On the first day of this notorious year a promise was solemnly made, and sealed with several glasses of a most undistinguished California wine, that not once in the forthcoming 52 weeks would mention be made in this column of the title of that famous book named after this year or of the name of its distinguished author. In no way, it was most piously resolved, would this column contribute to the excess of journalistic yipping and yowling with which the dreaded year had been ushered in and which threatened to engulf the nation in a flood of nonsense.
But New Year's resolutions really are made to be broken, and so with only a few columns left in the year here we are, smack up against "1984" and George Orwell. For this we owe thanks -- not to mention three cheers, ruffles and flourishes and a 21-gun salute -- to A.M. Eckstein, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park, who in last week's issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education published a devastating article under the heading "An Orwellian Nightmare Fulfilled: An Eyewitness' Account." It will be quoted from herein at some length, for Eckstein's message deserves a far larger audience than the one customarily reached by The Chronicle.
Last spring Eckstein attended a conference on Orwell and "1984" at an unnamed midwestern university, a conference supported in "good part" by grants from the state government and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The plan was "to bring together a group of Orwell scholars for the purpose of training 'instant Orwell experts' -- ordinary citizens who, after exposure to '1984' at the conference, would go out to communities all over the state 'explaining' Orwell to the natives (for $50 a community)." The plan, though, came considerably short of realization.
What the conference produced, according to Eckstein, was not a scholarly inquiry into "1984" but a succession of papers that systematically misconstrued both that novel and its author so as to argue that "the totalitarian nightmare of '1984' has been, or at least is about to be, most fully realized in America." Eckstein writes: "Paper after paper attacked the United States for the highly oppressive character of its culture, society and government; yet there was not a single presentation on Eastern Europe, 'Socialist' Asia or the Soviet Union."
Well, there was to be a paper on "the Leninist systems Orwell so hated," but at the last minute its author, Professor A, changed his mind and talked about "the 'oppression' of psychotics in America." Professor B "did not even attempt to keep to a topic related to Orwell, launching, instead, a direct and impassioned appeal for support for his own particular group of nuclear-freeze activists." Professor C "spent his time fiercely advocating vegetarianism (yes!) and castigating U.S. capitalism for failing to inform people that 'when they eat meat, they eat death.' " All three of these professors, Eckstein notes, "possess academic credentials of the highest order"; one is a departmental chairman and all three are full professors.
Professor D, a full professor of philosophy, "remarking that he had in his department an exchange professor from Warsaw, said that he just couldn't understand this man's highly negative attitude toward Moscow (I swear; D actually said this)." Professor E, chairman of a comparative literature department, "spent a full hour 'deconstructing' '1984' -- more than 60 minutes of incomprehensible semiotics, expressed in impossibly convoluted sentences without a single active verb." And Professor F delivered "a bitter, hourlong attack on America (and only America) for its lies, distortions, evasions and hypocrisy."
Eckstein scarcely understates matters when he remarks that the behavior of these giants of the humanities and social sciences raises "serious questions . . . about the intellectual condition of American university life." Their interpretation of "1984" as an attack on bourgeois democracy rather than the totalitarian state is not merely "sloppy thinking," as Eckstein calls it, but willful distortion of the primary evidence in order to suit their political credos -- credos that Orwell himself no doubt would have numbered among what he called "all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls." The contrary truth, Eckstein writes, is that "1984" is, "quite specifically, about the tyranny of ruthless one-party dictatorships based on large-scale economic collectivism, and it draws its inspiration mostly from Stalin's USSR, which Orwell fought against fiercely for most of his intellectual life."
But truth doesn't seem to matter much when an academic zealot sets out to "prove" the superiority of his views, whether political or literary or cultural. "Of course," as Eckstein writes, "the distortion of literature and the arts in the service of politics is hardly a new phenomenon in the 20th century. As we all know, it was one of the aspects of our age that most disturbed George Orwell." But it is doubly disturbing to find such distortion not merely countenanced but openly encouraged in those very departments of our universities where what Orwell called "a free intelligence" is most desperately needed if the tradition of the arts and humanities is to retain any of its vigor and independence.
Certainly the possibility should be acknowledged that the behavior Eckstein encountered in the Midwest was to some degree aberrant; perhaps Orwell, with his widely misinterpreted depictions of Big Brother and "newspeak," is especially appealing to the lunatic fringe. But there are forces in contemporary academic life that tend to encourage such attitudes everywhere in the humanities and social sciences departments. The political legacy of the '60s, as the rhetoric cited by Eckstein so amply demonstrates, is far from dead in the hothouse of academia where it originated; the popularity in the literature departments of the "deconstruction" idiocy, and in the history departments of computer-written microhistory, encourages academics to look inward rather than out into the world; and to give the devil his due, the hostility of the Reagan administration to intellectual life no doubt has intensified the sense of persecution with which university communities habitually view the rest of the populace.
It may be possible to explain the origins of this paranoid, prosecutorial frame of mind, but there is no way to justify it. Eckstein's description of the speakers at his conference -- "bitterly opposed to bourgeois society in general, to American society in particular, and to the policies of the Reagan Administration most of all" -- is too true of too much in academia at large. The problem is not that people have political views; to these they certainly are entitled. It is rather that they are prepared to distort literature and art beyond all recognition in order to lend credence to those views; in so doing, they violate the most basic premises of scholarship, and thus forfeit any claim to our respect.