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139 of 149 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining Book by a Tough-Minded Latter-day Disciple
Remarkably, as the 21st century opens George Orwell's shadow looms larger than ever over the world, undiminished by the end of the Cold War (a phrase which he probably invented). He is increasingly claimed by both Left and Right as one of their own. Two Englishmen now living in America, Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens, can best claim the mantle of Orwell by...
Published on January 3, 2003 by R. W. Rasband

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46 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Orwell Exegesis
WHY ORWELL MATTERS
Christopher Hitchens
ISBN 0-465-03049-1
In a lifetime of reading, the writer whose books and essays have influenced my thinking more than any other is George Orwell. It is commendable that Christopher Hitchens singles him out as a writer that matters. But I am somewhat disappointed in this book.
The book is not a biography. Hitchens...
Published on November 17, 2002 by Ron Hunka


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139 of 149 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining Book by a Tough-Minded Latter-day Disciple, January 3, 2003
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This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Hardcover)
Remarkably, as the 21st century opens George Orwell's shadow looms larger than ever over the world, undiminished by the end of the Cold War (a phrase which he probably invented). He is increasingly claimed by both Left and Right as one of their own. Two Englishmen now living in America, Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens, can best claim the mantle of Orwell by virtue of their clearsightedness and ability to cut through cant. Hitchens has written a short, bracing book on why "Animal Farm", "1984", and the collected essays are still essential reading. Orwell was a divided man. He was emotionally a conservative and intellectually a socialist. He was able to live out the contradiction and thus was blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see the big picture. Most of us in our own little lives are opportunists; our social and political views are shaped by what seems to us will allow us to rise in the world. Because of his awareness of his contradictions (and an unusual strength of will or character) Orwell could more closely approach "objectivity" (that noble dream) than most of us.
Hitchens claims that Orwell was right about the three big issues of the 20th century--imperialism, Fascism, and Communism: something almost no other of his contemporaries can claim. In the chapter "Orwell and the Left" Hitchens swiftly eviscerates those critics who see Orwell as a sellout (Including Edward Said, whose blurb approving of Hitchens' earlier work appears prominently on the dust jacket of this one.) In "Orwell and the Right" he establishes that Orwell did not advocate mindless aggression against the Communists. Orwell attacked James Burnham for his pessimism and Hitchens says that Orwell didn't want a nuclear first-strike against the Soviets as so many did--it would have killed many of the people who made the successful peaceful revolution against Communism 40 years later. Perhaps the most important chapter in this book is "Deconstructing the Post-Modernist: Orwell and Transparency" in which Hitchens explains Orwell's abiding concern with "objective truth" and exposes the bad faith of the deconstructionists. (A disbelief in demonstratable truth can cover an awful lot of sins.)
Hitchens has made a lot of news the past few years with his arguments with his friends on the Left. He detests Bill and Hillary Clinton; and he has broken with the anti-war movement because of what he says is its solipsism and anti-Americanism. In these things he is merely following the lead of his mentor Orwell, who angered many on the left with "Animal Farm" and "1984." But these books have been proved correct over the years as any books could be. I'm betting time will be kind to Hitchens, too.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hitch Gushins..., November 12, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Hardcover)
It's nice to see the Hitch, old attack dog that he is, back off on the usual invective and give himself over to a 210 page fit of uncontrollable gushing. He's persuasive, too. It's hard not to come away from reading the book with a newfound respect for Orwell, for his "power of facing", and his fireproof integrity.
I can't help but feel that Hitchen's warning not to think of Orwell as a saint is just a fig leaf. Obviously, it's a cannonization essay, it's just that Hitch is too embarrassed to admit he's written such a thing. But why shouldn't we cannonize Orwell? Why shouldn't we take our hats off in awe at the man who saw each of the historical forces that would shape the next 50 years with such amazing clarity, all without ever abandoning an ethical code that would only be vindicated by everything that followed? Orwell's insights remain fresh, the power of his ethical vision remains urgently relevant, and as a role model on personal integrity, an inspiration for those who want to "walk the walk", we could scarcely do better.
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74 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Hitchens Writes, October 3, 2002
By 
Fred Wemyss (Actual Name) (Huntington, NY United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Hardcover)
Having been encouraged from about the age of twelve to read the essays of George Orwell I read Christopher Hitchens' recent meditation on him with a sense of gratitude. I haven't read any other work on Orwell which so perfectly conveys his inexhaustibility.
Hitchens' real achievement here is a mastery of Orwell's tone. Orwell's essays keep a reader up until dawn and WHY ORWELL MATTERS did the same to this reader.
I can't say I agree with everything in the book, and have to say that sometimes I didn't grasp Hitchens' arguments. But, the book is brief, and we know what Shakespeare said about brevity. The chief pleasure of this book is its style; learned from one of the greatest defenders of expressed thought.
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46 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Orwell Exegesis, November 17, 2002
By 
Ron Hunka (Austin, TX United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Hardcover)
WHY ORWELL MATTERS
Christopher Hitchens
ISBN 0-465-03049-1
In a lifetime of reading, the writer whose books and essays have influenced my thinking more than any other is George Orwell. It is commendable that Christopher Hitchens singles him out as a writer that matters. But I am somewhat disappointed in this book.
The book is not a biography. Hitchens writes about Orwell's books and ideas rather than his personal life, but he includes so little about the latter that one has difficulty determining Orwell's circumstances. For example, Hitchens tells us that Orwell's father was a non-factor in his life, but he hardly makes clear why. Elsewhere, he informs us that Orwell, who he says was awkward with women, married twice. Again, a little background on the marriages might be helpful.
Hitchens sets out to defend Orwell against attacks by writers, politicians, and assorted adversaries. The book has too many such defenses. Hitchens devotes so much energy to these pursuits that in the end it is, it seems, the quality of the portrayal of Orwell's work, that is sacrificed. Not enough of the clear, unpretentious feel of Orwell's writing comes through in this book.
Hitchens does call attention a number of times to Orwell's fine essay , "On Politics and the English Language". In this essay, among other things, Orwell laid out some simple rules for straightforward, honest writing. One of these rules, for example, is "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." Although Hitchens may be Orwell's advocate, he seems not a practitioner of his writing guidelines. Consider Hitchens' sentence, for example, "Notwithstanding this elaborate disavowal or "dementi", authors in need of a quick fix continued to use even the clapped-out Labourism of the late 1970s as a template for sub-Orwellian literary enterprises."
Toward the end of this book, Hitchens writes that Orwell's thought has largely been vindicated by time and that he "need not seek any pardon on that score". Exactly, his work stands alone sufficiently not to have required the earlier defenses. In summary, Hitchens also offers that Orwell had a "commitment to language as the partner of truth". This pithy synopsis of his work gets to the heart of Orwell's writing. I wish the rest of the book were as apropos.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction to Orwell and Hitchens, August 14, 2005
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Paperback)
Orwell's work, writes Hitchens demonstrates "that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain their allegiance to them." This statement is as true of Hitchens as it is of Orwell. For, to both these men, the great sin is compromising one's principles for the sake of realpolitik.

