Orwell and Obama: Doublethink is double-plus ungood

I just reread Nineteen Eighty-Four -- actually, listened to the audiobook. It is far better than I had remembered from my high school days, far better written, far more incisive, and it has a far better story that rests on a far more interesting character, in poor Winston Smith, than I had remembered. It is a great book. It's so great that it has done what only the truly great books can do -- by dramatizing a fictional tale, it has impelled me to look into my own actual beliefs and behavior at this political and economic moment.

It was the concept of doublethink that struck the hardest blow -- a sudden horrible shock of recognition. Doublethink in the novel is:
The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
If I am honest I have to admit that I am guilty of doublethink, that in my mind I hold two contradictory beliefs, that I tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, and that I keep the lie one step ahead of the truth. I have become irrational.

On the one hand, I supported Obama for any number of reasons from the very early days, watched his ascent to power with fascination and, frankly, awe -- as if he really was something of a superhero come to earth. In the primaries I was relentless in my Obamania, and in the general election I was wracked with an excruciating mixture of fear and hope for months and months. When he won the election, I had a kind of spiritual orgasm. Tracy and I retired to the couch for more or less 24 hours, watching YouTube clips of election highlights, playing our favorite joyful songs, and shaking radiant, gratified faces at each other in disbelief. Once inaugurated, I was happy with early announcements: phased withdrawal from Iraq, banning torture, no more using the phrase "War on Terror," funding stem cell research, bold stimulus to invest in green clean energy, health care, green transportation, etc. etc.

On the other hand, when I look at my country, when I look into my heart, I see that the US and the whole post-industrial world truly is a capitalist oligarchy, ruled by small elite groups for their own enrichment. The US political system is cleverly rigged, the economy is clearly aimed at pouring almost all of the wealth upwards, and the two-party system is there to simulate a minimal amount of "debate," staged by the handful of conglomerate media companies, that is largely limited to issues of importance to the ruling class. The two parties stifle any and all rivals and use extremely sophisticated coded media language to communicate to their followers. The system has now perfected the art of reaching just the right people with just the right language to support the elite's two chosen candidates. Congress is hardly better, with both houses bursting with millionaires -- and the rest with incomes and tangled connections of influence and power beyond the reach, and probably even the imagination, of most ordinary people.

The two concepts are entirely irreconcilable. To simultaneously understand that Obama has drawn almost his entire administration from the same elite roster as Bush -- and to dismiss my previous concerns about those people in hope that somehow they will get things right this time -- that is doublethink. To watch Obama deal with the financial crisis by plucking people from the the Wall Street titans, the self-described Masters of the Universe, and placing them in charge of "fixing" the very problem they created, and accepting that their solution is to immediately pay themselves and their friends absolutely colossal sums of money borrowed from future generations -- and even cheerleading this effort as unavoidable, as an unfortunate necessity -- that is doublethink. To know that President Obama is continuing to run the country for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful capitalist class and that the working and middle classes, when it's all said and done, are going to get shafted for every penny yet again -- and yet to literally beam at President Obama while he jokes around with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, to marvel at his intelligence and calm demeanor and sober, good-natured bearing -- that is indisputably doublethink.

I am guilty of doublethink. I am as susceptible to microtargeted PR efforts as the Fox News consumers I disdain have proven to be susceptible to the PR efforts that target them. To admit this to myself is extremely sobering and makes me head for the safety of defiant justification: What, I want Obama to fail? And anyway what choice did I have -- Mike Gravel? Wasn't the most important thing to be rid of Bush, who was overtly Orwellian, and then get on with improving things? Isn't it an achievement all by itself, sad as it is to say, to have elected a president who is well-spoken, mild in temperament, smart? And wouldn't it have been almost impossible for me to not support the first African American president, especially when he seems to be just about pretty much damned perfect in every way? And if Obama supporters abandon him, won't the Republicans just reassert control?

Those may be good questions, but they don't absolve me from needing to think rationally. Obama may be my favorite president in a long time, but that has about as much to do with justice and economic fairness as saying R.E.M. is my favorite band. The system is rotten to the core, and looking at the truly obscene debt and deficits, could well be finally past the point of no return. It's by any honest measure wildly, dangerously out of whack. At a time when the financial sector, after betting the country's future on idiotic gambles that should have been illegal, has brought the world economy to its knees, Obama is presiding over a scuffle among different factions of the wealthy regarding who will take home the biggest bags of our money, and he's billing the whole thing to the national credit card. Which is just what Bush used to do.

But even after all that ... I. Still. Love. Him. Just as after his ordeal, Winston Smith, at the end of Orwell's novel, has his ideological breakthrough: I ... love ... Big Brother. How is this possible? Because doublethink is possible. And I am guilty of it.

I don't claim to be an economist or social theorist, but I do claim to have a fairly clever head on my shoulders. Admitting my doublethink is a step away from feeling good, but it is a step toward sanity.


The Dust Bowl Dinner Special

I'm a big fan of paper, paper books, newspapers, tissue paper birthday crowns, paper GRE's, but this has got me re-thinking. . . . . but what other options are there? Dictating the questions (and making the students bring their own paper)? The school clearly doesn't have the money to switch to computers.


Writers using Twitter?

If you are or know of a writer using Twitter for either book promotion or fan communication, I'd love to hear from you for a possible article. Please email earthgoat at gmail dot com.


