George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom. Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons. You can limit how and what they think. You can, in a major way, control the future. Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.
Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com. They make no apologies and take no prisoners. They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth. The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).
Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House. They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.
The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.
I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.
Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place. Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.
In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):
I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.
One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.
In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.
What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945? If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?
Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers. Peter Van Buren’sHooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates. Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.
Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.
The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides. Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.
Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.
Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department. His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant. He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.
Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.
Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.
Editor’s Introduction: Today, the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta has a reputation for being mindlessly devoted to warriors and war, yet this is a caricature of history. Sparta was neither mindless nor careless in its pursuit of war. Rather, as the classicist Steven Willett reminds us in this insightful article, appearing here first at Bracing Views, the Spartans deliberated with great care. They knew the perils of war, and entered on the same “very slowly,” as Willett shows by a close and sensitive analysis of the famous speech of Archidamus, a Spartan king, from Thucydides’ history. Would that the United States, which now fancies itself the inheritor of Spartan warrior excellence, deliberate about war with the same care as Archidamus exercised more than two millennia ago. W.J. Astore
In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides lays out the events that precipitated a long, enormously destructive war between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. The war ran from 431BCE to 404BCE with only a few years of intervening peace. Like many wars this one began in minor incidents far from the two states: Sparta was a land power with a league of allied cities in the Peloponnesus, while Athens was a sea power with a far-flung empire extending over the shores of the Aegean all the way to the Hellespont. The Athenian Empire embraced hundreds of cities and the Aegean islands, and at the start of the war was so wealthy it had begun a magnificent building program on the Acropolis.
I’ve summarized the history of events leading up to Sparta’s deliberations about going to war with Athens in Appendix One. The majority opinion of Sparta was that the Athenians were guilty of injustice and that war was justified. At this point Archidamus, one of Sparta’s two kings, “a man considered to be both intelligent and sensible” (Thucydides I.79.2), spoke before the Spartan war council. (On Thucydides’ accounts of speeches and the reliability thereof, see Appendix Two.) All translations are my own.
In the following section of the speech (I.84-85.1), Archidamus reviews the ethical principles that underlie Spartan reluctance to act precipitously. It provides an object lesson in the rational approach to making decisions about war, an approach that the United States would do well to emulate (but hasn’t).
Archidamus’ Speech About the Perils of Precipitous War
(1) And the slowness and hesitation, for which we [the Spartans] are especially blamed, should not shame you (αἰσχύνεσθε): rushing headlong [into war] may end it more slowly because the attempt lacked preparation. (2) Besides, we have always lived in a city that is free (ἐλευθέραν) and held in the highest repute (εὐδοξοτάτην). This very slowness amounts to truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη): for because of it we do not become insolent (ἐξυβρίζομεν) in success and yield less than others in misfortune. Nor are we, when those incite us with praise to dangerous actions (τὰ δεινὰ) contrary to our own best judgment, excited by pleasure, and if anyone provokes us with accusations we are not the least persuaded by our vexation. (3) We are both warlike (πολεμικοί) and well advised (εὔβουλοι) due to our good order (εὔκοσμον): warlike because shame (αἰδὼς) is the greatest part of moderation (σωφροσύνης), and courage (εὐψυχία) the greatest part of a sense of shame (αἰσχύνης), while we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them, and we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument. (4) We always prepare in practice against enemies who [we assume also] plan well, and should not place our hopes on their possible mistakes but in the security of our own forethought. We do not need to believe that one man differs very much from another man, but the best is one who has trained in the most rigorous discipline. (85.1) These practices, then, which our fathers bequeathed us and we always maintain for their continuing benefits, should never be abandoned, nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure.
Archidamus begins this passage by refuting the well-known Spartan tendency to dilatoriness by claiming it is nothing that should shame them. He uses the verb (occurring again as a noun below), αἰσχύνω, which means to be ashamed in the moral sense of having done something dishonorable, to feel shame for a dishonorable act. It can also be translated to dishonor, tarnish, or mar. Ancient Greece was in many ways a shame culture like that of my own home of Japan. To be charged with something shameful was one of the worst moral accusations. He then justifies that valuation of shame by stating that it has made Sparta a city that is free and most highly famed. The adjective he uses, ἐλεύθερος, means free in the sense of being unobstructed by any outside sources capable of restricting action. The noun form of the adjective is ἐλευθερία, freedom or liberty, and the word had very strong emotional connotations to the Greeks in their united opposition to Persia during the Greco-Persian Wars. For the Greeks, Persia was the epitome of tyranny, and to maintain their freedom they were willing to risk everything in the period of greatest threat, 490-479, when the Greek mainland faced invasion twice by Persia, the greatest empire in the world.
