Trumpthink Doubleplusungood

August 4, 2017

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I’ve just re-read George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, partly because I recently saw a stage adaptation on Broadway (by way of the U.K.), and partly because I can’t shake the feeling that we may be nuzzling closer to this famous dystopia.

OK, I may be overstating a tad, but the shape of reality sure feels funny right now. And that intense British stage production wouldn’t be in New York today had Donald Trump not won the 2016 election. Shortly after the inauguration and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” the novel became a national bestseller once again, and one of the show’s writer-directors sent a simple text to a producer: “84 NY?” The reply was evidently “!”

Even on my first reading as a kid, I had an unusual reaction to this provocative novel. I was most fascinated not by the “bare, hungry, dilapidated” world inhabited by Winston Smith and his fellow citizens of Oceania, or his savage climactic retro-indoctrination at the hands of senior Party member O’Brien. What really knocked me out was a device that appears about two-thirds in, when Winston opens and begins reading a secret book — with us reading over his shoulder — called THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM, written by Emmanuel Goldstein. (Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t.)

The passages we are allowed to see lay out, with cold detachment, the purpose and method of creating a topsy-turvy society in which WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The hardscrabble life of nearly all citizens isn’t some crisis caused by natural or even economic calamity. It has nothing to do with forces that can’t be controlled. Winston’s torpor and misery are visited on him deliberately, planned and sustained by the very few who are actually in charge.

We can’t see “Goldstein”’s entire book, but we get enough to divine that in a venal, bloodless way, the real oligarchs of Winston’s country — and of Eurasia and Eastasia, the two other superstates which share the planet with Oceania — have created a society of stasis, of brutal rationing in service to perpetual war (the exact enemy changes at will), of narcotized subservients who are unable to grasp that life could be better because they are not allowed to have such a thought.

What a weird, science-fictional concept, right? Except you can’t read this stuff these days without thinking of Trump and his pals.

Now I am not seriously suggesting that anyone in the Trump orbit — not Steve Bannon, certainly not the boss himself — is smart enough or even shrewd enough to manage perception the way “Goldstein” and O’Brien do in Orwell. They’re not that calculating, not that sophisticated. Their choices are instinctive. They rule from the gut. Trump can sense unease and capitalize on it — he’s probably the most naturally gifted American politician since Bill Clinton. He has a huge swath of people convinced that he’s looking out for them, even though they have absolutely nothing in common besides mutual loathing for Barack Obama. And what looks like ridiculousness to most people reads as pioneering boldness to an unshakable base whose information is carefully managed — not by Trump personally, but by a right-wing echo chamber which pronounces that his was the largest inaugural crowd ever, Obamacare is destroying America, legitimate journalists can’t be trusted and should be ignored, etc. And that’s way before we get to the Sandy-Hook-was-faked and 9/11-was-an-inside-job rants.

These hamhanded clowns couldn’t possibly create Big Brother. It’s far beyond their skill set. But whether they know it or not, they are quoting from “Goldstein”’s playbook.

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Big Brother (top) and Goldstein (above) in Michael Radford’s film whose title is also its release date, played by, respectively, actors Bob Flag and John Boswall.

The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim— for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives— is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. — Emmanuel Goldstein

This is the standard socialist spiel, far from original to Orwell, but it does heretically acknowledge middle-class aspiration. “Goldstein”’s secret is that the middle class in Oceania has been effectively managed out of existence. It’s vanishing in our real world too, through forces which are largely economic, but Trump says he knows a more nefarious secret: Others — Eastasians, Eurasians? — are sneaking into the homeland and stealing our jobs. In Oceania (its governing system is called Ingsoc, or “English Socialism” expressed in the official language, Newspeak), the notion of a happier life has been quashed. Trump’s America is no less wounded. It doesn’t look upward but backward, to a time when hard-working (ok, white) families could look at the rich and say, one day that’ll be us. What prevents them from living the dream is the enemy: Mexican workers, effete academics, “fake news,” coastal elites, the term “Happy Holidays,” take it from there. Only a drumbeat of constant cultural battle can deflect the base’s attention away from the lack of real progress. In that frail sense, war actually is peace, because…

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. [N]o change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. — Goldstein

Gosh, which political party does that remind you of? This week as I write, there’s a tentative movement toward a bipartisan sitdown in the House to try and thrash out some fixes to the Affordable Care Act — which everybody agrees is flawed. But we’re already hearing whelped, primary-scared Representatives oppose any such powwow on principle: you mean you want to meet with the ENEMY?

Fear and hatred are and always have been the animating forces that stoke the roiling conservative base. Sometimes it’s out in the open, as when Mike Flynn led the crowd in that “LOCK HER UP!” chant at the Republican National Convention. Weeks before I ever conceded the possibility of an actual Trump presidency, that moment reminded me of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”: Hillary Clinton as Goldstein. (Oceanians regularly assemble to boo and curse at a projected image of Goldstein — somehow officially deemed an enemy of the people — until it mercifully dissolves into the likeness of their hero and protector, Big Brother. All Flynn lacked was a Hillary headshot for the Jumbotron.)

