Trump & Co.: The Great Deceivers

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ALLOW ME TO BE contrary for a moment.

That rambling, semi-coherent, solipsistic rant (half campaign speech; half cry for attention) Trump delivered at the CIA fills me with hope and reassurance, not despair.

Only the most recalcitrant die-hards, whom reasonable and intelligent discourse will never persuade anyway, can continue falling in line after this. Imagine if that exact speech, in the exact same context, was translated into another language (say, North Korean): for a movie it would serve as mediocre and ham-fisted satire; as a real life event, if uttered by someone in a different country?—?use your imagination?—?it’s the very type of propagandistic boilerplate that typically makes “serious” Americans (including, if not especially conservatives and certain media types) solemnly shake their heads and thank their (white, Capitalist) God that this type of farce could never occur in America. You know, where paid staffers are brought in to applaud like teenagers at a boy band concert. If, say, we heard someone call out aerial photographs and say “the crowds were much bigger…because I say so”, we’d pity the country that had to put up with such a deluded and sick cult of personality.

However, it’s America, and it’s happening, here.

Doubling down, because that’s what con men always do (they have no choice; when the con’s exposed, so are they, and there’s no coming back from that), they sent the oleaginous Sean Spicer out to parrot the party line, and take questions. Just kidding! You know it’s amateur hour when the press secretary refuses to take questions during the first press conference.

This, from the linked Politico article above, is worth quoting in full:

Spicer: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration?—?period?—?both in person and around the globe.”

While the new administration disputes the count, the visual evidence from overhead photography is overwhelming: Far more people stood on the Mall and witnessed Obama’s inauguration in 2009 than Trump’s inauguration on Friday.

The global viewing audience is nearly impossible to calculate, but at least four previous presidents drew bigger domestic TV audiences than Trump. According to Nielsen ratings, 30.6 million viewers tuned in across 12 networks to watch Trump’s inauguration. That falls well short of the 41.8 million viewers who watched Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, the 37.7 million who watched Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the 34.1 million who watched Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration and the 33 million who watched Richard Nixon’s 1973 inauguration.

Millions of viewers also tuned in for livestreams of Trump’s inauguration, and CNN says that there were 16.9 million livestreams on its site and apps across the day. But Obama’s 2009 inauguration drew then-record online audiences, with CNN reporting more than 25 million livestreams across the day?—?and so much demand during Obama’s speech that many viewers were shunted to online waiting rooms.

But it won’t last and this won’t work. The ostensible incongruity of seeing so many people (of all ages and races) taking to the streets alongside Trump’s surreal outburst du jour?—?albeit his first one as President?—?is oddly refreshing. Yesterday proves there’s simply way too many people who know, and can’t be unconvinced, the sky is blue, 2+2=4, and that Truth, however painful it is at times, takes precedence over sloganeering and facile bromides (what type of person is comforted by impotent assertions like “we’ll win again”? Who doesn’t feel America has been “winning”, whatever that implies anyway? I guess some of it is timing, because I certainly didn’t hear a lot about America “losing” between 2001–2008, at least until the losses became difficult to count and the G.O.P. united to blame it on the next guy. I wonder, incidentally, how Republicans would react if any Democrat ever implied that we haven’t “won” anything since before Vietnam. A military veteran hearing this shit, from a born-rich draft dodger, and the irony doesn’t make his gray matter boil? Tell me again about how Trump’s victory was due to liberal elitism and not racism or willful ignorance mixed with cognitive dissonance…).

Getting back to Trump’s favorite foe, the media: it was called out, entirely, by Trump’s (and Spicer’s even more strident, yet easily disprovable) assertion that his crowds were bigger and, yes, that all American media is engaged in a synchronous scam to embarrass him. First, he embarrasses himself just fine (did you listen to that “speech”?), and secondly, it’s one thing to bully individual reporters or networks?—?itself unprecedented and disgraceful?—?but to in effect call out the entire media (reality) and claim what we all saw and heard is false because he says so, draws a line in the sand. It’s a curious blessing. Because Trump & Co. can’t help themselves, the stakes are already thus: the media will have little choice but push back, their only agenda being…truth, reality. And, fortunately for them, and us, it’s not only imperative but pretty painless to let the truth speak for itself.

