Notes on Nationalism was an essay published by the famed British novelist, critic and activist George Orwell in the fall of 1945. Orwell is largely known for his other works such as Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four but Notes on Nationalism is often overlooked, perhaps due to it being an essay rather than a novel and subsequently being harder to find since one won’t find it in the classics section of a book store. As you just read, Notes on Nationalism was written in the waning shadow of the Second World War and as such Orwell uses the case studies of Nazism and Communist Stalinism as examples of how nationalism inevitably leads to conflict between groups of people and even leads to rampant ignorance fragmenting any threads of unity within nations. In the context of immediate post-war Europe, Orwell’s essay was essential reading when it was first published in 1945 but it ultimately flew under the radar. If you were to ask me now though, with the events of Brexit and of the ascendancy of President Trump; events both arguably made possible because of nationalist impetus, the messages of Orwell’s work are as pertinent now as they were then.
Before delving into the content of Orwell’s essay, and to dispel unfounded accusations of bias, it is necessary to explain just who Orwell was and how his journey through life came to shape his perception on the world and on the geopolitics that governed it. An omission I have to concede here is that George Orwell never actually existed, seriously. The name ‘George Orwell’ was a pseudonym used by Eric Arthur Blair (1903 – 1950) with the pseudonym deriving from the Orwell River in Suffolk, England. Orwell spelled out his life’s story very well in the preface he wrote for the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, published in 1947. I encourage you to read the entirety of it.
I was born in India in 1903. My father was an official in the English administration there, and my family was one of those ordinary middle-class families of soldiers, clergymen, government officials, teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc. I was educated at Eton, the most costly and snobbish of the English Public Schools. But I had only got in there by means of a scholarship; otherwise my father could not have afforded to send me to a school of this type.
Shortly after I left school (I wasn’t quite twenty years old then) I went to Burma and joined the Indian Imperial Police. … I stayed five years in the service. It did not suit me and made me hate imperialism, although at that time nationalist feelings in Burma were not very marked, and relations between the English and the Burmese were not particularly unfriendly. When on leave in England in 1927, I resigned from the service and decided to become a writer: at first without any special success. In 1928-9 I lived in Paris and wrote short stories and novels that nobody would print (I have since destroyed them all). In the following years I lived mostly from hand to mouth, and went hungry on several occasions. It was only from 1934 onward that I was able to live on what I earned from my writing. In the meantime I sometimes lived for months on end among the poor and half-criminal elements who inhabit the worst parts of the poorer quarters, or take to the streets, begging and stealing. At that time I associated with them through lack of money, but later their way of life interested me very much for its own sake. I spent many months (more systematically this time) studying the conditions of the miners in the north of England. Up to 1930 I did not on the whole look upon myself as a Socialist. In fact I had as yet no clearly defined political views. I became pro-Socialist more out of disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed and neglected than out of any theoretical admiration for a planned society.
In 1936, at the age of 33, I got married. In almost the same week the civil war broke out in Spain [between nationalists and republicans]. My wife and I both wanted to go to Spain and fight for the Spanish government. We were ready in six months, as soon as I had finished the book I was writing. In Spain I spent almost six months on the Aragon front until, at Huesca, a Fascist sniper shot me through the throat.
In the early stages of the war foreigners were on the whole unaware of the inner struggles between the various political parties supporting the government. Through a series of accidents I joined not the International Brigade like the majority of foreigners, but the POUM militia—i.e. the Spanish Trotskyists.
So in the middle of 1937, when the Communists gained control (or partial control) of the Spanish government and began to hunt down the Trotskyists, we both found ourselves among the victims. We were very lucky to get out of Spain alive, and not even to have been arrested once. Many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared. These man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them. In Spain as well as in Russia the nature of the accusations (namely, conspiracy with the Fascists) was the same and as far as Spain was concerned I had every reason to believe that the accusations were false. To experience all this was a valuable object lesson: it taught me how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.
My wife and I both saw innocent people being thrown into prison merely because they were suspected of unorthodoxy. Yet on our return to England we found numerous sensible and well-informed observers believing the most fantastic accounts of conspiracy, treachery and sabotage which the press reported from the Moscow trials. And so I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.