Trumpkins are sometimes tagged as rebels against the 21st century GOP, which they view as soft and ineffectual. They keep any “moderate” elected officials dishonest with the constant underlying threat of being “primaried” by somebody even more crazed. But the Pubs have depended on social “wedge issues” to motivate their base since the days of Ronald Reagan, and one strays from official orthodoxy at one’s peril. Republican, Freedom or Tea, the “Party” demands utter fealty no matter what you call it.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The Two Minutes Hate in the 2017 Broadway production.

If leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. — Goldstein

Many observers look at Trump and see an crude, ignorant, incurious child-man who has no idea how to do the job to which he’s amazingly been elected. Remember, he’s really nothing more than a frickin game-show host. But to his most devoted fans that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. It’s so satisfying to think, he’s no smarter than I am, no better than I am, and look where he is. Trump’s business history is studded with failure. No US bank will lend him money, which is why he depends on Russian oligarchs who love to park their dough in real estate. But that’s all superseded by the fact that he’s been on our telescreens — oops, I mean TV sets — playing a tycoon for the better part of a decade. How can you blame people for confusing the actor and his role? TV Trump likes to growl, “You’re fired!” Real Trump desperately avoids conflict: he’s afraid of firing people in person, so instead he makes their lives so miserable that they quit in disgust. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are just the latest heads to auto-roll; at this writing, Trump is working on Jeff Sessions.

You can’t think too hard about all this, though, or else the show-biz veneer will dissipate. In fact, one of the most serious potential threats to both Big Brother and Trump is — thinking at all. One side of the cultural divide is more educated, the other less so. I’ll bet the larger cities and college towns where you live voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the rest of your state belonged to Trump. “I love the uneducated!” he crowed during the campaign. Pointy-headed intellectuals who never did a day’s honest work, ridiculous “safe spaces” for coddled crybaby students, angry protests silencing right-wing lecturers — in a Pew Research poll released in July, 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they believed colleges and universities had a negative effect on the country. In other words, most of them. (Almost three fourths of Democrats and like-minded independents thought the effect was positive.)

Trump has made a fetish out of ignorance. Behind the hollow bluster, he’s actually proud that he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. It’s easy to say, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” (By the way, whenever Donald Trump says “believe me,” don’t.) His ingrained narcissism may even actually convince him; delusion seems to be his copilot. But the tiniest bit of independent thought — “as a moment’s reflection will reveal,” as a friend used to say — can show Cloud Cuckoo-Land for what it truly is. Therefore independent thought is just as much an enemy to Trump as it is to Ingsoc. Most decent undergraduate programs have the same underlying goal: to teach students not what to think, but how to think. I can’t say the same for many schools founded and supported by fundamentalist Christians, or for Fox News, Breitbart and the other reactionary megaphones. Many people have their opinions handed to them because they are unwilling or unable to verify truth independently. In Trumpland, ignorance is strength.

…the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. 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. — Goldstein

This is the principle behind “doublethink,” Orwell’s evil-Zen state that allows dutiful citizens to hold and believe in two contradictory arguments simultaneously, or to accept as truth something that can be easily disproven. Like the old joke about the husband whose wife catches him cheating: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

I know we’ve heard presidential fabrications before, even from men I admire. But has there ever been a more brazen bullshitter than this bird? Donald Trump is a pathological liar. I don’t think he can stop himself. He lost the election by three million votes, and his electoral-college margin turned on about 80,000 votes in three states, yet he calls it a historic landslide. “I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.” Um, nope, that didn’t happen at all. “Even the president of Mexico called me,” Trump lied to his Cabinet. “They said…very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.” ¡Mentiroso hijo de puta, señor!

My favorite Trump lie, out of hundreds spewed out over the past six months, concerned his inaugural speech: “It was almost raining — the rain should have scared them away — but God looked down and he said ‘we are not going to let it rain on your speech’… and then it poured right after I left.” As anybody who was there or watching on tv knows, it rained through the first few minutes of Trump’s speech — you could see people behind him wearing ponchos — and it most definitely did not pour afterward. You’re left with a kind of reluctant awe: why would you even bother to lie about something as trivial as the weather?

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Radford film.

At least part of the answer may be the heady ability to alter history. While researching that last quote, I stumbled on a Christian website that reported the sun “shone” for Trump’s inauguration as a sign of God’s blessing. There’s a kernel of truth in that: the sun did peek out through overcast skies for an instant during the ceremony. But evidently God didn’t dig Trump’s speech, because moments later she made it rain again. However, to the readers of that website, the rain stopped and the sun shone as Trump took office, and that’s that.

