George Orwell was not a political thinker, exactly. Sure, he wrote books like 1984 and Animal Farm. Those books are political. Or better put, they are political thought experiments in novel form. Orwell liked to think about totalitarianism. He created fictional scenarios like 1984 in order to think through the logic of totalitarianism, to find out how it works. Orwell’s essays, too, are often about politics. He wondered if it was possible to create a decent Socialism in the aftermath of the debacle of real-life Socialism, as it existed in the Soviet Union.
The power of Orwell’s writing came from his honesty about the actions and motivations of human beings making decisions in a messy world. So maybe it is best to say that Orwell was thinking about politics without being a political scientist. He wasn’t good at looking at politics from a distanced, objective point of view in order to suss out general laws. That’s why one of his best political essays is a story about shooting an elephant in Burma. It is a story of Orwell himself.
As a young man, Orwell got a job as an imperial policeman in Burma. He was working for the British crown. This was the 1920s. The British Empire still lorded over many parts of East Asia. Orwell realized quickly that he was a symbol of oppression to most Burmese. He was harassed in the streets, especially by the young Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing to do, “except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.” This bothered Orwell, a sensitive chap with little taste for flexing his authority as a policeman. In short, Orwell felt immensely guilty about his role as a tiny cog in the British imperial machine. The guilt made him angry and the anger tore him in two. He wrote that he was “stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.”
Then, one day, an elephant went berserk and started smashing things up in the village. It trampled one man to death. The locals looked to Orwell. It was his job to fix things up. Orwell sent for an elephant rifle and soon located the offending beast in a nearby field. The elephant had stopped to munch some greenery. Orwell observed the elephant eating peacefully and felt that it “looked no more dangerous than a cow.” He lost all desire to shoot the huge animal. He wanted to leave it alone and go home. But a huge crowd of 2,000 people had followed Orwell. He felt those eyes on his back. He knew that they were watching him and waiting for him to shoot the elephant. He realized that he was being forced to play his part. Orwell was the imperial policeman and he was going to have to see his duties through. If he failed in his task, the crowd would laugh at him. The possibility of that laughter was intolerable to Orwell.
He shot the elephant. He shot him again and again and again. Even after he emptied his elephant gun and his smaller rifle the beast lived, dying slowly and in agony. Orwell finally left the scene. He heard later that it took half an hour for the elephant finally to die. In the following days, there was much discussion about the relative rights and wrongs of killing the elephant. There were good arguments on both sides. But in the last sentence of the essay, Orwell wondered, “whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
That final sentence has haunted me ever since I first read the essay many years ago. The sentence haunts because it is tragic and true. Orwell puts us in his situation. Standing there in the field with his elephant rifle, the relevant laws and claims of right are not present to his mind. He isn’t thinking about the owner of the elephant. He isn’t thinking about how valuable the elephant is to the village. He isn’t thinking about the material damage the elephant caused, nor even the loss of life. Orwell writes that, “afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant.” Orwell shot the elephant for only one reason. He would look like a fool if he didn’t. And Orwell didn’t want to look like a fool. He couldn’t bear it.
Whenever I see Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, I think of a young George Orwell standing in the field in Burma. The fact that Snowden is a fragile-looking fellow strengthens the association. Snowden is pale and slight. He often has a tremor in his voice when he is interviewed. Like Orwell in the elephant story, Snowden comes off as someone trapped in a bad situation. He has unpleasant facts to show us. He knows what happens to messengers bearing bad news.
In his first interview with Glenn Greenwald, Snowden described himself as a systems engineer and a consultant for the CIA and the NSA. He was a worker among workers. But because he did systems analysis, he got to see a bigger picture than most intelligence workers got to see. He realized that the scope of the spying was larger than he’d ever imagined. He came to see that the NSA was compiling information on everyone, everywhere, including US citizens. A simple thought came to his mind. He told Greenwald, “I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong’.”