And here I must pause to describe my attitude to the Soviet regime.
… It was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class. Moreover, the workers and intelligentsia in a country like England cannot understand that the USSR of today is altogether different from what it was in 1917. It is partly that they do not want to understand (i.e. they want to believe that, somewhere, a really Socialist country does actually exist), and partly that, being accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life, totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.
Yet one must remember that England is not completely democratic. It is also a capitalist country with great class privileges and (even now, after a war that has tended to equalise everybody) with great differences in wealth. But nevertheless it is a country in which people have lived together for several hundred years without major conflict, in which the laws are relatively just and official news and statistics can almost invariably be believed, and, last but not least, in which to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger. In such an atmosphere the man in the street has no real understanding of things like concentration camps, mass deportations, arrests without trial, press censorship, etc. Everything he reads about a country like the USSR is automatically translated into English terms, and he quite innocently accepts the lies of totalitarian propaganda. Up to 1939, and even later, the majority of English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi regime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet regime, they are still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion.
This has caused great harm to the Socialist movement in England, and had serious consequences for English foreign policy. Indeed, in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.
And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.
Orwell’s experiences fundamentally shaped his outlook on society, on ideology and on politics. Coming from a relatively middle-class background he experienced hardship while pursuing his ambitions of highlighting social injustice through his writing. Going through such adversity led Orwell to empathise with the lower and working classes of Europe. However… Orwell was above all a realist, he saw first hand (having fought in the Spanish Civil War) what the far right and left wings of politics could do to people and he was keen to dispel myths surrounding nationalism and communism. In doing so Orwell hoped that the allure of both ends of the political extreme could be quelled and that genuine progress could be made by pursuing the middle ground. If Animal Farm was Orwell’s critique of Soviet communism then Notes on Nationalism was his critique on the other end of the spectrum, of right wing nationalism. Orwell’s essay is extremely relevant in today’s world and the messages it conveys are often overlooked in favor of his better known works. So, this article will provide passages from the essay and contextualise them within our present day as a point of emphasis.
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
This first point is probably the easiest to address. What Orwell is getting at here is that the two concepts of nationalism and patriotism are not from the same page, that they are in fact polar opposites in terms of constitution and goals. To Orwell, patriotism is the act of being proud of what your nation or unit has achieved and what it stands for but at the same time not wishing to export and impose said ideals on the rest of the world. Nationalism on the other hand is a desire for power and authority over others, a desire that stems from the belief that one’s nation or unit is superior above all others and that ‘lesser’ nations or units should be made to forcibly adhere to it. There are two pertinent modern examples of this. The first is in the rise of white nationalism in America and the second is with Brexit in the UK. As Orwell noted, nationalism does not necessarily have to revolve around a nation to be a nationalistic force as it can revolve around matters of identity or ideology as well.
The rise of the ‘Alt-Right’ in America has been well documented but in summation, the Alt-Right is a collective movement of various abhorrent types ranging from anti-semites to neo-nazis who strive to bring about a white ethno-state by forcing all other contingents of American society either to the margins or out entirely. The mission of the Alt-Right is therefore, by it’s own admission, to expand its power and influence by diminishing the same of others. It seeks to assert that white America is the true America, that white Americans deserve special status and prestige over their countrymen. The Alt-Right recently shot to infamy when one of their ilk murdered a protestor in Charlottesville but they have been around for years, brought into being during the Obama presidency for reasons self-evident. President Trump can deflect, as he often has, from association with white nationalism but a brutal fact that has to be faced is that his rhetoric emboldened this brand of nationalism and brought its unsavory visage out into the open. There is absolutely no escaping the reality that the Alt-Right champions an aggressive brand of ethno-nationalism that is dedicated to the consolidation of political power and social standing to whites in America.