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. — Ingsoc party slogan

Winston Smith, you’ll recall, works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue. His job is to repair and replace the historical record. For example, he alters a past promise to maintain rations at the current level. He scrubs all references to a purged Party member, or “unperson,” rendering him nonexistent. But a fissure appears in his capacity for doublethink when he is told Oceania is at war with Eurasia — yet he knows that the enemy has been Eastasia for the last four years. No matter. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Doublethink is maddening and terrifying at the same time.

Of course retroactive reality is impossible to concoct in our hip, wired age. Just ask the Secretary of War. Oh, wait, that’s his old title: now he’s Secretary of Defense, or “SecDef,” a term that sounds a hell of a lot like Newspeak. Or read yesterday’s Congressional Record to find speeches that were never uttered: there isn’t one veteran member of Congress who hasn’t inserted something after the fact. Or sit with the Texas State Board of Education as it sifts through history and science texts for orthodoxy that, because of the practicalities of educational publishing, will have to be replicated nationwide.

The most effective and “Orwellian” stroke of the current regime is the concept of “fake news.” Unlike anal-probing space aliens or government gun confiscation, we know “fake news” is really a thing. Eastern Europeans were actually making money by inventing outrageous clickbait all through the last election cycle. One whopper really gained some traction: that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were operating a child sex ring from the basement of an innocent DC pizza parlor. It went viral, and in December a 28-year-old North Carolina man fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. He told police he was there to “self-investigate” the conspiracy that came to be known as “Pizzagate.” (As you may have expected, the restaurant doesn’t even have a basement.)

Fake news isn’t some kooky fear: it’s definitely out there. In fact Breitbart, the “alt-right” website run until recently by presidential advisor Steve Bannon, absolutely dotes on the stuff. Still it was shocking to hear Trump, at his first news conference as president, pass over CNN’s Jake Tapper and growl, “you’re fake news.” Whaaaat? Within days, Trump was using the term to describe any news organization he didn’t like, and it was an unwitting masterstroke. The eight letters of “fake news” are short-attention-span-friendly, instantly graspable. This is why the “liberal media” are constantly after Trump: all their stories are as bogus as Bigfoot, he’s actually doing a great job but nobody’s giving him a chance. But the most insidious effect is that, for his most ardent fans, Trump is slowly delegitimatizing all genuine sources of objective coverage. The truth is whatever he tells them it is. No lie is too outrageous. Even pollsters are “fake” if he doesn’t like their numbers: remember how they underestimated him last year? He recently attacked as unfair the Congressional Budget Office, which is damn near the last nonpartisan entity left in DC. When you can’t turn anywhere else for validation, you’re as psychologically dependent as Winston Smith. After all, these are people who actually believe crime and unemployment both spiked under President Obama, because that’s what the Party told them.

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. — Goldstein

With “fake news” as a cudgel to tamp down any contradiction or stray heretical thought, Trumpism becomes almost inevitable among true believers. The same antics which embarrass some people excite others. To them Trump is a human Molotov cocktail, and the more damage he does to the system the better. Yes, it’s sad-making — the 2016 election was probably moderates’ low point for a good long while, and many of us still feel apprehensive opening our morning papers — but it doesn’t have to be debilitating, for several good reasons.

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O’Brien (Reed Birney) with Winston (Tom Sturridge) and Julia (Olivia Wilde) on Broadway.

They are outnumbered and they know it. Eighty-five percent of Oceanians are lowly “proles” and therefore largely ignored. Well, a minority controls Congress and most statehouses in America too. Not only did the Pubs lose the popular vote for President, they also lost the popular vote for Senate races: more than 45 million Americans voted for a Democratic Senate candidate, while just under 40 million Americans voted for a Republican. In fairness, the Senate was specifically created to bolster the influence of smaller states: Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was re-elected with 111,000 votes and has the same Senate authority as Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who was re-elected with 4.8 million. But even the House, which is supposed to better represent actual voter proportions, is grossly skewed. In 2016, 63.1 million Republican voters claimed 247 House seats. The Democratic vote was nearly equal, 61.7 million, but it was only worth 188 seats. That’s way out of whack and eventually something has to give.

You can blame some of that inequity on gerrymandering: for example, Austin, the most progressive city in Texas, has been electorally neutered by splitting it up into tiny parts of five different Congressional districts, four of which are represented by Republicans. But a deeper cause of inertia is incumbency: in 2016 only twelve House seats changed hands, six for each party. And a third cause is voter apathy, which is something we can actually work on.

Republicans are more successful at winning state and local elections because they understand how to rile up the base and get them out to the polls. Trump’s staggering incompetence may be having that same visceral effect on the left. We’ll find out next year. The best indication that Pubs are nervously looking over their shoulders is their massive voter suppression effort. The crown jewel is Trump’s loony Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (I love that name, it’s so…Orwellian!). Just remember, it’s in Democrats’ interest that you vote; it’s in Pubs’ interest that you be prevented from voting. We could make elections fairer by adopting ranked voting or jolt turnout by moving Election Day to the weekend, but Pubs are protected by the status quo so it will not happen any time soon. Counting on changing demographics to affect electoral results — for example, wishing Texas purple — is foolish, but it’s also foolish to squander a natural advantage when you get one handed to you. It’s not a gimme; it’ll take work.

