Your Orwell Take Is Worse Than Your Harry Potter Take
In the age of clickbait, Twitter, and soft journalism, a hot take on current events is often what you need to break into the world of political analysis. A catchy/controversial/wild headline can be the difference between obscurity and a viral article. Sometimes that headline is outright racism disguised as intellectualism. Sometimes it’s bordering on a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory. In the months following the presidential election, that “hot take” was often in the form of a hackneyed comparison of present day politics to the world of Harry Potter.
After a few months, these became a faux pas. It was called out, and rightly so, as an oversimplification of good versus evil. Of course, Harry Potter has its complexities, but until someone writes an article titled “Dumbledore is Churchill: A Terrible Scumbag That Happened to be on the Right Side of History That One Time,” it’s safe to say these wizard metaphors lacked the proper nuance.
Fast forward a few months, and we have not-so-new trend popping up from the minds of the intellectual elites. As is the go-to for political/literature crossovers, it’s Orwellian analysis, i.e. everything is 1984. This is certainly the more socially acceptable approach, but what is its merit? I’m here to tell political pundits clinging tightly to their 10th grade English pretensions, your Orwell take is not only just as trash as those Harry Potter takes, but it’s actually worse.
Potter vs Orwell
One of the primary reasons we criticize Harry Potter takes is over simplification. While, as I pointed out, the oversimplification is often on the journalist’s account, the books themselves represent a simplification as well. In reality, that’s the whole point. The series is an allegory for genocide. Stories like this are meant to make the horrors of humanity more digestible for young readers. There’s a reason why you don’t give a 9-year-old a copy of Night and let them process the Holocaust in such a close proximity.
So can the same be said for Orwell? Let’s look at his two most referenced books, Animal Farm and 1984. Animal Farm is more of the direct parallel. Harry Potter is a retelling of a mélange of genocide histories, mostly the Holocaust, and Animal Farm is a retelling of the Bolshevik Revolution. However, the moral of Harry Potter, “genocide is bad,” is easy to identify. The moral of Animal Farm is a bit more obscure. The state is bad? Totalitarianism is bad? Overthrowing oppressive governments will lead to more oppressive governments, so why bother?
Depending on the way you look at it, Animal Farm may be less of an Anarchist manifesto, and more of a love letter to the status quo. Yes, the farmers are villainized, but it’s Napoleon that truly takes on the antagonist role, leaving one to believe that overthrowing your masters will simply lead to worse masters. With that, we can chalk Animal Farm up as a bad take for the left, good take for the right.
So that leaves us with 1984, which is really the most relevant in today’s discourse. Is the message any more clear? It’s pretty obvious that it’s a warning against totalitarian regimes, but what regimes? We know how Orwell felt about Stalin, and whether you agree with his views on the USSR, we can agree that this was more or less his aim. But what parallels does this offer us today? The truth is, nothing is really Stalinesque, because the realities of the USSR are shrouded in pro and anti communist propaganda. Just as we can point to any piece of new technology and scream, “Huxley was right,” we can point to just about anything and cry “Big Brother.”
“It’s pretty obvious that it’s a warning against totalitarian regimes, but what regimes?”
Case in point, the Richmond Times Dispatch published an opinion piece comparing censorship on college campuses to 1984. To be clear, we’re talking about students and faculty deciding they don’t want hate speech on campus. The author was not condoning the speech, but saying it has a right to be spoken. While his argument is inane and ignores the actual definition of free speech, he was able to skillfully use Orwellian conventions to make his point.
While of course different groups will try to cast themselves on the righteous side of the Dumbledore’s Army vs the Death Eaters comparison (there’s probably someone writing a “Harry Potter is about White Genocide and Antifa are Death Eaters” article as we speak) the end result is clear: Genocide is bad. Even when alt-righters try to use a non-existent one, the basic moral is still the same.
That’s not the case with Orwell. There is no clear moral. Is it safe to present such muddled points as political fact? Where the Potter takes succeed and the Orwell takes fail is in the fact that the former presents some sort of universal truth. Orwell presents fictionalized accounts, or fantastical theories, and it makes a great story. Personally, I love both of the Orwell texts, but anyone can use them to argue anything. That’s what literary conferences are for, not political platforms.
The reason we view Potter takes as childish is not because they’re incorrect, but because they’re such universal arguments that there is no need to write them. It’s not “No, Trump isn’t Voldemort.” It’s “Fucking duh, Trump is Voldemort, because Voldemort is a stand in for a fascist.”
Who was Orwell?
