During my just completed family visit to Los Angeles, I had the rare chance to spend many hours reading a book as I was sitting next to my father in the hospital. By chance, I had purchased the first volume of George Orwell’s essays, reviews and essays, encompassing the years 1930-1940. During these years, he wrote about poverty, both in the UK and abroad, and the Spanish Civil War, some of his passions. He also wrote about ideologies of the day, namely fascism, communism, socialism and capitalism, from his independent point of view. During 1930’s, people had much more hope and passion in politics. Among the articles he wrote in 1939, one titled Not Counting Niggers caught my attention not because of its currently unacceptable name but instead to its content, surprisingly still relevant 70 years later.
In this article, he critiques a long-forgotten book by Mr. Streit entitled Union Now calling for a complete union of “good” democracies to fight the “bad” bullies of the time, notably Germany, Italy and Japan. Orwell does not reject offhand the need for such a union and even sees a logic to it. He also does not challenge the assumption that the latter three countries are morally evil. However, he does question how pure the democracies are. In 1939, France and Britain had huge empires which provided them with the economic resources to support their standard of living at home. The “dependencies” as they were called had almost no economic or political rights of their own, a fact equally acceptable to both socialists and conservatives of the time. In other words, while the crimes in the fascist country were clearly different in kind, Orwell questioned just how innocent the Western democracies were. He should be noted that he completely supported the war when it broke out but did not turn a blind eye to the existing stains.
Today, Western democracies no longer have empires. The UK has a Commonwealth, a formally voluntary union of former colonies while the France has arrangements for its former colonies. Instead, current Western standards of living are substantially based on low wages, not to mention poor working conditions, in China, Bangladesh and India, to name just a few third world countries. To demonstrate, the price of basic of garments would be significantly higher if they were actually made in the US or UK. Unfortunately, “out of sight, out of mind” often still applies. Since people do not actually see those sweat shops, they don’t exist, just as Orwell wrote. Awareness has increased in recent years as a result of some shocking newspapers. Nonetheless, Orwell’s belief that political and labor rights should be universal is still far from being prevalent.
In my view, George Orwell is among the greatest writers of the English language in the 20th century. While some of issues he treated are no longer relevant, his enlightening point of view and beauty of language still provide a ray of light in the 21st century.