A blog on the art of the essay has to feature, at some point, George Orwell (1903–1950). Orwell’s name, like Margaret Atwood’s, has enjoyed a remarkable return to widespread popularity over the last few months due to political events in Europe and the United States of America that people feel bear scarily uncanny resemblances to aspects of the dystopian worlds depicted in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
For both writers, what is ultimately most seriously under attack in the dystopias they create is individual freedom due to oppressive government and acquiescent people. In The Handmaid’s Tale, through Offred’s fragmentary memories, we can follow the transformation, the process that leads to the rise of Gilead. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the focus is more on the effects of such changes and the destruction of the individual that they inevitably bring. The ingredients, however, are remarkably similar: initial widespread indifference by the general population; exploitation of fear by the government; scapegoating of minorities; abuse of power; corruption; surveillance taken to an extreme; no separation between legislative and executive power structures; and more.
The essay that I would like to refer you today is ‘Freedom of the Park’ (1945). Unlike ‘Shooting an Elephant’, ‘Why I Write’, ‘Politics and the English Language’, and ‘Such, Such were the Joys’, for example, this very short essay (1000 words) is a minor and not well-known essay, but it seems to me to be somewhat relevant today. It is about the arrest of 5 people selling newspapers outside of Hyde Park for obstruction. Orwell notes that the newspapers they were selling were clearly political in nature (Pacifist, Communist and Anarchist) and, while the police had the law on their side in the arrest, he doubts they would have arrested anyone selling other kinds of newspapers that represent different political ideas.
The symbolism of the arrest seems significant for Orwell. It happens just outside the gates of Hyde Park (a public place in which ‘every kind of publication has been sold […] without interference.’) This leads Orwell to reflect on the relation between freedom of speech and public opinion. At this point, it may well be worth reading Orwell himself:
The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them. The decline in the desire for individual liberty has not been so sharp as I would have predicted six years ago, when the war was starting, but still there has been a decline. The notion that certain opinions cannot safely be allowed a hearing is growing. It is given currency by intellectuals who confuse the issue by not distinguishing between democratic opposition and open rebellion, and it is reflected in our growing indifference to tyranny and injustice abroad. And even those who declare themselves to be in favour of freedom of opinion generally drop their claim when it is their own adversaries who are being prosecuted.
Food for thought? I would say so. Perhaps you may wish to ponder these issues with a nice cup of tea. If so, don’t forget to read one of my favourite Orwell essays, on how to make ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’ before you put the kettle on.