Having restored honor to Spartan dilatoriness in a negative sense, Archidamus then gives their habitual slowness a positive moral content: it’s a “truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη).” The adjective ἔμφρων means literally in one’s mind or senses, but here rational or intelligent. The noun σωφροσύνη (sophrosune) is an almost untranslatable word with a variety of meanings clustered around moderation, prudence, temperance, self-control (against pleasure or pain) and many others. I have chosen to use a single word, moderation, in translating it, but the phrase soundness of mind perhaps comes closest. Heraclitus Fr. 112 gives a powerful definition of its meaning: σωφρονεῖν ἀρετὴ μεγίστη καὶ σοφίη ἀληθέα λέγειν καὶ ποιεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἐπαΐοντας (“Soundness of mind is the greatest virtue and practical wisdom is speaking the truth and acting in accordance with the natural constitution of things”). I’ve highlighted the two words whose roots lie in sophrosune: sophronein and sophie, “soundness of mind” and “practical wisdom.” Practical wisdom includes the skill of a craftsman or the diagnostic analysis of a physician.
Because of moderation, he continues, the Spartans don’t become insolent in success. The verb ἐξυβρίζομεν is another word very difficult to render in English. It means to break out into insolence, to run riot, to commit violence. It referred to behavior that shamed or humiliated the victim for the gratification of the abuser and included both verbal and physical assaults. The English word hubris is derived from it, but has a much thinner emotional sense than violence: foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence. To commit hubris in Greece was a crime subject to severe punishments if convicted.
Lesson for America: A good example of hubris in the Greek sense is the behavior of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: we declared ourselves the ‘winners’ in the Cold War, the USSR the ‘losers,’ and rubbed the defeat constantly in their faces. Under President Clinton we began to push NATO into the old Warsaw Pact countries in violation of promises to Gorbachev, to impoverish the Russian people by sending economic advisors to mount a massive deregulation of state enterprises and finally to exploit and ultimately partition Russia during the Yeltsin regime. In short, we ran riot. I was a student in St. Petersburg during the 1990s and saw the misery we unleashed up front and close: the homeless sleeping in bundles beneath famous statues, impoverished Afghan veterans selling war relics and even their own clothing on Nevsky Prospect and proud, old naval captains quietly and politely asking for some rubles in their soft, broken English.
When Archidamus follows this with the statement that Sparta cannot be incited to dangerous actions, τὰ δεινὰ, he means really serious dangers. The plural noun is very strong: fearful, dread, terrible, dire, the outcome of actions and of powerful natural events. He is directing his comments to the Corinthians and the other Peloponnesians who clamored for immediate war.
Lesson for America:Now that the (expired) Obama administration has initiated Cold War II, we have Members of Congress calling for wars with Iran, continuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and even advocating policies that could lead to war with Russia. There doesn’t seem to be the slightest sense of the terrible consequences of such clamorous policies.
Section 3 of chapter 84 consists of one long sentence, which I’ve translated without a full stop, but will break into clauses for discussion. It is the most important section in the speech since it articulates the Spartan sense of their own ethical standards as a warrior society.
The first clause emphasizes two key Spartan qualities: they are “warlike (πολεμικοί)” and “well advised (εὔβουλοι)” because of their “good order.” The plural adjective πολεμικοί is derived from the Greek word for war and means warlike, valiant or courageous in war. They are “well advised” in the sense of exercising prudent, effective planning. The prefix εὔ~ in εὔβουλοι means good or well. The source of these two qualities is their “good order (εὔκοσμον).” The meanings of εὔκοσμος are variously behaving well, orderly, decorous, in good order. The word has a wide usage from Homer to the Roman period in many different semantic domains, but here Archidamus means that Spartans maintain the decorous, well-organized and graceful bearing of habitual discipline. From this disciplined, orderly bearing comes their qualities of being warlike and well advised. One thinks, for example, of a Spartan army marching in good order to the rhythm of auloi (pipes), their indifference to weather wrapped only in their scarlet cloak, their strict formation in the phalanx. Effective planning and valor, Archidamus means, are impossible without rigorous good order.