The European Union membership referendum in the UK, better known as ‘Brexit’, presents another angle from which to view Orwell’s take on nationalism. Whereas the Alt-Right is a form of ethnic nationalism the Brexit movement, or Brexiteers, is cut from the more conventional cloth of nationalism; that of the nation. Brexiteers really toe a very fine line between nationalism and patriotism, often wrongly conflating the two in the process, and are nowhere near as vehement in hatred of minorities as the Alt-Right are. On the one hand Brexiteers are fiercely proud of English heritage and this is something that has been ever present for decades if not centuries in previous generations. On the other hand the entire purpose of Brexit, allegedly, was to enable Britain to strike out into the world and raise itself above a European Union it’s backers thought was holding it back. I do think that there is a decently-sized section of the Brexit camp who genuinely has their hearts in the right place… but their heads have been misled by charlatans who continue to stir up and exploit a distinctly English brand of patriotism that can very easily be tempered into nationalism. This brings me to the next quote from Orwell.
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.
Given the events in Charlottesville it is evident that the Alt-Right has a fixation on historical figures and icons, but remains willfully ignorant of historical truth. The Alt-Right and its fellow travelers seem convinced that, contrary to historical truth, the Confederacy and the ideals it held was the superior system for America… despite the fact it was defeated in the American Civil War and despite the fact that its opponent’s ideology went on to create the United States of America as we know it. The Alt-Right’s ignorance of American history goes even further however. The Alt-Right, by its own open admission, holds the belief that white identity and white nationalism resulted in the greatest periods of American history when in reality American history has been one of immigrants coming together to create something new. America fought a war to end slavery, even if the American Civil War arguably did not begin with the intention of achieving such. Alt-Right claims over the racial make-up of America changing since 1950 is also vastly exaggerated and can be proven wrong with a few minutes worth of a proper historical analysis.
While it is true that, between 1950 and 2010, the % of whites in America fell from 89.5% to 72.4% (-17.1%) the % of black only rose from 10.5% to 12.6% (+2.1%). Considering that the total population of America has more than doubled since 1950 (152 million to 323 million) and that whites still constitute the overwhelming majority of the population one must wonder what issue the Alt-Right and white nationalists of their sort still hold. The answer is the influx of Hispanics from Latin America, the campaign and ongoing rhetoric of Donald Trump that he is going to build a border wall on the southern American border made that abundantly clear. Hispanic immigration to America is a complex issue that envelops matters ranging from job competition to cultural assimilation but Hispanic immigration has been a constant throughout American history, from the Westward Expansion to the Bracero Program, and that it has been more beneficial than not.
Across the Atlantic this passage from Orwell is even more pertinent. Put bluntly, Brexiteers have not sided with the strongest side in their issue (The European Union), they have instead picked their preferred side (Britain) and have convinced themselves that it is the strongest even if the overwhelming tide of factual data and historical evidence does not support them. The rhetoric on Brexit to this day is that the European Union has been holding Britain back from re-asserting itself as the powerhouse it once was during the zenith of The British Empire. Brexiteer front-runners such as the current (although I’m not sure how) foreign secretary Boris Johnson famously went on record claiming, in the run-up to the Brexit vote, that “The only continent with weaker economic growth than Europe is Antartica”. Economic historians at The University of Oxford were quick to prove that this claim was factually false but alas their efforts fell on deaf ears as Brexiteers had convinced themselves that they were right and that no mind need be paid to those who claim otherwise because “[Britons] have had enough of experts”.
The two charts above, provided by scholars at the University of Oxford, lay the truth bare. Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the trading bloc that would eventually become the European Union, in 1973. In it’s proper historical context the EEC was established in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome to integrate the post-war nations of Western and Central Europe into an economic community which would strengthen the continent against Soviet encroachment. Britain, historically a staunch opponent of Soviet communism, joined the EEC on the 1st January 1973 and remained a strong and influential voice in the community even after the fall of the Soviets because the economic benefits for all involved were self-evident. Brexiteers have completely forgotten this lesson from relatively recent history and have consequently failed to see why Britain is better off inside the European Union than out of it. As it stands today, Britain exports a colossal 44.7% of its goods to European Union nations, nations all in a Free Trade Area (FTA) largely exempt from tariffs, taxes and quotas on trading with each other. Suffice to say… Britain taking sustained damage on almost half of its exports while it spends years even trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with the European Union is not a smart idea, one look at economic history could have demonstrated that. Hard-line Brexiteers have attempted to deflect these facts with ideas that Britain could strike trade deals with Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand but again… this does not compute with reality as Canada and the EU already have a trade deal in place, Australia and the EU are already beyond initial stages of forming a free trade agreement and New Zealand and the EU are currently working on the same.
