Category Archives: Personal

As I Please (George Orwell Birthday Edition)

George Orwell was born on this date in 1903 in the city of Motihari which was located in what was then British India (now India).  Aside from having written 1984 and Animal Farm, he also produced a great deal of journalism, some of which he fashioned into novels, like Homage to Catalonia.  Orwell also liked the outdoors and for a period of time grew and raised his own food on the desolate island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides.  When he had a brush with death nearly drowning in a whirlpool along with his young son, Richard, one of his first remarks upon returning to the safety of land concerned the remarkable features of a bird he had just seen.  The Tribune is one of the publications to which Orwell contributed articles when he was still working as a journalist.  After Orwell died on January 21, 1950, at the age of 46, the editors of the Tribune published in place of an obituary about his death what they considered to be their favorite piece by Orwell from among the many he wrote for the paper.  The piece was part of a long running column by Orwell entitled As I Please; this one happened to be the 68th installment and was dated January 3, 1947.  Here it is in full:

Nearly a quarter century ago I was traveling on a liner to Burma.  Though not a big ship, it was a comfortable and even a luxurious one, and when one was not asleep or playing deck games one usually seemed to be eating.  The meals were of that stupendous kind that steamship companies used to vie with one another in producing, and in between times there were snacks such as apples, ices, biscuits and cups of soup, lest anyone should find himself fainting from hunger.  Moreover, the bars opened at ten in the morning, and, since we were at sea, alcohol was relatively cheap.

The ships of this line were mostly manned by Indians, but apart from the officers and the stewards they carried four European quartermasters whose job was to take the wheel.  One of these quartermasters, though I suppose he was only aged forty or so, was one of those old sailors on whose back you almost expect to see barnacles growing.  He was a short, powerful, rather ape-like man, with enormous forearms covered by a mat of golden hair.   A blond moustache which might have belonged to Charlemagne completely hid his mouth.  I was only twenty years old and very conscious of my parasitic status as a mere passenger, and I looked up to the quartermasters, especially the fair-haired one, as godlike beings on a par with the officers.  It would not have occurred to me to speak to one of them without being spoken to first.

One day, for some reason, I came up from lunch early.  The deck was empty except for the fair-haired quartermaster, who was scurrying like a rat along the side of the deck-houses, with something partially concealed between his monstrous hands.  I had just time to see what it was before he shot past me and vanished into a doorway.  It was a pie dish containing a half-eaten baked custard pudding.

At one glance I took in the situation — indeed, the man’s air of guilt made it unmistakable.  The pudding was a left-over from one of the passengers’ tables.  It had been illicitly given to him by a steward, and he was carrying it off to the seamen’s quarters to devour it at leisure.  Across more than twenty years I can still faintly feel the shock of astonishment that I felt at that moment.  It took me some time to see the incident in all its bearings: but do I seem to exaggerate when I say that this sudden revelation of the gap between function and reward – the revelation that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all our lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table — taught me more than I could have learned from a half dozen Socialist pamphlets?

A news item to the effect that Yugoslavia is now engaged on a purge of writers and artists left me to look once again at the reports of the recent literary purge in the U.S.S.R., when Zoschenko, Akhmatova and others were expelled from the Writers’ Union.

In England this kind of thing is not happening to us as yet, so that we can view it with a certain detachment, and curiously enough, as I look again at the accounts of what happened, I feel somewhat more sorry for the persecutors than for their victims.  Chief among the persecutors is Andrei Zhdanov, considered by some to be Stalin’s probable successor.  Zhdanov, though he has conducted literary purges before, is a full-time politician with — to judge from his speeches — about as much knowledge of literature as I have of aerodynamics.  He does not give the impression of being, according to his own lights, a wicked or dishonest man.  He is truly shocked by the defection of certain Soviet writers, which appears to him as an incomprehensible piece of treachery, like a military mutiny in the middle of a battle.  The purpose of literature is to glorify the Soviet Union; surely that must be obvious to everyone?  But instead of carrying out their pliant duty, these misguided writers keep straying away from the paths of propaganda, producing non-political works, and even, in the case of Zoschenko, allowing a satirical note to creep into their writings.  It is all very painful and bewildering.  It is as though you set a man to work in an excellent, up-to-date, air-conditioned factory, gave him high wages, short hours, good canteens and playing-grounds, a comfortable flat, a nursery-school for his children, all-round social insurance and music while you work — only to find the ungrateful fellow throwing spanners into the machinery on his very first day.