Demonstrators protest during the Women’s March along Pennsylvania Avenue January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters spearheaded by women’s rights groups demonstrated across the US to send a defiant message to US President Donald Trump. / AFP / Joshua LOTT (Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)

And that’s why the amazing marches yesterday are so important. At the same time Trump is still stage-crafting psychotic appeals for legitimacy, millions of people are marching, unified by their disdain for the poison and falsehood that’s fueled his short-lived rise. (And proving what’s been lost in the post-election agonizing: the demographic shift of subsequent generations is extremely tolerant and, well, progressive. That’s the future, and it’s beautiful.) The media, no collective profile in courage at any time, has effectively been dared, by Trump & Co., to fall in line or do what they’re already paid to do: report. Refreshingly, they’ve seen these crowds?—?around America; around the world?—?and will feel obligated (more so than they already should, a whole other topic) to report the truth. Seeing Trump’s popularity plummet and hearing his maniacal insistence on bending reality to his will removes the gray area and equivocation that typically carries the day in today’s media environment. Again, this is a blessing. We won’t require reporters to editorialize or embellish, just point the cameras and microphones and allow the accumulating weight of Trump’s duplicity to bury him.

Finally, we should desist from drawing any comparisons to Hitler (aside from the fact that it’s lazy and, at this juncture, historically inaccurate; Trump’s more your average tin-pot dictator wannabe): that cretin was able to convince (or intimidate) enough people to commit the atrocities he oversaw; yesterday proves, undeniably, that Trump will never have anything close to a mandate. Going forward, every subsequent utterance or scripted scene will alienate more folks…and that’s before his (that is, the GOP’s) policies begin actively harming and disenfranchising people who voted for him. We’re seeing how unpopular (and unqualified) he is today, and he’ll never be this popular, again. It’s a slow (or maybe not-so-slow) burn, effective immediately.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 1/22/17.

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Sui generis on the rocks: Christopher Hitchens, Five Years On

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The best way to compliment a writer, as a reader, is to recommend their work to others. That I wholeheartedly do –and have done.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a writer, is to recognize, with neither regret nor resignation, that on your best day you will always stand in awe of what they achieved.

Reading and responding to The Hitch is ceaselessly inspiring and seldom less than exhilarating. More, it is an instigatory experience: it compels you to get involved more deeply with the world around and inside you. Reading any worthwhile writer is an act of celebration, a shared reaction to the act of creation. More, it is an exercise in how to write, read, think and live.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Here’s the deal: even as I felt intense discomfort for how cozy he became with the architects of our recently-concluded (?) quagmire, it was difficult to write him off. For one thing, he never stood to profit in any sense of the word, and I believe he was inexorably affected by what his mate Salman Rushdie endured (when he was notably one of the few artists willing to stand up and defend Rushdie). Over time he came to –wrongly in my view– perceive a very gray (and shady) situation as black and white. It wasn’t like he ever turned tail and apologized for being a liberal (like some of his ersthwhile allies did); he certainly did not embrace his new “friends” on the Right in any meaningful way. He was cocksure, inscrutable and resolute to the end; if he was a big pig-headed at times, in my estimation he was never opportunistic or craven. How many legit famous people can we say that about?

The best way to compliment a person for the life they lived is how they choose to die.

That seems to cute by half, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Of course, few of us have the opportunity to choose how, or when, we die. For the unfortunate folks who contend with cancer, the choice is made for us. The true measure of the courage of one’s convictions is how those convictions hold up under duress. Hitchens promised he would never “find” religion once he was diagnosed with what turned out to be the ailment that took him out. True to his word, as usual, as ever, he was unflinching to the end, even as the hideous disease made him emaciated, weak and fried inside-out. (A bit more on how that happens, here.) True to his nature, he not only refused to give quarter, he took every opportunity to reiterate the feelings he had about all-things religious. (A bit more on that, here.)

