My eye was caught by a wide yellow-spined book on a shelf at the library, which turned out to be Arguably, a fat collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. I plucked it off the shelf and checked it out. Later, I opened it at random and started to read – on page 234, under the subheading The Afterlife of Animal Farm, in an essay on Animal Farm that originated as an introduction to a 2010 edition.
It starts with the “some animals are more equal than others” line. It cites communism in Russia and Eastern Europe and its “New Class” system, “with grotesque privileges for the ruling elite and a grinding mediocrity of existence for the majority,” and the moral effects that Orwell’s work had. He moves on to China, and a phone conversation with a Communist friend of his there.
Then a new paragraph, and a new country.
In Burma, one of the longest-lasting totalitarian systems in the world – an amalgam of military fascism, Buddhist dogma, and Communist-style rhetoric about collectivization – George Packer of the New Yorker not long ago heard a saying that had become popular among democratically minded Burmese. “We revere George Orwell very much,” they told him, “because he wrote three books about our country: Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-four.” Thus far, Animal Farm has not been legally published in China, Burma, or the moral wilderness of North Korea, but one day will see its appearance in all three societies, where it is sure to be greeted with the shock of recognition that it is still capable of inspiring.
I stopped reading there, because a thought struck me.
The thought was how radically different that passage and the mind that was capable of it are from anything the more banal wing of the “horsemen” could come up with. It was how enormously distant he was from the kind of people who think “social justice” is a taunt. He was an informed and lucid social justice warrior his whole adult life, yes even when he was gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq. It was his subject. Atheism was a tributary of that, not the thing itself. He goes on the shelf with Orwell and Arendt, not with Harris and Dawkins.