What makes the whole thing somewhat pathetic is the general admission — an honest admission, seeing that Soviet publicists are not in the habit of decrying their own country — that Russian literature as a whole is not what it ought to be.  Since the U.S.S.R. represents the highest existing form of civilization, it is obvious that it ought to lead the world in literature as in everything else.  “Surely,” says Zhdanov, “our new Socialist system, embodying all that is best in the history of human civilization and culture, is capable of creating the most advanced literate, which will leave far behind the best creations of olden times.”. Izvestia (as quoted by the New York paper, Politics) goes further: “Our culture stands on an immeasurably higher level than bourgeois culture … Is it not clear that our culture has the right not to act as pupil and imitator but , on the contrary, to teach others the general human morals?”. And yet somehow the expected thing never happens.  Directives are issued, resolutions are passed unanimously, recalcitrant writers are silenced: and yet for some reason a vigorous and original literature, unmistakably superior to that of capitalist countries, fails to emerge.

All this has happened before, and more than once.  Freedom of expression has had its ups and downs in the U.S.S.R. , but the general tendency has been towards higher censorship.  The thing that politicians are seemingly unable to understand is that you cannot produce vigorous literature by terrorizing everyone into conformity.  A writer’s inventive faculties will not work unless he is allowed to say approximately what he feels.  You can destroy spontaneity and produce a literature which is orthodox but feeble, or you can let people say what they choose and take the risk that some of them will utter heresies.  There is no way out of that dilemma so long as books have to be written by individuals.

That is why, in a way, I feel sorrier for the persecutors than for the victims.  It is probable that Zoschenko and the others at least have the satisfaction of understanding what is happening to them: the politicians who harry them are merely attempting the impossible.  For Zhdanov and his kind to say, “the Soviet Union can exist without literature,” would be reasonable.  But that is just what they can’t say.  They don’t’ know what literature is, but they know that it is important, that is has prestige value, and that it is necessary for propaganda purposes, and they would like to encourage it, if they only knew how.  So they continue with their purges and directives, like a fish bashing its nose against the wall of an aquarium again and again, too dim-witted to realize that glass and water are not the same thing.

From The Thoughts of Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being.  Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?  Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?  — But this is more pleasant — Dost thou exist then to take they pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?  Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to nature?

It is a good idea to print this well-known exhortation in large letters and hang it on the wall opposite your bed.  And if that fails, as I am told it sometimes does, another good plan is to buy the loudest alarm clock you can get and place it in such a position that you have to get out of bed and go around several pieces of furniture in order to silence it.

The Press and Mass Shootings

By now I do not think it is a stretch to describe the mass shooting as a truly American phenomenon.  To be sure, similar kinds of shootings happen in other countries, but nowhere do they happen with the frequency and sense of post-hoc helplessness, where even scores of dead children fail to sway federal lawmakers to act, as in the United States.  Like chronic unemployment, this is a deeply troubling trend that will be a way of life for many Americans in the years to come; for those who want or hope to perpetrate such acts; those who will become their  victims; and those who will bear witness to such events, in person or through the media.

Like any other chronic societal ill, the causes are many but some are more significant than others.  With mass shootings it is generally the notoriety of the act that gives the shooters the encouragement they need to carry it out.  The very nature of the act, with its multiple mostly randomized victims and gruesome violence, almost guarantees they will get the attention they crave.

