In his book The Betrayal of Dissent, Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century, author Scott Lucas attempts to write a final obituary for George Orwell and contemporary intellectuals – notably Christopher Hitchens – whom Lucas maintains unfairly use Orwell’s life and work to silence legitimate dissent. Instead, Lucas inadvertently digs his own grave, revealing in over three hundred pages of meandering cut and paste, not the unpardonable transgressions of St. George and his “apostles,” but the muddled thinking and moral ambiguity of what now passes for “dissent” within the anti-war left.
Lucas, a native of Huntsville, Alabama, now chairs the department of American and Canadian Studies at the United Kingdom’s University of Birmingham. He began his crusade in the pages of the New Statesman in 2000 when he attempted to boot George Orwell from the socialist camp. His campaign took on added urgency after 9/11 when “Orwell was used as a club” to bash down voices on the left, like Charlotte Raven who reminded us in the Guardian six days after the attack that “a bully with a bloody nose is still a bully.” “The Betrayal of Dissent” tries to destroy Orwell as a moral force and a tool unfairly used by pro-liberation intellectuals to dismiss this vein of left-wing discourse as reprehensible moral equivalency and a shallow pretext for anti-Americanism.
However, Lucas’ argument soon balloons from a Voltaire-like defense of free thought into an all out attack on the “tyrannical empire.” The main focus of the polemic is ultimately American foreign policy and its role in maintaining peace, stability and human rights in the world. According to Lucas “… the narrative of the quest for power had to be placed alongside talk of ‘liberation’ and the spread of a Bushian ‘democracy.’” But he isn’t being honest about his position. Lucas and much of the anti-war movement he advocates have never placed this narrative “alongside” either the ‘War on Terror’ or liberation for Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, Lucas projects Osama Bin-Laden and Saddam Hussein as mere sideshows for covering up what he believes is the real American foreign policy scheme of consolidating an unchallengeable “preponderance of power.” Just as Orwell’s enemies dismissed Stalin’s atrocities, Lucas’ brand of dissent gives little notice to Al-Qaeda and Ba’athist crimes against humanity.
The opening of “Betrayal of Dissent” is an attempt to topple Orwell from his pedestal as arbiter of the left’s moral high ground. Lucas constructs Orwell as a self-contradicting, self-invented, bigoted naïf with a poor understanding of socialist political and economic systems. Lucas, whose academic specialties include CIA disinformation campaigns, sees Orwell’s great works, “1984” and “Animal Farm,” as little more than cold war propaganda tools. Orwell devoted his life’s work to democratic socialism as he understood it and was shot in the throat defending Republican Spain from Franco. No matter. According to Lucas, who never defines what socialism now means, Orwell was no socialist. Lucas is saying nothing new. Orwell has been on the “enemies list” for decades in certain left- wing circles.
Orwell’s most unpardonable sin in Lucas’ mind was becoming a snitch and an agent of state power. He concludes that by handing over the names of 38 suspected covert Stalinist operatives to a cherished friend who worked for a Labor government that Orwell supported, Orwell became a traitor to the left and its fundamental principle of dissent. As Lucas puts it, “He had used decency and morality to discredit others as indecent and immoral.” At least Lucas mentions that two of those on Orwell’s list were KGB agents, although curiously missing from his indictment is Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty – Stalin’s most willing Western journalist who covered up Soviet horrors like the Ukrainian famine of 1932 for almost a decade in the pages of the New York Times. Does Lucas really believe that there were no “immoral” covert Stalinist efforts to damage liberal democracies? Is it a mere sideline, too insignificant to mention, that courtesy of the KGB, George Orwell and his wife Eileen barely made it out of Spain in 1937 with their lives? Since Lucas has spent much of his scholarly career “deconstructing” America’s CIA driven cold war “crusade” against the Soviet Union, it is disturbing, but not surprising that these relevant unpleasant facts go down his memory hole.
After two chapters of scratching at Orwell’s reputation, Lucas turns to the “living icon of the principled left,” Christopher Hitchens. Like Orwell, Lucas tries to dismiss Hitchens as a “contrarian who happens to promote the rhetorical and political agenda of the state.” Ultimately, the result of Lucas’ lengthy effort against the new “policeman of the left” is self-defeating. In an unintended consequence, Lucas reminds readers of the power of Hitchens’ prose after 9/11 by quoting from him extensively. By comparison, the arguments he presents by persecuted “dissenters” like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag, intellectuals Lucas seeks to champion, appear anemic, befuddled and morally obscure.
Lucas concludes with a manifesto – a clinched fist shaking at all the big bad bullies who have unjustly picked at the principled dissent of the “no blood for oil” crowd. “We are beyond,” Lucas proclaims – over a dozen times. The collective “we” includes deep thinkers like Arundhati Roy who encouraged America to “modulate its anguish” and ask “why September 11th happened” and Tariq Ali who considers the butchers of Fallujah “resistance to empire.” Following a “we” like that, there should be no shock and awe that finishing up the litany of people, places and things Lucas, in his own words, is “beyond” is “right and wrong.”
In the end, George Orwell continues to be a very dangerous man despite Lucas’ nitpicking attempt to exorcise him from the current political landscape. Orwell reminds us, in crystal clear language that we can never be ‘beyond’ inconvenient truths like "right" and "wrong" or “good” and “evil.” Evil is not merely subjectively constructed through some imaginary lens of American hegemony, but an objective reality that could be seen, touched and smelled at Ground Zero and the mass graves of Al-Hilla.
Lucas’ real problem, accidentally revealed in his failed polemic, is his inability to fully understand what “dissent” means at its core. Dissent means not only being against power, but being for truth, justice and human dignity. If just saying “no” to state power is all that is required to earn the honorable mantle of “dissenter,” then his fellow Alabamian, George C. Wallace would rightfully take his place in the radical pantheon for defiantly standing in the schoolhouse door. Lucas forcefully denounces pro-liberation intellectuals, and lashes out at the bogeyman of empire, but what does he offer in return?
There was a time when the dissenting left stood for liberation and against the police state – not for the police state and against liberation. Christopher Hitchens maintains that the anti-war movement has betrayed the left by forgetting this fundamental point. Lucas gives nothing of value to defeat Hitchens’ argument. He has instead written a pathetic eulogy for those he mounted a white horse to defend.