on Orwell, and the real reason you don't watch the news anymore (2/22)

Before George Orwell rose to literary fame with 1984, he was a journalist.

And a damn good one.

A published author for 21 years of his ephemeral lifetime, Orwell wrote for everything from the Paris journal Monde in 1928 to The Socialist Call of New York in 1949, discussing social strife and racial politics far before they came to the center stage they live on now. It’s remarkable how his travels mirrored the global reach of his words.

Yet, it was Orwell’s journey to Spain in the late 1930s that marked the beginning of perhaps the most formative period of his life. Initially traveling to continue his journalistic career, he felt compelled to fight in the Spanish Civil War, where he eagerly joined the ranks of the POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification).

“There was much in it that I did not understand, [and] in some ways I did not even like it,” he wrote, “but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

It was this acute sense of awareness, this social pulse that would come to define most of Orwell’s pre-1984 journalism. It was the writing of a man who had first-hand experience of the social strife he so cared about and was hurrying to transcribe what he had seen to the masses. Whether he was growing disillusioned with the state of the world, or solely hoping to ignite change with his words, time was clearly of the utmost importance.

It’s also this sense of hurriedness, of not being on time’s side, why almost ninety years and one transformed global society later, his words still reverberate. In a critique from 1937, Orwell discusses the “economic history” presented by Marxism, asking why, if so many people believe Marxism to be untrue, it isn’t just thrown away? His answer speaks for itself:

“Because it is not altogether untrue, in fact, [it] is quite true enough to make every thinking person uncomfortable.”

The sentiment is far too familiar. Arguments and facts which we know are true but are too uncomfortable to affirm. Here, truth is not an objective standard to which we can thrive, to which we can aim all our efforts at. But rather, it’s a standard measured by our emotions, by the comfort in which we feel when we are presented with these challenges.

Orwell’s not saying that whatever’s in question is entirely true, or even that we have to agree with every part of it. All that matters is that it’s true enough to make us uncomfortable. That there’s a piece of it that’s undeniable, that we can’t simply brush past.

It’s a stark reminder, a dark spot in the human condition that lasts throughout time – the truth that we so often seek is not as comforting as we seem, that it may actually upheave rather than confirm our dispositions.

It’s true that we too may be lulled into a trap of convenient narratives and surroundings. We may turn a blind eye to the unjust, to the cracks we hold in our foundation. But it shouldn’t negate Orwell’s words. We may even feel uncomfortable that he’s calling us out for being uncomfortable, but that shouldn’t overlook the opportunity he gives us.

Because he’s presenting us with a choice. A choice to embrace the discomfort. To look at ourselves. To accept the uncomfortable truths that we so desperately and so instinctively attack. Or to turn away from ourselves, from everyone around us.

As always, the choice remains ours.

But the longer we turn away, the harder the inevitable reckoning will be.