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A Brief History of Inappropriately Invoking George Orwell

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” This is a quote from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” and it could lead one to say, “Hey, you know, the way people inappropriately call things Orwellian all the time is, like, totally Orwellian!” But let’s not say that, because it would be silly. Instead, in view of Amazon’s hilarious misappropriation of an Orwell quote in its ongoing battle with Hachette, it might be more fun to take a look at a few of the many times in recent memory when Orwell’s memory has been used and abused. Take a look after the jump, but watch out for Big Brother.

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Hachette

The issue at hand: Amazon, just this weekend, released a weird little call-to-arms in which they invoked the author against Hachette, writing, “The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if ‘publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.’ Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.” Right, except that the actual quote, taken in context, does not support Amazon’s mission. From The New York Times:

When Orwell wrote that line, he was celebrating paperbacks published by Penguin, not urging suppression or collusion. Here is what the writer actually said in The New English Weekly on March 5, 1936: “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

Orwell then went on to undermine Amazon’s argument for cheap e-books. “It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade,” he wrote, saying that the opposite was true.

“The cheaper books become,” he wrote, “the less money is spent on books.”

Instead of buying two expensive books, he said, the consumer will buy three cheap books and then use the rest of the money to go to the movies. “This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller, it is a disaster,” Orwell wrote.

Maybe Amazon just doesn’t expect people to know their Orwell, since they deleted 1984 off everyone’s Kindles in 2009.

Michael-Bloomberg

Soda

That time Beverage Insights’ co-founder James Tonkin, in response to Michael Bloomberg’s ban on soft drinks over 16 ounces, said, “George Orwell would roll over in his grave.”

No one is saying Bloomberg’s idea was a good one, but look: George Orwell does not care about your soda pop.

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Torture

Hey, remember when Pat Buchanan began an essay in support of torture with a the following Orwell quote: “Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf”? A couple of things. Firstly, Orwell never actually said that. Apparently, the closest he ever came was writing, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf” in a 1945 essay. But then there’s also the fact that it’s unlikely Orwell, whose most famous work is a bleak view of totalitarianism, would appreciate even a paraphrase of his words being used to condone torture.

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The Affordable Care Act

Philosophy Ph.D. Steven Yates wrote that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave” (again with the post-mortem mobility). And at Forbes, Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson called out the name of the “freedom-crushing” health care system (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) as Orwellian in an article entitled, “Obamacare: Orwellian and Malevolent At the Same Time.” Orwellian and malevolent at the same time? Surely you jest. Or surely you don’t really understand the word. Whatever you think of the Affordable Care Act, it’s not anything to do with Orwell.

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The White House press team, obviously!

Erstwhile White House Press Secretary Carney recently responded to “criticism that this administration has been the most Orwellian in recent history” because of its “obsession with controlling the message.” Sure, because no White House press secretary has ever tried to control the message before. Indeed, Carney said, “I know — because I covered them — that this was said of Clinton and Bush, and it will probably be said of the next White House.” But will anyone listen?

NSA-Heartbleed-vulnerability

Everyone and the NSA

Last June’s revelations about NSA spying spawned an entire host of Orwell references — and arguments about the validity of same. And sure, the government spies on its citizens in 1984, so on that level, the comparison makes sense. But is that enough to warrant the term?

A United States District Court judge ruled that the NSA’s practices were “almost Orwellian” and said, “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without judicial approval.”

But not everyone agrees. At The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky wrote, “Using Orwell to understand NSA spying, then, ends up functioning as a distortion by metaphor. It suggests that all of us are equally targeted, and that the problem is that all of us are equally targeted — that middle-class non-marginal people are going to be stomped by Big Brother. The truth, though, is that the NSA data will likely be used primarily, as it always has been, against the androids and the Zhangs — which is why we need to try to find a metaphor that addresses not just liberty, but justice.”

And The New Yorker, in an article entitled “So Are We Living in 1984?,” also came to the conclusion: well, no.

Still, all but the most outré of political thinkers would have to grant that we are far from the crushing, violent, single-party totalitarian regime of Orwell’s imagination. In one of the more chilling passages in the novel, the evil Party hack O’Brien explains, “We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about.” The N.S.A., on the other hand, is primarily interested in overt acts, of terrorism and its threats, and presumably—or at least hopefully—less so in the thoughts themselves. The war on terror has been compared to Orwell’s critique of “the special mental atmosphere” created by perpetual war, but recently Obama made gestures toward bringing it to an end. That is not to say, of course, that we should not be troubled by the government’s means, nor is it clear that the ends will remain as generally benevolent as they seem today. But Orwell’s central image of unrestrained political power, a “boot stamping on a human face—forever,” is not the reality of our age.

While it’s tempting to hold the present moment up beside Orwell’s 1984, the book is more than a political totem, and overlooking its profound expressions of emotion robs it of most of its real power. Some novels have both the good and bad fortune of being given over to wider history, inspiring idiomatic phrases that instantly communicate a commonly understood idea. Through this transformation, books become blunt and unsubtle, losing something of their art. We might call it the Catch-22 of “Catch-22,” or, in this case, of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

On the plus side, the book enjoyed a massive sales spike. Hooray literature!

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