Saturday, July 29, 2017

George Orwell’s Response to “Alternative Facts”

On January 22, 2017, two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” as a way of describing lies. She was referring to the White House press secretary’s providing false estimates for the crowd that attended the inauguration.
This idea of “alternative facts” is actually not unique to the Trump administration. Although that term is new, the dictatorships that dominated Europe in the mid-twentieth century, the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler and the Soviet government of Josef Stalin, were no strangers to “alternative facts.” Those two authoritarian states regularly issued pronouncements and provided information that they knew were not true.
One of the greatest literary champions of truth in the face of these threats was George Orwell, who died all too soon at age 46 in 1950. 

George Orwell
Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, spent the final years of his life revealing in those two novels how dictatorships contort the truth to achieve their ends. In his book England Your England, composed largely after the end of World War II and the fall of Hitler, Orwell analyzed the effects of how Nazism and Russian communism constantly used “alternative facts” to promote their ends:
“Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. For example, it is impossible to calculate within millions, perhaps even tens of millions, the number of deaths caused by the war. [World War II] The calamities that were constantly being reported—battles, massacres, famines, revolutions—tended to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One had no way of verifying the facts, one was not even fully certain they had happened, and one was always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources….Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth…that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.” (p. 54)
This analysis describes all-too accurately the state of truth in the current era of “alternative facts.” The government in Washington baldly denies even the most obvious facts—the existence of global warming and climate change, the size of a crowd on the Mall in DC, the effects of a bill that deprives millions of people of their health insurance, the absence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, etc.. It’s frightening that the other examples of governments that use these tactics are two of the worst dictatorships in history.
What does Orwell recommend that writers do in response to governments denying obvious truths? He advocates political action, but interestingly, he cautions that opposition to regimes that embrace falsehoods can also lead to fanaticism and dogmatic ideas if we embrace activism without reflection:
“To suggest that a creative writer, in a time of conflict, must split his life into two compartments, may seem defeatist or frivolous: yet in practice I do not see what else he can do. To lock yourself up in the ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that  every choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the less, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. War, for example, may be necessary, but it is certainly not right or sane. Even a general election is not exactly a pleasant or edifying spectacle. If you have to take part in such things—and I think you do have to, unless you are armoured by old age or stupidity or hypocrisy—then you also have to keep part of yourself inviolate.” (p. 25)

In other words, writers have to curb the temptation to oppose fanatics with an equally fanatical ideology. We must act, and not be paralyzed by ethical dilemmas. But we must never let go of our critical and moral judgments, even if we have to bracket them in order to undo a terrible evil.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Motown Last Dollar Choice and What It Means for Writers


Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit, also called Hitsville U.S.A. 

The Motown Museum, Detroit

At the end of the guided tour through the museum, I got to stand in Studio A where a huge number of the greatest songs of the last half century were recorded (photo below).


These were hits sung by Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandelas, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye…the list goes on and on. So many of these incredibly talented artists were all living in Detroit at the same time in the mid- and late-1960s. That period reminds me of Florence during the Renaissance—Motown Records brought together that sort of concentration of artistic genius all in one place and time.

Our tour guide, Cecilia (the liveliest tour guide ever!),  told us an intriguing story about a decision-making strategy that Motown Records used at its height, a method that I think has important implications for writers. Every Friday morning, the entire Motown community—recording artists, executives, and staff would sit down for a weekly meeting. They would play the tapes of the songs that the singers and musicians had recorded that week and they would ask themselves as a group one key question about that song:

If you were down to your last dollar, would you buy this record or would you buy a sandwich?

If the answer was the record, they would release it. If the answer was the sandwich, it was back to the studio to continue working.

There is something refreshing and honest about this standard. It cuts through a lot of the pretention and gimickry that often plagues the arts.

I wonder how many poets and writers would be willing to subject their work to a similar metric? As a poet, I think there are all-too-many poems that could never in a million years hope to approach that standard. Are there any poems that could reach that bar?

I think there are some poems that are more nourishing to the soul than a sandwich would be to the body. I have my own list (see below), but that list would be different for each person.

I wonder how often we challenge ourselves to write a poem or other work of literature that would reach that bar, and whether we even should? I do think there are poems that contain such an important life lesson, and/or use language in such a beautiful and succinct way, that I would pick them over a pesto chicken Panini on an empty stomach.

I think few of us attempt to write in a way that is so universal and compelling because we are distracted by our own stories, our experiments with language, and our own preoccupations. There is also the danger of writing in a way that ends up being corny, or sententious, and those are unpardonable sins in contemporary art. We are so obsessed with authenticity and originality. I think we should be more tolerant of writers who err on the side of being preachy or schmaltzy, because they should be given credit for making the attempt at creating a poem that someone would pick over a sandwich. Academic criticism can be unforgiving of a writer such as Mary Oliver, who can go over the top with her Buddhist life-lesson poems collected in walks in the woods, but I salute her for trying to say something deep and universal, even if she only succeeds some of the time.

Here are the poems that come to my mind as reaching the poem-over-sandwich bar:

William Blake “The Tyger”
Chana Bloch “The Joins”
André Breton “Always for the first time” from The Air of the Water
Robert Desnos “No, Love Is Not Dead”
T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men”
Tess Gallagher “Each Bird Walking”
Federico García Lorca “Sleepwalking Ballad” (or “Somnambule Ballad”) and “Gacela of Unforeseen Love”
Allen Ginsberg “America”
Langston Hughes “Mother to Son”
Frank Paino “Each Bone of the Body”
Edgar Allen Poe “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”
Kenneth Rexroth, tanka translated in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Wislawa Szymborska “True Love”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Yosano Akiko, various tanka from Midaregami, including “tell me this evening as you gaze eastward…,” “my hands cover my breasts…,” “early evening moon rising over a field of flowers…”


Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration