Donald Trump’s reactionary presidency and Silicon Valley’s spying on online users is pushing the nation and world in dangerous directions comparable to past eras, where authoritarian rule and totalitarian belief held sway. A handful of writers have urged Americans to heed history’s lessons on resisting tyranny in all of its forms.
One of the most recent is Thomas Ricks, who for the past two decades has been among the most prominent journalists covering the military and war. His newest book compares and contrasts Winston Churchill and George Orwell, tracing how both came to recognize and resist abuses of power and political propaganda to side with individual dignity.
AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld interviewed Ricks, who recounted those lessons and their critical relevance today in an era dominated by fake news politics and predatory hi-tech.
Your book, "Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom," is remarkable in many ways. You tell how both men shaped the 20th century and remain relevant. You describe how they evolved, held their own against their day’s political conformists and ideologues, both left and right; and how they came to understand how authoritarian and totalitarian regimes operate.
The takeaways are resonate today, whether we’re talking about an executive branch that lies, erases and revises history, or the tech sector that spies on citizens and sells its files. What prompted these men, and especially Orwell, to reject herd mentalities in private and in public?
Oddly enough, I suspect for Orwell, it began with his love of personal observation. Even a child, he loved observing nature, and that continued throughout his life. If you read his diaries, he had a habit of just writing down what he physically sees around him, what he’s thinking about, what he’s hearing people talk about — just basic observation. I think for Orwell, that becomes a part of departure, that human freedom begins with the right to perceive and to trust your own perceptions.
Of course, Orwell as an adult, bangs up against Stalinism, which says, No, we will tell you what to think. If you’re a good member of the Communist Party, you will believe what we tell you to think. We will decide what is right and what is wrong. We will decide what the facts of the matter are.
That’s where Orwell breaks with Stalinism, but he doesn’t break with the left. He remains a socialist all his life.
That’s what’s so interesting about this, at least in more recent modern America. The political right has lionized Orwell, and not the left, which you point out.
That’s one thing I was trying to do in this book, was to kind of recover both these guys for liberalism, and even progressivism. Churchill was not always a conservative, and Orwell was always the socialist. Yet both have been claimed by the American right, in ways that I dislike. With this but I was trying to say, Churchill is more complex political figure than he’s seen as today, and Orwell should be seen properly as a member of the left throughout his life. Delivering a leftist critique of Western capitalist democratic society, all his life.
When you say you want to recover their legacy for liberalism, what you’re talking about is they both, and particularly Orwell, rejected political ideologues of their day based on personal experience. They came to understand how authoritarian and totalitarian systems work, and how propaganda works. Can you describe that arc?
Sure. Orwell goes into the 1930s, a pretty typical leftist of his time. He believes leftist good, right is bad. So socialism and communism is good, and capitalism and fascism, bad. Then he goes to Spain late in 1936. There he has the great political education of his life. He is a member of a small political splinter group they’re fighting in the Spanish Civil War, anarchist Trotskyites. They are part of the left, but they are not mainstream left in Spain.
Now the problem was at the time, Stalin of Russia could not stand the idea of a competing leader of world communism. With Trotsky having been a comrade of Stalin’s, and then fled Russia, what was becoming? So the first enemy of Stalin was non-Stalinists on the left. These are the people he really went after. As the Soviet Union became more and more influential in the Spanish Civil War, one of the things it did was used its security apparatus, the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. The NKVD runs the security forces, the police and the secret police of the Spanish Republic, the left-wing government. It goes after the non-Stalinist parts of the left in Spain.
Orwell is up writing on the front against the nationalists-fascists. Then he comes back to Barcelona on leave in May 1937 to see his wife, who was working in Barcelona, and is shocked to find himself getting involved in street fighting with the republican government attacking his own people, his little faction. Then he goes back to the front, fights the fascist and nationalists again, and is shot through the neck. To his amazement, he doesn’t die. The bullet misses the artery, the windpipe and the spine, which is kind of a miraculous thing to have happen. He flees Spain. He doesn’t know it at the time. We know actually, he and his wife were both indicted right about the time they left, by the republican government for treason and Trotskyite deviationism.
