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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Cold war warrior Orwell's real message on fanatics

By Paul Thomas

Assumption that 1984 author would back Snowden ignores facts

George Orwell was more than a dissdent leftist; he opposed all ideologies and ideologues.
George Orwell was more than a dissdent leftist; he opposed all ideologies and ideologues.

Several correspondents have taken me to task for presuming to speculate on what writer George Orwell of Animal Farm and 1984 fame would have made of American whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Having demanded that I leave Orwell out of the argument, they then speculated on what he would have made of my column, which seems a roundabout way of keeping him in the argument.

Those falling over themselves to sanctify Snowden should think twice before invoking Orwell after what he said about another trouble-maker, Mahatma Gandhi: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."

And the assumption that Orwell's world view and authorial stance were founded on an unwavering belief that security agencies have no right to monitor the citizenry in their never-ending secret war against the enemy within doesn't stand up.

Ten years ago, British historian Timothy Garton Ash revealed that in 1949 Orwell gave the UK Foreign Office's semi-secret Information Research Department a list of 38 people, mainly writers and journalists, who "in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way".

The list included such eminent figures as Charlie Chaplin, novelist J.B. Priestley and actor Michael Redgrave. At least two of those named were later revealed to have been on the KGB's books: journalist Peter Smollett was recruited by the double agent Kim Philby, and Labour MP Tom Driberg walked into a homosexual honey trap on a visit to Moscow. For their sins, Smollett got an OBE and Driberg a peerage.

Rather than being a one-dimensional leftist dissident, Orwell was contradictory almost to the point of being a contrarian. At various times he described himself as a "Tory anarchist" and a "democratic socialist".

But it can be said with confidence that he was a cold war warrior (he's credited with coining the term "cold war") who loathed communists and fellow travellers and had no time for what might be called the tree-hugging tendency.

In The Road to Wigan Pier he derides "vegetarians with wilting beards, Bolshevik commissars, eminent ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers and birth control fanatics. If only every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus could be sent home to ... do his yoga exercises quietly".

He opposed all ideologies and ideologues, so it's reasonable to assume his disapproval would extend to today's two most visible examples, Islamism and anti-Americanism.

As happened during the Cold War, America's confrontation with an implacable, ruthlessly utopian ideology generates anti-Americanism among many who have benefited from the freedom and prosperity of the American age.

While it can't be denied that America has often been its own worst enemy, the left's anti-Americanism has forced it into intellectual and moral contortions, such as discerning a moral equivalence between the US and its totalitarian adversary, and refusing to face the fact that the adversary's goal is the destruction of our secular, tolerant, inclusive, untrammelled way of life.

On the lunatic fringe, anti-Americanism mutates into rancid conspiracy theories in which the adversary's crimes - the subjugation of Eastern Europe, terrorism - are excused as a self-protective response to US imperialism, downplayed or simply denied.

Just as Stalin's murderous pogroms and the Gulag Archipelago were dismissed as imperialist propaganda, a strand of anti-Americanism claims the terrorist threat is vastly overplayed, if not manufactured through inside jobs to provide a pretext for US militarism.

Those who live in the real world recognise that there is a terrorist threat which demands a certain level of surveillance.

The question is: how much is too much?

The furore over Snowden's leaks obscures the fact that the surveillance programme itself isn't illegal, there is judicial oversight (albeit pro forma) and, as yet, no evidence that the privacy of law-abiding citizens has been significantly violated (although given its scale and bureaucratic nature, only the sunniest Pollyanna would assume that hasn't happened.)

But the public was kept in the dark, which was foolish because the tolerance of CCTV cameras, credit agencies and businesses swapping our contact details and consumer histories suggest Western societies have a fairly high threshold when it comes to intrusions on privacy.

Does the public really care that its cyber-twaddle, with its LOLs, YOLOs, selfies and instagrams, is being fed into a super-computer? Is it prepared to live in a state of heightened vulnerability in the cause of protecting its privacy?

The early indication from the United States is that the answer to both questions is "no" - people place a higher value on security than privacy.

Perhaps Orwell pointed the way: "One defeats the fanatic by not being a fanatic oneself but, on the contrary, by using one's intelligence." In both senses of the word.

- NZ Herald

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