July 29, 2017
Churchill, Orwell and Dr.King–They discerned Facts and acted on their beliefs
by Thomas E. Ricks
This book comes to you highly recommended–Din Merican
When they were confronted by a crucial moment in history, Churchill and Orwell responded first by seeking the facts of the matter. Then they acted on their beliefs. They faced a genuinely apocalyptic situation, in their way of life was threatened with extinction. Many people around them expected evil to triumph and sought their peace with it. These two did not. They responded with courage and clear-sightedness. If there is anything we can take away from them, it is the wisdom of employing this two-step process, especially in times of mind-bending crisis: Work diligently to discern the facts of the matter, and then use your principles to respond.
They also often were wrong in their judgements, but they were determined to keep trying to get to the root of the matter, which is equally important. Orwell especially never stopped trying to see clearly through all the lies, obfuscations, and distractions. In stead of shaping facts to fit his opinions, he was willing to let facts change his opinions.
As we deal with terrorism, global warming, domestic inequality, and racism, and also with panicky politicians and demagogic leaders, we would do well to remember how these two men (Churchill and Orwell) reacted to the overwhelming events of their own time. They were especially good at recognizing the delusions of their own sets–always a useful tool, if not a good way to make and keep friends.
We should remember that most of us, most of the time, do not welcome the voices of people like Orwell and Churchill appearing in our midst. Most of us, when confronted with a crisis, do not dive into the matter. Rather, we practice avoidance. That is really what appeasement was in the 1930s–a way of not dealing with the matter, of sidestepping some hard, inevitable facts.
The term “psychological avoidance” is what Taylor Branch uses repeatedly in the first volume of his biography of Martin Luther King Jr. to describe the initial mainstream reaction in white America to the civil rights movement. The biggest problem civil rights activists faced in the America of the 1950s and 1960s was not prejudice per se, not even always in the South. Rather, it was a reluctance even among well-meaning people to address a festering wrong that could wait no longer.
In April 1963, Dr. King sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Albama, charged with breaking the law by conducting marches and sit-ins as part of a campaign for civil rights. His lawyer brought him the April 13 edition of the Birmingham News. On Page 2, King read a headline : WHITE CLERGYMEN URGE LOCAL NEGROES TO WITHDRAW FROM DEMONSTRATIONS. In it seven local religious figures who were white and had spoken in favor of integration were quoted as rejecting King’s campaign, calling it “unwise and untimely”. The proper thing to do, the moderate clergymen admonished, was for extremists on both sides to simmer down and give people time.
King began writing his response in the margins of the newspaper, having no other paper available. He finished his writing four days later. In that “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, King, like Orwell and Churchill, simply asked people to see what was in front of their noses. He begins by stating what he is doing in his campaign and how he is doing it. Step one, he instructs the clergymen, is “Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive”. The other three steps, he continued, were “(2) negotiation; (3) self-purification; and (4) direct action”.
Orwell would argue that the first step, collecting the facts, is the most revolutionary of acts, as it was for Churchill, in 1984. King was arguing that in a world based on facts, in which the individual has the right to perceive and decide those facts on his or her own, the state must earn the allegiance of its citizens. When it fails to live up to its rhetoric, it begins to forfeit their loyalty. This is a thought at once profoundly revolutionary and very American.
King then set forth the facts of the matter before him:
Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United State. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches than in any city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal and unbelievable facts.
Is it not a contradiction that he is advocating breaking the law as a way to make the state treat its citizens decently? Not at all, he responds,invoking the enduring right of the individual to arrive at his or her own judgments. “Any law that uplifts human personality is just, he asserted. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
Orwell likely would embrace that distinction. He also would have agreed with King’s following thought: “If I lived in a communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.”
A few pages later, King, expressing confidence in the ultimate victory of the civil rights movement, asserts that “right defeated us stronger than evil triumphant”. There is an echo of Churchill’s stance in the spring of 194o in those words. Not surprisingly, King soon became a victim of state surveillance.
The avoidance that Churchill and Orwell faced about the rise of Hitler and the flaws of communism demonstrates how debilitating such behavior can be in shaping human responses to oppression. Even when faced with imminent military threat, the ruling class in Britain was unable to muster much will to defend its liberal democratic way of life. Confronting the Soviet threat after World War II was a more complex challenge, but it required at the very least that we see Stalinist communism for what it was–a deadly totalitarian ideology that extinguished people’s freedom not merely to speak but to think, a notion that amounted to pure torture for such forceful and idiosyncratic thinkers as Orwell and Churchill.
As time passes, we come to recognize the real heroes of the recent past. We now know that the true leaders of the 1960s in the United States were Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, and others who declined to be patient. Overseas, we can recognize that among the people who helped lift the dead hand of communism from eastern Europe to Russia were Vaclav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and other dissidents.
Most of their peers went another way. The majority in such situations is almost always wrong, at least at the outset. The Czech-born writer Milan Kundera reminds us in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that in the spring of 1948, when the Soviets imposed Stalinist communism on Czechoslovakia, they were greeted most eagerly by “the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better. Yes, say what you will, the Communists were more intelligent. They had an imposing program. A plan for an entirely new world where everyone would find a place. The opponents had n great dream, only some tiresome, and threadbare moral principles, with which they tried to patch the torn trousers of the established order”.
After taking power, the communists of Czechoslovakia set out on a program that would have surprised Orwell, that of systematically erasing the past. One of Kundera’s characters, a historian about to sent to prison for many years, puts it in this way: “You begin to liquidate a people…by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history.” Kundera himself went into exile.
To refuse to run with the herd is generally harder than than it looks. To break with the most powerful among that herd requires unusual depth of character and clarity of mind. But it is a path we should strive for if we are to preserve the right to think, speak and act independently, heeding the dictates not of the state or of fashionable thought but of our own consciences. In most places and most of the time, liberty is not a product of military action. Rather, it is something alive that grows or diminishes every day, in how we think and communicate, how we treat each other in our public discourse, in what we value and reward as a society, and how we do that. Churchill and Orwell showed us the way. King, on the same path, found the means to redeem America, just as Lincoln had done at Gettysberg one hundred year earlier.
We can all endeavor to do the same , pursuing the facts of the matter, especially about the past of our country. Facts are impressively dual in their effects. “Truth and Reconciliation” meetings in Argentina, South Africa, and in parts of Spain’s Basque country have demonstrated that facts are marvelously effective tools–they can rip down falsehoods but can also lay down the foundations for going forward. For democracies to thrive, the majority must respect the rights of minorities to dissent, loudly. The accurate view almost always will, at first,be a minority position. Those in power often will want to divert people from the hard facts of a given matter, whether in Russia, Syria, or indeed at home.Why did it take so long for white Americans to realize that our police often treat black Americans as an enemy to be intimidated, even today. Why do we allow political leaders who have none of Churchill’s fealty to traditional institutions to call themselves “conservatives”?
The struggle to see things ass they are is perhaps the fundamental driver of Western civilization. There is a long but direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill, and Darwin, and from there through Orwell and Churchill to the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”. It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and that other people will change their view when presented with the facts of the matter.
Source: Afterword–The Path of Churchill and Orwell ( pp 265-270) in Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, Thomas E. Ricks (New York:Penguin Books, 2017)