He flees Spain, goes home to England, and sits down and reads all the newspapers and all their coverage of the Spanish Civil War. He reads the right-wing newspaper. He’s not surprised they’re lying about what's going on. But then he picks up the left-wing newspapers, with all their coverage of the war over the last six months, and he’s shocked to find they’re lying too. He comes away from Spain, and the experience of seeing friends of his killed by a left-wing government, thinking very differently about leftist politics. He decides that fascism and communism are actually pretty close together. They are different manifestations of the same thing. They are right-wing and left-wing manifestations of totalitarianism. He decides the key to freedom begins with personal liberty, with the right of the individual to proceed.
He has his hero in "1984," Winston, say at one point that, "If you can hold up three fingers and say that’s three figures, that’s the beginning of freedom." Of course, that character in "1984," Winston, is tortured by the government until he sobs, “Hold up as many fingers as you like, and I’ll tell you whatever number that is. That’s whatever you like. If you say three fingers, I'll say it’s three. If you say it’s five, I'll say it’s five." Then they say, “No, you don’t just say it, you have to believe it too.” And he was eventually tortured into that.
Right. I’m looking at the front page of today’s New York Times where it says, “GOP senators embrace plan for tax-cut that adds to the deficit.” It basically said they’re not going to pay attention to what nonpartisan economists say the impact will be. This is erasing the past, in Orwell's terms, and —
And it’s pissing all over today’s facts. It’s saying, We don’t care about the facts, we are going to let ideology dominate.
Right, and that’s what so important about what you have written about, because what readers end up getting is a profile of Churchill, and more so with Orwell, of how an individual can react, and what journalists are supposed to do. Journalists are supposed to recognize the delusions public figures utter and expect people to believe and push back. Individuals are also supposed to ask questions, but it’s hard to break with herd mentalities.
And when you do, you’re attacked for doing so. The basic job with journalism is the basic job of anyone of goodwill in a democratic society. It is to perceive the facts, and then act upon them. For the journalists, the act is to write about. For other people, the act is to act upon them in some other way.
But in a really inflamed political situation, in a time of political turmoil, when political parties are changing rapidly, when there’s no solid political ground, when compromise is seen as betrayal, when you have a president who believes only in personal loyalty to himself, but doesn’t give it back by the way, when you have that kind of situation, people who insist on the facts become the enemies of many other people. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in sometimes. I’m not saying it’s comfortable.
One of the things that's striking about Orwell and Churchill, is both became deeply alienated from their own natural political allies. Churchill spent the 1930s insisting that Nazism is becoming stronger, is becoming a threat. That goes against the policy of his party and of his government, because his conservative party is running the government. For that, he is essentially sent into, what he calls, the political wilderness for an entire decade of the 1930s. He has shunned. He is mocked. He is seen as really a washed-up old politician, who is really no longer relevant.
Orwell, likewise, having stood up and said, Look, the left is not always telling the truth about what’s going on in Spain, and we need to be careful here — Orwell also ran into problems with his friends and political allies. Some friends told him he was terribly wrong. He actually found it very hard to get published. "Animal Farm," his first classic novel, was turned down by multiple publishers. In fact, an official in the British government went to publishers and London and said, We don’t think you should publish this. Orwell didn’t know it at the time, but that official, Peter Smollett, turns out to have been working secretly for the Soviet Union at the time.
Yes. When I was reading this, I found it so resonant today, because we are in a media environment where we are deluged with more opinion than information. At the same time, you have the highest levels of government not earning the trust and allegiance of its citizens, but telling them to do what they’re told. How dangerous do you think this is?
I think we are at an extremely dangerous political moment in American history. In many ways, while the international situation right now reminds me somewhat of the 1930s, the domestic situation in America reminds me a lot of the 1850s. That’s worrisome of course, because the 1850s were followed by the American Civil War.
I’ve actually had a series of conversations with some retired national security officials, some retired military officers, who are increasingly worried that we are heading for some kind of civil war in this country. Not necessarily a big military set piece battle with Gettysburg type of things, but some kind of chronic, sustained political violence, in which violence plays a large role in shaping politics, which was true by the way of the 1850s in America, especially in Kansas. But it was also true in the 1930s, internationally. I think you could see this from the left, as well as the right—chronic political violence, assassinations of judges, nullification juries, state government saying they won’t go along with the federal government. I’m worried that the left will play into this. For example, there’s nothing that the neo-right, the new right, strategists would like more.
It’s a hard time politically. People who insist on the facts, are finding themselves unwelcome, even among their own parties, their own natural allies. I think we especially have to pay attention to people who are willing to call out their own sides. This is the commonality of Churchill and Orwell, but it’s also something you see today with American politics. People who really interest me a lot are the people on the left who are willing to criticize the left, and the people of the right, who are willing to criticize the right.
