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What Churchill And Orwell Had In Common: Both Could Say, 'My Side Is Wrong'

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What Churchill And Orwell Had In Common: Both Could Say, 'My Side Is Wrong'

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What Churchill And Orwell Had In Common: Both Could Say, 'My Side Is Wrong'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The journalist Tom Ricks stopped writing about the present to write about the past.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have heard Ricks often on this program. His newspaper reports on the U.S. military received two Pulitzer Prizes. One of his books was a takedown of U.S. policies in Iraq. Eventually, he says the wars after 9/11 wore him down, and he left daily journalism.

INSKEEP: He moved to an island off the coast of Maine and wrote a history called "Churchill And Orwell" - Winston Churchill, George Orwell, the British prime minister and the author of "1984" among other books. They were very different people except for this - both lived through World War II and shared an outlook.

TOM RICKS: What is striking is at a time not unlike today when people were wondering whether democracy was sustainable, when a lot of people thought you needed authoritarian rule, either from the right or the left, Orwell and Churchill, from their very different perspectives, come together on a key point - we don't have to have authoritarian government. And in fact, the key question of our time is how do you protect the individual conscience against the modern state? How do you fight for freedom?

INSKEEP: How was it that Churchill began to focus on that question? What was his path?

RICKS: Churchill and Orwell have another commonality here that I love and I think is key. They were both willing to say no, my side is wrong on this.

INSKEEP: Churchill was a member of the Conservative or Tory Party.

RICKS: That's right. And Orwell was a socialist. Churchill, in the 1930s, breaks with his own party over the issue of Nazi Germany. Can we live with them? As early as 1933, he gets up in the House of Commons and says the key fact is that Germany is rearming. He was telling an ugly truth that people didn't want to hear and especially his own party, which had settled on a policy of appeasement. We think we can contain Germany, and we don't have enough military strength to confront them.

INSKEEP: And let's just remind people the 1930s is when Hitler has risen to power in Germany. And this is a country that had been defeated in World War I. But he said, we're going to bring Germany back, and we're going to take over larger and larger parts of Europe.

RICKS: And throughout the 1930s, Churchill's getting up and calling attention to that. And for that, he is cast into the political wilderness. He is not allowed into the cabinet, even though he's a prominent member.

INSKEEP: Because he sounded like a warmonger.

RICKS: Because, A, they thought he was a warmonger. B, they thought he was not - clearly not a team player. And C, they thought he was being stupid and silly and was kind of a washed-up politician past his time.

INSKEEP: So Churchill called out the political right. How was it that Orwell came to call out the political left?

RICKS: Orwell's great transformation comes when he goes to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War...

INSKEEP: As a reporter?

RICKS: ...Late in 1936. Ostensibly, he goes as a reporter. But almost immediately, he signs up to fight for the government there, which is...

INSKEEP: Which is a leftist...

RICKS: ...Republican government, leftist. And he's shocked when he gets back to England that what he reads in the newspapers has nothing to do with what he saw in Spain. And he's also shocked it's not just the conservative newspapers that are printing untruths. It's the leftist newspapers.

INSKEEP: What were they lying about?

RICKS: Well, can I read you a little bit about that?

INSKEEP: Please, go ahead.

RICKS: Quote, "I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories. And I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened."

And this is, I think, one reason that Orwell resonates so much today. Fake news is not a new thing. Putting ideology over the truth is not a new thing. It always has happened in politics. And what we see with both Churchill and Orwell is they believed in facts, believed in observation and then believed in applying their principles to those facts.

INSKEEP: What price did they pay for that? You mentioned that Churchill was kept out of the government for years.

RICKS: Churchill was kept out of the government for years to the point that it was almost too late. I mean, we now retrospectively know, of course, Churchill becomes prime minister and leads his country to victory.

INSKEEP: World War II started off very badly and they finally needed a new leader, and they picked Churchill.

RICKS: And his own party really still doesn't back him, doesn't trust him. And there are a lot of people around him who think the smart move, again, would be to negotiate a peace with the Nazis. And he says no.

INSKEEP: What did it cost George Orwell to be criticizing the left when he was on the left?

RICKS: Orwell becomes more and more remote. He lives his last few years on an island in the inner Hebrides, windswept, rainswept, cold. He carries a pistol because he has lost friends to the Russian spies in Spain. And he's worried that they're going to attack him as well - a little paranoid maybe, but not too paranoid. In fact, one reason he found it difficult to get his great book "Animal Farm" published was a guy named Peter Smollett in the British government advised publishers not to publish it.

INSKEEP: Wow.

RICKS: We now know that Peter Smollett was working for the Russians.

INSKEEP: I don't want to give away the ending of your book, but I'm about to ask you to give away the ending of your book. Would you read the final paragraph of this joint biography of Churchill and Orwell?

RICKS: Thank you for asking for that because these last few pages of this book are really my journalistic will and testament, what I think journalism is important for. And remember, these two guys are both journalists. Churchill's a politician, but he makes his living by writing.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

RICKS: (Reading) The struggle to see things as they are is perhaps the fundamental driver of Western civilization. There is a long but direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill and Darwin and from there through Orwell and Churchill to Martin Luther King writing his "Letter From Birmingham City Jail." It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.

INSKEEP: Do you think that we as a society still agree on that?

RICKS: No, I don't think we do. Increasingly, Americans seem to believe that you can have your own facts, you can ignore the evidence. And this is not just a hit on the right. This is a hit on the left as well. And related to that, I see less support for a fundamental view of free speech as key to our society. But when I see people on the left saying it's OK to punch Nazis on the streets, I really disagree with that.

INSKEEP: Or push them out of college campuses.

RICKS: It worries me. Free speech for the marginalized, the abused and even for the repugnant is essential.

INSKEEP: Thomas E. Ricks is the author of "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." Thanks very much for coming by.

RICKS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUM SONG, "GREEN GRASS OF TUNNEL")

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