But the shootings, no matter how gruesome or deadly, don’t publicize themselves.  That is the job of the media, which in this context mostly consists of news outlets.  This may be changing now that digital technologies have made news gathering and dissemination more accessible to the layperson and not simply the province of a reporter who has the backing of fact-checkers and editors.  But I would venture to guess that most people still receive their first full story of a news event — the one that shapes a person’s view of the event and its cast of characters for the remainder of the news cycle — from an outfit like the Times or CNN or even Fox News.

There is an inherent social value to the work done by these organizations.  It is the public’s right to know when certain things happen in the community or around the world.  So important is the news-gathering function to society that we have laws which in most circumstances prohibit the government from forcing reporters to divulge their sources even when doing so would serve an equally important societal good: the prosecution of criminal activity.  Such is the essence of self-governance, and is what distinguishes a democracy from say a totalitarian form of government.

But what happens when the reporting that is supposed to be done for the good of the public actually produces a net negative for that same constituency?  What if the reporting on mass shootings is so poor and so sensationalized that it  contributes to more acts of violence even while giving the public the information it needs to govern its own affairs,  information that might involve something as mundane as knowing not to venture into an area that is the scene of a massive manhunt or criminal investigation?

News reporting is now more than ever something to throw at the public hungry for distraction and entertainment.  It is its own reality show but with minimal production costs.  It is something to put on between commercials or to throw up on a webpage to increase or “drive” web traffic.  It is in other words the ideal medium through which another neglected, mentally troubled youth can experience his delusions of grandeur and feel empowered doing it.

I confess that I don’t know what effect, if any, the media’s portrayal and reporting of mass shootings has on the motivation and determination of those who end up carrying out these acts.  And I hope that someone decides to conduct a lengthy comprehensive study on this, if one has not been done already.  But if the conclusion of such a study suggests that there does exist a positive correlation between the two, as I suspect will be the case, then it should fall on the shoulders of the journalists themselves to regulate what may be their own involvement in a problem that is quickly growing out of control.

The Wisdom of Uncle Alex

From Kurt Vonnegut’s, A Man Without a Country:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren.  And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren.  They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess.  But it has always been a mess.  There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days.  And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me.  I just got here.”

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity — the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever.  Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth.  Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today I am a woman.  Today I am a man.  The end.”

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, “You’re a man now.”  So I killed him.  Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex.  He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis.  He was well-read and wise.  And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they seldom noticed it when they were happy.  So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids.  And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur of think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Opening Day 2014

Today is Opening Day for the 2014 big league baseball season.  If there’s one change I’d like to see in the way baseball games are played and broadcast it is in the length and pace of the game.  Hitters as well as pitchers today take way too much time between pitches.  Hitters adjust their gloves, helmets, pants, belts and anything else you could think of before deciding to step back into the batter box.  Pitchers, meanwhile, fiddle with their caps, pace the mound, and make pointless pickoff moves before delivering a pitch.  It is unclear whether all these extraneous movements are product of “mind games” that pitchers and hitters are known to play on each other or if they are just a form of procrastination.  Either way, the fan is left to endure all these time-wasting movements and will be lucky if he or she can muster the patience to watch or listen to all nine innings.  Games today are also jam packed with commercials, ads and tie-ins so that sometimes it is unclear whether baseball is the main focus or the car that is being peddled by the announcer for the thirtieth time in the broadcast.

My hope for this season is to be able to score at least one game live (i.e., at the field) which is harder than it sounds if, like me,  you also have an infant and toddler to look after during the game.  With that in mind, I will simply settle for a hot dog, a cold beer, and making it to the seventh-inning stretch, scorecard be damned.   

 

Almost a “One Man Terror”

In my library is a compilation of Hemingway’s works as a journalist, entitled “By-Line: Ernest Hemingway” (Scribners 1967).  I came across it in a used bookstore in lower Manhattan years ago, although I suspect the bookstore is no longer there, as is the case with most independent book proprietors nowadays.  The compilation cost $8.50 and bore the following inscription circa 1967: “love and kisses always”, from Ann to Dad.