Since I’ve beaten the literature examination route to death, let’s go biographical. There are many different approaches we can take to discredit Orwellian analysis. Depending on the political bias towards which the journalist is aiming, there’s no better direction than who George Orwell was as a person and thinker.
Normally, attacks on the author in a situation like this is a bad approach. For instance, you wouldn’t bring up Nathanial Hawthorne’s noted misogyny to discredit a feminist analysis of The Scarlet Letter. Additionally, no matter what dark secrets are revealed about J.K. Rowling, the Holocaust allegory will still remain intact. But Orwell takes on a different tone. It becomes less a matter of viewing current events through a literary lens, and more “George Orwell Saw Donald Trump Coming” (Daily Beast, June 23, 2017). The problem is that those making the claims have personified the literary Orwell, and brought the author into question, as opposed to simply his literature. So it then becomes imperative to discuss the individual.
Various groups also try to claim him as their own. He’s either proud Antifa member, due to his adventures in the Spanish Civil War, or a fierce Anti-Communist crusader, due to Animal Farm’s heavy handed criticism of the USSR. You will rarely see this in a Harry Potter article. That’s in part due to Rowling making her center-left political views public, and also due to the takes remaining rooted in the literature.
To make it brief, George Orwell was a prolific British writer, whose political views bounced between “Tory-anarchist” and democratic socialist. He did in fact fight in the Spanish Civil War, along side a slew of leftists.
However, he is also considered by modern scholars to have been an anti-semite. As stated in a Haaretz article from some years back, while he publicly denounced his past bigotry early in his career, his work continued to feature casual anti-semitism and cases in which “Jewishness is seen [as] explanation to their situation, actions or appearance.” This is significant, as the idea of the “Jewish Bolshevik” was, and still is (see accusations of Soros funding Antifa), used as anti-Communist and anti-semetic propaganda by far right groups.
It’s entirely possible that this prejudice played a role in his anti-communist actions, however small that role may have been. It would explain why he so vehemently supported right wing attacks on communists, and early pre-McCarthy Red Scare tactics. He went so far as to provide a list of journalist that he deemed to be secret Marxists to the British Government.
Yes, Orwell was a snitch, and took part in the decades-long suppression of free thought in the west. Why is this important? Because if the left wants to canonize Orwell as an anti-totalitarian freedom fighter, it needs to be known that he was a hypocrite in the clearest way. Your political views should play no part in asserting that western intelligence organizations were unethical in their suppression of leftist politics. There’s a difference between social suppression (students running Nazis off campus) and government suppression (Communist Control Act, assassinations of black liberationists, etc.), and a clear line of right and wrong can be drawn.
When Lit and PoliSci Collide
So if Orwell served right wing interests later in life, whose hero is he? The fact of the matter is, he’s too vague to be anyone’s. Google “Orwell” or “1984,” and you’ll probably get articles ranging from “Trump’s Alternative Facts Are Newspeak” to “Telling Me Not To Say the N-Word Is Big Brother.” Both sides are able to deftly use Orwell’s work to “prove” their point.
“As someone who has spent 6 years studying the subject I’ve seen scholars turn absurd arguments into masterpieces of research papers.”
However, one of the articles is nearly objectively correct, and the other is racist dribble. Yet that’s the issue of letting literary analysis drift into politics. There will always be room for bizarre political analysis of literary works in the literature studies world. As someone who has spent 6 years studying the subject I’ve seen scholars turn absurd arguments into masterpieces of research papers.
Two key differences between literature in political analysis and politics in literary analysis is the target audience, and more importantly the intent. One writes literary analysis hoping the audience has read it, and there is no right or wrong. In fact, the more off-the-wall your thesis is, the more impressive it is when you can defend it. You’re not trying to bring people to your side, but simply arguing for the sport.
When using literature in political analysis, it very often seems the opposite: it doesn’t matter if you’ve read it or not (it may help their case if you haven’t), and they ARE in fact trying to win you to their side. That’s the issue. Politics are real. There is morality, and we are debating issues for the good of humanity. There’s a need for intellectual honesty, and these practices open doors to let that slip away.
With literary analysis, there’s no need for ethics. It’s very literally the art of bullshitting. I spent 6 years learning how to make outlandish claims and defend them. In politics there is no room for outlandish claims. There’s no room for bullshitting. In politics, bullshitting starts wars. Bullshitting puts tyrants in political power. Bullshitting kills. And there is nothing more bullshit than try to frame a dystopian fantasy writer as a political prophet.