People who live the right way are living lessons on how to exist, aspire and inevitably, to perish. Hitchens, through his example, will remain a vivid and unquenchable exhibit for how to suck the marrow out of this life, as Thoreau admonished us to do. The mind-boggling body of work he leaves behind will ensure that this world is never without him. Which, in the final analysis is a relief, because the world is already a poorer place without further input from this unbowed, inimitable piece of work.

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Orwell, Kafka and Us or, It’s All Part of Der Process

Back in 2008 Roger Cohen wrote the following in the New York Times – the same newspaper that declined to use the word “torture” as a matter of editorial policy:

Of the 770 detainees grabbed here and there and flown to Guantánamo, only 23 have ever been charged with a crime. Of the more than 500 so far released, many traumatized by those “enhanced” techniques, not one has received an apology or compensation for their season in hell. What they got on release was a single piece of paper from the American government. A U.S. official met one of the dozens of Afghans now released from Guantánamo and was so appalled by this document that he forwarded me a copy. Dated Oct. 7, 2006, it reads as follows:

 

“An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible.”

 

That’s it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan’s life, written in language Orwell would have recognized. We have “the deciding official,” not an officer, general or judge. We have “the information about you,” not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have “a decision about what will happen to you,” not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States. That is why I am thankful above all that the next U.S. commander in chief is a constitutional lawyer. Nothing has been more damaging to the United States than the violation of the legal principles at the heart of the American idea.

 

This weekend, courtesy of The Guardian, we now understand the CIA coerced doctors into torturing suspected terrorists. More here.

Let’s face it, Orwell has become kind of a cliché. (No fault of his own; if the most sincere form of flattery is imitation, the most flattering form of sincerity is to have one’s ideas transmorgified into clichés.) It’s not just that Orwell was, in 1984, writing about a futuristic dystopia; he was describing parts of the world that already existed. The best science fiction, of course, has always anticipated the future by channeling the present. History is obliged to repeat itself because the human beings who make history do so in such a predictable, patterned fashion. And so, Orwell has the curious fate of being over-quoted and under-read: everyone knows what Orwellian means because they’ve already seen what it means (in movies, in the news). More importantly, everyone understands that the horrors Orwell depicted are passé; totalitarianism is so 20th Century. Except for the fact that it isn’t, and never was.

(It’s tempting to point out another immortal text, one that is arguably second only to 1984 in terms of ubiquity and the type of cultural resonance that is so often invoked and so seldom analyzed. Nevertheless, it’s all there in Conrad’s fin-de-siècle classic Heart of Darkness: the dehumanization, for political purposes and/or the expedience of power, of the Other; an “other” who is assigned this designation necessarily from a position of powerlessness (powerless to protect, powerless to define). The naked will of brute force for the ostensible purpose of “exterminating the brutes” invariably involves religion or money, but either way, it always involves a struggle for power. Sadly, few seem to have actually bothered reading Conrad’s novella, but everyone has seen Apocalypse Now, so it’s a wash.)

But there is an exposed nerve running from Conrad to Orwell that might be best explained by considering the two Russian masters who connected the dots in between them: Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. The former’s novel We (1921) and the latter’s The Master and Margarita (commenced in 1928, completed in 1941) deal directly with the dehumanizing repercussions of totalitarian rule. Focusing more on the (very human) consequences of identity destruction and the suppression of self–a paramount objective of those in power, and a necessary condition of remaining in power–these novels are quite literally notes from the underground, infused with the verisimilitude of an insider’s experience. They lived it and they wrote about it.

 

Orwell took that torch of truth and continued onward even as the scope of Fascism cast an ever-enlarging shadow over other parts of other continents: again, his work resonates because he is depicting (then, and now) realities that anyone who has lived inside an autocratic regime can easily recognize. And as Americans, we quickly apprehend the causes and effects of totalitarianism because, our history books austerely inform us, we did much to eradicate them. And so we did. But it was well before 9/11 that certain segments of society (usually the dreaded leftist types who work in universities or for newspapers –or even worse, the ones who write fiction or poetry or music) perceived the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which even this most democratic society has at times unintentionally and at other times willfully revealed a dark heart that contradicts its own Constitution.

