Mis-quote

September 6, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote some great stories, and at least one fabulous novel, The Great Gatsby.  His output, however, was very uneven, and some of his most quoted lines are just plain nonsense.  Two that spring to mind:

There are no second acts in American lives.

As Gail Collins wrote today, meet Bill Clinton, Mr. Act Twelve.  Then there’s this, even more famous line:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Need I mention that Fitzgerald drank too much?  I think Orwell got it right:

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
 
Of course, in these post-1984 days, Doublethink has become Goodthink.
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Stop and Frisk: A Modest Proposal

May 19, 2012

In NYC, there is a lot of discussion of the NYPD policy of “stop and frisk.”  They tend to stop young men of color, and have done so at an annual rate that equals the entire young African-American and Latino population of the city.  For this, they have  netted a few arrests, and the smoldering animosity of an entire generation of young men.  Seems rather inefficient, don’t it?

I would like to advance a modest proposal, in the spirit of Mr. Swift, that will be familiar to all aficionados of sci-fi stories and films, and that would make this approach to crime fighting very productive:

Simply provide every citizen with an identify card that contains a computer chip with a GPS and encoded ID info.  Police can scan people without stopping them, and interrogate them if they are without their papers.  Other countries do this (minus the technology.)  Also, the  movements of every citizen could be tracked and interrogated by the police, and compared with real-time data on crimes.  “Sir, you were at that drug store at 11:32 p.m. when a robbery occurred.  Please come with us...”  (Oh, yeah, you’re not white either…)

Just to keep it all on the up-and-up, there’s no reason for this data to be secret.  The social network Big Brothers of the world might be persuaded to cooperate in this brave new adventure in positive social engineering by posting all the movement data on every citizen.  We would have the same data as the cops, and could keep tabs on everyone!  Think of the adulterous affairs that would be nipped in the bud – a boon for family life!  Drug use among teenagers would probably take a hit from vigilant parents.  Facebook and Google would find ways to make billions of dollars off ad revenue for lawyers, counselors, drug programs, and the like that would be tightly focused.  Imagine!  You are arrested, and lawyers are waiting for you at the station, eager to represent you!  Surely, a positive development for civil rights.

Maybe some day we can go the next step of implanting the chips in newborns.  All under the beneficent gaze of the supervising corporate entities, keeping us entertained with spectacles, as in Rollerball.   Sometimes, these days, I feel we’re almost there.


Double-plus good!

August 5, 2010

During my vacation, I am taking an intensive class in beginning Spanish, so I have the language-thing on my mind a lot.  George Orwell spend a lot of time thinking about language too, and his essay, Politics and the English Language is a milestone in the desconstruction of deliberate mis-communication.   Along with many other things from his magnum opus, 1984, the word, Newspeak, has entered our English lexicon as a term for politically motivated distortion of the language.

Newspeak was the language of Ingsoc, the ruling party in the society of 1984.  In a candid moment, its developers state that the purpose of the new language is to make it impossible to think independently.  Language is reduced to a mechanical tool to convey information, with shades of meaning rubbed out.  Not good, better, best, wonderful, etc, but good, plus-good, double-plus good, and triple-plus good.   The instrument of this linguistic assault on truth and independent thought was the Ingsoc dictionary of Newspeak.   Ingsoc lexicographers looked forward to a day when Oldspeak would be forgotten, and children would grow up with Newspeak, knowing, and thinking, nothing else.  The power of Ingsoc would then be unshakeable.

I believe that Orwell had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this.  Can’t you imagine him gleefully writing an entire appendix to his novel, spinning out all his ideas to their logical and absurd conclusion?  We forget that there are elements of deep, deep black humor in 1984, and that it is in some respects a satire. 

Steven Pinker, a linguist who studies and writes about language, dissected this idea and dismissed it.  He argued that thought precedes language, at least much of the time.  As a consequence, there would be no way for Newspeak to prevent new languages and words from developing, which could, in turn become subersive and intellectually critical slang, jargon, argot, etc. etc.  Just get a few 1985 kids together, and they’ll start inventing new words, if only for insults!

[An interesting aside on this theme is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s often cited phrase that the mark of genius is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.   This is from his novel The Crackup.  Did he mean it, or was he being ironic?  I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know, but people often cite it as though he was being straight.  And then we have Orwell’s O’Brien, who says that you must accept that 2+ 2 = 5  if you are told to, and that, of course, freedom is slavery.  Were they all geniuses?]

Language is simply amazing.  It grows like mushrooms after a rain wherever there are people.  Be you an Einstein or Joe Schmoe, your ability to use and play with language is a given, and not at all related to your education and social accomplishments:  Education simply teaches you a specialized use of it.  Language grows up around us just as the younger generation does.  Language pedants are fighting a losing and foolish battle.  As Sancho remarked to Don Quixote,

Once or twice, if I remember correctly, I ‘ve asked your grace not to correct my words if you understand what I mean by them, and when you don’t undertand, to say, ‘ Sancho, you devil, I don’t understand you,’ and if I can’t explain, then you can correct me.


