KISS: Hitchens on Orwell

In Christopher Hitchens’s interview with EconTalk about his book Why Orwell Matters, Hitchens praises George Orwell on his “plain honest speech, transparent political positions, detestation for euphemism and falsification” and argues (1:00:54~):

The job of the intellectual, the so-called public intellectuals as we are now for some reason doomed to call it, is or ought to be to say something along the following lines: “It’s more complicated than that… You mustn’t simplify this… There’s more complexity to the subject.” That’s what an intellectual should be doing to public discourse, one thinks. But then there are occasions when it seems to me that the reverse is the case. That actually what the really thoughtful person should be saying is actually: “It’s simple! Do not make complexity here, where none is required.”

You can listen to the above quote (and a bit extra) straight from Hitchens below:

What an excellent point. Often I find myself exasperated with commentary on the internet which frequently represents the extreme and the childish, with no indication of understanding or nuance. The short-form of the blog only exacerbates the problem. It is almost enough to abandon the enterprise altogether. But all hope for public discourse on the internet is not lost! The point made by Hitchens, that sometimes things are just that simple tempers my irritation. It is a useful aphorism to keep bias in check.

Of course, the problem remains of proper application. The non-complexity argument cannot be used for every issue, and one must recognize its misuse and call it out. Truly complex issues should be handled in other forae, such as academic journals or conferences. But there are issues that can be broached in shorter formats. For example issues of morality or principle. Abandoning relativism, properly defining terms and being transparent in speech (as Orwell advises in his classic essay Politics of the English Language) should lead to clearer understanding in general. Casting off complexity is not drawing an arbitrary line in the proverbial sand (eg. moralizing), but stripping away the unwarranted and getting at the core of an argument. Often simple is not easy, and complexity is used to obfuscate. Nobody ever said being a public intellectual would be easy.

Listen to the entire Christopher Hitchens interview with EconTalk.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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5 Responses to KISS: Hitchens on Orwell

  1. Pingback: Thought for the day « A Priori Concepts

  2. Ralph Hitchens says:

    C’mon, Orwell & Hitchens are channeling William of Occam. And rightly so.

  3. Younghusband says:

    Excellent way of putting it Ralph. Another way would be to call a spade a spade.

    I recall one of my first classes on political analysis at milcol. The prof brought out some Middle Eastern rhetoric about striking Israel. He asked us what we thought of it and the consensus was the statements were simply political rhetoric for domestic consumption. Nobody was really going to strike. The prof then asked: “Why don’t you take them at face value? How do you know that he doesn’t mean what he says?” The point was that “analysts” think they know how the world works, they have a model. The problem is that they must justify all action to fit that model. Models are fine to use, but taking them too far leads to the ideological.

    A recent case that illustrates this is the Hassan attack at Fort Hood. While many pundits were making all kinds of excuses (eg. overworked, stressed, paranoid, depressed, troubled, etc) Hitchens stood up to say that is was religion that pushed him over the edge. Spade!

  4. Master Cook says:

    The “model” which causes analysts to assume that rhetoric about attacks on Israel are not for public consumption is the one that assumes that crazy self-defeating people don’t become leaders of countries, at least not countries with the cohesion and resources to attack other countries at random.

    Its actually a pretty good model. The last serious attack on Isreal, by an actual army, was in 1973.

  5. John Ballard says:

    As Freud supposedly said, Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.