Perhaps because he feels a political kinship with Orwell, Hitchens' essay about him is so passionate. In it, Hitchens defends Orwell from attacks from the Left (including from Hitchens' good friend Edward Said); takes pains to point out that Orwell cannot be read as a creature of the Right (a charge often leveled at Hitchens himself); and shows too that Orwell's was the face of the decent Englishman (one who, like Hitchens, was deeply ambivalent about `Englishness').

And yet to Hitchens' credit, this is not an idealized portrait of Orwell. Hitchens does not close his eyes to Orwell's lapses such as his lifelong detestation of homosexuality and feminism; nor is he blind to the racial prejudices Orwell worked his life to overcome. Hitchens reports these human failings honestly; without attempting to "whitewash" them.

The result is a genuine and eminently readable book that serves as good an introduction to Orwell as it does to Hitchens. I highly recommend it.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting perspective on frequently misunderstood man, December 1, 2002
By 
A. Steinhebel (Tacoma, WA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Hardcover)
I've never been George Orwells biggest fan. It's not his ideas that I disagree with so much as an aversion to mixing politics and fiction. I've yet to read a really good piece of polemic in fiction form that could truly be called Literature, and it has always bothered me that people claim 1984 as a work of art. Thus is was with great delight that I read in this book Hitchens description of the novel as one of the "Good Bad Books" of 20th century fiction. This book enabled me to divorce Orwell from my views on literature and art, and start to view him from a scope of political scrutiny. Hitchens writes the portrait of a man who was, throughout his life, a contradiction. He aborhed racism and expressed a desire for true equality, while at the same time combating conservative views in himself that believed 'blacks' and the poor to be inferior. A man who spent his life in constant support of socialism, yet filling volumes with scathing criticism of the Left. What ultimately surfaces in this book is a picture of a man who believed in truth above all. on the closing page, Hitchens states that "politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individual who maintain allegiance to them." This is why Orwell matters, not because of what he contributed to politics, important as those contribution may be, but because he followed principle above all. This book is undoubtbly worth the time and effort to read, but it isn't without it's flaws. In more than a few spots Hitchens falls prey to the "sickely veneration and sentimental overpraise" that he condemns in the introduction. The lack of footnotes and bibilography is troubling to say the least, as he rarely gives exact locations of quotes, something he repeadetly calls Orwells detractors on. If you can, ignore these faults, and simply realize that this book is not an objective authority, and should be taken in most parts as merely opinion. But regardless, it is very englightening opinion on one of the most misunderstood figures of our time.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Orwell Is Always Right -- But Is That The Measure Of Great Art?, February 14, 2010
By 
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Paperback)
This is a provocative , sharply written book that reveals many fascinating facts about the author of ANIMAL FARM and 1984. The only problem is, Hitchens celebrates Orwell almost exclusively as a political seer and hardly at all as a literary artist.