The Trial – Cliché and Not

November 4, 2008

trial2

I just finished reading The Trial, by Franz Kafka.  When I read it many years ago, it did not make a big impression, but this time I am floored.  Kafka has been a victim of his posthumous success in a way.  Consider this passage from the blog where I found the film still shown above:

When people use the word ‘Kafkaesque’ they are referring to a kind of powerlessnes in the face of a faceless bureaucracy, with vague suggestions of impending doom- marked by a ‘senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity’ (Wikiman)-as in a ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’ or as indeed in Kafka’s posthumously published masterpiece ‘The Trial’  Everybody can identify with his chilling tale- with its surreal ending and dark humour. ‘He sounds like my kind of guy!” said Bill Gates on being told his corporate trials (Microsoft’s monopoly) were like the ordeals of Joseph K. Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie ‘Brazil’ is all Kafka–starting with a Joseph K type arrest.

Well, this is all a bit too easy, although it is clear that there is a connection. [I guess this writer has not read The Trial: there was no mistake in his case, as there was in “Brazil,” and there was no violence.  Everything was in order…] Personally, I like the way R. Crumb, in his biography/adaptation of Kafka lampoons the literati as they throw around the term “Kafkaesque” in their cocktail chatter.

kafka_chatter

What struck me about the novel was the metaphysical nature of the situation.  The religiosity of it.  K’s execution is like Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac, without the saving intervention of God!  And we know that Franz had issues with his father, not to mention THE father.

As George Steiner points out in his introduction to the Everyman edition, what is the sense in taking The Trial to be a premonition of the Nazi death-bureaucracy, Stalin’s NKVD, or other state organs.  The people in The Trial are too ordinary, and they act that way.  They don’t beat people.  They don’t torture.  They all try to do their job.  And most importantly, K is totally complicit.  Why doesn’t he flee – he never even tries to determine the nature of his charge.  He ACCEPTS the system totally.  No, this is a religious parable we are being treated to, one in which the “hero” is irredeemably lost from the start.  Not by accident does the climactic episode with the story of the door to The Law happen in a cathedral, related by a priest, and followed by a rabbinical discourse on the varieties of possible interpretations.  The Old Law meets the New Law, and it ain’t pretty.

The other element of the story that surprised me was the contant sexual element that runs through it.  K moves from one attentuated erotic encounter to another, always unfulfilled of course.

brazil And since I brought it up, I might as well rant on about it – this movie!  I love Monty Python, and I think Gilliam’s animations are funny.  I think 1984, Brave New World, and Zamayatin’s We are literary masterpieces!  But I thought this film was trash.  The look of it was pretty cool, but that’s about how far it went.  The praise that is heeped upon it as a “cult-classic” ignores the fact that is waaaaaay too long; utterly hackneyed in its themes and plot; and positively boring at times.  Cult-classic indeed.  I guess that’s the tip-off.


2 + 2 = 5

September 4, 2008
Our Big Brother

Our Big Brother

Will I ever tire of citing George Orwell and his book, 1984?  As I like to say, “It’s always 1984 somewhere!”  Right now, it seems like it’s then right here in the USA.  In his book, Orwell has the Party functionaries say that if The Party says the laws of arithmetic are suspended, then 2 + 2 = 5 and that’s it.  Believe it or die!

George Romney told the RNC that we need “a party of big ideas, not Big Brother!”  This from a minion of the party that has implemented domestic surveillance and suspension of habeus corpus.

The Republican flunkeys, one after another, tell us that we should elect their man because “Washington is broken!”  Uh, yeh…YOU’VE been in charge for the last eight years.  No wonder it’s a mess!

Funny also that the bedrock American political culture, even at the RNC, seems to be Democratic:  references to profiles in courage (JFK), the glass ceiling being shattered by Hillary and Geraldine, calls to service (FDR)…etc.

Keep calm…


GWB Down the Memory Hole…Again

August 22, 2007


Greetings from the Ministry of Truth!

Here’s one from the memory hole: George Bush speaking today at a VFW post about his “policy” in Iraq. He drew a parallel between the consequences of the American withdrawal from Vietnam and what he claims will happen if we leave off fighting in Iraq. Here is one piece of evidence he presented:

“In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation, torture, or execution.

Just for the record, it was several millions of Cambodians who died under the insane regime of Pol Pot, but who’s counting? Not GWB, for sure. More important, it was the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that put a stop to the Pol Pot regime’s murder, not that they (ancient enemies of the Khmer) were totally altruistic in their aims in removing him from power. Quite a stretch to claim that it was the Vietnamese Communists that caused the atrocities in Cambodia. Of course, it did happen after we left, but isn’t that a co-inky-dink? Most historians agree that it was America’s involvement in Vietnam that caused, one way or another, the destruction of Cambodia.


Never Out of Date!

March 22, 2005

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

 

For a bit more of George Orwell visit these texts. Oh, wait a moment – was that George Orwell or George Bush?