As the above chart shows: Canada, Australia and New Zealand together account for less than 4% of Britain’s exports, one does not need to be an expert mathematician to see how the numbers do not add up. Brexit’s brand of nationalism is the epitome of power-hunger tempered by self-deception as Orwell said it was. Brexiteers prefer to believe that Britain is still the great nation it was at the height of it’s empire rather than the diminished force it actually is. Vainglory is ultimately the narcotic of the nationalist.
As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort. If the chosen unit is an actual country, such as Ireland or India, he will generally claim superiority for it not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking. He will show great sensitiveness about such things as the correct display of flags, relative size of headlines and the order in which countries are named.
Donald Trump, the hero of the Alt-Right, has perhaps the thinnest skin of any person on the planet and must respond to the slightest provocation, imagined or genuine, with the re-assertion that he and those he represents as a unit are superior. Trump also has an obsession with attacking what he calls “Fake News”, a term he and his supporters in the Alt-Right were instrumental in popularizing, when in reality he is trying to stifle dissent of any sort and establish a single narrative that is essentially a giant echo-chamber. Not only is this tactic ominously similar to the tactic employed by the Nazis when they took over Germany but it is also useful for cementing the idea that a nationalist’s unit is the superior unit in a given society, and that all other units should yield to its influence.
The right-wing British news media prove to be another exemplary case of nationalists being unable to tolerate any suggestion that their beliefs are not infallible. The current Conservative government of the UK has been tasked with delivering a Brexit that serves the interests of the electorate while holding the ship of state together. Instead the government has gone from disaster, to catastrophe to turmoil in quick succession. Seeing an opportunity to strengthen it’s hand of cards at the negotiating table, the government decided to hold an early general election as it thought it would easily win against a Labour Party the news media would have had the electorate believe was in disarray. Instead, the Conservative Party lost it’s majority in parliament and it was forced into a very uneasy and potentially dangerous coalition with the Northern Irish DUP Party. What followed was a series of negotiation missteps which culminated in the DUP threatening to pull support from the government if the Conservative government could not reach an agreement with the European Union which did not put a border wall between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. From there the Conservative government was struck with three sackings (or resignations where the alternative was to be sacked) in the space of two months. First there was the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who was caught up in a sexual harrasment scandal and forced to resign. Then there was the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, who was discovered to have been conducting foreign policy with Israel behind the government’s back and forced to resign. Finally there was the Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green, who was caught lying about having pornographic material on a ministerial laptop and was forced to resign.
As the British government continues to crumble like brittle shortcake judges, lawyers, pro-European Union MPs and increasing numbers of rebel Conservative MPs have raised concerns about the integrity of the government and whether a reasonable Brexit deal can be reached with the European Union. Responses from the right-wing news media, as seen above, have been less than pleasant and have bordered at times on the sinister. Attacks on the judiciary, upon the electorate and upon politicians actually doing their job by upholding parliamentary sovereignty are unwarranted when the evidence is clearly against them; it smacks of obsessive desperation as the news media attempts to divert attention away from a horribly weak, ineffective and incompetent government. As Orwell claimed, nationalists must respond to all critique whether justified or imagined with overzealous ferocity in an attempt to assert dominance, the consequences for respectable discourse be damned.
The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable. To begin with, as I have pointed out already, they can be and often are fastened up on some foreign country. One quite commonly finds that great national leaders, or the founders of nationalist movements, do not even belong to the country they have glorified. Sometimes they are outright foreigners, or more often they come from peripheral areas where nationality is doubtful.
This observation from Orwell is as obvious now as it was in 1945. Whenever nationalistic ideals are not directly tied to a nation state they become much easier to transfer across oceans and across borders. Leaders, or key figures, of nationalist movements will even pool efforts in order to push a common goal. What is left is essentially a international echo-chamber for an ideal with supporters from both sides of a collective effort endorsing and pushing each other’s agendas even if they do not understand them fully. Again, a comparison between the Alt-Right and Brexiteers is pertinent.
