George and Syria

An exercise I’ve been recently conducting involves typing “what would George Orwell have to say about…” followed by any random topic into Google. People, it seems, cannot resist attributing opinions on topics such as the Iraq war, ipods, contact lenses and diet cola to a man who has been dead for well over sixty years. One cannot scald these people too harshly, especially in light  of the consideration that Orwell himself was guilty of such conjecture and speculation – once going so far as to compose an imagined interview between himself and the 19th century satirist Jonathan Swift.  The Syrian conflict is perhaps the most divisive and polarizing topic in recent memory and so – as I figured – it was only a matter of time before somebody gave us Orwell’s thoughts on the matter.

In a piece recently publish by the Yale University undergraduate journal, The PoliticAbhimanyu Chandra, uses the essay Shooting An Elephant (which he has retitled Shooting The Elephant) as the foundational for his argument that Orwell would (at least speculatively) endorse a US intervention in Syria. 

In Shooting An Elephant, Orwell recalls an incident in which, while stationed as an Imperial police office in Lower Moumein, he was alerted to an elephant that had trampled and killed a local “black Dravidian coolie”. Followed by a group of a thousand burmese locals, Orwell makes his way toward the paddy field in which the offending elephant has been found to be resting. Against his will, Orwell executes the creature, shooting it five times with an elephant gun. After the shooting, Orwell confesses that he had no desire to ever kill the creature but had done so “solely to avoid looking a fool” in front of the attendant crowd. Contemplating how Shooting An Elephant applies to the US interventional issue, Chandra asks:

What, from this, can be instructive for President Obama? The two contexts, to be sure, are tremendously different. Obama, as President, certainly has a lot more at stake than did Orwell as a colonial police officer. But Obama finds himself with a dilemma — retaining a sense of honor and protecting one’s credibility — similar to Orwell’s. Should he attack the Syrian regime “solely to avoid looking a fool?”

He goes further to outline Orwell’s imagined advice to the Obama administration:

Mr. President, do what you have to do in Syria. But do not situate your decision on the issue of credibility. Sure, credibility and honor are important. Sure, it would be nice to uphold them, and appear resolute. But doing something simply in order to appear strong before others can be self-defeating. You had declared a red line that, if crossed, would invite U.S. retaliation. That line has now been crossed. Do retaliate by all means, if you must. But do not do so simply or chiefly because credibility and honor warrant you to. Do what you, yourself, truly want to.

If you do end up militarily attacking Syria because of the credibility question, then you would be unwillingly shooting an elephant in just the way that I did, some seventy years ago.

There is something marvelously ironic about Chandra’s remarks that seems to have eluded him while writing. In Shooting An Elephant, Orwell’s character is that of an officer of an occupying regime. As he himself admits, he had no personal investment in the affair with the elephant – other than an aversion to looking a fool – and considering that his very presence in the area was a source of great resented among the locals, it is apparent that his intervention as a representative of colonial authority in the matter furnished largely negative results – a point he notes when contemplating the economic repercussions of terminating the elephant which he describes as “comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.” At its core, eventually terminating the elephant represents an assertion of British imperial power. Orwell wrote extensively on his hatred of empire and his time as an agent of British imperialism, and given the United States’ record of intervention and occupation over the last decade, I find it quite unlikely that he would rally behind further US intervention in Middle Eastern affairs. That is, at least, based on my reading of Shooting An Elephant.

Liberals and conservative commentators are both guilty of selectively interpreting Orwell’s work to justify all manner of contradictory views. For example, the rebellious spirit of Homage to Catalonia, I believe, could provide a service in imagining Orwell’s endorsement of intervention in Syria. On the other hand, Animal Farm presents a razor sharp critique on the implications of betrayed revolution. Orwell still matters, but it is worrying to consider the side to whom he matters most.

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