Then in the second clause he surprisingly deepens the meaning of “good order” by saying, in effect, “We are warlike because shame is the major part of moderation just as courage is the major part of shame.” He uses two words for shame: the nouns αἰδώς and αἰσχύνη. They mean very much the same thing, but the use of the second word αἰσχύνη in context means something more like honor: “courage is the major part of a sense of honor” because in battle the most shameful thing is a failure of courage or a failure to stand by your comrades. He follows that with an expansion of what it means to be well advised: “we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them.” He uses two comparative adjectives here, where the first means “not so highly learned” as to despise the laws, and the second is a form of that crucial word σωφροσύνη, but here it carries the sense of “more prudent” than to hold the laws in contempt. The Spartans were severe in their respect for the laws, and I’m sure everyone knows Simonides’ great epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae:
Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that
we lie here, obedient to their commands.
The third clause picks up the idea that Spartans are not so intelligent as to believe they can individually make public policy on their own and submit it to the assembly (a real failing of the Athenians): “we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument.” The Greek adjective διαιρέτης means divided, separated, distinguishable. The idea here is that chance events cannot be determined by rational argument: just as we denigrate our enemy’s intelligence, so we don’t pretend to know the future.
The final sentence in chapter I.85.1 should be engraved on the architrave of every department of war in the world: “nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure.” That is to say, hasten slowly, very slowly to make war.
Lesson for America: Haste makes waste, especially in war, whether in ill-judged attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the disbandment of the military in Iraq, or the elimination of Qaddafi in Libya, all done overconfidently and with inadequate intelligence.
In the course of the speech prior to my direct quotation, Archidamus makes other invaluable points about the dangers of war with Athens. He begins by emphasizing the sheer difficulty of making war against a city like Athens that possesses a distant empire, is the most experienced at sea and has the best resources in public and private wealth, ships, horses, hoplites and “a population such as does not exist in any other single place in Greece” (I.80.3). On top of that, they have tribute-paying allies, which enhances Athenian endurance. Then in turn he emphasizes Sparta’s weaknesses (I.80.4-81.5): we are inferior in ships, which take time to prepare and train, and in money because we do not have a common treasury or sufficient private sources. We surpass them in hoplites, so we could overrun and ravage their land, but they have extensive lands under their control and can import what they need by sea. If we try to make their allies defect, we will need a fleet since for the most part they are islanders. If we can’t defeat them with our ships or deny them the revenues they need to maintain their fleet, we shall be harmed even more. He ends this line of argument with a counsel that the Spartans not break the treaty or transgress their oaths, but resolve the disputes with arbitration. (Athens had in fact offered arbitration in I.78.4).
His warning about the uncertainly of war proved in the end to be all too true: “We should certainly not be borne up by the hope that the war will end quickly if we ravage their land. I fear that we shall bequeath it rather to our children, so likely it is that the Athenians in their spirited resolution will neither be enslaved by their land nor like novices terrified by war” (I.81.6). It was in fact the grandchildren who received the bequeath of war.
Lesson for America: Your enemies are not novices who are terrified by war. With the Afghan war in its 16th year and the Iraq war in its 14th year, America’s interventions in the Greater Middle East are becoming generational wars, soon to be fought by the children and grandchildren of soldiers who fought in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. You wage war long, you wage war wrong; the Greeks discovered this as they weakened themselves in generational internecine warfare.
