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Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads”*…

Olivia Fanny Tonge , A Toad, c. 1905

Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature – has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time – at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl…

From George Orwell (in 1946): “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” From The Orwell Foundation, via Berfrois.

* Marianne Moore

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As we appreciate amphibians, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that cartoonist John Randolph (J.R.) Bray first exhibited his animated film, “The Artist’s Dream” (later retitled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” for reasons that will be obvious).  Bray was not the first animator; indeed, he was following purposefully in the steps of fellow cartoonist Windsor McCay, who had added animations of “Little Nemo” and “How a Mosquito Operates” to his stage presentations.  But Bray earned a place in the history of the art by being among the first– arguably the first– animator to organize his work and his studio according to the principles of industrial production (that’s to say, with division of labor)– an approach that has survived to this day.

Bray

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“We’re long on high principles and short on simple human understanding”*…

Really, most science fiction is about economics. What makes most future visions interesting is not just the technical particulars of the cool new Stuff, but the social ramifications. Here are some of the sci-fi books that I thought dealt with important economic issues in the most insightful and interesting ways. I also chose only books that I think are well-written, with well-conceived characters, engaging plots, and skillful writing.

1. A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

In addition to being quite possibly the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read, Deepness is also a great meditation on public economics. When Vernor Vinge became famous in the 80s, he was a hard-core libertarian – his novel The Peace War, and its sequel short story “The Ungoverned”, are like a Real Business Cycle model come to life, with lone-wolf genius engineers teaming up with private police forces to bring down a fascist technocratic government made up of…university administrators. Ha. But by the 90s, Vinge’s views on government and markets had become markedly more nuanced – in the swashbuckling space opera A Fire Upon the Deep, we see private security forces failing miserably when faced with a powerful external threat (in fact, that book made me think of the “Tamerlane Principle“). Security, Vinge realizes, is a public good.

In Deepness, Vinge adds another public good: Research. The narrative of Deepness is split between a race of spider-people with roughly 20th-century technology, and a spacefaring guild of human merchants called the Qeng Ho. On the spider world, the protagonist is a brilliant scientist named Sherkaner Underhill, who is basically a Von Neumann or Feynman type. Sherkaner is the ultimate lone genius, but he ends up needing the government to fund his research. In space, meanwhile, the heroic merchant entrepreneur Pham Nuwen (who is a recurring protagonist in Vinge novels) struggles to decide whether he should turn his merchant fleet into an interstellar government. Governments, he finds, are good at producing really new scientific breakthroughs, but eventually they become unwieldy and stifle the economy and society, then collapse under their own institutional weight. The very very end of the book is – or at least, seemed to me to be – a metaphor for the Great Stagnation and the death (and future rebirth) of Big Science…

Seventeen other wonderful recommendations from the always-insightful economist and social/political analyst Noah Smith (@Noahpinion): “Science fiction novels for economists.” (Your correspondent has read many/most of them and enthusiastically seconds the suggestions.)

* Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky

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As we celebrate informative speculation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that George Orwell published his masterpiece of dystopian speculative fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and introduced terms like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “Newspeak,” and “Memory hole” into the vernacular.

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“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”*…

A bonfire burned on Berlin’s most important thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm University on May 10, 1933. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost 40,000, a group of students marched toward the flames, carrying the bust of the Jewish intellectual Magnus Hirschfeld, and threw it atop thousands of seized books by other “un-German” writers. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms gave the Heil Hitler salute, while similar scenes took place in 90 other locations across Germany. The bonfires were a warning sign of the attack on knowledge about to be unleashed by the Nazi regime; more than 100 million books may have been destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is no political power without power over the archive,” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote in his classic work Archive Fever. Authoritarian rulers have long understood the truth of this statement. But what does it mean in the Digital Age?

To many, libraries seem less important than ever—everything’s online, isn’t it? Yet control of knowledge remains a key battleground in the fight for democracy. At the outset of the Trump presidency in January 2017, his adviser Kellyanne Conway was claiming “alternate facts.” By the end of his presidency, after years of dishonesty, Trump sought to reverse his electoral loss with a “firehose of falsehood” strategy, persisting with the obfuscation even after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol.

Protecting democracies against “alternate facts” means capturing the truth as well as statements that deny it, so that open societies have reference points to trust and rely on. For over three millennia, librarians and archivists have developed systems, methodologies, techniques and an ethos for preservation to ensure that knowledge persists. Their focus on facts underpins integrity in public decision-making; enables a sense of place in our communities; and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory.