Before he was even President-Elect, Donald Trump openly supported the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union. Certainly, Trump claimed that his statement was a “personal belief” instead of a “recommendation” but as his track record has shown the incumbent President is especially prone to Freudian Slips. Given previous points and evidence outlined in this article it’s ultimately not surprising that Alt-Right nationalists feel sympathy if not affinity for Brexiteers, whose anger over immigration and frustration with bureaucrats and political elites is echoed by Alt-Right aspects of the white working class base in America.
Following the victory of the Brexit campaign the former head of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage, who had been instrumental in the Leave campaign winning the vote, appeared on-stage at a Trump rally and underlined the affinity between the two movements.
The accusations and ongoing investigations into whether both Trump and Brexit were bankrolled and supported by other means by Vladimir Putin and Russia is another can of worms entirely, but the previous point remains valid. The fact of the matter is that neither the Alt-Right in America nor the Brexit camp in Britain know much of substance about one another’s movements beyond what is on the periphery. Reality may well come crashing in like a dam breaking when Trump shows his real hand and does indeed move post-Brexit Britain to “the back of the queue” as his predecessor Barack Obama had warned America would be made to do out of national self-interest.
Devastating as it would be to lose a perceived trusted friend Brexiteers should have really paid attention when they saw that the mantra of the Alt-Right and Trump was “America First”. For all of his faults Trump is, for better or worse, a man of his word.
Indifference to Reality.
Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should — in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 — and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.
The bastardization of history is a topic that frustrates me a great deal. Holding a Master’s degree in the subject and holding a strong fondness for proper history being taught, the near-constant abuse of the objective facts of world history for ideological gain is one of the very few things that will rile me up if it occurs in a debate. The thing is though, it is not just the Alt-Right or the Brexit camp who are guilty of this as a lot of flawed history is being thrown around by groups on all sides.
It can be seen from the Alt-Right throwing up Nazi salutes, calling for a revolution against Bolsheviks and marching to chants like “Jews will not replace us” as was seen in Charlottesville; all-the-while completely forgetting that Nazi Germany oversaw the largest operation of institutionalized mass-murder in world history. It can be seen from their Antifa opponents on the hard left, a movement that draws its inspiration from the Antifaschistische Aktion resistance from 1930s Germany, who preach the merits of communism while conveniently forgetting that such a system tends to shatter democracy like cheap glass.
It can be seen from the Brexit camp where the legacies of historically revered British icons like Winston Churchill are twisted entirely out of context and turned into falsehood. Brexiteers continue to used the quote provided to support their subjective view that Churchill was against European cooperation. In reality though, this quote has been badly doctored and a short round of historical research will demonstrate such.
‘We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not compromised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed’.
This is the entirety of the quote featured in the provided picture and was a concluding statement written by Churchill in an American newspaper article in 1930. What is interesting to note is that the newspaper article in question was titled The United States of Europe, and is an article commonly associated with the origin of the European Union. The latter half of the doctored quote is of unclear origin but is not fabricated according to professional historians like Anthony Beevor who, in his work on D-Day claimed that Churchill’s comments were directed in anger at the French leader Charles de Gaulle, with whom he had a very well-documented uneasy relationship with.
The question remains though, if this is not what Churchill said on the 11th May 1953 in the British parliament what did he actually say? British history is incredibly and mercifully well documented so finding the truth is a simple task. Historians, and hopefully most Britons, would know that in 1953 Churchill was serving as Prime Minister for the second time so this narrows down the search criteria. Political debates and discussions in the British parliament are meticulously documented and have been for centuries, with the easiest-to-access records available on a website called Hansard. Sure enough, some digging on Hansard reveals the truth.
Monday 11th May, 1953
House of Commons
Winston Churchill (Prime Minister)
Where do we stand? We are not members of the European Defence Community, nor do we intend to be merged in a Federal European system. We feel we have a special relation to both. This can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition “with” but not “of”—we are with them, but not of them. We have our own Commonwealth and Empire.
We shall continue to play a full and active part in plans for the political, military and economic association of Western Europe with the North Atlantic Alliance. That is, I think, a perfectly sober and reasonable statement of our position in regard to the European Defence Community.