The most interesting political commentary these days, I find coming from anti-Trump conservatives, who tend to be classic conservatives. People who believe in rule of law, the Constitution, traditional values, and basically American institutions—classic conservativism. Their critique of Trump is that he believes in none of those things. That he is against the rule of the law. He is ignorant of the Constitution, and he attacks institutions like the judiciary. These people say, Trump is not conservative; don’t call him a conservative, he’s a reactionary.
I’m not a conservative myself, and so I find that critique illuminating. It makes me understand Trump in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, one of the gripes I have with American journalism these days, American political journalism, is that it keeps on referring to Trump as a conservative. I’m persuaded by reading these writers; a bunch of them at The Atlantic, like David Frum and Eliot Cohen. Some people at the Washington Post, like former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson. Jennifer Rubin, even Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal sometimes, even Charles Krauthammer on Fox sometimes. These people have made it pretty clear that Trump is not a conservative, and I think it’s an error and professional misdeed for political journalists to present Trump as a conservative.
The afterword in the book is almost written in an advisory way, as a swansong to people still practicing journalism. It talks about what’s happened to journalism through a set of lenses Orwell would appreciate, particularly what’s happened with Silicon Valley. Outside the executive branch, you have this giant technological apparatus that’s spying on everybody, creating profiles, selling those mostly to the private sector, but also sharing them with governments, and people don’t seem to mind.
No. It’s kind of shocking to me that the major product of Silicon Valley is you and me, the American individual, that they’re mining our lives, literally. I was kind of struck that Orwell as a writer went out and actually, in England, went down to the coal mines to write about the coal miners. What we need today is writers who go down into the mines of Silicon Valley, and write about how our lives are being excavated and exploited as resources by these big new companies; Google, Apple, Microsoft, and a score of others.
Having thought about this so much, what would be the takeaways you would want to impart to people who care about representative government, and care about informative media, and care leading their lives with a certain amount of privacy and dignity?
My point of departure is we no longer live in a democracy in America right now. I believe we live in an oligarchy. When you live in an oligarchy, you are going to have the means of information, as well as the means of production, in the hands of the rich and powerful, who will tell you not to believe your own perceptions. To trust them. So I go back to Orwell saying, You need to begin by trusting your own perceptions. But they can’t just be uninformed perceptions. Both Churchill and Orwell say you need to go and find the facts.
What I try to do in that afterword — which is kind of my journalistic last will and testament, and kind of a pep talk to people like you who are still slaving away in the salt mines of journalism — what I’m trying to do there is say, Hang in there. The foundation of Western civilization is what you are doing. Seeking the facts, and observing accurately what is going on. This is why, to me, I decided . . . Let me back up. This is why I ended the book by talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and his letter from the Birmingham City Jail, written in I believe 1962 or ‘63. It’s an odd place to go in the book about two English men from the 1930s and ‘40s, but I see King as solidly in the tradition of Churchill and Orwell.
When I looked around the American scene, thinking about is there anybody like them today, I thought, no. I really don't see anybody quite like them today. But Martin Luther King Jr., in retrospect, walked in the footsteps of both Churchill and Orwell. He begins, in his letter from Birmingham Jail, writing very much as Orwell would have. What are the facts of the matter? He answers his question. The fact of the matter is that Birmingham is the most segregated city in America. Why is that? He explores. He says, The civil rights, that the federal government tells the Negro he has, are not allowed to the Negro citizens of Birmingham. In fact, the apparatus of the state is used to prevent them from exercising those rights.
This is why it’s so brilliant of King to insist on being jailed. He said, All I’m trying to do is exercise the rights my government tells me I have. So when my government puts me in jail for doing that, there is a problem. The problem is not with me. The problem is with the government that is saying out of its mouth, I have these rights. But it's saying with his arms, no you don't.
I think he does a beautiful job of saying, Here are the principles, here are the facts, and how do I apply my principles to those facts? I think it's something that we all can emulate today, but especially journalists. I would take away, also the warning, it’s not going to make you popular. It’s not something that a lot of people want to hear right now. Nonetheless, it’s the right thing to do in the long run. It is an act of great patriotism to your country, and to your fellow citizens, to write and observe accurately.
Thank you. This is splendid. I really appreciate what you have accomplished in this book and presented here.