Hitchens has written a book, Why Orwell Matters, coyly laying out his claim
to be Orwell's heir-this generation's brave lone Brit facing a world of
ideologues. The real subject, of course, isn't Orwell but Hitchens himself.
Most decent American liberals, who continue to revere Orwell but hate
Hitchens, reject Hitchens' link to Orwell. I wish they were right. But you
see, I've been looking over Orwell's letters, essays and novels, and I'm
afraid Hitchens' claim can't be so easily dismissed. In fact, only a very
indulgent reading of Orwell's work can sustain his reputation as a
socialist, an anti-imperialist, or even an independent thinker. Under close
examination, all the components of Orwell's reputation dissolve, and the
brave maverick looks dismally like a stunted, sneaking reactionary.
I'll start with a classic Orwell essay, "Shooting an Elephant." It's a
vivid, simple story about how the young Orwell was forced by the pressure
of an expectant Burmese crowd to shoot a harmless elephant. Orwell's
surface thesis, laid out in the concluding paragraphs, is that Imperialism
turns the Imperialist into a puppet in the hands of the natives. Here's the
In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people-the
only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen
to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless,
petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the
guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars
alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police
officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to
do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the
referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with
hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering
yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after
me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young
Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of
them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except
stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
After reading the mild civic homilies of the Norton, this raw hate
entranced me. Orwell talked like Ted Hughes' hawk would after a few
brandies: no mercy on the underdog Burmese, no "understanding" about their
motives. And the suave way he shrugs off his notoriety with a joke-"the
only time in my life I have been important enough for this to happen to
me"-no young literary man could resist this persona; this is who you want
Overall assessments of Orwell aside, the bit on Shooting an Elephant is
It's not the provincial colonial officer who is a puppet in the hands of the
indigenous population. It's the relationship derived from colonialism that
compels the shooting. The box, implied I would say by the paragraph quoted,
is imperialism, not nativism.
Whatever you think of Hitchens, by no stretch has he produced an oeuvre to
rival Orwell's. The books on Jefferson and Mother Teresa are ridiculous.
The only notable one is the Kissinger book. Then there are his reams of
essays. Hanging around in Third World drinking establishments is not quite
up to running in the Spanish Civil War.