 

Here’s the thing: people have read Orwell even if they haven’t (because the author of Animal Farm is a de rigeur point of reference for any writer, particularly a politically oriented writer, who hopes to be taken seriously), and they’ve watched Conrad (or at least a sensationalized action-epic that delivers visually even if it severely lacks the scope or coherence of its inspiration), and few people have any interest in reading dead Russian writers not named Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (and those that do are already ensconced in English graduate programs).

Fortunately, for better or worse, we nevertheless have an author (and text) that covers everything already mentioned (the fiction, the non-fiction, and the considerable overlap in between them both, otherwise known as History). The good news: his name is, if possible, even more incessantly invoked than Orwell’s. The bad news: even fewer people have actually read him. If that seems Kafkaesque, it’s because it is. Well, actually it isn’t; but that is the point: as an adjective, Kafkaesque is misused with greater abandon than Orwellian. Or, to put it slightly less pessimistically, it has been bludgeoned into submission. Put slightly more pretentiously, Kafkaesque awoke one morning from uneasy dreams it found itself transformed in its bed into a gigantic Cliché.

 

 

Listen: an unassuming citizen is informed, one day, that he is accused of a crime. He has committed no crimes that he is aware of, but that is all but irrelevant, since a description of the crime is not given. He spends the rest of his harried life making the futile attempt to exonerate himself or, short of that, have the specific charges explained to him. Immersed in a Byzantine maze that is at once inherently bureaucratic and at the same time nonsensical, his will slowly dissolves in this irrational paralysis. When, ultimately, he is executed, it comes almost as a relief. (That’s from The Trial, original German title, Der Process.)

 

Sound familiar?

 

Of course, it scarcely suffices to look at what we’ve wrought at Guantánamo and abroad and call it Orwellian or Kafkaesque. It is both of those, in equal measure, but it’s also something quite a bit more appalling. Partly because it’s true–this has actually happened; partly because we’ve done it before and claimed we would never do it again. Mostly because, while it was happening, there were actually people (quite a lot of them) who raised the alarm and found themselves scoffed at, or threatened. Some were actually disenfranchised; most were simply dismissed. Eventual (inevitable?) progress has been sickeningly slow in coming, but at least there is a miniscule crack in the one-way glass.

 

Once that hole gets bigger (and it will, as it always does) many of us are going to be disgusted at what we see (what we did, who was responsible for organizing it all, what was done in our name by others we paid to do what we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to do). Some will defend it all, naturally: the acts, the people who undertook them; it is, after all, just good business. Others will, obviously, decry the (demonstrably liberal) media that seems to take so much pleasure pulling back the curtain to reveal the cretins scurrying into the cracks. Same as it ever was. And finally, there will be the newly-awakened, who’ll shake their heads and lament that extraordinary times occasionally inspire atrocious activities. But never again, at least. At least we’ll have learned that much.

 

A cliché: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

 

A tragedy: those who do not read literature are doomed to inspire it.

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Sui generis on the rocks: Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a reader, is to recommend their work to others. That I wholeheartedly do –and have done.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a writer, is to recognize, with neither regret nor resignation, that on your best day you will always stand in awe of what they achieved.

Reading and responding to The Hitch is ceaselessly inspiring and seldom less than exhilarating. More, it is an instigatory experience: it compels you to get involved more deeply with the world around and inside you. Reading any worthwhile writer is an act of celebration, a shared reaction to the act of creation. More, it is an exercise in how to write, read, think and live.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Here’s the deal: even as I felt intense discomfort for how cozy he became with the architects of our recently-concluded (?) quagmire, it was difficult to write him off. For one thing, he never stood to profit in any sense of the word, and I believe he was inexorably affected by what his mate Salman Rushdie endured (when he was notably one of the few artists willing to stand up and defend Rushdie). Over time he came to –wrongly in my view– perceive a very gray (and shady) situation as black and white. It wasn’t like he ever turned tail and apologized for being a liberal (like some of his ersthwhile allies did); he certainly did not embrace his new “friends” on the Right in any meaningful way. He was cocksure, inscrutable and resolute to the end; if he was a big pig-headed at times, in my estimation he was never opportunistic or craven. How many legit famous people can we say that about?