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In Room 101.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. —O’Brien

Trump is beginning to neglect his constituency as he shows his true colors. I don’t think the president is a fascist or an Ingsoc functionary; I don’t believe he has any deeply held principles beyond his own self-interest. Well, there may be one. Trump is petty and childish enough that he may still be smarting over the humiliating roasting President Obama gave him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. With the exception of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination (and that was mostly Mitch McConnell’s doing), nearly every move Trump has made as president has been a direct erasure of an Obama initiative, often without even thinking about it. He’s trying to rewrite history, to make Obama an unperson. But when he took on Obamacare — that blasted name again! — he didn’t count on his own voters understanding that they were about to lose their coverage. Even when McConnell cynically tacked on a two-year delay period so Pubs could “repeal Obamacare” with impunity, the shouting back home was just too great. And speaking of personal payback, was that why we saw John “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” McCain kill the repeal effort with the flourish of a Roman emperor? As mining jobs fail to come back to coal country, day laborers for construction and agriculture disappear, and opioids continue to decimate the heartland, some suffering citizens may finally break the spell and relearn how to put two and two together.

Trump’s legislative base is crumbling as his popular support dwindles. “The ratings machine, DJT” actually had coattails in 2016, but they are starting to fray. The near-unanimous votes in both houses on Russian sanctions were a veto-proof slap in the face that said, “we’re not afraid of you.” The disconnect is probably personal. I have no idea whether Trump did anything illegal, but he clearly has money tied up in Russia and that source of capital is key to any future expansion plans, so his instinct is to make nice to Putin. One problem, though. Pubs have been taught to hate Commies for literal generations. By now, asking them to coddle Russkies is like trying to divide by zero. Yes, the hypocrisy is acrid: if Hillary had invited a Russian spy into the Oval Office, much less spilled intel to his face, the Pubs would have her turning on a spit by now. But Trump — who was already in the hole the moment he took office — has been whittling away at his own approval ratings more effectively than any enemy ever could. To be impeached by this Congress, he’d probably have to bite the head off a live chicken at the Lincoln Memorial. (Nor do I fancy a President Pence.) But remember, this entire shitstorm has occurred in just six months. I don’t think Trump can last four whole years — especially with a Congress that is less than sycophantic.

After Winston Smith survives the horrors of Room 101, we can see that he has changed. As the Cap’n says in COOL HAND LUKE, he “got his mind right.” Two plus two equals anything O’Brien wants it to be. Everything is all right, the struggle is finished. Well, that is not going to happen to us. We are still capable of seeing clearly if we only concentrate. The outrage that spits out almost hourly from this administration must not, will not become normalcy. The world has not turned upside down. Our system builds political antibodies to negate such an aberration, and if we are still suffering from shock, that means we have the capacity to resist — in the streets, in the voting booths, in the offices of our representatives. That passion is precisely what saved the Affordable Care Act. And it is what is going to eliminate Big Bother [frickin sic] once and for all.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. — Winston Smith

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The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a relentless cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.

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10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)


Terminological Inexactitude And Other Obfuscations

June 20, 2016

61b9BIkGz7L._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_If you find annoying the blatant B.S. rampant in politics, business and culture, here’s a chance to turn your grumbles into giggles. The latest collaboration by those scamps Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf is a compendium of doubletalk, deception and crude euphemism from all parts of society: SPINGLISH.

Our curators are a distinguished duo. Beard is the co-founder (with Doug Kenney and Harvard schoolmate Rob Hoffman) of National Lampoon and co-author (also with Kenney, while they were still in college) of the magnificent book-length parody BORED OF THE RINGS. In 1975, having fulfilled his contractual obligation, he cashed out of the Lampoon and became an instant rich man. The brand was as hot as it gets at the time and would soon scale new heights in the movie business, but Beard was sick of having to herd a ragtag group of high-strung cats like Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue. He equated the Lampoon years with his hitch in the Army Reserve, which he hated. But now he could do anything he wanted, which included a lot of golf. He tried screenwriting and didn’t like it, then returned to his real forte, intelligent humor, which often put him on the Times bestseller list in the ensuing years. Cerf was also a pixieish provocateur on the Lampoon staff in its Seventies heyday. Besides writing, he has worked in music and television: I still envy one of my closest friends for getting to share quality Chris Cerf time on the public television series BETWEEN THE LIONS. But he will always be my hero for co-founding the “Institute of Expertology” with Victor Navasky and then issuing the ultimate collection of learned but mistaken prognostication, THE EXPERTS SPEAK, along with its shocking-and-aweing little cousin, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! OR HOW WE WON THE WAR IN IRAQ.

51hbNavCQtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_514VuaGXeuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_At first glance, SPINGLISH’s wry explications of deliberately squishy phrases may suggest a 21st-century version of THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY. The difference is, Ambrose Bierce was mocking; Beard and Cerf are reporting. Every entry is sourced and footnoted, mostly with second-hand citations in articles and papers, but there are plenty of notes that come complete with perpetrator and date. For example, we all know a “gentlemen’s club” is really a strip joint and “ethnic cleansing” is a blander term for genocide, but what corporation would use the creepily cheerful claim that eliminating one thousand jobs was “rewiring for growth”? Walgreens did, in a press release on January 8, 2009. The book is ecumenical and favors no particular culture-war combatant over another: outre usage seems to be universal. In 2008 Tesla’s Elon Musk described the “layoff” (itself an example of Spinglish) of ten percent of his workforce as a “modest reduction in near-term head count.” Emotionally neutral ways to downplay firings are some of the most common examples of soft-serve spin: other popular inspirations include lying, plagiarism, bankruptcy, and the use of lethal military force.

On reflection it’s somewhat sad how many of these euphemisms have fallen into common use and thus are widely understood in their unadulterated true form: collateral damage, downsizing, Rubenesque, sanitation engineer, friendly fire, overserved, mobile home, semi-private, surgical strike (surgeons try to prevent loss of life), executive assistant, well-endowed, strategic withdrawal, and many more. To help further our understanding of this obfuscatory tongue, the bulk of the “dictionary” is “Spinglish to English,” but the authors include a handy reverse “English to Spinglish” section so we can experience verbal transmogrification in yet another way.

The droll observations of our two auctorial satirists provide lots of fun. “Support our troops” really means “support our policy.” “Judicial activism” is “what judges you don’t agree with do.” A “freedom fighter” is “a terrorist who happens to be on the side you’re supporting.” “Hands-on mentoring” is “sexual relations with a junior employee.” “Fanaticism” is “what enemy troops display when they storm a well-armed position. When our troops storm a well-armed position, they display bravery.”

51IVFr0ZoeL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_SPINGLISH is quite the welcome relief after Beard and Cerf’s previous reference, ENCYCLOPEDIA PARANOIACA, devised by the “Cassandra Institute” as a guide to everything you should be “afraid of or worried about.” It’s fundamentally hilarious in that the book’s very existence makes fun of the fact that we Americans are afraid of our own shadows, but entry after impeccably sourced entry may actually cause you to fret about something new after having lived thus far in blissful ignorance. “This book just might save your life,” it claims. “(Apologies in advance if it doesn’t.)” SPINGLISH is at once lighter and more transgressive. There’s only one thing funnier than someone who thinks he’s clever clumsily trying to put one over on the rest of us, and that’s a tiresome pontificator taking a well-deserved pie in the face. To enjoy that bit of verbal slapstick, you need THE EXPERTS SPEAK.


Marketing For (And Perhaps By) Dummies, Part 2

September 21, 2013

MilleniumThe Millenium Hilton is in New York City, not far from Ground Zero. The Millenium Hilton. Millenium, did you hear? When I was an independent copywriter/producer long ago, I learned how to spell the word “millennium.” It was the name of my company, after all. It derives from “mille” and “annus.” There are two frickin Ns, homey.

This joint has been around — and bugging me — since 1992, but according to Wikipedia, “the hotel’s builder chose to intentionally misspell the name with one ‘n’ on the outdoor signage and official literature…in order to make the name more distinctive.” Nope, I call that backpedaling B.S., my friends. Much more plausible is abject dumminess — but by the time anyone realized the mistake, it was too late to change. If it’s really so “distinctive,” why does almost nobody notice?

Photo by Parker Johnson.

More dummy marketing.


Just For Openers

May 12, 2013

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That’s one of the greatest opening lines in literary history, for my money. It has stuck with me for nearly thirty years. In fact, I just quoted it by heart (double-checking only to make sure I got the comma right: I did). As everybody else who has encountered it also doubtless remembers, William Gibson’s brilliant novel NEUROMANCER begins with this sentence. I haven’t read the book since it was first published in 1984, but I still remember this line perfectly, because it smacked me like an open hand.

We know instinctively that a musical melody can get under our skins. Even a tune we had had quite enough of remains inside us, in some primal part of our brains that can whisk us back to the moment when it was contemporary and conjure long-forgotten emotions, both fond and regretful, whether we like it or not. Those of you who are old enough: start thinking of the melody of Kenny Loggins’s “Danny’s Song” – you know the one, “Even though we ain’t got money / I’m so in love with you honey…” Got it? Okay, now try to STOP thinking of it. Both my mother and grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease late in their lives, and even at the point where they could only speak in gibberish syllables (except very rarely, when a perfectly formed sentence would come out, chilling me to the bone and forcing me to wonder if they’d been making sense to themselves all along. Alzheimer’s is one king-hell bitch, friends), they could still remember musical notes and put them together into a recognizable melody. This strongly suggests that we experience and file musical tones in some other sector from wherever we store and retrieve language. I would guess visual cues are handled differently as well. I don’t have the medical background to be sure, but that’s what I’ve observed, and it makes common sense to me.