The next stage of Archidamus’ speech (I.82.1-6) is a call to take matters slowly, warn Athens it will not permit what they are doing and begin equipping themselves with Greek and barbarian allies (meaning primarily Persian). If Athens sees us preparing, they may give way. He recommends that they think of Athens’ land as a hostage and spare it if possible in order not to drive them into despair and thus make them that much harder to handle. We shall get ourselves into a more difficult situation if we allow our allies to incite us to war when we are unprepared. Let no one think we are cowards if our confederacy does not immediately attack a single city, “For they have as many allies as we do, who pay tribute too, and war is not so much a matter of arms but of finance, which provides the efficacy of arms, especially between continental and maritime powers” (I.83 2). So we should, he concludes, first provide for expenditures and not be stirred to premature action by our allies.
Ultimately, the Spartans rejected Athens’ offer of arbitration, blaming them for breach of the treaty, as Archidamus feared they might (I.81.5), and the terrible war commenced in 431. By the late 420s both sides had suffered major defeats and they agreed to the 50-year Peace of Nicias in 421. Athens blatantly violated the peace in 414 acting arrogantly (with hubris aforethought) in the belief they could finally win the war. Thucydides follows the last phase of the war in Books VI and VII to the catastrophe of the Syracuse Expedition.
Thus ended the 27-year conflict that constituted the slow suicide of Greece. In endless wars are we not witnessing today the slow suicide of the United States?
The first incident that ultimately triggered war was a political dispute between the island of Corcyra, on the western shore of the Adriatic, and the colony of Epidamnus that it had founded some distance north on the mainland. This dispute drew Corinth into the fray when Epidamnus asked her for help against Corcyra, which was besieging the colony. War then broke out between Corcyra and Corinth, with the island winning a naval engagement (435) and Corinth using the rest of 435 and 434 to prepare a large naval armada assisted by ground support for a decisive onslaught.
Both disputants then sent delegations to Athens in 433 and spoke before the Assembly appealing for help. Corcyra asked for an alliance with Athens against Corinth, emphasizing the fact that of the three major Greek navies at the time, Athens, Corcyra and Corinth, an alliance would give two fleets to Athens. Corinth in turn argued that as repayment for past support in an earlier incident involving the Peloponnesian League, Athens should remain neutral. The Assembly decided on a strictly defensive alliance with Corcyra, meaning that neither side adopted all the friends and enemies of the other.
In the second naval battle between Corcyra and Corinth, Athens sent a small contingent of 10 ships to help Corcyra, hoping to avoid a direct conflict so it wouldn’t violate the Thirty Years’ Peace that ended the First Peloponnesian War (446/5). Thucydides describes that battle in a vivid narrative, stating that it was the largest naval engagement ever fought up to that time. It ended with a clear victory for Corinth. Unfortunately, the Athenian ships had engaged Corinthian forces, thus giving Corinth grounds to charge her with violation of the peace treaty. This was the first incident that contributed to war between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.
The second incident involved the city of Potidaea on the isthmus of Pallene, the western arm of Chalcidice in the northwest Aegean. It was a colony of Corinth, but a tribute-paying member of the Athenian Empire. The city revolted from Athens, incited by Corinth as it believed, and led to ground battles in which Athens defeated the Corinthian force, besieged Potidaea and trapped many Corinthian soldiers inside the city.
I have emphasized this chain of incidents, starting in small far-off Epidamnus and Potidaea, to illustrate a fact we should always remember: many wars begin with a precipitating event that arises far from the centers of power but whose real origin is obscure. The “truest reason” of the war, Thucydides says, though most concealed in discussion, was the Spartan fear of the growing power of Athens. He touches on the true cause earlier in Book I (I.23.6) and elaborates it later.
When Corinth called its allies to Sparta for a conference to condemn Athens, each harbored local grievances: the Corinthians complained that Athens was besieging a colony of theirs with men of Corinth and the Peloponnesus trapped inside; the Athenians complained that the Peloponnesian had caused the defection of Potidaea, which was a tribute-paying ally, and were fighting together with the Potidaeans (I.66).
This conference marks the beginning of a direct confrontation between its two greatest military forces in Greece. The Spartans additionally invited anybody else who claimed to have been unjustly treated by Athens. Several other cities spoke against her, but Corinth came last to let them provoke the Spartans first.
The Corinthian defense emphasized the tyranny of the Athenian Empire, Athens’ seduction of Corcyra and its radical difference from Sparta: one instinct with a spirit of innovative, daring, mercurial, impulsive action and one inclined to slow, sluggish commitment to action only when necessary. The Corinthians attribute this hesitancy to a preference for fair dealing that does not distress other states and for a defense that scrupulously avoids any harm to itself. They cap this line of argument with a superb aphorism against Athens: “If someone were to summarize them as born neither to enjoy any rest themselves nor to let other men enjoy it, he would speak the truth” (I.70.9). The whole description of Athens’ relentless thirst for innovation and its resilience in setbacks (I.70.2-9) is to my mind a far better account of the city’s creative effervescence than Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which is essentially a rhetorical defense of and a call to war.
Athens had some ambassadors in Sparta at the time, but on different business. They asked to speak and mounted a Realpolitik defense of their empire, which they claimed to have acquired voluntarily and not by force, and their sometimes harsh maintenance of it as normal practice for those who wield power. The tribute-paying members should in fact be happy they’ve not experience far worse treatment. The ambassadors were rather direct, however, in warning Sparta against going to war with such a powerful, wealthy state supported by a vast empire.
Sparta then closed the conference to outsiders so they could debate candidly among themselves.
The first to speak was one of the city’s two kings, Archidamus, who gave his name to the first 10 years of the war from 431 to the Peace of Nicias in 421.
Note on the Speeches in Thucydides
Thucydides includes many speeches that are long and very difficult to interpret from their contorted, often opaque syntax and their complex semantic usage. Unlike his narrative passages, the ancient world found his speeches very tough going indeed. Some speeches he certainly heard in Athens before his exile in 424/3, such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and could well have made aides-mémoire of them. Others he might have heard outside Athens in exile, but there is not one certain case, though the possibility cannot be discounted. Others finally are imaginative reconstructions based, as he says in I.22, on his judgement of what would have been the most important or appropriate for the speakers to say regarding the current circumstances while keeping as close as possible to the general sense of the content. My opinion is that Archidamus’ speech accurately reflects his views: Athens had engaged in close relations with Sparta since well before the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449), giving her more than enough time to accurately assess the Spartan decision-making process and its civic ethics. Thucydides very likely had his own sources of information. He certainly would not have written the speech as he did if it contained obvious distortions. Here is what he writes about his exile in V.26.5: “I lived through the whole of it [the war], being of an age to understand events and apply my judgement to learn the exact truth. It happened that I was banished from my own country for 20 years after my command at Amphipolis, and by my association with both parties, as much with the Peloponnesian as the Athenians due to my exile, I could at leisure better learn the course of events.”
Long ago in a used bookstore, I came across a “Big Blue Book” featuring the counsels and maxims of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. My dad liked philosophy and was a fan of Schopenhauer, so I picked it up, I think for one dollar. My tattered paperbound copy, published by Haldeman-Julius Company in Girard, Kansas, is not dated, so I had to do a little research. According to Indiana State University:
Sold for as little as a nickel or a dime the Little Blue Books and the larger-format Big Blue Books were published and republished by the Haldeman-Julius publishing house located in Girard, Kansas to foster the ideals of American socialism and to provide a basic education for the working man. Titles began appearing as early as 1919, but the Little Blue Books series was not christened until 1923.
I think my copy dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s, since it features a catalog at the back that says 1500 “Little Blue Books” are available, all for a nickel each. You could order all of them — all 1500 books — for $45.00, “packing and carriage charges” included. The “little” books were about 3.5″ x 5,” or the size of a small index card, a handy size for shirt pockets; my “big” book is roughly 5.5″ x 8.5″.
Amusingly, the advert used these words to sell them: “There is not a trashy, cheap book in the lot.” The “blue” came from the color of the cover (mine is faded), not from any “blue” or lurid contents.
What strikes me today is the focus on educating the working classes, with the expectation that workers wanted intellectually challenging and controversial material. The back cover of my book features the following list of “Big Blue Books” available:
Perhaps my favorite title is the “Tyranny of Bunk.” We could use a book like that for these times.
Titles featuring Voltaire, agnosticism, Clarence Darrow (of the famous Scopes Trial, in which he defended the teaching of evolution), and the debunking of religious miracles point to the free-thinking nature of these books. Here the “working man” is not being talked down to; rather, he’s being given the intellectual tools with which he can lift himself up. Workers of America, read Blue Books and become educated: that was the message of these books.