The idea seems to be that Orwell "matters" because he was so totally right about Stalin, Hitler, totalitarianism, etc. But is the highest function of art really to handicap "winners" and identify the coming trends? In actual fact, many of the most loved and best remembered literary artists were on the wrong side of history.

Shakespeare was wrong about the Divine Right of Kings. William Faulkner was wrong about Jim Crow. Edith Wharton was wrong about just about everything! But these are the writers who really "matter" because they created people who make us feel, not because they came up with ideas that make us think.

It's a lot easier to cry over Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's THE HOUSE OF MIRTH than it is to cry over Winston Smith in 1984 precisely because Lily is not just sensitive, intelligent, and refined. She's also selfish, spoiled, and weak -- and in a word, human. She's not destroyed by an infallible, superhuman state, but by a combination of bad luck, two-faced friends, social injustice, and her own personal flaws. Real life is like that.

Furthermore, the uncomfortable fact is that Orwell was wrong a lot of the time -- even on his own terms. Hitchens makes a big show of acknowledging his racism without any inkling of how it distorted his judgment. Orwell could never have imagined the Viet Cong humiliating the American superpower, with or without Russian and Chinese support. He could never have imagined the Civil Rights movement in America -- especially not if the leader was a Christian minister drawing inspiration from the New Testament instead of Marx. Most especially, he could not have imagined the resurgence of Islam as a political force.

Orwell had a cold, sterile, fundamentally shallow view of human nature, which entirely excluded religion as a motivating factor in world events. For better or for worse, human beings are far more passionate, emotional, and intuitive in their judgments than men like Orwell, or Christopher Hitchens. This is why the cerebral analysts so often fail to identify the coming trends.