Rather than be a strong proponent of Brexit as Brexiteers made historical laymen believe Churchill would have easily been the staunchest defender of the European Union if he lived today, a belief that would have grown in pertinence as the British Empire faded away and as Soviet encroachment became a greater threat. Granted, one could argue that Churchill would have only been in favor of an economic union in Europe, one that served British interests, but even this does not hold up when confronted with the wishes of unity he expressed in 1930 and expressed even more-so after the Second World War had decimated the continent.
Orwell feared that when tumultuous periods of history lay beyond the horizon of a generation, they would become distorted, impersonal anecdotes rather than visceral memories that impress upon everyday life. When this occurs and when the present, and subsequently the future, looks dire to a current generation, a vocal and opportunistic few can capture the minds of many by plunging deep into the depths of a disfigured history to conjure up distorted leaders and legends that can falsely serve as the unadulterated idols of nationalism. The reasoning here is sadly straightforward. Nationalists set out with a single objective: to gather credibility and seize power. If the masses, many of whom are historical laymen, can be swayed by a false narrative with historical legs then power will presumably follow when they buy into the lie. If credibility does not come as a result, then the amassing of state power enables the distortion of objective historical fact and the subsequent silencing of historians and intellectuals who are tasked with upholding objective truth.
Not to beat my own drum too much here but it is the duty of educated, curious and dedicated historians to expose the blatant lies and abuse of factual world history in the name of furthering twisted nationalist ideologies. Orwell was correct in his assessment of how nationalists seek to change history in order to make it fit their messages, it is a dishonest, manipulative and dangerous practice that must be stamped out.
Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.
This is a remarkable foreshadowing of the ‘fake news’ mantra of the nationalist Alt-Right and of Brexiteers, a belief that any argument against their cause is automatically wrong no matter how much empirical objective fact is brought to bear. The very concept of ‘fake news’ creates a very dangerous precedent where reality no longer applies to public discourse, as a misled and perpetually confused public is easier to rule over than one that is informed and focused on the issues. This is a practice that encourages the perpetuation of one of the worst logical fallacies: confirmation bias. The confirmation bias fallacy occurs when one deliberately seeks out studies, statistics and other points of view that directly reinforce their existing biases rather than sourcing information from a variety of perspectives and attempting to identify objective truth from there. ‘Fake news’, and by an extension confirmation bias, also encourages inductive reasoning (where an argument starts with a conclusion) over deductive reasoning (where an argument starts with a hypothesis). Orwell knew that nationalists would be set in their beliefs in this manner and that efforts to persuade them to assess information that did not confirm their beliefs would be hard-fought. But still… let us move to the final quotation from Orwell and assess his conclusion on this matter.
Please note, this is not an endorsement of CNN. CNN, like most news outlets, has political leanings and biases on certain issues. Still, the point made here is valid.
It can be plausibly argued, for instance — it is even possibly true — that patriotism is an inoculation against nationalism, that monarchy is a guard against dictatorship, and that organised religion is a guard against superstition. Or again, it can be argued that no unbiased outlook is possible, that all creeds and causes involve the same lies, follies, and barbarities; and this is often advanced as a reason for keeping out of politics altogether. I do not accept this argument, if only because in the modern world no one describable as an intellectual can keep out of politics in the sense of not caring about them. I think one must engage in politics — using the word in a wide sense — and that one must have preferences: that is, one must recognise that some causes are objectively better than others, even if they are advanced by equally bad means. As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one’s own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognise that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality.
Despite all that nationalists, of all creeds and lands, frequently do to obfuscate the truth and derail decent public discourse those who truly care about a co-operative future must stay the course and persist. Simply shutting nationalists out of the debate will not suffice, it never has and never will. Shutting down the debate only ensures that you will lose the debate as masses will flock to the nationalists, drawn in by the allure of what was cast aside in the name of political correctness. Orwell wisely came to the conclusion that nationalist tendencies are all part of the human condition and that they must be engaged with rather than be cast aside or worse, ignored entirely. If one is aware of the dangers of nationalism, of the fallacies in reasoning it encourages and of the breakdown of societal structure it inevitably causes then one can rise above it, can rise above the worst aspects of human nature and be an example to others.