I pulled the book off the shelf the other day and flipped to no article in particular.  The one on which I landed turned out to be a dispatch from Hemingway’s days covering  the Spanish Civil War.  The piece is illuminating not only because of what it says but also how it is said.  It gives the reader the feeling that Hemingway conveyed to him or her what was in his mind at the moment, and that he did not have to, or at least chose not to, censor his thoughts out of fear, an exercise that is almost non-existent with most of today’s journalists.  The article, in substance, is classic Hemingway: a how-to for those who want to be real, i.e., manly, do-right, wartime correspondents, bubbling with an undercurrent of violence.  Whether Hemingway’s own journalism in this piece, by which he describes what he claims to be the true state of affairs in Madrid as of Sept. 1938, is credible or just a way for him to make his point against the weasel-y journalist and subject of his ire is another story that is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say that Orwell, through his own encounter with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, had his doubts about Hemingway’s tough-guy image with which he is famously associated.

The piece is entitled Fresh Air on an Inside Story, published in Ken magazine on September 23, 1938.  Here it is in full:

I met this citizen in the Florida Hotel in Madrid in the end of April of last year.  It was a late afternoon and he had arrived from Valencia the evening before.  He had spent the day in his room writing an article.  This man was tall, with watery eyes, and strips of blond hair pasted carefully across a flat-topped bald head.

“How does Madrid seem?” I asked him.

“There is a terror here,” said this journalist.  “There is evidence of it wherever you go.  Thousands of bodies are being found.”

“When did you get here?” I asked him.

“Last night.”

“Where did you see the bodies?”

“They are around everywhere,” he said.  “You see them in the early morning.”

“Were you out early this morning?”

“No.”

“Did you see any bodies?”

“No,” he said.  “But I know they are there.”

“What evidence of terror have you seen?”

“Oh, it’s there,” he said.  “You can’t deny it’s there.”

“What evidence have you seen yourself?”

“I haven’t had time to see it myself but I know it is there.”

“Listen,” I said.  “You get in here last night.  You haven’t even been out in the town and you tell us who are living here and working here that there is terror.”

“You can’t deny there is a terror,” said this expert.  “Everywhere you see evidence of it.”

“I thought you said you hadn’t seen any evidence.”

“They are everywhere,” said the great man.

I then told him that there were half a dozen of us newspaper men who were living and working in Madrid whose business it was, if there was a terror, to discover it and report it.  That I had friends in Seguridad that I had known from the old days and could trust, and that I knew that three people had been shot for espionage that month.  I had been invited to witness an execution but had been away at the front and had waited four weeks for there to be another.  That people had been shot during the early days of the rebellion by the so-called “uncontrollables” but that for months Madrid had been as safe and well policed and free from any terror as any capital in Europe.  Any people shot or taken for rides were turned in at the morgue and he could check for himself as all journalists had done.

“Don’t try to deny there is a terror,” he said.  “You know there is a terror.”

Now he was a correspondent for a truly great newspaper and I had a lot of respect for it so I did not sock him.  Besides if one should take a poke at a guy like that it would only furnish evidence that there was a terror.  Also the meeting was in the room of an American woman journalist and I think, but cannot be positive on this, that he was wearing glasses.

The American woman journalist was leaving the country and, that same day, he gave her a sealed envelope to take out.  You do not give people sealed envelopes to take out of a country in wartime, but this stout fellow assured the American girl the envelope contained only a carbon of an already censored dispatch of his from the Teruel front which he was mailing to his office as a duplicate in order to make sure of its safe arrival.

Next day the American girl mentioned that she was taking out this letter for him.

“It isn’t sealed, is it?” I asked her.

“Yes.”

“Better let me take it over to  Censorship for you as I go by, then, so you won’t get in any trouble over it.”

“What trouble could I get into?  It’s only a carbon of a dispatch that’s already censored.”

“Did he show it to you?”

“No.  But he told me.”

“Never trust a man who slicks hair over a bald head,” I said.

“The Nazis have a price of 20,000 [pounds] on his head,” she said.  “He must be all right.”

Well, at Censorship it tuned out that the alleged carbon of a dispatch from Teruel was not a carbon of a dispatch but an article which stated, “There is terror here in Madrid.  Thousands of bodies are found, etc.”. It was a dandy.  It made liars out of every honest correspondent in Madrid.  And this guy had written it without stirring from his hotel the first day he arrived.  The only ugly thing was that the girl to whom he had entrusted it could, under the rules of war, have been shot as a spy if it had been found among her papers when she was leaving the country.  The dispatch was a lie and he had given it to a girl who trusted him to take out of the country.

That night at the Gran Via restaurant I told the story  to a number of hard-working, non-political, straight-shooting correspondents who risked their lives daily working in Madrid and who had been denying there was terror in Madrid ever since the government had taken control of the situation and stopped all terror.

They were pretty sore about this outsider who was going to come into Madrid, make liars out of all of them, and expose one of the most popular correspondents to an espionage charge for carrying out his faked dispatch.

“Let’s go over and ask him if the Nazis really put a price of 20,000 [pounds] on his head,” someone said.  “Somebody should denounce him for what he has done.  He ought to be shot and if we knew where to send the head it could be shipped in dry ice.”

“It wouldn’t be a nice looking head but I’d be glad to carry it myself in a rucksack,” I offered.  “I haven’t seen 20,000 [pounds] since 1929.”

“I’ll ask him,” said a well-known Chicago reporter.

He went over to the man’s table, spoke to him very quietly and then came back.

We all kept looking at the man.  He was white as the under half of an unsold flounder at 11 o’clock in the morning just before the fish market shuts.

“He says there isn’t any reward for his head,” said the Chicago reporter in his faintly rhythmical voice.  “He says that was just something one of his editors made up.”

So that is how one journalist escaped starting a one man terror in Madrid.

If a censorship does not permit a newspaper man to write the truth, the correspondent can try to beat the censorship under penalty of expulsion if caught.  Or he can go outside the country and write uncensored dispatches.  But this citizen on a flying trip was going to let someone else take all his risk while he received credit as a fearless exposer.  The remarkable story at that time was that there was no terror in Madrid.  But that was too dull for him.

It would have interested his newspaper though because oddly enough it happened to be a newspaper that has been interested for a long time in the truth.

 

Dr. King and His Ideals in 2014

This year’s tribute to Dr. King has to do with this country’s economic well-being.  When a person talks about his own well-being it is often in the context of how he is feeling physically, mentally and emotionally.  When disease, injury or trauma occurs, then the saying generally is “I’m not feeling well”.  The same kind of self-assessment can and should be made for the country as a whole.  Indeed, our current president seems to know this well and will often make observations of the country’s poor economic health as a way to advance his political agenda.  His carefully prepared diagnosis is generally: too much inequality and not enough shared sacrifice.  And he will give this assessment the same way a doctor today would give his patient a diagnosis: mechanically and patronizingly.  But for something that is akin to cancer in its potential to disrupt and destroy, that is no way to motivate a populace to change its way, to say nothing of whether he even believes change is needed at all.

For years now, the country has been gripped by an increasing sense of economic insecurity.  One that says to a person if I don’t do this now, I will never be able to do it at all.  The thing that must be done, of course, is “make money”.  This mentality I think we can all agree has led to a lower quality of life than that which existed thirty, forty years ago.  Because, for all the additional material goods and technology that we now have that we didn’t have before, they do nothing to compensate for the time that one has to spend to make that extra dollar that he cannot spend with his family, his friends his community, and even himself (in the sense of self-reflection and self-improvement).

It is the kind of insecurity that has led to the creation of thousands of meaningless yet high-paying jobs where the only skill that is required is the skill to bullshit your way through meeting after meeting, and client after client, while doing everything you possibly can to protect your own turf.  It is meant to employ the un-employable, and in the process, give them a sense of self-worth, while doing nothing to teach them a skill which might make a difference when the government is on the brink of collapse or the next nuclear bomb hits.  Make no mistake, this is not a swipe at the so-called financial industry whose dispensability and frivolousness are already well-known to the general public.  It is directed to some of the most revered institutions, like higher education and public service, that have at one time made this country — even with its many moral failings — a symbol of hope for many around the world.

This sense of insecurity is not entirely irrational.  The growing gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and unhealthy has been thoroughly documented.  It isn’t news that the country is in ill-health and likely to get worse in the coming years.  And it is entirely predictable that people today have an almost messianic attitude about money and its healing properties: “get as much of it as you can now because soon there won’t be any left.  And if we can’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”.

The problem, of course, is that this just makes the problem worse.  The “me first” mentality further entrenches the rich at the expense of the poor.  That is because the ones who are most able to make it on their own are the ones who already have the means to do so.  What the current climate of insecurity has done is turn what were once blinders which the rich wore vis a vis the poor to full-blown hazmat suits.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, or so the saying goes.  In cities, this can be seen in “gentrification” which allow the rich to enjoy all the benefits of the city without the costs that necessarily come with living in close proximity to others.  In the suburbs, this can be seen in the proliferation of gated communities and private police forces.  The common theme of all this change is the rejection of the idea that we all provide for each other as well as for ourselves, rather than simply ourselves, an idea that led many to embrace Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Few if any public figures mention these things.  To do so would make them a prime target for the “socialist” label and doom their careers.  But the ideals at issue are ones that need to be revived if the country is to heal itself from the economic and moral malaise with which it has been inflicted.  Dr. King recognized that, and history has proven his work valuable even if its effects have been limited (not through any fault of his own).  And we must as well, for the alternative is at once unfathomable but all too familiar.

Sandy Hook, Newtown: One Year Later

Saturday will be the one year anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  I am often confused as to how this country can tolerate the kind of violence and loss of life that makes the United States unique among all other advanced, industrialized countries.  This goes beyond tragedies like Newtown to everyday occurrences like for-profit healthcare and  mass incarceration.  Newtown is just the culmination of everything that, at times, makes living in this country a traumatic experience.

There isn’t much that I can say or write that would make any kind of positive contribution to what happened in Newtown.  I wrote letters to the senators of this State on the subject of gun control and they both responded with form letters proclaiming their allegiance to the Second Amendment.  I have a young child and cannot even begin to envision what I would have done or felt had I learned that he was shot to death in school along with 20 of his classmates.  It is beyond comprehension for me.  But it’s also very much a reality.  Parents share a bond just like soldiers on a combat mission share a bond — one of mutual experience, trauma and direction.

In 2003, the late Roger Ebert reviewed “Elephant”, a movie about the Columbine  school shooting.  In his review, Ebert shared an encounter he had had with a news reporter the day after the shooting occurred:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Here is someone who is neither an “expert” in school shootings or a reporter to whom the public generally turns for “news”.  Certainly, he isn’t someone who  had his “report” blaming violent media for school shootings piped through the television sets of millions of Americans.  He is simply someone who has a clear understanding of humanity and is not afraid to express his views on the subject.

Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

Yesterday, Doris Lessing, the novelist, died at the age of 94.  I do not know her with the kind of familiarity that I might of other authors — at least when it comes to their bodies of work.  But I did recently read of essay by Ms. Lessing entitled The Small Personal Voice in which she discusses the purpose and endurance of the novel as a form of art.   Here is some of what she had to say on that subject:

The great [novelists] of the nineteenth century [like Tolstoy, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Turgenev, and Chekov] had neither religion nor politics nor aesthetic principles in common.  But what they did have in common was a climate of ethical judgment; they shared certain values; they were humanists.  A nineteenth-century novel is recognizably a nineteenth-century novel because of this moral climate.

