.  It might not be as direct as Orwell, few are, but it’s not far behind. So many times really intelligent academics use language that is impenetrable to anyone outside of their field.  Sometimes, as having written a peer reviewed chapter in a book myself, the form dictates such language.  Often however, I think this is due to the individuals either inability to write clearly, just because you are a genius in biology does not make you a great writer, or because whoever has been in their field so long that they forget that most people don’t understand the basics of what they are talking about. But if you again read someone like Orwell, who said to never use a big word where a small one will do, you understand that extremely complex and powerful ideas can be conveyed with the simplest of language.  If you are writing poetry or some kind of fictional prose that has a poetic element to it, then I understand trying to be flowery with language.  However, if the main purpose of your writing is to convey some kind of idea, then there is simply no need to further complicate things with the kind of language that is used.  In the worst case scenario you are extremely limiting the amount of people that can understand the ideas inherit in your work, and in the best case, you are just simply boring the shit out of someone while they try to grasp whatever it is you are saying.

Literature as Propaganda

The above article is about how governments, The United States and The Soviet Union in this case particularly, viewed literature as a powerful tool for propaganda.  This story focuses on Doctor Zhivago and how the CIA had it distributed within The Soviet Union.  I always have felt that if more people read, and spent less time watching the brain deadening junk that is mainstream television, that this country would be better off.  Not a bold or original though I know, but most likely true.  

There is a really great book by George Orwell called All Art is Propaganda.  In the book Orwell uses literary criticism as a jumping off point to tackle larger ideas concerning politics and society.  It is a fascinating read that I highly recommend.  

As the review on says:  All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary.