Recently, I’ve been going back to my roots, as it were, listening to all the punk and ska I cut my musical teeth on. Nowadays, when I listen to Sonic Boom Six’s ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ (The Ruff Guide to Genre-Terrorism ), I can’t help but associate it with politics of the here and now. The song, which discusses society’s obsession with sex, opens with a number of sound clips, one of which – IMDb tells me – is from the 1939 film, The Women:
There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society… outside of a kennel
What does this have to do with anything? Well, every time I hear it, I think of the concept of a particular word being used in neither “polite” nor “civilised” society. And the tragic fact I cannot shake at this moment in time is that such concepts are now meaningless: we no longer (if indeed we ever did) live in a “civilised” or “polite” society.
Whatever one thinks of the European Union, the fear that some had of racism increasing following a vote to Leave, came to pass immediately afterwards. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the election to the White House of a shamelessly-mendacious, -obnoxious and furiously-divisive character such as Donald Trump has itself increased bigotry and division in a society which was already exasperatingly-polarised.
Where am I going with this premise? Truthfully, I do not know. It is, as I said above, simply a – to me, tragic – fact which I cannot shake.
I genuinely fear for the fate of the world. As someone who very nearly emigrated to the United States, I fear for that country, its citizens, and its minorities in particular. I am, as it happens, currently reading a novel – The Noise of Time (2016) by Julian Barnes – about the life of a Soviet composer during (in large part) the reign of Stalin. Writes Barnes:
What mattered was not so much whether a particular story was factually true, but rather, what it signified. Though it was also the case that the more a story circulated, the truer it became.
The second sentence echoes the claim made by Joseph Goebbels that “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The first is essentially transparent. We may add to it though: it does not matter what is or not actually “true”, because truth can be – as at one time Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich imagines himself destined to be – “swiftly corrected”; a “mistake” “never [to] have existed”. “Inconvenient facts” or “unpopular ideas” which “‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention”, as George Orwell described them in an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm (1945),* can be discarded into the “memory hole”; the precise act of which is indeed the job of Orwell’s Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Enter “alternative facts”.
The reason for such revisionism is also transparent. As Goebbels himself added: “the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie”. Hence why Dmitri Shostakovich, as in The Noise of Time, refers to “truth-speaking” becoming “impossible” – “because it [leads] to immediate death”. “A problem gets too burdensome,” explains Ray Bradbury’s antagonist in Fahrenheit 451 (1953), “then into the furnace with it.”
“All you have to do”, proclaimed Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials, “is tell [the population] they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.” By this dictum, both the judiciary and the Fourth Estate – whichever side of the pond we are glancing at – become “Enemies of the People”.
One wonders, as the centenary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 comes around, how much attention will be paid to either the totalitarian tendencies of the Trump administration in the United States or the media class in the United Kingdom.
What ideas and phrases have become resurgent with the evisceration of “polite”, “civilised” society need not be reiterated. We all know what they are. What matters now is how we react to this resurgence.
In August 1937, with German and Italian fascists taking a decisively-murderous role on one side of the Spanish Civil War, and Allied non-intervention failing the other, Ernest Hemingway wrote to his second mother-in-law:
…I am on the wrong side [of the Spanish Civil War] and should be destroyed along with all the other Reds. After which Hitler and Mussolini can come in and take the minerals they need to make a European war. … when I was [last in Spain] I promised them [Hemingway’s comrades] I would be back and while we cannot keep all our promises I do not see how not to keep that one. I would not be able to teach my boys much if I did. … this last spell of war completely eliminated all fear of death or anything else. It seemed as though the world were in such a bad way and certain things were so necessary to do that to think about any personal future was simply very egotistic.
This blog, in my mind, is not a place for politics. Not necessarily. Not really at all, in fact. But it is a place to put down, and write about, whatever is on my mind. And the above is something that’s been bubbling away for at least a couple of weeks now. I take my cue from Hemingway’s position outlined above: at risk of melodrama, I believe that the time for apoliticism has now bluntly passed. And if indeed I do believe that, then it would be an act of moral cowardice (and egotism) to refrain from commenting on the perceived crisis.
* George Orwell is here discussing “literary censorship in England”. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England”, he writes, “is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (London: Vintage, 2017 ). pp. 104, 47, 85
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (London: HarperVoyager, 2008 ), p. 150
Ernest Hemingway, 2nd August 1937, in Carlos Baker (ed.) Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 (New York et al.: Scribner Classics, 2003), pp. 459-61
George Orwell, ‘The Freedom of the Press’, c.1945, in (ed.) John Carey, Essays (New York et al.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), pp. 889-90