The best way to compliment a person for the life they lived is how they choose to die.

That seems to cute by half, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Of course, few of us have the opportunity to choose how, or when, we die. For the unfortunate folks who contend with cancer, the choice is made for us. The true measure of the courage of one’s convictions is how those convictions hold up under duress. Hitchens promised he would never “find” religion once he was diagnosed with what turned out to be the ailment that took him out. True to his word, as usual, as ever, he was unflinching to the end, even as the hideous disease made him emaciated, weak and fried inside-out. (A bit more on how that happens, here.) True to his nature, he not only refused to give quarter, he took every opportunity to reiterate the feelings he had about all-things religious. (A bit more on that, here.)

People who live the right way are living lessons on how to exist, aspire and inevitably, to perish. Hitchens, through his example, will remain a vivid and unquenchable exhibit for how to suck the marrow out of this life, as Thoreau admonished us to do. The mind-boggling body of work he leaves behind will ensure that this world is never without him. Which, in the final analysis is a relief, because the world is already a poorer place without further input from this unbowed, inimitable piece of work.

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It’s All Part of Der Process

From Andrew Sullivan’s invaluable blog (TheDailyDish), comes the following (quoted from Roger Cohen’s typically sane and salient perspective–this one, here is must reading–via The New York Times):

Of the 770 detainees grabbed here and there and flown to Guantánamo, only 23 have ever been charged with a crime. Of the more than 500 so far released, many traumatized by those “enhanced” techniques, not one has received an apology or compensation for their season in hell. What they got on release was a single piece of paper from the American government. A U.S. official met one of the dozens of Afghans now released from Guantánamo and was so appalled by this document that he forwarded me a copy. Dated Oct. 7, 2006, it reads as follows:
“An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible.”
That’s it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan’s life, written in language Orwell would have recognized. We have “the deciding official,” not an officer, general or judge. We have “the information about you,” not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have “a decision about what will happen to you,” not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States. That is why I am thankful above all that the next U.S. commander in chief is a constitutional lawyer. Nothing has been more damaging to the United States than the violation of the legal principles at the heart of the American idea.
Let’s face it, Orwell has become kind of a cliche. (No fault of his own; if the most sincere form of flattery is imitation, the most flattering form of sincerity is to have one’s ideas transmorgified into cliches.) It’s not just that Orwell was, in 1984, writing about a futuristic dystopia; he was describing parts of the world that already existed. The best science fiction, of course, has always anticipated the future by channeling the present. History is obliged to repeat itself because the human beings who make history do so in such a predictable, patterned fashion. And so, Orwell has the curious fate of being over-quoted and under-read: everyone knows what Orwellian means because they’ve already seen what it means (in movies, in the news). More importantly, everyone understands that the horrors Orwell depicted are passe; totalitarianism is so 20th Century. Except for the fact that it isn’t, and never was.
(It’s tempting to point out another immortal text, one that is arguably second only to 1984 in terms of ubiquity and the type of cultural resonance that is so often invoked and so seldom analyzed. Nevertheless, it’s all there in Conrad’s fin-de-siecle classic Heart of Darkness: the dehumanization, for political purposes and/or the expedience of power, of the Other; an “other” who is assigned this designation necessarily from a position of powerlessness (powerless to protect, powerless to define). The naked will of brute force for the ostensible purpose of “exterminating the brutes” invariably involves religion or money, but either way, it always involves a struggle for power. Sadly, few seem to have actually bothered reading Conrad’s novella, but everyone has seen Apocalypse Now, so it’s a wash.)
