Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Oops and Orwell and Other Things
Yesterday evening, in a comment to a FB friend, I screwed up a reference to Orwell's Animal Farm (1946). A little after midnight, I snapped awake, realized my error, and slept restlessly till this morning, when I was able to send a correction. Throughout the night, memories and images (and dreams?) of that book--and of his 1984--flickered on my mind's screen. In my middle school career, I had students read the book now and then--or dramatizations of it. It had a lot of virtues for seventh and eighth grade readers: it was short; it was easy to read; it was an allegory (I got to teach a literary term!); it was about "important" things ... Also--there was a cartoon, and it's always cool to get to see a cartoon in school.
I would read aloud some of the Room 101 stuff to the class--I still have the pages marked in my copy (a commemorative edition published in 1984!), beginning on p. 233, where our hero, poor Winston Smith, is taken there by the genial torturer O'Brien to confront his worst fear. And for Winston ... that means ... rats!
O'Brien places a cage containing two "enormous" rats over Winston's head. If he refuses to betray Julia, his lover, a little door will rise, and the rats will begin to dine on Winston's face. And Winston breaks, betraying Julia; the book then rushes to its conclusion.
My assignment directed the kids to write about their own Room 101. What would it look like? What (or who) would be there? Who was the questioner? And what was he/she like? For the life of me I cannot recall any specific responses (and, like a doofus, I didn't keep any of their papers), but I imagine there were papers about snakes, about insects, about high places ... a panoply of human fears.
And each time I gave that assignment, the kids would volunteer to read their papers aloud, and I rediscovered that old truth: the fears of other people are funny; ours are not.
And here's what I fear, especially in recent days: the thing that occasioned my erroneous Animal Farm reference yesterday. You may recall that when the "evil" pig, Napoleon, begins to amass power, one of the first things he does is control the media--in his case, sheep (real ones). Earlier--in the golden days of the revolution against the farmer--they had bleated about how four legs were good; two, bad. But now ... Napoleon is walking upright and wearing clothes--just like the humans he's replaced--and the sheep are now chanting, "Four legs good, two legs better! Four legs good, two legs better! Four legs good, two legs better!" (122).
In today's political and media world--where it's possible to find news outlets (print and electronic) that do nothing but offer "news" that fits with your personal biases--we find ourselves in a world in which thoughtful analysis is replaced by bleating sheep. Political operatives on both ends of the continuum bleat their repetitive messages, and their followers pick up the chants, repeating them over and over on social media, in coffee shops, in social gatherings of all sorts that, more and more, are exclusive--i.e., they include only sheep of the same species.
When was the last time you heard a TV talking head say something like this? "You know, that's a complicated issue, and there are a variety of ways to look at it."
No. Today there are no complicated issues. There are only those who crave power. Who have an agenda. Who reduce that agenda to slogans. Which many of us, ovine and obliging, bleat and repeat. And those who prefer thoughtful analysis and subtle distinctions and considerations of consequences and (evil word?) compromise, well, there is only one room for them in the inn of din. Room 101.