If there is one thing which distinguishes our literature, it is a confusion of standards and the uncertainty of values.  […]  Words have become so inadequate to express the richness of our experience that the simplest sentence overheard on a bus reverberates like words shouted against a cliff.  One certainty we all accept is the condition of being uncertain and insecure.  It is hard to make moral judgments, to use words like good and bad.

Yet I reread Tolstoy, Stendahl, Balzac and the rest of the old giants continuously. So do most of the people I know, people who are left and right, committed and uncommitted, religious and unreligious, but who have at least this in common, that they read novels as I think they should be read, for illumination, in order to enlarge one’s perception of life.

Why?  Because we are in search of certainties?  Because we want to return to a comparatively uncomplicated world?  Because it gives us a sense of safety to hear Balzac’s thundering verdicts of guilt or innocence, and to explore with Dostoevsky, for instance in Crime and Punishment, the possibilities of moral anarchy, only to find order restored at the end with the simplest statements of faith in forgiveness, expiation, redemption?

Recently, I finished reading an American novel which pleased me; it was witty, intelligent, un-self-pitying, courageous.  Yet when I put it down I knew I would not reread it.  I asked myself why not, what demand I was making on the author that he did not answer.  Why was I left dissatisfied with nearly all the contemporary novels I read?  Why, if I were reading for my own needs, rather than for the purposes of informing myself about what was going on, would I begin rereading War and Peace or The Red and the Black?

Put directly, like this, the answer seemed to me clear.  I was not looking for a firm reaffirmation of old ethical values, many of which I don’t accept; I was not in search of the pleasures of familiarity.  I was looking for the warmth, the compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of the nineteenth century and which makes all of these old novels a statement of faith in man himself.

The Grand Compromise

The shutdown of the U.S. Government is a reflection of a government that, at all levels, has lost its moral compass.  One can blame the Republicans and the extreme right within the party as the ones who are primarily responsible for this debacle.  But they only made it this far because they have been aided in their lunacy, even if indirectly, by the Democrats and the other branches of the government.

By all accounts, including one from a sitting Justice, the Supreme Court is one of the most activist in history, gutting laws on an unprecedented pace and for reasons that have nothing to do with whether the law is right or wrong, but because it can.

Then you have the executive, in Obama and his endless cadre of advisers and deputies.  Had they really cared about the American people, those “regular folks who live paycheck to paycheck”, they would have sought to reform the country’s healthcare system from the ground up.  Instead, they cared more about their own records and ambitions, and having a law they could call their own.  The result: healthcare reform legislation that was written largely behind closed doors by lobbyists offering only incremental benefits to the public.

In making this grand compromise, Obama lost the one bargaining chip that perhaps would have made the difference in the debates leading up to today’s government shutdown: the merits of Obamacare.  Is there any question that the public would not have embraced a genuinely reformed healthcare system so that they would have done what they did with Obama’s request to Congress to back his foolish foray into Syria: tell their representatives and their government to stop the foolishness.  Instead, Obama is left with a impossibly complex, patchwork of a law that he can neither  discard nor defend.  How does one expect to energize the general public when all it really has to look forward to is the status quo?  But this is old news when it comes to Obama and the Democrats.

The impression one is left with is that the government makes decisions that only benefit those who run it not those whom it was created to protect.

Happy Birthday, George Orwell!

Today is George Orwell’s birthday.  He was born on June 25, 1903 and would be 110 today if he had octogenarian genes in him.  Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite, as Orwell succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 46.

The following is a passage from a book by George Woodcock who was a good friend and colleague of Orwell’s, entitled The Crystal Spirit: a study of George Orwell.  It tells the story of Orwell in his post-Animal Farm days, when he was finally able to live a life unrestricted by the burdens and stresses of poverty and financial insecurity that came with being a writer.  It is the story of a man who was compassionate, humble and principled up until the very end.  And, it involves absinthe.  Happy Birthday, George Orwell!