The Orwell Essays

Orwell-Essays-1Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, was primarily known as an art historian. Opinionated, snooty and disdainful of popular culture, he became something of an ironic celebrity in his later years. Between 1996 and 2003, he was a columnist for the Evening Standard with a brief to “express opinion on any serious matter that interested me”. The Orwell Essays presents a selection of these articles, on subjects as diverse as Zionism, fox hunting, pornography, bear baiting, homelessness and the Elgin Marbles.

Throughout these essays, Sewell challenges “political correctitude”. On spoken English, for example, he resents the “inverse snobbery” of the idea that “the ugly accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are better than a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide”. He describes the hypocrisy of “blinkered” MPs who ignore the cruelty of the poultry and livestock industries, but support a ban on hunting as a “politically correct absurdity”. He defends Enoch Powell.

Sewell emerges as compassionate, and committed to improving the welfare of the poorest in society, as well as animals. He empathizes with London’s beggars, and challenges the government line that young people on the street “should not have left home” as “unrealistic”, given the complex domestic tragedies many of these adolescents face. He attacks Tony Blair for seeing “the homeless, the vandal and the mugger as a single problem”. In several essays, Sewell abhors industrial animal farming. He laments the living conditions of battery hens: “reared in huge barrack sheds without windows, as many as 30,000 in each, the noise, stench and heat unbearable to any human being”; the birds are duly “slaughtered on the 42nd day of their wretched lives”.

Sewell possesses foresight on issues such as housing and foreign policy. “To save our countryside”, he writes, “we must first regenerate our cities.” Urban planning should focus on building upwards, rather than outwards. Attractive high-rise buildings with “airy” apartments, he believes, would be more convenient for city-dwellers while protecting the countryside from the encroachment of “wasteful garden cities like Welwyn, Letchworth, Harlow and the execrable Milton Keynes”. In a piece written in October 2001, he is sceptical of intervention in Afghanistan, asking whether any “replacement government” and “democratic elections” could work.

These articles are refreshingly honest, fearless, insightful and humane. Sewell was awarded the Orwell Prize for them in 2003.

The Times Literary Supplement

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Six Authors in Search of Justice

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Book Review for the Times Literary Supplement

 

Michael Newman traces the lives and works of six politically engaged writers “in search of justice”: Victor Serge, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprún, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ariel Dorfman and Nadine Gordimer. They wrote journalism, novels, histories, plays and essays, and adhered to Bertolt Brecht’s notion that, as intellectuals, they could “turn the struggles into the spheres of common knowledge and, above all, justice into a passion”.

All six writers were committed to a tradition (pursued previously by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill) that seeks to answer the question “how can justice be advanced?” rather than engaging in the more celebrated “contractarian” tradition of considering “what would be perfectly just institutions?” (as examined by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls).

In their pursuit of justice, the authors made “compromises of various kinds”. Camus, for example, opposed though he was to the Vichy government and its racial laws against Jews, continued to write for Paris-Soir, despite it “carrying pro-Vichy propaganda and anti-Jewish articles”. He only left the paper when they made him redundant at the end of 1941. No doubt threats and the traumas of imprisonment and torture influenced these authors’ decision-making. Newman believes that Ngũgĩ, “partly as a result of his own brutal incarceration”, began to see “democracy and legal justice” over armed insurrection as the means to achieve “social justice” in Kenya. This idea was reflected in his novel Matigari (1987) and conveyed satirically in Petals of Blood (1977) and The Devil on the Cross (1980).

All the authors initially identified with socialism of various persuasions – what Newman refers to as a “Marxist conception of justice”. Yet their commitment to socialism was always relegated beneath “liberal”, “legal” or “historical” notions of justice. The former Bolshevik Serge, for example, “increasingly stressed the realms of liberty, free speech, artistic creation, democratic representation, and legal justice” over communist revolution. The one-time French Communist Party member Camus famously renounced his commitment to the ideology. He later shifted his focus, opposing Charles de Gaulle’s use of capital punishment following the Second World War. Dorfman similarly illustrates the trend: a former Marxist party member in Chile, aware that Pinochet’s brutal regime was dictatorial, he engaged in an opposition that eventually amounted to mere “recognition of, and justice for, the survivors and victims of the dictatorship”. Semprún also abandoned socialism, acknowledging that Spain’s transition “offered great continuity to the economic, political, judicial and military elites” yet supported the centre-right coalition as necessary to establish democracy.

Through her fiction, Gordimer also privileged “historical” justice. Her novel The Conservationist (1974), for example, portrayed apartheid as an unjust anachronism through the wealthy industrialist Mehring, a character “embodying the system of racial and socioeconomic domination”, whose world falls apart.  Like most of the authors, Gordimer supported conciliation, or “transitional” justice: after apartheid, she championed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As a meditation on the shifting moral, intellectual and artistic compass of writers confronting oppression, Six Authors in Search of Justice is illuminating.

Times Literary Supplement

Unfinished Revolutions

Beneath a preacher Ahura 2011

Unfinished Revolutions – Yemen, Libya and Tunisia after the Arab Spring

Ibrahim Fraihat’s Unfinished Revolutions is ambitious in its scope and intent. Based on hundreds of interviews, it grapples with the fallout of the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and considers how these societies can “transition” towards a peaceful future. As the title suggests, Fraihat sees national reconciliation as the means by which the Arab Spring uprisings can be “finished” – where citizens’ unmet aspirations can be harnessed into more stable forms of governance.

Fraihat recognizes that the Arab Spring revolts were “leaderless, motivated at the grass-roots level, and lacked a theoretical framework to guide their progress”. The one objective opponents could agree on was the removal of their tyrannical dictators. Beyond this singular goal, however, there was little consensus among the many different “revolutionaries” on what they actually wanted from their revolution.

In the past five years, not only have these states been unable to resolve more structural challenges (around their economies, for example), they have also failed to address grievances (such as decades of human rights violations in the form of killings, disappearances, rape and torture) that have plagued their societies for generations. In most cases, the perpetrators of these horrors have not been prosecuted. This absence of justice has, in effect, driven conflict in Libya and Yemen.

Only by engaging the wider population within reconciliation processes, Fraihat argues, will these countries “avoid civil conflict and maintain or regain national unity”. National dialogue, truth-seeking, reparations, accountability and lustration (concerning the former regimes), as well as institutional reform are proposed as the paramount approaches for reconciliation. Civil society organizations, women and tribes, meanwhile, are seen as key agents for such peace-building initiatives.

Fraihat is right to stress the importance of timing, national ownership and regional diplomacy for reconciliation to succeed, as is his assertion of the need for deep institutional reforms. The mundane point that the recommendations that ensue from agreements must be implementable is crucial (and frequently overlooked). He acknowledges that the “transition process that follows regime change is inherently complex”. But at times his prescriptive text skirts over the details, giving little evidence-based analysis on why or when reconciliation should occur. Reconciliation is treated as a panacea for three very different countries. Deeper research would have strengthened his case.

Nevertheless, Unfinished Revolutions is clear and reasoned. As such, it will help those trying to find solutions to the daunting challenges facing Libya, Tunisia and Yemen today.

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Times Literary Supplement