Workers of those days had fewer distractions than the workers of today. No vapid television, no video games, no materialistic orgies on Black Friday and Cyber Monday: one can imagine more than a few workers picking up a Blue Book for a nickel and enjoying it.
How much was a nickel back then? My dad was a teenager in the early 1930s. He told me you could go to the cinema for a nickel. In other words, a nickel was real money, but it was also a manageable sum.
Nowadays, I suppose, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to libraries of knowledge that far surpass 1500 “Little Blue Books” and their “Big Blue” cousins. Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is lost in today’s cyberworld. Under socialism and other free-thinking systems of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, there was faith in workers, specifically in educated workers, as representing the future of a better, a more just, a fairer America.
Do we still have that same faith, that same optimism, in the common man (and woman)? It doesn’t seem that way. We are simply not trying to educate everyone roughly equally, irrespective of social class and status and so on.
Assuming literacy, back then it seemed that all that was needed was to place the right books in the hands of workers thirsty for knowledge. Maybe that was a simple vision, but I admire its idealism.
Can we “make America great again” by getting Americans to read again? To read real books that address serious subjects in a mature way? Why not start with some new, inexpensive, little and big blue books? No lithium batteries or internet required.
Not a bad step, I think, as we fight to restore Democracy and against idiocracy.
Recently, a good friend gave me a copy of Daniel Anselme’s “On Leave,” a book published in 1957 in the early stages of France’s war in Algeria, which ultimately ended in France’s defeat and Algerian independence in 1962. A novel, it follows three French soldiers on furlough in and around Paris and their desperate (and mostly failed) efforts to reconnect to home prior to returning to a brutal war.
The main themes are disaffection and disorientation. The gulf in understanding between the soldier-conscripts and their families and the wider public is simply too wide to be bridged. Instead, the soldiers find comfort in drink, women, and especially in each other. Having relied on each other in war, they come to rely on each other again in the short downtime they have from its brutalities.
What struck me forcibly was the indifference of France to the soldiers. We see a similar indifference today in the U.S., despite all of the “support our troops” rhetoric. This “support” often is, as the saying goes, a mile wide but only an inch deep. Another similarity between then and now is the gulf in understanding between what the soldiers know about war and what the people think they know. The soldiers know the horrors; the people only know a few talking points. Back then it was about upholding the honor of France; nowadays in the USA it’s about fighting them (the terrorists) over there so we don’t have to fight them here.
For the troops, it’s always the same cause: preservation. Survival. Saving oneself and one’s buddies.
One soldier gives an electric speech about “when will it end.” How many men is France willing to lose in its attempt to hold onto some smidgen of colonial glory? How long will the wars in Africa go on? His speech made me think of our own, seemingly endless, wars.
All three men in this story — a sergeant, a corporal, and a private — are unwounded physically from war. Yet all three are psychological casualties. War and atrocity has already inflicted a serious toll, as all three suffer some of the less obvious costs of war and extended military service (broken marriages, family arguments and estrangement and resentment, guilt at not being able to conform to family expectations, a growing sense of fatalism).
Recognizing a lost cause, French President Charles de Gaulle eventually smartened up and pulled out of Algeria. But the U.S. today doesn’t have leaders of de Gaulle’s grit and smarts to recognize a losing hand. So America’s wars just grind on and on.
“On Leave” is a fine book. Would that it were on President Obama’s summer reading list, or on Hillary’s or Trump’s. They could all use a heavy dose of reality about war’s futility.
Syme is a minor character in George Orwell’s “1984.” A philologist, Syme works on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “the definitive edition” according to him. What’s fascinating is Orwell’s description of the intent and main functions of Newspeak, as given by Syme in this passage:
“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”
“Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
This brilliant passage by Orwell sends chills up my spine. There will be no thought. Orthodoxy means not thinking. Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?
After Syme’s oration on Newspeak, Winston Smith, the main protagonist of “1984,” thinks to himself: “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”
A couple of pages later, Syme makes another penetrating observation:
“There is a word in Newspeak … I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”
To this observation, Winston thinks to himself: “Unquestionably Syme will be vaporized.”
