Photo credit: Alexandra Dao
During the 2016 general election campaign, a meme circulated on Twitter in which a giant fist used chains to manipulate unwitting Americans who had television sets for heads. It was not subtle. The text beneath read: “The people will believe what the media tells them they believe – George Orwell.” In fact, Orwell never wrote those words, nor do they sound like something he would have written. For one thing, “the media” did not enter common usage until after his death in 1950, and this stickler for correct prose would never have used the singular. For another, he had too much faith in ordinary people to portray them as gullible puppets. A report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee later discerned that the phony quotation had been disseminated by the Internet Research Agency, Russia’s most prolific troll farm. People will believe what a Twitter meme tells them they believe.
Here’s something else that Orwell didn’t write: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” To the best of my knowledge, having read all 20 volumes of his Complete Works
, he never used the phrase “public relations” at all. The line has also been attributed to either the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst or the British writer (and Orwell’s friend) Malcolm Muggeridge, although the evidence in both cases is sketchy.
Then there’s the faux Orwellism I see cited more often than any other, usually attributed to 1984
: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” You won’t find that in the novel, nor anywhere else in Orwell’s work, but, according to Google, you’ll find 74,400 instances online, including in an article by John Pilger, a tweet by Jake Tapper, and the website of New York’s Museum of Public Relations. It is also available in the form of T-shirts, bumper stickers, and tea towels.
The irony of putting words into Orwell’s mouth in order to valorize the importance of reliable information hardly needs spelling out, but I suspect that most of the people doing so are credulous rather than devious. The website Quote Investigator explains how these misattributions snowballed over decades; even that line about the media was circulating online years before the Internet Research Agency came into existence. Disinformation is often an organic process. Sooner or later, it seems, anonymous quotations about journalism, propaganda, and truth and lies become magnetized to Orwell’s name. He is to those topics what Martin Luther King Jr. is to racial justice or Oscar Wilde to the witty one-liner.
False quotations are a valuable guide to a writer’s public reputation and moral prestige. Almost as soon as he died, Orwell was acclaimed as an ethical lodestar, famously obituarized by the author and critic V. S. Pritchett as “the wintry conscience of his generation," and his status as a truth-telling prophet has only grown in the decades since, giving even words he wrote to a tight deadline, with no thought for posterity, the authority of Biblical verses. To quote Orwell, accurately or otherwise, is to appeal to truth itself, therefore attaching his name to someone else’s words elevates them to a higher plane. This proudly anti-communist democratic socialist has an army of fans that stretches from the far left to the far right. They can’t all be right.
You cannot write a book about Orwell without being influenced by his robust moral code.
In writing The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984
, one of my goals was to restore specificity to Orwell’s words — to snatch floating quotations out of the online ether and moor them to a particular place, time, and context. Take: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This famous line is inscribed on the wall beside the statue of Orwell outside the London headquarters of the BBC, where he worked during World War II. Orwell wrote it in a potential preface to Animal Farm
, at a point in 1944 when his anti-Stalinist fable had been rejected so many times that he believed he would have to publish it as a pamphlet himself. When Secker & Warburg stepped in to save Animal Farm
, the preface was shelved and lay undiscovered until decades after his death. The line may hold true, but it was born of personal frustration and had nothing to do with his work for the BBC, where government censors diligently curtailed his right to tell people what they did not want to hear.
Admittedly, this footnote would be hard to chisel into a wall and it is foolish to expect every Orwell quotation to come with a date and source, but the provenance does matter. Orwell’s great virtue, which is obscured by quoting him out of context, is that he was a dynamic thinker. While his core values remained consistent during the last 15 years of his life, his positions on specific issues were constantly evolving, prodded this way and that by events in his own life and in the wider world. Many of his observations and axioms may now read like timeless verities — the compliment “scarily accurate” is frequent to the point of cliché — but each one stemmed from a particular moment in history.
Orwell’s knotty 1940 essay "Inside the Whale," for example, made a case about art and politics that he wouldn’t have made a year earlier or a year later. His waspish caricature of a certain kind of irritating socialist in The Road to Wigan Pier
(1936), beloved of conservatives such as Jordan Peterson, betrayed a weakness for cheap shots that he soon outgrew and later regretted. His famously eloquent analysis of the English national character in The Lion and the Unicorn
(1941) was designed to rally socialists around the war effort, even if much of it still holds up.
His commitment to questioning and revising his ideas meant that he was often wrong and he wasn’t afraid to admit it. In 1944, he wrote a remarkable "London Letter" for the American magazine Partisan Review
, in which he owned up to several inaccurate predictions and glib generalizations in his previous columns: an honest inventory that was (and remains) beyond most columnists. “It seems to me very important to realize that we have been wrong, and say so,” he wrote.
You cannot write a book about Orwell without being influenced by his robust moral code. If I want others to be more honest about appropriating his words, then I need to be honest, too. I could easily take lines from essays such as "Toward European Unity" (1947) to make Orwell appear unambiguously anti-Brexit, but I know that his argument for a socialist United States of Europe to serve as a distinct power bloc between America and Russia was a postwar argument and it would be deeply dishonest to apply it to the European Union in the 21st century. While he was working at the BBC, Orwell played around with re-editing recordings of Churchill to make it appear that the prime minister was delivering an anti-war speech, just to show that such deception was technologically possible. In the same way, I could rummage through the Complete Works
and assemble two different versions of Orwell, pitting one who agrees me about everything against one who does the opposite.
That is essentially what happened in 1984, the year of Orwellmania, when socialists, liberals, and conservatives fought a pitched battle over Orwell’s grave. Rarely has selective quotation been weaponized so ferociously. Fortunately, many of his contemporaries were still alive to remember the man rather than the myth. Time
magazine interviewed some of them, including 83-year-old V. S. Pritchett, who offered a much more humble assessment than the one in his famous obituary. “I understood him up to a point,” he said. “It was hard to define him because just when you had fixed on a view, he would contradict it.”
To my mind, this complicated, contradictory version of Orwell is not just closer to the truth but far more interesting than the hybrid of benign sage and conspiracy theorist that appears in Twitter memes. Even at his most dramatic, in 1984
, Orwell did not maintain that the public was brainwashed by lying politicians and corporate journalists. The essence of doublethink, the novel’s most important concept, is that people are adept at lying to themselves. “I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort,” he wrote in his 1944 "London Letter." “One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.” That’s a more valuable message than any of those misattributed quotations, though it probably wouldn’t look as good on a tea towel.
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has been writing about music, film, and politics for more than 20 years for publications including The Guardian
, The Observer
, and The New Statesman
. His first book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs
(Ecco), was published in 2011.