By contrast, recent cases of “book-burning” remind us of how ominous the destruction of information is. During the Bosnian War, the mass murder of humans went alongside the destruction of libraries and archives. Serb forces targeted the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiary shells in August 1992, while forces raided provincial archives across the country to destroy records of land ownership as a means of eradicating the official memory of where Muslims had lived. Millions of books and documents in libraries and archives all over Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed in the ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia—attacks that became part of the charge sheets at the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia.

Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale too. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in its final report, it devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory,” it said. “The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitize the history of oppressive rule.”

In Iraq, after the American-led coalition invaded in 2003, U.S. forces moved many of the key state records to the United States, where some, such as the archives of the Ba’ath Party, remained until recently. Just as the eradication of records can presage violence, the recent return of these documents can, I hope, form part of a process of national “truth and reconciliation” in Iraq.

Librarians today are not the stereotype of tweed-wearing introverts obsessed with enforcing silence. They are skilled professionals, often with subject-domain specialisms, adept at navigating physical and digital forms of knowledge–trained in project management and budgetary controls, and well-versed in deploying new technologies to support the public in identifying bogus online information, while using digitization to preserve fragile documents.

Digital technology lends itself to extraordinary archival projects, as in the work of the organization Mnemonic, whose Syrian Archive contains millions of online records about the civil war, alongside a Yemeni Archive and a Sudanese Archive, providing historians, journalists and international criminal lawyers the information to understand these conflicts. Other archival projects online include the Xinjiang Victims Database, which aims to document the Chinese campaign against the Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in northwest China.

As for institutional libraries and archives, they are highly trusted by the public—yet are experiencing declining levels of funding. This is happening when knowledge is increasingly held in digital form, controlled not by public institutions but by tech companies. How can we protect society from the “power over the archive” exercised by private corporations? Greater regulation should sit alongside a new role for libraries as citizens’ data sanctuaries, accountable to the public, and funded by a tax on tech-industry profits.

Looking back at the Nazi book-burnings in 1933, this low moment for human truth had lesser-known responses that should not be forgotten. Exactly a year later, on May 10, 1934, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library, also known as the German Library of Burnt Books) opened in Paris, founded by German-Jewish writer Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from writers and intellectuals such as André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann. Rapidly, it collected more than 20,000 volumes—not just the books that had been targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, in order to help understand the emerging regime.

The Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in December 1934, with noted intellectuals on its advisory board, including Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair. The library proclaimed itself a means of preserving and promoting Jewish culture at a time of renewed oppression.

If we are to heed George Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”—then we must ensure that libraries and archives have the resources and public support to serve as our guardians of knowledge.

Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden (@richove), author of the essential (and gripping) Burning the Books- A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, explains why rampant dishonesty reminds us that we must preserve documents. Even– indeed, especially– in the Digital Age, archivists are crucial: “Facts in Flames.

Your correspondent supports institutional archives like Richard’s (Oxford’s Bodleian Library), the Harvard Libraries, and The New York Public Library; and the digital archive that’s the mother of them all, the remarkable Internet Archive. You might consider contributing to them or to the archives of your choice.

And, of course, we should all support our public libraries, which democratize access to information and knowledge and build community in ways that are critical to a healthy society and to constructive civil discourse.

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we prioritize preservation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that fiery hot molasses poured into the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others– the Great Boston Molasses Flood:

The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million [over $15.5 million in today’s dollars] was paid in settlement of the claims…

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“Not every business cycle has a financial crisis. Frequently they do.”*…

 

Your correspondent is headed away on his annual pilgrimage to the land of banked dunes and deep-fried delights.  Regular service will resume on or around August 27.  Vacations can be a time for retrospection.  In that spirit, an invitation to think about the last ten years…

 

2008

 

2008 was a big year: Senator Barack Obama was elected president of the United States,  “Satoshi Nakamoto” published “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” SpaceX became the first private, commercial company to put an object into earth orbit, China wowed the world with its host ceremonies for the Summer Olympic Games…  But of course, 2008 was also the start of the Great Recession…  which was bad.  Really bad:

Total U.S. household net worth dropped by $11.1 trillion in 2008.

The median income for 25-to-34-year-olds in America, $34,000, hasn’t budged since 1977, adjusted for inflation.

Median household wealth collapsed.
2007: $126k
2016: $97k

The number of Americans worried about the economy multiplied nearly sixfold.
2007: 16 percent
2008: 86 percent

In 2016, the median wealth of a family headed by someone born in the 1980s was 34 percent below the level of earlier generations at the same 2007: age.