Why? Orwell notes that Syme is a Party zealot, a true believer. But what he lacks, Orwell makes clear, is unconsciousness. Syme is too self-aware, and speaks too plainly, therefore he must go. And indeed later in the book he does disappear.
(As an aside, I like Orwell’s reference to some of Syme’s fatal flaws: that he “read too many books” and “frequented … [the] haunt of painters and musicians.” Yes: books and the arts are indeed the enemy of unconscious orthodoxy in any state.)
The other day, a reader sent to me the following unattributed saying: We build our houses out of words, then we live in them.
In “1984,” the Party sought total control over language, over words, as a way of dominating people’s consciousness.
One of my favorite sayings of Orwell, also from “1984” and one I always shared with my students, goes something like this: Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
I think you could add to that: Who controls the language, the very words with which we communicate and think, controls the present.
Language is the key, a point Orwell brilliantly makes through the character of Syme in “1984.”
The modern world is a kluge of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with screens everywhere in which people submerge themselves, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with “soma” of all sorts to keep us drugged and happy, and of course George Orwell’s 1984 with constant surveillance and the “two minutes of hate,” directed mainly at “the enemy,” especially the enemy within, known in 1984 as Goldstein (for some Americans today, “Goldstein” is Donald Trump; for others, it’s Hillary Clinton; for a few, it’s Ted Cruz or perhaps all of the above).
Dystopic elements characterize our American moment, hence the appropriateness of dystopic science fiction novels. Bradbury was especially good at poking holes in the idea technology was in essence a liberating force. He captured the way people might submerge their identities within screens, neglecting the real people around them, even those closest to them, for the “virtual reality” of infotainment. Huxley was keen to debunk mass production as a liberating force, but his invention of “soma,” a mood-enhancing drug that leads to detachment and inaction, captured our overly medicated ways. (I can’t watch network news without being bombarded by drug ads that promise me release from pain or acne or other nuisances and hence a better life, as long as I take this pill or use this inhaler.) Finally, Orwell captured the total surveillance state, one driven by fear, obsessed by enemies created by the state to cow the masses. Perhaps the darkest of the three, Orwell left little hope for the “little man” oppressed under the jackboot of a militaristic and totalitarian state.
The times are not quite that dark in America today, but these three classic novels offer warnings we’d do well to heed. An aspect of these dystopias we most definitely see in America today is the degeneration of news, of information, of knowledge. As a society, America is arguably less fact-based today than at any point in its history. Even as we’re immersed in information via the Internet, the news itself has become shallower, or trivial, or frivolous, when it’s not out-and-out propaganda.
I grew up watching the news. Before going to school, I used to watch the “Today” show in the morning in the 1970s. It was a decent show. Some real and serious news made the cut. Now it’s largely a laugh-fest featuring celebrities making sales-pitches. The news as soap opera; the news as vanity.
To state the obvious: The network “news” has been dumbed down. Image is nearly everything. Stories are far shorter and without context. Designed for people with limited attention spans, they’re also designed to keep people watching, so they feature sensationalism and “quick hits” — nothing too taxing or disturbing.
Of course, the real news is still out there, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest probing article at TomDispatch.com. It’s just much harder to find on the network “news”:
What’s left out? Well, more or less everything that truly matters much of the time: any large, generally unphotogenic process, for instance, like the crumbling of America’s infrastructure (unless cameras can fortuitously zoom in on a bridge collapsing or a natural gas pipeline in the process of blowing up in a neighborhood — all so much more likely in an age in which no imaginable situation lacks its amateur video); poverty (who the hell cares?); the growing inequality gap locally or globally (a no-interest barrier the WikiLeaks-style Panama Papers recently managed to break through); almost anything that happens in the places where most of the people on this planet actually live (Asia and Africa); the rise of the national security state and of militarism in an era of permanent war and permanent (in)security in the “homeland”; and don’t even get me started on climate change…
Coming to grips with the real news would require thought and necessitate action – changes, radical ones, to the status quo. And what powerbroker wants that?
Focus instead, America, on your screens. Take your soma. Hate your Goldstein. That’s the method driving our madness. Dystopia, anyone?