Or to create great works of art.
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115 of 159 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Saint Orwell, or Eric is always right, September 17, 2002
By 
pnotley@hotmail.com (Edmonton, Alberta Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Hardcover)
...or almost always right. Welcome to Christopher Hitchens' paean to his hero. Let's look at the virtues of this polemic in praise of everybody's favorite Socialist. Hitchens is his usual sharp and amusing self, and he covers a wide number of areas in his defense of Orwell. He claims for Orwell a special prescience in three areas, in opposing imperialism, fascism and communism. He challenges Orwell's leftist critics, such as Edward Said, Salman Rushdie, Isaac Deutscher, while reserving special animus against Raymond Williams. At the same time he criticizes those who would claim Orwell for the COMMENTARY right, most especially the egregious Norman Podheretz, but also noting Orwell's difficulties with T.S. Eliot in the publication of "Animal Farm", and the way he criticized James Burnham for power worship. Then we're off to looking at Orwell's views on America and the UK, where Hitchens seeks to show that Orwell was not a simple minded British patriot. Then we get a chapter of Orwell's views on women, the controversial list of fellow travellers he gave to the British government, and the quality of his novels. Finally Hitchens praises Orwell for the clarity of his writing, in contrast to Adorno and Claude Simon, and ends with a coda about Auden.
Hitchens provides much in defense of his hero. He quotes a pompously obtuse attack by John Major that must be read to be believed. He quotes the best passage from "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" where the protagonist bookseller gushes insincerely about the "Englishness" of Galsworthy and Priestly. Hitchens does admit his hero a few flaws. Orwell did have a prejudice against homosexuals, and he was willfully obtuse about Auden's "Spain", where it is obvious that Auden is using "necessary murder" in irony. The early novels all have serious flaws, and Orwell was not entirely comfortable in his attitude towards women. However, Hitchens points out that Orwell was so fair minded that he sought to change a passage in "Animal Farm" that he thought was unfair to Stalin.
Reservations? Oh yes. At one point Hitchens says that while he is defending Orwell from his critics he also seeks to save Orwell from his saccharine admirers. He objects to calling Orwell a saint for two reasons. First, Hitchens is a very vehement atheist. Second, and more important, Orwell, in his essay on Gandhi, famously said that saints should be considered guilty until proven innocent, and Hitchens would prefer a more lenient standard of judgement. For a start, Hitchens is extremely unfair to Claude Simon, who appears as a deceitful fellow traveller, on the basis of a few uncomplimentary passages of one chapter of one novel, The Georgics, an extremely complex and difficult novel that should not be judged this way. He sneers at Simon's style (based on Faulkner's) and makes the witless comment that Simon is trying to describe the thought processes of a man he never met (someone call the National Guard! Tolstoy and Joyce and practicing telepathy without a licence!) He describes Simon's admirers as "pseudo-intellectuals" which does not seem to me a fair way of describing Roger Shattuck or Martin Seymour-Smith.
Another problem. At one point Hitchens notes Orwell occasionally made callous and insensitive comments about Jews, but he doesn't quote any. Compare this in contrast to the insinuations he made against Richard Crossman in "For the Sake of Argument." It is hard to believe that if Crossman had made the obtusely misogynist comment Orwell made in his essay on George Gissing, Hitchens would let it go unmentioned. Nor does it appear to me that if Crossman had made the list Orwell did, Hitchens would assume it was done out of the highest of motives. About Orwell's prescience, Hitchens himself admits that Orwell himself was so disgusted with the Popular Front, that he opposed fighting Hitler up to the Nazi-Soviet pact. And in praising Orwell as a brave anti-communist of the left, in the tradition of Serge and Souvarine, Hitchens emphasises his marginality and unpopularity. But what about the anti-communism of Ebert and Noske, Faure and Bevin? This would not make Orwell look so brave, or so heroic. And one wonders whether the mainstream press will give Helen Graham's upcoming book on the Spanish Republic the same attention that they give this book. Hitchens praises Orwell for his support of European Union, but would he have been so enthusiastic about the EEC in the fifties when the three main countries, France, Italy and Germany were dominated by political Catholicism?
I can't help adding that the essay Hitchens mentions about Mark Twain was not as long, or as complimentary, or as insightful as Hitchens suggests. Nor do I believe that Orwell's statement that he could never hate Hitler was as perceptive as Hitchens claims. Among the admirers of Orwell one often encounters a double standard: your (feminist, ethnic) objections are petty and sectarian and should be ignored for the good of the common struggle; while my objections (against vegetarians and sandal wearers) reflect my high moral tone and the strength and purity of my convictions. They are not subject to compromise. Against those who criticize Orwell for encouraging apathy, Hitchens portrays him a matchless figure of unquestionable independence. Yet in Hitchens' writing one finds little discussion of strategic and tactical questions. What one does find is a tendency to fixate on certain figures: Paine, Marx, Trotsky, Luxembourg, Debs, Serge, Mandela, Orwell himself. This is not a politics: it is an atheist's martyrology. And it is not enough, especially in praise of someone who was most things to most people.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dedicated to the UFAB (United front Against Bullsh-t), January 24, 2009
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Paperback)
This is Hitchens at his Etonian best, in the act of "tracking-down" and then "taking down" a "peg or two" a fellow iconoclast-mate. This portrait of one of my heroes, George Orwell, is unflatteringly brutal in its honesty, but is also rich and delicious (as everything that Hitchens writes, is). Orwell as seen here is a reluctant and premature anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-Communist, anti-Colonialist, anti-homosexual, and most of all, one of the reluctant founding members of the UFAB (the United front against bullsh-t). And yet, because he adhered to the higher principles in his head, is above and beyond the politics of which he so eloquently wrote.

The picture one gets here of Orwell is that of a taciturn, diffident, nervous, conflicted dissident intellectual, who knows, but still can't quite get a grip on what is either bothering or motivating him. He somehow backed into writing, which then became a de facto survival tool of last resort, allowing him to eventually bootstrap his way across an often disordered, booby-trapped and always contradictory social and political terrain. It helped him lurch from one walled-off and forbidden unopened door of his life to the next - doors which when opened, kept him aware enough just long enough to reach the next unopened door and eventually out into a more open and evolved vista of his life.

Yet, in the grand tradition of other leftist literary activists (or is it rightists?) heroes of his era, Orwell too learned by doing: He was a Colonial Policeman in Burma; one of the first colonial officials to "go native;" was wounded in the Spanish Civil war (almost a right of passage for left-leaning iconoclasts); a mover-and-shaker at the BBC (at a time when "being one" really meant something); and turned against Stalinism and Communism long before most of his erstwhile revolutionary compatriots did so.