Mutual funds lost a third of their value: -38 percent.

The market value of all publicly traded companies was cut in half.
October 2007: $63 trillion
March 2009: $28.6 trillion

From 2005 to 2009, the median value of stocks and mutual funds owned by whites dropped by 9 percent.

The median value of holdings for African-Americans dropped by 71 percent (probably because of pressure to sell when prices were low).

Between 2007 and 2013, wages declined for the bottom 70 percent of all workers.

The retirement savings of black families fell by 35 percent from 2007 to 2010.

In a 2016 survey by the Fed, 28 percentof working-age adults said they had no retirement savings whatsoever.

The racial wealth gap, already large, ballooned.
Whites: $171k
Hispanics:  $20.7k
African-Americans: $17.6k

In terms of household wealth, every group suffered — but some more than others.
Hispanics: -66 percent
Asian-Americans: -54 percent
African-Americans: -53 percent
Whites: -16 percent

Consumer credit-card debt at the end of 2017 was over $1 trillion (about 30% higher than in 2008).

Millennials have taken on at least 300 percent more student-loan debt than their parents’ generation.

The unemployed took many more weeks to find work.
May 2008: 7.9
June 2010: 25.2

In a December 2017 poll by YouGov, 38 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t know when they’d be debt-free. 30 percent of respondents thought they’d never be out of debt.

63 percent of Americans say they don’t have enough money in savings to cover a $500 health-care expense.

In 2017, women had nearly 500,000 fewer babies than in 2007, although there were 7 percent more women of prime childbearing age.

The suicide rate rose 4 percent from 1999 to 2010: 4,750 additional deaths.

24 million adult millennials, or 32 percent, still live at home.

79 million Americans live in a “shared household” with at least one extra, nonfamily resident.

More college grads moved in with their parents.
2005: 19 percent
2016: 28 percent

As of 2017, only 34.2 percent of homes have recovered their value from before the recession. (Still below 2008 value.)

From 2000 to 2015, homeownership declined in 90% of all U.S. metropolitan areas.

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Frank Rich explores the lasting impact of that crash:

…the collapse of Lehman Brothers kicked off the Great Recession that proved to be a more lasting existential threat to America than the terrorist attack of seven Septembers earlier. The shadow it would cast is so dark that a decade later, even our current run of ostensible prosperity and peace does not mitigate the one conviction that still unites all Americans: Everything in the country is broken. Not just Washington, which failed to prevent the financial catastrophe and has done little to protect us from the next, but also race relations, health care, education, institutional religion, law enforcement, the physical infrastructure, the news media, the bedrock virtues of civility and community. Nearly everything has turned to crap, it seems, except Peak TV (for those who can afford it)…

Read the full essay: “In 2008, America Stopped Believing in the American Dream.”

Then consider Steve Bannon’s take on the same event:

The legacy of the financial crisis: Donald Trump. The legacy of the financial crisis is Donald J. Trump. And I can give you the specific moment: When they put Lehman in bankruptcy, and the geniuses didn’t understand that it was inextricably linked to the commercial paper market. Hank Paulson, Treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve, they went to see Bush three days later. They told him, ‘We need a trillion dollars in cash, and we need it by five o’clock.’”

And in a profile of courage, President Bush says, “Not my problem. You gotta go to Capitol Hill.” They go up to Capitol Hill, they put everybody in a room. They make them all put their BlackBerrys outside, and they walk in, and Bernanke, who’s not an alarmist, says, “If we don’t have a trillion dollars by today, the American financial system will melt down in 72 hours. The world financial system will melt down in two weeks, and there will be global anarchy.”

And by the way, this was completely brought on by the elites of the country and Wall Street. When I got to Harvard Business School in 1983, a bunch of professors were coming up with a radical idea that’s had a horrible negative consequence on this country and to the fabric of our society: the maximization of shareholder value; this was preached as High Church theology. The whole thing of the financialization of Wall Street, of looking at people as pure commodities and of outsourcing and globalization, came from the business schools and the financial community that had these radical ideas, and nobody kept them in check…

I think you’re starting to see the deindustrialization of the country. We stopped investing in the country. Domestic investment’s all going over to China. We deindustrialized Western Europe. Brexit and 2016 are inextricably linked, okay?

Workers know this. It’s the labor vote in the midland counties that drove Brexit. This is what’s so obvious the Democratic Party misses. Donald Trump’s president because of working-class Democrats. The Trump movement is made up of people like my father, the Marty Bannons. My whole household was working-class Democrats. These are adamant Trump supporters because they understand Trump supports working-class people…

While the prescribed remedies may be wildly different as between the progressive writer and the Nativist provocateur, the diagnosis is eerily similar.  Read Bannon’s interview in full at “Steve Bannon on How 2008 Planted the Seed for the Trump Presidency.”

More perspectives on 2008 at “Ten Years After the Crash, We Are Still Living in the World It Brutally Remade.”

And lest we think too parochially, consider this argument that the Georgian War (Russia’s engagement in Georgia) in 2008 was (another) product of the same currents that yielded the financial crisis: “The Turning Point of 2008“… which, in turn, helped spur the growth of Russia’s use of criminal hackers: “It’s our time to serve the Motherland.”

Kenneth Arrow

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As we make our way down memory lane, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that George Orwell’s allegory, Animal Farm– A Fairy Story, was published.  (The U.S. edition, published in 1946, dropped the sub-title.)   While it has never disappeared from conversation about politics and governance, Animal Farm is enjoying a renaissance in these increasingly Nativist times.  But while Orwell rings only too relevant these days, we might do well to keep in mind his friendly competitor (and one-time school master), Aldous Huxley, and Huxley’s Brave New World:

In his classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the difference between George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s visions of fascism.

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” wrote Postman. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

More at “Amusing Ourselves to Trump.”

For a nifty cartoon version of the Orwell-Huxley distinction, see here.

And for a further exploration of this modern day Scylla and Charybdis, see “Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

220px-Animal_Farm_-_1st_edition

First edition cover

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“Imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”*…

 

Some essays are letters into the future. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible. By literature, he means all kinds of writing in prose, from imaginative fiction to political journalism; he suggests that verse might slip through the cracks. He writes, too, that there is such a thing as “groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook”—single-truth communities of sorts, not just totalitarian regimes or entire countries. These are deadly to literature as well.

Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.

He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”

Orwell was right. The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. She must believe nothing. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth. Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.”

As for what he called “schizophrenia,” this, too, has been borne out. In 1989, as the longest-running totalitarian experiment in the world, the U.S.S.R., neared what then appeared to have been its demise, a great sociologist named Yuri Levada and his team undertook a large study of Soviet society. He concluded that the Soviet person’s very self-concept depended on a constant negotiation of mutually exclusive perceptions: the Soviet person identified strongly with the great Soviet state and its grand experiment, and yet felt himself to be insignificant; he worshipped at the altar of modernity and progress, and yet lived in conditions of enforced poverty, often deprived of modern conveniences that even the poor in the West had come to take for granted; he believed in egalitarianism and resented evident inequality, yet accepted the extreme hierarchical order and rigid class structure of Soviet society. To live in his world—simply to function day to day, balancing between contradictory perceptions—the Soviet person had to engage in constant negotiations. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Orwell predicted this negotiation, and named it doublethink. You will recall that “even to understand the word doublethink involved the use of doublethink.” Doublethink destroyed the mind and crushed the soul, and yet it was essential for survival. It killed as it saved, and that, too, is doublethink.

But perhaps Orwell’s most valuable observation in this essay concerns instability. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he wrote, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on the pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” Orwell had observed the disfavor and disappearance of prominent Bolsheviks and the resulting adjustments to the official narratives of the Revolution—the endlessly changing and vanishing commissars. Arendt argued that the instability was, in fact, the point and purpose of the purges: the power of the regime depended not so much on eliminating particular men at particular moments but on the ability to eliminate any man at any moment. Survival depended on one’s sensitivity to the ever-changing stories and one’s ability to mold oneself to them.

But why, exactly, did Orwell think all this was so destructive to literature?…

The marvelous Masha Gessen explains in her important essay (adapted from a lecture delivered in Barcelona at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona on June 6, 2018, in honor of Orwell Day), “George Orwell predicted the challenge of writing today.

C.f. also Cass Sunstein’s piece in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, “It Can Happen Here.”

* George Orwell

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As we say no to non-sense, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that “Liberty Enlightening the World”– a symbol of anti-totalitarian democracy and a token of friendship from the French to the U.S. that is better known these day as the “Statue of Liberty”– entered New York Harbor.  Encased in more than 200 crates, the statue was reassembled, placed on its pedestal on (what was then known as) Bedloe’s Island, then dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in October, 1886.

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Written by LW

June 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

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