Snowden decided to speak out because the pressure of knowing the extent of the surveillance (and knowing that the public was unaware) was too much for him. That is the most powerful part of his testimony. First and foremost, he wanted everyone else to see the same things he saw. He wanted the public to look at something ugly, something scary. Snowden admits that it can be difficult for us to look at things we don’t want to look at. And Snowden admits that the result of his whistle-blowing might be the opposite of what he hoped. He said:
The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.
The most that Snowden can do is to present the material. The most he can do is shine a light into the dark places. In doing that, he exposes himself. He makes himself an object of ridicule, disdain, anger, laughter. It is not an easy place to be.
Orwell penned another essay, in 1948, called “Writers and Leviathan.” In that essay, Orwell wrote, “In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. War, for example, may be necessary, but it is certainly not right or sane. Even a General Election is not exactly a pleasant or edifying spectacle.” Do not, Orwell goes on to say, pretty-up the unpleasant spectacle. To do terrible things — even in the name of the good — is one thing. To do terrible things by calling them good is another. A crucial step has been cut out. You could say that all of Orwell’s writing is the attempt to preserve that crucial step. Orwell’s truth-telling comes from his desire to show us our decisions as they really are, in all their ugliness. He forces us to look. At the end of the “Writers and Leviathan” essay, Orwell claims that a good writer, “records the things that are done and admits their necessity, but refuses to be deceived as to their true nature.” Notice that Orwell is not claiming here that truth telling stops wars or improves General Elections. He simply claims that it is tremendously important that we not be deceived as to the true nature of wars and General Elections.
Just think about the Elephant essay again. In real life, Orwell acted out of fear, and cowardice, and self-regard. And then he obscured all those ugly actions and motivations by telling himself and others that he did the right thing, or did what he had to do. Orwell wrote the essay to muddy the waters again, to show all the ugliness and pain of the event. In the story of the elephant, Orwell pulls the trigger and then watches as, “In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down.” The shooting of that elephant was a terrible act for Orwell. It was traumatic. Orwell never forgot it. Orwell shot a second time, and a third. With the third shot, “You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time.”
The point of Orwell’s elephant story is not that he should or shouldn’t have killed the elephant. Maybe killing the elephant was necessary. But whatever the legal or moral arguments, killing the elephant was, for Orwell, a horrible act committed for selfish reasons. That part of the story cannot, and should not, be removed. In writing the essay, Orwell restored the messy truth. Orwell killed an animal even though he didn’t want to and even though doing so caused him much pain. Orwell killed the animal because of his own pride, and stubbornness, and fear.
Like Orwell’s writing, Snowden’s whistle-blowing restores the ugliness. By giving us this information, Snowden is showing us the true face of our pride, and stubbornness, and fear. In wanting to make America invulnerable to attack, we’ve created an almost all-powerful surveillance state that watches us from the shadows day and night. Perhaps this is necessary. Perhaps it will make for a safer and better world in the long run. But as Orwell would say, it is important not to be deceived as to its true nature. Snowden has been showing us the true nature of our shadow state. Snowden’s position within the intelligence community allowed him to see that a world now exists where “everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded.” That is the fact he wants us to see. He claims that we should look at it, unvarnished, for the simple reason that it is true.
The humility in George Orwell’s writing comes from his realization that telling the truth does not necessarily lead to results. Showing the ugliness in our decision-making and in our actions does not automatically fix anything. We will go on making terrible decisions and filling the world with ugliness until Kingdom Come. Truth telling doesn’t perfect the world; it preserves our own humanity within an always-imperfect world. Every time I read the story about the elephant I feel that Orwell has redeemed himself, even though nothing in the event can be changed. In redeeming himself, the reader of the essay gets a share of that redemption too. Big words, I know. But I’ve none other. It is important to get the story right, whatever the results. It is important for our souls, if not for our politics. That’s what Orwell was doing in his time, and it is what Snowden is doing for us now. Thanks to a mid-level technician in the intelligence industry, a cog in the machine, we’ve had a small measure of our humanity restored. • September 23, 2013