But there is an exposed nerve running from Conrad to Orwell that might be best explained by considering the two Russian masters who connected the dots in between them: Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. The former’s novel We (1921) and the latter’s The Master and Margarita (commenced in 1928, completed in 1941) deal directly with the dehumanizing repercussions of totalitarian rule. Focusing more on the (very human) consequences of identity destruction and the suppression of self–a paramount objective of those in power, and a necessary condition of remaining in power–these novels are quite literally notes from the underground, infused with the verisimilitude of an insider’s experience. They lived it and they wrote about it.
Orwell took that torch of truth and continued onward even as the scope of Fascism cast an ever-enlarging shadow over other parts of other continents: again, his work resonates because he is depicting (then, and now) realities that anyone who has lived inside an autocratic regime can easily recognize. And as Americans, we quickly apprehend the causes and effects of totalitarianism because, our history books austerely inform us, we did much to eradicate them. And so we did. But it was well before 9/11 that certain segments of society (usually the dreaded leftist types who work in universities or for newspapers–or even worse, the ones who write fiction or poetry or music) perceived the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which even this most democratic society has at times unintentionally and at other times willfully revealed a dark heart that contradicts its own Constitution.
Here’s the thing: people have read Orwell even if they haven’t (because the author of Animal Farm is a de rigeur point of reference for any writer, particularly a politically oriented writer, who hopes to be taken seriously), and they’ve watched Conrad (or at least a sensationalized action-epic that delivers visually even if it severely lacks the scope or coherence of its inspiration), and few people have any interest in reading dead Russian writers not named Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (and those that do are already ensconced in English graduate programs). Fortunately, for better or worse, we nevertheless have an author (and text) that covers everything already mentioned (the fiction, the non-fiction, and the considerable overlap in between them both, otherwise known as History). The good news: his name is, if possible, even more incessantly invoked than Orwell’s. The bad news: even fewer people have actually read him. If that seems Kafkaesque, it’s because it is. Well, actually it isn’t; but that is the point: as an adjective, Kafkaesque is misused with greater abandon than Orwellian. Or, to put it slightly less pessimistically, it has been bludgeoned into submission. Put slightly more pretentiously, Kafkaesque awoke one morning from uneasy dreams it found itself transformed in its bed into a gigantic Cliche.
Listen: an unassuming citizen is informed, one day, that he is accused of a crime. He has committed no crimes that he is aware of, but that is all but irrelevant, since a description of the crime is not given. He spends the rest of his harried life making the futile attempt to exonerate himself or, short of that, have the specific charges explained to him. Immersed in a Byzantine maze that is at once inherently bureaucratic and at the same time nonsensical, his will slowly dissolves in this irrational paralysis. When, ultimately, he is executed, it comes almost as a relief.
Sound familiar?
Of course, it scarcely suffices to look at what we’ve wrought at Guantánamo and abroad and call it Orwellian or Kafkaesque. It is both of those, in equal measure, but it’s also something quite a bit more appalling. Partly because it’s true–this has actually happened; partly because we’ve done it before and claimed we would never do it again. Mostly because, while it was happening, there were actually people (quite a lot of them) who raised the alarm and found themselves scoffed at, or threatened. Some were actually disenfranchised; most were simply dismissed. Eventual (inevitable?) progress has been sickeningly slow in coming, but at least there is a miniscule crack in the one-way glass. Once that hole gets bigger (and it will, as it always does) many of us are going to be disgusted at what we see (what we did, who was responsible for organizing it all, what was done in our name by others we paid to do what we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to do). Some will defend it all, naturally: the acts, the people who undertook them; it is, after all, just good business. Others will, obviously, decry the (demonstrably liberal) media that seems to take so much pleasure pulling back the curtain to reveal the cretins scurrying into the cracks. Same as it ever was. And finally, there will be the newly-awakened, who’ll shake their heads and lament that extraordinary times occasionally inspire atrocious activities. But never again, at least. At least we’ll have learned that much.
A cliche: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
A tragedy: those who do not read literature are doomed to inspire it.
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