Writer Porn

Granted, I watched only the first three minutes of this show, but in this time of delusional economic chickens coming home to roost and peck out our eyes with their silvery sharp beaks as we scream "Why can't I?", I thought the new show "Castle" seemed intriguing for the skewed reality it was trying to get out there (at least the first three minutes of it, before I got bored and went back to my usual evening of Internet porn and weeping).

The show started off with Castle, who is a very successful author, having a book launch party for his new book. Models and booze are everywhere, it's on a roof (in LA maybe), the scene was all quick-cut beautiful people who all wanted Castle (who was also handsome and beautiful), who was grinning like an idiot, his pockets lined with $100 bills and condoms and penicillin and whip-its, absolutely Godlike like in the adoration heaped upon him as he stepped into the klieg lights and said something either petulant or clever and then people threw more money and underwear at him.

Now, for all I know, Castle realized he'd never finish his magnum opus and killed himself with booze and a hot shot of heroin after the commercial break (although the show looks more like a blasphemous update of "Murder, She Wrote"--God bless you, insanely murderous Cabot Cove), but from the little I saw, I realized how much this was an image of "author" I think we all want to believe at times (even if we won't admit it). Now, clearly someone wrote this show (maybe several someones), with desks full of novels and short stories that will never see the light of day (just like us), and who maybe even have fancy writer degrees (just like us). That's when I realized this show was writer porn, and that it might be just as inflationary and destructive to the literary world as the guy who told me it was a good idea to buy General Motors stock at $20 is to the economic one.

Remember when The New Yorker was running stories with pictures of the authors, and it seemed like, while the stories were fine, the main impetus behind it all was to try to get some cute people out there, laying in silk, skin heaving, freckles Photoshopped, bulges realigned and readjusted, just like those models and rock stars? OR, I saw a website with the "Literary Lions of New York!" who were just a bunch of random schlumpy book editors and what not who probably get paid slave wages and sleep in twin-size murphy beds in an apartment with a view of Fresh Kills -- but, goddamn it, they were lions! I don't need company health insurance, Aslan, you pussy! (to paraphrase the White Witch).

All the "rock star" moments I have ever been involved with involving authors have usually been instances where the adored probably was hoping desperately to get away from the adoree (as when I made a t-shirt and told George Saunders, "I'm not crazy -- I went to the Workshop!" He had the same look in his eyes Jimmy gets when he has the night terrors). Usually, in my experience, such things occur at conventions where half the attendees have at least a working knowledge of Klingon.

So, why the myth? What do we need it for? Does it encourage writers, or knock the legs out of them when the reality sets in?

"American Idol for literature"

USA Today has a short article on WEbook, a kind of clearinghouse for book ideas and new writing. One nugget nested in that article caught my eye: the percentage of Americans who read a novel, poem, play or story in the past year jumped from 46.7% in 2002 to 50.2% in 2008. Still pretty pathetic if you ask me, yet it does represent a 3.5% increase -- or around 10 million more people reading literature.


Watchmen reax?

Who liked it and who didn't?

Put me down as one who thought it was a bad movie. Not completely worthless, but there was a lot of bad dialogue and acting, it was too long, and it was gratuitously gruesome. And the characters felt flat to me, more there to deliver supposedly wry one-liners that came off corny too many times than to make me identify with and root for them.

Another thing that bothered me was the heavy and awkward use of baby-boomer classic songs. That has worked for films in the past, but the choices here were too over the top and I felt clubbed over the head with them. "All Along the Watchtower" (har har, get it, WATCHtower? forget it) and LC's "Hallelujah" became soundtracks to particularly irritating scenes.

No, I had not read it. I had started it and stopped.



"Suggestion" is just another word for nothing left to choose.

Lumpy asked me to post this question to y'all literary brainiacs:

"Can anyone suggest a novel or memoir that makes extensive use of flashbacks, flashforwards, and backstory while the actual plot only covers a short amount of time and towards the end of said time nothing much actually happens (say, 27 days starving on a raft in a swamp in the Amazon) (and not including Ullysses)?"


New unfinished DFW novel

What to make of this -- hundreds of pages found on his desk, the work of years, flights made to inspect by agent and editor? Would reading a "couple hundred thousand words" next year with no promise of the payoff of an ending but with notes, outlines and something called "other material" be worth the investment? It might be very interesting -- or not. Was reading The Last Tycoon worth it?

Give yourself a clue by reading the New Yorker excerpt, which is about an IRS clerk at his desk who is so bored he has looked up the etymology of the word bore and is apparently hallucinating. It is a meditation on the empty soullessness of this daily activity -- hell, it's a foray into the very philosophy of boredom.
The whole issue was almost unbelievably meaningless and small. He thought about the word “meaning” and tried to summon up his baby’s face without looking at the photo, but all he could get was the heft of a full diaper and the plastic mobile over his crib turning in the breeze that the box fan in the doorway made. He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow, unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t already been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his throat, and he looked quickly around to see if any of the examiners near him had heard it or were looking at him.
A little flag: Hasn't the ironic/existentialist take on office meaninglessness been done? Don't we have Kafka and The Office for that?

However, now I see that the truly hilarious excerpt in Harper's last year is also an excerpt from The Pale King, and so now my excitement is revved back up. And now I will try the D. T. Max article on the story behind impending third DFW novel -- I mean, I will after I complete some work here at my desk, and I will try not to look at the clock.