George Orwell’s Message in a Bottle

Photo Source Martin Pettitt | CC BY 2.0

In June the United States became the first and only nation to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, which a Trump administration official called a “cesspool of political bias.”

Just the day before, the U.N. Human Rights office had called Trump’s detention of children separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border “unconscionable.” And when, three days later, the U.N. rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights delivered a blistering report on the United States, Trump’s envoy to the United Nations assailed that report as “biased,” “politically motivated,” and “patently ridiculous.”

George Orwell’s ghost, it seems, had come back to haunt Donald Trump.

I say that for non-standard reasons. While Orwell is invoked with reference to Trump with impressive regularity – an online “Orwell Trump” search yields nine million hits – what has gone unremarked so far is that Orwell defended the rights of both children and detainees with force and insistence. His views on that subject strikingly anticipate recent U.N. thinking as expressed by special rapporteur Philip Alston – the author of the report blasted by Trump’s soon-to-exit ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley. The views that so infuriate Trump today are nearly identical to the views that George Orwell voiced over 60 years ago.

Nor is that all. A recent archival discovery shows that, besides speaking up to defend the rights of children with his usual inimitable clarity, Orwell also took practical steps to build a new human rights movement that placed the needs of children front and center.

I owe the latter observation to a freshly discovered text, which I call “Orwell’s manifesto.” That text was drafted on January 2, 1946, six weeks before the newly founded United Nations inaugurated its Commission on Human Rights – and what Orwell proposed was far more dynamic than the administrative “standard setting” that would occupy the U.N. Rights Commission for the next four decades.

Writing with input from his friends Arthur Koestler and Bertrand Russell, Orwell invited his correspondents to join him in a new international human rights group. This group, which he considered naming Renaissance, would unite groups already active in Mexico, Italy, France, and the United States while reaching across myriad other borders. Many established rights groups had sacrificed their moral authority by defending Stalin’s 1936-1938 purge trials. What was needed now, Orwell wrote, was a league that would resist any and all violations of democratic and civil rights, “whether they occur in the British Empire or in Russian occupied territory.” The aim would be to oppose every restriction of voting rights, every “arbitrary arrest [or] imprisonment without trial,” every “arbitrary displacement or restriction of movement.”

Orwell insisted on the indivisibility of political and social rights. Democratic freedoms were of course fundamental: “habeas corpus, freedom of speech and of the press, the right to political opposition and absence of political terrorism.” And yet, at the same time, “without equality of opportunity and a reasonable degree of equality of income, democratic rights have little value.” To be effective in either sphere, Orwell’s proposed league would have to be active in both spheres.

Concretely, Orwell enunciated three guiding aims: to ensure “equality of chance” to “every newborn citizen”; to guard “against economic exploitation”; and to resist “the fettering or misappropriation” of anyone’s creative faculties.

These are ambitious goals, stringently formulated. Children must be defended against inequality and exploitation from birth, and no one, adult or child, should be denied opportunities for creativity and self-realization.

The difficulty of a project this ambitious was undeniable. And that difficulty is compounded, Orwell warns, because “there has grown up a certain contempt for democratic traditions.” Ultimately, the most dangerous enemy of human rights is the “decay of democratic sentiment, of human decency and the desire for liberty…” But Orwell resisted paralyzing pessimism. He hoped that “men and women of all parties, races and creeds” would join him in the defense of these principles. “We are sending you this rough draft,” Orwell told his potential readers, “to hear your reactions”:

“There is only one type of reaction that we are not anxious to hear: the answer that it is too late, that the evil has gone too far and can no longer be stopped by the methods visualised here. ‘Too late’ is the motto of escape into destruction.”

This call went to just a few people, and by 1947 the project had failed. But even in the narrower, entirely British confines of the Freedom Defence Committee, which Orwell served as vice-chair, his sensibilities were on clear display. Less than three months after drafting his manifesto he spoke at a rally to protest the detention of 226 Spanish anti-fascists who had been interned in Lancashire after fleeing forced labor in Nazi-occupied France. Mindless bureaucrats had kept them imprisoned, in camps they were forced to share with their former German captors, until they could be forcibly expelled from Britain, often penniless and against their will.

According to the police, 190 people heard Orwell denounce these detentions and repatriations. The spirit of the rally was evident in the title of a Freedom Defence Committee typescript: The First Men to Fight Fascism are the Last to Secure Their Freedom.

Fast forward to the present. Philip Alston isn’t George Orwell reborn, but his U.N. mission – to treat the defense of rights and the eradication of poverty as indivisible – resembles Orwell’s goal. “Economic and social rights must be an important and authentic part of the overall agenda,” Alston says in his June 2018 report. He has upheld this position faithfully since he was appointed rapporteur, subtitling his April 2016 report “On the Marginality of Economic and Social Rights.” There, he recalls, “I argued that a surprisingly small proportion of self-described human rights NGOs do anything much on economic and social rights.”

Alston is now attempting to put socio-economic rights back where they belong – on center stage. The clarity and forcefulness of this attempt are plain in his new reporting. After Trump pulled out of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Alston presented findings on rising poverty and declining democracy in the United States in Geneva. Observing that the Council had been called a “cesspool,” he paused to note: “Speaking of cesspools, my report draws attention to those that I witnessed in Alabama as raw sewage poured into the gardens of people who could never afford to pay $30,000 for their own septic systems….”

Alston’s full report is unreservedly critical.

“My starting point is that the combination of extreme inequality and extreme poverty generally create ideal conditions for small elites to trample on the human rights of minorities, and sometimes even of majorities. The United States has the highest income inequality in the Western world, and this can only be made worse by the massive new tax cuts overwhelmingly benefiting the wealthy. At the other end of the spectrum, 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million of those live in extreme poverty.” To remedy these evils, the first step, Alston argues, is as simple as it is urgent: to revive “the adage that ‘all are created equal’.”

What does that entail? Not least, leveling the playing field for children. “Equality of chance” is denied to newborn citizens in the U.S. to a “shockingly high” extent. In 2016 a third of the poor were children and in 2017 over 20% of the homeless on any given night were children. The U.S. remains the only nation that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and “ranks 25th out of 29 industrialized nations in investing in early childhood education.”

All this corrodes equality well beyond childhood: “Empirical evidence suggests strong correlations between early childhood poverty and adverse life outcomes….”

It seems, in short, that George Orwell’s message in a bottle has washed ashore. Thanks to Philip Alston, among others, the concerns voiced in Orwell’s manifesto have sprung back to life. And stating those concerns, on the brightly lit stage of the U.N. Human Rights Council, has goaded Trump’s Orwellian administration into yet another flagrant display of hostility to human rights.

Orwell’s manifesto appears in David Smith’s new book, George Orwell Illustrated (Haymarket Books, 2018), with art by Mike Mosher. Smith is a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas and Mosher is a professor of art at Saginaw Valley State University.