But what is it about a string of letters that creates a profundity or emotional tug? I can only explain my own reactions, and I’m not suggesting that I have the last word as an academician might. In the case of NEUROMANCER, part of the key is that date: 1984. It was the beginning of the personal computer revolution, still largely confined to hobbyists. The Apple Macintosh, which billed itself as “the computer for the rest of us,” had only just appeared. But with that bold sentence, Bill Gibson announced that he was speaking to a new generation of science fiction readers – heck, a new generation of readers, period. The original thundercrack of 20th century science fiction – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and colleagues – had given way to a more socially conscious, taboo-smashing New Wave – Spinrad, Ellison, Disch, LeGuin, and so on – who were audacious enough to question the very existence of this or that genre. But that had happened twenty or so years before. Unlike the slow but miraculous race to the moon, when science-based writers could still kind of keep up, the pace of technological and societal change was increasing. It became folly to predict the future, because the future now arrived before your ink was even dry.

Bill Gibson was 35 when he wrote NEUROMANCER; he was born in the same year George Orwell published NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. He was on the leading edge of the first generation that grew up with television as a casual aspect of daily life. So when he described a sickly gray color that resembled a ”dead channel,” everybody his age and younger understood instantly, and they knew they were being addressed by a peer. These people had never gathered around a radio drama when they were kids, like elder writers had. They couldn’t really remember pulp magazines or movie serials, at least not in their heydays. But they were old enough to recall what it was like before tv channels blared around the clock, the days when your local station actually signed off the air at midnight or so…and became a dead channel until the following morning. In this instant, Gibson had announced the arrival of an emerging digital point of view. This attitude, combined with often breathless views of an over-teched future dystopia, came to be called “cyberpunk,” and lots of people, including me, got their very first taste in NEUROMANCER. Simply rotate the “C” ninety degrees to form a “U,” and you’ve changed everything. Maybe creativity is that simple. (Spoiler Alert: it is, but only for those who can manage to make that unnatural turn, which eliminates nearly all the rest of us.) One caveat: Bill himself may well have been inspired by the Doors’ “My Eyes Have Seen You,” which contains the line “gazing on the city under television skies,” but I always felt Jim Morrison was just casting out images. That one, from both Bill and Jim, is a dandy.

I wasn’t alone in my adoration. NEUROMANCER won every award the field was able to bestow, and William Gibson became something grander than a science fiction writer, the same thing that had happened to Kurt Vonnegut a generation earlier. Anybody who really likes spaceships and lasers can remember the frisson produced by the first shot of STAR WARS, the 1977 original, as the massive Imperial ship chases the smaller one, death-rays blazing. You thought, oh, wow, I think I’m gonna enjoy this. Well, that’s also what I thought upon reading that now-famous sentence – and in both cases, the creators delivered on the promise of their superlative curtain-raisers.

Call me Ishmael.

This opening sentence resonates because of the tremendous sense of foreshadowed drama it portends. Perhaps the NEUROMANCER opening will do the same, once we give it the requisite, say, fifty more years, as the world it describes falls inexorably into ancient history.

Every snot-nosed kid who dutifully tried Herman Melville’s titanic work MOBY-DICK back in grade school discovered that to get this far, you first have to wade through an abysmal, seemingly unending section of definition, etymology, etc. We get it, sir: whales are badasses. But, as with the satirical Onion item about the Titanic being struck by the world’s largest metaphor, so we understand from the first words that this is more than a story about a fishing expedition.

In the John Huston film, written by Ray Bradbury – who definitely loved him some metaphor – the Richard Basehart voiceover includes a pregnant pause. The actor says, “Call me…Ishmael,” as if he were trying to come up with some pseudonym on the spot. That pause isn’t written in Melville, but this subtext definitely is: call me whatever you want. I don’t care. I’m going to tell you something that’s almost beyond belief, but it happened, pal, I saw it with my own eyes, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. That last bit is from the book of Job – which Melville’s readership had studied much closer in 1851 than we do today – so, to coin a phrase, we know dude be serious. Biblical scholars tell us the name “Ishmael” connotes an outcast, a wanderer. As we say in the enlightened new millennium, whatev.

By the way, kids, don’t give up on this great tale just because of all the lousy pre-show variety acts. Skip the front parts and go directly to “Chapter 1: LOOMINGS.” Trust me. Don’t wait for your teacher to “interpret”: this looming business is spelled out for you on page one, but I am not responsible for any blowback if you happen to point this out in class. (Yes, that is indeed experience speaking.)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Did you recognize that sentence? Bet you did. It opens George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. It’s so sly that it ruins our internal balance without even seeming to. After all, the military, and any European transportation hub, operate on a 24-hour clock, for understandable precision: “The cap’n said drop the nuke at 12: did he mean noon or midnight?” There does actually exist a concept known as thirteen o’clock. No, wait: the military and Eurail know 1:00 pm as “1300 hours.” So why are the clocks striking thirteen? Is it because we’re under martial law? (Spoiler Alert: in a way, yes.) Is it because all civilians have been forced to observe these same rules of precision for the good of the body politic? (You‘re getting warmer, unlike the bright April day – it really should be warm by now!)