What Hitchens makes so eminently clear here is that George Orwell was nothing if not a complex "political man," cannot be easily "pigeon-holed or but in the conventional left-right ideological boxes, and became more so as he evolved. So a more balanced view of his life and accomplishments was sorely needed to fully appreciate the man, his times and his writings. As the author notes so eloquently early on: Orwell's importance to us derives from the extraordinary salience of the subjects he took on, and never abandoned. As a consequence, the word "Orwellian" has come to imply crushing tyranny and fear and conformism; and alternatively, it describes and recognizes the unquenchable human resistance to the same tyranny, fear and conformism.

Of the four great scourges of the twentieth century imperialism, fascism, Stalinism and racism, Orwell engaged in hand-to-hand combat with them all.

On Imperialism:

He hated imperialism because he understood how it dehumanized both the imperialist and his subjects. And as he saw it, although imperialism had a "coarsening" effect on the strong, it had an even more dehumanizing effect on the weak: the will to command was not nearly as corrupting as the will to obey. But most of the corrosive effects occurred inside the heads of the powerful: "The secret of the colonist's inner revolt, poisons him like a secret disease. Ones whole life becomes a pack of lies. " He detested imperialism all the more so because it also happened to be his family's meal ticket. But more importantly, Orwell saw Imperialism for what it was: a deliberate form of underdevelopment in which the colony is fleeced of its natural resources and the fruits of its labor, in order to support the lavish lifestyles and the industrial progress of the colonials and their empire building projects.

On Fascism:

Orwell was slow in coming to realize the hidden dangers of fascism because he took it for granted as just an extreme form of class rule, expressed (rather paradoxically) through a socialist ideology. He was of course correct in this belief.

On Racism:

Orwell saw it as an invention that became a way of pushing exploitation beyond the point that is normally possible, by pretending that the exploited are not human beings. Nearly all aristocracies have depended on exaggerating the differences between the races: Normans ruled over the Saxons, German over Slav, Englishman over Irishman, white man over black man. Even Russian aristocrats believed that their serfs were a lower order of being -- with their bones being black. It is much easier for the aristocrat to be ruthless if he imagines that the serf is different from himself in blood and bone: Hence the tendency to exaggerate race-differences, the rubbish about shapes of skulls, color of eyes, blood-counts, IQ deficits, etc. In Burma, Orwell said that he had listened to racial theories which were less brutal than Hitler's theories about Jews, but certainly not less idiotic.

On Stalinism:

As his two most famous works (1984 and Animal Farm) reveal, Orwell felt betrayed by the Communist Revolution more generally, and by the Stalinist aspects of it, in particular. Tucked away behind drunkards and pigs, are the major issues that animated Orwell throughout his struggle with politics: that although totalitarianism describes a certain kind of repressive control that is inherent in any society or community, which are themselves totalities, room must be left for the mind to breathe, to remain alive. To belong to a community is to be a part of a whole and thus is to be subjected to its disciplines and tribal rules. In other words, one must live inside the belly of the whale even when the rules of conformity stifle individual freedoms in the name of the "greater communal good." However, when the mind can no longer breathe, the revolution has violated a sacred trust and Orwell felt that Communism more generally, and Stalin in particular, betrayed this inherent spirit of community and therefore violated the sacred trust of the revolution. The spirit and meaning of the revolution was vulgarized through ruthlessness and wanton brutality.

Ten Stars
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you admire Orwell, read this book..., May 16, 2007
This review is from: Why Orwell Matters (Paperback)
I admire Orwell, so I read the book. It presupposes a familiarity with the man and his oeuvre, so if you've never read a word by Orwell, this book may not be a good starting gate. The author, Christopher Hitchens, admires Orwell, too, and has a distinctive--dare I say quintessentially English--droll style. If you know Hitchens, you know what to expect: no hero-worship, no nonsense, and no pulled polemical punches against the hapless folks who nip at Orwell's heels for some perceived heresy or another. (One quibble with Hitchens: he includes Burmese Days as part of Orwell's inferior juvenilia...I think, after an admittedly shaky start, Burmese Days is outstanding, and does not deserve such comparative obloquy.)

No human being is above reproach, but Orwell definitely does have an overwhelming aura of decency about him...notwithstanding his distaste for fags, feminists, and what would be called "hippies" back then. (The group he hated most, however, would probably be rentier capitalists...of which I'm one!) The politically incorrect Orwell is thoroughly examined by Hitchens, who adduces reasons why he feels Orwell came to hold such views, and why they do not vitiate his mainstream moral and ethical legacy.

This decency--along with his vast literary ability and remarkable prescience--makes the man an attractive and relevant historical figure today...one who has added his nom de plume to the English lexicon as an adjective, and whose name and works will be remembered and discussed long after his critics have been utterly forgotten.
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Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens
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