Saturday, November 2, 2013

My Log 387: Propaganda 2: My personal take on Communists who renege is not sympathetic; but Randal Marlin loves George Orwell

Communism was here
Communism was here (Photo credit: Lonely_Freak)
English: Plaque commemorating George Orwell
English: Plaque commemorating George Orwell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The square in Barcelona renamed in Orwell's honour
The square in Barcelona renamed in Orwell's honour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Randal Marlin
Randal Marlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Picture of George Orwell which appear...
George Orwell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 I have done a lot of reading in my day, but it has been scattergun stuff, nothing at all systematic about any of it. I worked for four months or so as an adjunct lecturer in a university, where the appalling lack of knowledge from which I was working quickly became clear to me. When someone on the university staff suggested I might stay on and design a course on environmental journalism I immediately took fright: I would no more have had the ability to design such a course than to have swum the English channel.
In the first chapter of his book Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, pps 368,  $32.95.) Randal Marlin gives a lot of space to what he calls “two major propaganda theorists”, George Orwell and Jacques Ellul.  Mention of Orwell made me wonder why I had never really taken to the guy. I have read most of his books, I suppose, and I know he was a great writer, but I was always influenced by the enthusiasm with which he was taken up and propagated (if I might use the word) by Time magazine. In my lexicon this was the kiss of death, even though I know that is not especially rational.
Coming from an elevated background, Orwell  decided to go slumming to prove his credentials as a socialist, which gave us his first book Down and Out in London and Paris. It’s true he did go to the Spanish Civil War, which was very much in his favour, in my eyes, but it made him a lifelong anti-Communist, and when I was younger that was no great recommendation to me. Being someone who had renounced Communism, he was tailor-made for Time magazine adulation --- like Nabokov, Koestler and others. Whatever deficiencies there may have been in the Stalinist approach to the Spanish war, it seemed to me to be better than the support given to the Fascists by the Western powers,  whose leaders stood by as Hitler tried out his mass bombing techniques on the poor Spanish people.
With this background, it stood to reason that Orwell’s anti-Communist novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four would receive the Time magazine adulatory treatment. So, automatically, he became the darling of the chattering classes, as they later came to be called. (Incidentally, the adulation given to these books kind of ignores the fact that 1984 passed without Orwell’s nightmarish world having been created, a failure of imagination on his part to which none of his supporters ever refer.)
I only once came across Orwell in the course of my working life, and then it was second hand. In 1961 I interviewed an old man he had once denounced, the writer Charles Hamilton, who, under the pen-name Frank Richards created Billy Bunter, the fat owl of the Remove, a character who starred in endless books and articles. Richards was at his peak from 1908 to 1940, and was once credited in the Guinness Book of Records as being the world’s most prolific author, with some 100,000,000 words published. His works were severely criticized  by Orwell in 1940 in an essay on Boys’ Weeklies  in  Horizon. Cyril Connolly, editor of the magazine, thought  that Frank Richards was long since dead. But, still very much alive, he replied to Orwell’s strictures with a sharp and vigorous riposte. I asked him about this when I interviewed him twenty years later. “Oh, Orwell?” he replied airily. “Oh, yes, silly blighter. I soon put him in his place.”
I suppose it is not surprising that, growing up in a country in which the democratic socialist government was held in such contempt by the newspapers for which I worked, I should have tended, as I did, to feel myself a supporter of all left-wing parties. I was never a communist, and took note of such testimonies  to their brutality and scant regard for the truth as were provided by Koestler and others, but  growing up also as a staunch supporter of unionism,  I was brought up against the undoubted fact that Communists working within unions provided the strongest opposition we had to the political status quo. Communists were also subject to persecution by the state organs of repression, and I sympathized with them for that.
