War culture is an insidious presence in the ordinary life of the imperial citizenry. The subtle entrapment in its daily rituals is a treacherous seduction of political will that sacrifices democracy on the altar of militarism. The profane is endemic to politics as usual, the self-indulgence of a public alienated from its founding ideals. Mundanity is a spiritual death knell just below the threshold of critical awareness.
The war mentality is a self-sustaining redundancy that renders critical reflection tiresome and seemingly futile. The apparent inevitability of war induces acceptance and rationalization. The public refuses to see its imperial reflection in the mirror. The face of war is too ugly to unmask. Better to suppress it. Repression and projection are the psychological alternatives to critical reflection. (more…)
Circus poster showing battle between Buffalo Bill’s congress of rough riders and Cuban insurgents. (Library of Congress)
Sic semper tyrannis! I will not celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. Dictators abound in the world; their deaths should be met with a silent shrug. What joy is there in the tragedy of a people still shattered, a country lost in childhood, and another failure in the centuries-old struggle of Cubans for liberty and equality? Let those who will dance on graves wave flags, honk horns and jump in the streets as a rite of passage.
Rather than spit on a corpse, I choose to recall memories of another Old Man—what he did, and what he meant to us. (more…)
“The Adoration of the Golden Calf,” oil on canvas, by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1634. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he saw the people of Israel dancing and worshipping the golden calf. “Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” (Exodus 32:9) During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)
And yet in the land of the free we have created the “Land of the Dollar,” and we worship Mammon and build temples to the Golden Calf. (more…)
In the 1920s and early 30s, Dashiell Hammett transformed American detective fiction. Hammett joined the Pinkerton’s Detective Agency in 1915. During World War I he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis (an ailment that would plague him throughout his life) in the army during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Discharged honorably from the military in poor health, Hammett moved to San Francisco where he quit detective work and wrote short stories that were published in H.L. Mencken’s The Smart Set and Black Mask.
Between 1927 and 1933, Hammett wrote the five novels that constitute–along with his Continental Op short stories–his main body of work. In the mid-1930s he lent his active support, along with other American intellectuals, to the anti-fascist (Loyalist) cause in the Spanish Civil War. At the height of his career at age 48 (shortly after the release of John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon), he re-joined the army as a private during World War II. By this time, the FBI considered him “to be among the upper echelon of the Communist Party in the United States.” (more…)
Cover of “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism,” 1927. (Credit: Eric Ravilious / Wikimedia Commons)
I have been getting my mind improved by examining, after many years of reading George Bernard Shaw, his Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.
The book is Shaw’s political and economic testament after decades of proselytizing for Socialism. It is written for women because in America and England, men are supposed “to understand politics and economics and finance and diplomacy and all the rest of a democratic voter’s business on the strength of a Fundamentalist education that excites the public scorn of … Sioux chiefs.” In reality, the male citizen is “ashamed to expose the depths of his ignorance by asking elementary questions; and I dare not insult him by volunteering the missing information.” (xi)
First written in 1928, Shaw gives a lucid definition of Socialism: “an elaborate arrangement of our production and distribution of wealth in such a manner that all our incomes shall be equal.” (377) He was fully aware of the traditional charitable justification for his economic ideas: “The Communism of Christ, of Plato, and of the great religious orders, all take equality in material subsistence for granted as the first condition of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.” (94) As a believer in Creative Evolution, he perceived Socialism as necessary for the survival of the race: “No civilization can finally stand out against the bane of inequality.” (298) (more…)
U.S. nuclear weapon test Ivy Mike, 31 Oct 1952, on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). (Photo courtesy of US Atomic Energy Commission)
Writing in the context of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry, Thomas Merton argued that the US had a right to self-defense but a moral obligation to work for peace. He opposed the policy of massive retaliation and advocated nuclear disarmament. He warned against something he called “demonic activism, a frenzy of the most varied, versatile, complex and even utterly brilliant technological improvisations, following one upon the other with an ever more bewildering and uncontrollable proliferation” (Peace in the Post-Christian Era, p. 103).
The problem of war, Merton maintained, was first and foremost a matter of attitude. Even at the risk of nuclear annihilation, Americans succumbed to a truculent and suspicious state of mind that precluded any solution other than violence. Such a mood undermined confidence in negotiation. Yet, he insisted, “we can no longer afford to ignore our obligation to work for the abolition of war as a means of solving international problems” (p. 5).
Merton’s critique of US war culture as an amoral state of mind that yields to the hegemony of power remains relevant to the present challenge of peacemaking. We still lack the motives required to build a peaceful world, to resist fear and hatred and to restrain our savagery, which is “a fatal deficiency” (p. 19). (more…)
“The Cornell Farm” (oil on canvas) by Edward Hicks (1848).
When the animals rebelled in Orwell’s Animal Farm, they promptly set up a system of government based on a political philosophy called “Animalism.” Among its Seven Commandments, the last and final commandment painted on the barn wall read: “All animals are equal.”
Orwell’s fable (subtitled “A Fairy Story”) has been read as a political satire of the Russian Revolution. In this view, the pigs Napoleon and Snowball are surrogates for Stalin and Trotsky, and the indictments and slaughter of the animals accused of counterrevolutionary activities are an allegory of the Moscow Trials, etc.
In our smug self-sufficiency, we forget that parables, allegories and prophecies always refer not only to a particular set of historical events. When one reads the account of “the three hens who … now came forward and stated that Snowball had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon’s orders,” Animal Farm becomes Salem, Massachusetts, and is also a precursor of the U.S. Congress during the McCarthy era.
Parting from the disturbing premise that Animal Farm is a moral tale for us, I find several illuminating correlations: (more…)
George Orwell. (Credit: Wiggy! / Wikimedia Commons)
Erich Fromm warned us that 1984 (1949) is not just a description of Stalinist barbarism, but that Orwell means us, too, in his dystopian novel.
In this and succeeding posts with the same title we will conduct periodic “State of the Dystopia” examinations in which we will review how many of Orwell’s prophecies (and in what way) have come true. In our time Orwell has become, if not a holy prophet like Jeremiah, at least a political prophet of say, the secular prophet Nostradamus. We study Orwell’s writings the way faithful Christians pore over the Book of Revelation to keep track of the oncoming of the Apocalypse.
To begin with the simplest, and most resounding of Orwell’s prophetic utterances: the building of the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) in Oceania (see map below) was “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” On its white face, “in elegant lettering,” was carved the three slogans of the Party:
In 1960, just before a new administration under John F. Kennedy was taking office, heralding the vision of a “New Frontier,” Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus premiered in Hollywood. The film’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, written in 1951. Both writers had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the national persecution of writers and artists with past communist associations (Trumbo was one of the original group of the Hollywood 10). Both had been imprisoned during the Cold War era. (more…)
The Old Man sat smoking his pipe, wearing sneakers and a baseball cap. He took out his handkerchief and cleaned his glasses, for he was partly blind in one eye, and needed all the precision he could get from his remaining healthy one. The Screen Directors Guild of America was meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel on 22 October 1950. The full membership was in attendance.
At issue was a ballot put forth by Cecil B. DeMille (director of The Ten Commandments, 1923 and 1956), “the most successful box-office director in the world,” and a group of co-religionists who wanted to recall the Guild’s President, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director of All About Eve, 1950). The times were out of joint, and DeMille’s group suspected Mankiewicz of Un-American activities.
John Ford, 1946.
The meeting had gone on for hours. Hollywood film directors argued heatedly for or against DeMille or Mankiewicz. During an exhausted lull at the meeting, the Old Man stood up and spoke to the stenographer for the record.