Brothers in Arms

shooting-an-elephantMorgan Meis, The Smart Set

George Orwell and Edward Snowden may not appear to have much in common, but on closer examination, they are both whistle blowers.

George Orwell was not a political thinker, exactly. Sure, he wrote books like 1984 and Animal Farm. Those books are political. Or better put, they are political thought experiments in novel form. Orwell liked to think about totalitarianism. He created fictional scenarios like 1984 in order to think through the logic of totalitarianism, to find out how it works. Orwell’s essays, too, are often about politics. He wondered if it was possible to create a decent Socialism in the aftermath of the debacle of real-life Socialism, as it existed in the Soviet Union.

The power of Orwell’s writing came from his honesty about the actions and motivations of human beings making decisions in a messy world. So maybe it is best to say that Orwell was thinking about politics without being a political scientist. He wasn’t good at looking at politics from a distanced, objective point of view in order to suss out general laws. That’s why one of his best political essays is a story about shooting an elephant in Burma. It is a story of Orwell himself.

As a young man, Orwell got a job as an imperial policeman in Burma. He was working for the British crown. This was the 1920s. The British Empire still lorded over many parts of East Asia. Orwell realised quickly that he was a symbol of oppression to most Burmese.

Then, one day, an elephant went berserk and started smashing things up in the village. It trampled one man to death. The locals looked to Orwell. It was his job to fix things up.

Read what action Orwell took, and what the action did to him, at The Smart Set …