Fourteen words, a comma and a period. That’s all it took to thrust us into a disturbing new paradigm, to shift reality. Orwell’s immortal story works not only because of its invention or prescience, but also because he was able to knock us off kilter within seconds. Now consider a longer lead-in.

It was a perfect 72 degrees the December morning the Marshalls’ home computer arrived, and the sky was set to a soaring azure, but it was flickering, which was the whole problem.

Recognize that? No? I’m not surprised. It’s the opening sentence – and paragraph – from the 2006 short story “Installation Day.” It appeared in an anthology called GOLDEN AGE SF, for which contemporary authors were invited to pretend they were working in science fiction’s “Golden Age” – that is, the 30s through the 50s – with no knowledge of what actually came later. Sort of retro-futurism. I’ve postponed it for a couple minutes, but I guess the time has come to reveal that the author is none other than me. (Judging only from this opening sentence, sharp eyes might suss that I’d long since consumed the Gibson and the Orwell.)

I did hobble myself by setting this sentence against three of the greatest openings ever, but I do have a kind of explanation. Still, you can see what happens when a child attempts to do a grown person’s job. (Not just me, either: most writers would probably try to get the setting out of the way: “At 1 pm on April 4th…”) My opening is by far the longest, clunkiest, most info-packed but nevertheless least interesting of the four you see. How one could/would “set” the sky and why it was “flickering” get explained in the story, as you assume they will, and a 72-degree December morning isn’t uncommon to those who live in the Sunbelt. But look at all I failed to do in twice, thrice, the words, compared to the greatest. In fairness, I must add that I deliberately wrote this story to read like an old pulp magazine piece, and bombastic opening sentences like mine were almost obligatory. I’m not beating myself up for your amusement; I’m actually quite pleased with how the story turned out anent the commission. (I think I might also be speaking for my editor, Eric T. Reynolds, who first improved my story and then bought it, as do many editors of short fiction, in that order.)

But these magical moments don’t happen by accident. Or maybe they do. The sliver of our minds that great literature manages to touch can fire in a split-second. But as William Gibson showed me, that blinding spark can last a lifetime.


Them’s Frightin’ Words!

May 15, 2011

You have to hand this to the right wing: they know how to reduce complex issues down to a sound bite or two. It takes gifted people like Frank Luntz, the pollster and best propagandist they have these days, to turn, say, “anti-abortion” into “pro-life,” “estate tax” into “death tax,” “oil drilling” into “energy exploration.” I’m starting to catch another meme, and I hope you’ll pay attention to see if it spreads. The word is “Mediscare,” and if it didn’t come from Luntz (whose 2007 book was subtitled, “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear”), I’ll bet he wishes it had.

This word is emerging because during the recent congressional recess, several firebrands went back home to meet a “town-hall” crowd of pitchfork-wielding Frankenstein-movie villagers. Turns out that lots of seniors don‘t like Rep. Paul Ryan’s Ayn-Randish plan to eviscerate Medicare for their descendants. In other words, they fear objectivism; what’s gonna happen when my kid needs care and can’t afford it? You got yours; screw your kid! is diminishing as a vote-winning response. In New York’s 26th congressional district, around red-meat Buffalo, Jane Corwin was supposed to win a May 24 special election (called because of the resignation of her fellow Republican, Chris Lee, the family-values paragon who fired out that shirtless photo on Craigslist) in a walk, but now it’s a dead heat between her and Democrat Kathy Hochul. Some feel the gap was zapped by Ms. Corwin’s steadfast support for Rep. Ryan’s scheme, and Ms. Hochul’s fiery opposition. It would be such an embarrassment to lose this seat – and such an ominous sign for 2012 – that Pubs have sent out big-shot worthies including Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, who said in the district on May 9 that Democrats were trying to “steal this election.” (That’s Republican for “win a seat that we thought was in our back pocket.”) So they came up with this word, “Mediscare.”

The implication is that Democrats are using scare tactics to make seniors uneasy about Pub intentions for Medicare. (Seniors are actually treated most kindly, at least at the beginning, by Rep. Ryan; it’s the rest of the country, except maybe for insurance companies, that should be uneasy.) Hmmm…isn’t that exactly what Pubs did two years ago to inflame teabaggers and other gullibles against the Affordable Health Care Act? Remember “death panels” – another great sound bite? For a generation, they’ve tainted any attempt to rein in the insurance/pharmaceutical machine by tagging it as “[person you don’t like]care.” First it was Hillarycare. In Massachusetts, Romneycare. Baggers, I’ll make you the same deal that Bill Maher offers: I’ll stop calling you “teabaggers” when you stop calling it “Obamacare.”