 It is not that I object to what Randal writes about Orwell: he did warn us against fuzzy language, deceptive euphemisms and so on. Randal notes that he distinguished between patriotism, which he favored,  and nationalism, which he opposed. But this acceptance was backwards from my own. I have from time to time forced myself to accept some elements of nationalism, which Orwell  described as the “habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests, with a wish to force others to adopt it.”  I have never accepted any nationalism defined in that way, but when I arrived in Canada in 1954 I was startled to discover the equanimity with which Canadians accepted the domination of their society by the United States economy. To the extent that I  favored at that time the nationalist policies designed to regain Canadian control over the Canadian economy, I accepted nationalism.
Patriotism, on the other hand, Orwell said, “involves devotion to a place and way of life,” and therefore was acceptable to him. It strikes me that is a remarkably moderated view of patriotism and all its evils. I tend to the view that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. I remember when I was a high school student reading H. G. Wells, during World War II, who wrote that if we swopped all of the babies of the English and German nations, they would grow up to fight on wars for the nations in which they grew up.  I found that a startling and accurate criticism of patriotism, and took to refusing to stand for the national anthem in the cinemas of the day, much to my mother’s embarrassment. I am still dead against patriotism, and abhor flags and anthems. I once embarrassed a parliamentary committee --- the only one to which I have ever spoken --- by telling them that what I liked about Canada when I arrived in 1954 was that it had no flag and no anthem. The only patriotism I have ever admitted to is a patriotism for the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, a marvellous 1,l00 acre open space in the middle of the city that is regularly under attack from the surrounding hordes of developers and wealth-owners. But would I ever go to war to defend it?  I don’t think so. I am not much in favour of nationalism, only to the extent that it would result in resistance, wherever it might arise, to the American empire.
When Randal gets on to Jacques Ellul I find  myself in a more sympathetic framework than so far in his book. He provides a long description of Ellul’s thinking, but personally, when I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found their simplified version of the man to be more easily comprehensible. There, it says the burden of Ellul’s message is the threat to human freedom and religion created by modern technology.” The web site also quotes Ellul from a book he wrote on propaganda to the effect “that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them.”
 I have often noted that we are all suffering from information overload, and from that simple observation I have worked out a scandalous idea that we have too much education. (I don’t actually mean it as baldly stated, I just produce it to shock people into argument.  But I was impressed recently when reading that in Finland only 30 per cent of the age-group is allowed to go to university: the rest are directed into a strong, comprehensive and skills-oriented system of apprenticeship, an excellent idea, I would think, so long as it is not attached to a British-style class structure, and it is an idea that has made Finland a leader among small nations in this technological world).
I do not wish to dispute anything Randal has written about Ellul (who was quite unknown to me before). But it does remind me of something that was said by an academic whom I really very much admired, the late Bruce Trigger, professor of anthropology at McGill university, who, when he died some years ago, had become recognized as the world’s pre-eminent expert on the history of archaeology.
Trigger told me once that he was hoping to write a book on where and when human beings acquired the desire to control others. Years later I asked him how it had gone. He said he had tried but had been unable to find anything relevant in the archeological record. But he did, as a result, write a book called Understanding Early Civilizations, in which he compared the earliest human societies. In this study he discovered that already before any civilization was formed, the priests were in charge of human affairs. And, if we look at the world today, we could say that they still are.
Earlier, Trigger had given a lecture in which he used his knowledge of the archaeological record to ruminate about the future.  He said history’s current phase was one in which technology was in charge, and the major human problem was how to get our technology under human control and keep it there. He was convinced that the qualities most needed for human survival in the modern world are foresight, personal restraint and cooperation, and he said these were, in fact, the essential qualities in paleolithic times when man was a hunter-gatherer. These qualities, of course, are incompatible with capitalism as it is presently practised. Trigger also looked forward to the need for a higher level of planning which would require an all-encompassing political organization if we are to overcome the environmental challenges that loom larger with every day. This is a solution --- essential to human survival, according to Trigger --- that I would imagine most of the authorities quoted by Randal in his book would denounce as opening the way to people who could not be trusted with power.
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