I’ve seen the word “Mediscare” at least twice recently on the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, the staging area for most Pub-speak trial balloons. (That’s where Sarah Palin found the cool-sounding-to-her phrase “blood libel.” Maybe she regrets using the term by now, but I really doubt it.) In order to make it work, they’ll have to repeat it hundreds of times on Drudge and Fox News; I don’t see those media regularly, so for all I know they’re doing it already. The “lamestream media” (zing!) don’t matter in the slightest. Otherwise the Pubs won’t own it; it hasn’t been that long ago that they themselves were wailing about those death panels and pulling the plug on granny. Nope, it has to be turned around and directed at Democrats. Then, next summer, Pubs can head out to “town halls” and say, “Those stats and facts the other guy’s throwing out? Heck, that’s just Mediscare!”

The Republicans have read their Orwell. (Luntz offers this, um, Orwellian interpretation of the author’s essay “Politics and the English Language”: “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.”) “No Child Left Behind.” “The Clear Skies Act,” which weakened the “Clean Air Act.” The USA PATRIOT Act, a laboriously tortured acronym (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001” is its Sunday-go-to-meetin’ name). And their masterpiece, H.R. 2 in the current Congress, “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” A bit much, Mr. Speaker? Naw, we aren’t renaming the bill because of some little dustup in Tucson! Let’s face it: Machete don’t text, and Pubs don’t do nuance.

5/25/11: The Democrat, Kathy Hochul, won the seat in New York’s 26th, 47 percent to 43 percent, with a Tea Party candidate taking 9 percent. The turnout was large for a special election, and exit polling showed the race turned almost entirely on Medicare. Total spending was more than $6 million, with Republicans spending the most. The 26th is one of only four districts in New York which voted for John McCain in 2008; the seat has been in Republican hands for four decades (Jack Kemp once held it). You can’t derive a national trend out of a special election in a single congressional district, but this result is going to have Frank Luntz, and his Democratic counterparts, thinking hard about next year.


This One’s For, Like, My Niece

August 15, 2010

I just got back from our annual Dupree/Luper family reunion, instituted last year in loving memory of our sainted mom. (Linda and I have terrific families on both sides.) I used to go to Bloomington, Indiana, to visit Mom about three times a year, but those trips ceased when she passed away in late 2008. This year, the whole darn clambake was in B-town, so all of a sudden it had been quite a while since I’d seen my Indiana niece, now 20, whom I’ve known, of course, since she was a zygote. Nowadays, she’s loving, vibrant, attractive, cheerful, charming, playful, in-your-face improvisatory, able to dig irony and throw it right back at you. She’s about as wonderful a niece as is my other brother’s delightful daughter, the Texan (soon to become a New Yorker!). Great young lady.

I have only one problem with this otherwise impeccable kid:

Along with all her close friends, she peppers her speech with the word “like.”

The niece who says “like” all the time.

I want this word back. (I want “gay” back too, but it’s being put to pretty good use, so Uncle Tom cries “uncle” on that one.)

You’ve heard it too. This is not the beatnik affectation of, say, a Maynard G. Krebs, in Bob Denver’s first hilarious characterization. Not “Like, man, what’re we gonna do tonight?” This is a reflexive interjection that means something akin to “I’m filling up a space here that doesn’t really exist,” and “but you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been there too, right?,” and “I don’t want to get too specific because this is just a casual conversation.”

“We went to, like, the beach, and I brought all my like sunscreen and stuff, but I forgot my flipflops. I was all, how did I do that? So he like went out of his way to drive me back home. It took like half an hour.”

The one who doesn’t.

While I’m visiting, I enjoy acting like a dip and raising my hand as if I were in school. She calls on me and I try to get some clarification: did he actually go out of his way, or was it just something similar that he did? By now, when my hand goes up the first time, she knows she’s busted. And for the two or three days until I finally, mercifully, go back home, she actually tries to censor that expression, and in fact does a pretty good job of it. But you have to concentrate to strike “like.” It’s like – and I do mean similar to — a hiccup. It just comes out. It’s part of the patois. Hang around younger people long enough and you may find yourself tossing the “likes” around too. I’ve heard thirty-somethings do it. Book editors!

I know, I know, it’s a losing battle, and I may be the last one waging it. Who really cares, after all? If that’s the worst thing you can come up with, you’re dealing with a pretty amazing person. But if for a couple days a year, I can get one young lady to, like, slow down a little when in my presence, why then, my work is done. Hey, why’s that hand up in the air?

8/1/11: At this year’s family reunion, my niece had almost completely cleaned up her act: I even complimented her on it! Turns out she’d been practicing during the 11-hour drive to North Carolina, but still, that’s proactive and deserves a cheer.

The spectacles complete the new “like”-less look at the 2011 reunion.


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