Dr. Drew's Infrequent Blog

29 December 2007

Propaganda, Orwell, Libraries and Open Society

WHAT ORWELL DIDN'T KNOW: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics Ed. by Andras SZANTO (New York: PublicAffairs Press, 2007) ISBN 13: 978-1-58648-560-3. $14.95 PA.

I rarely turn on the TV these days -- except to watch a video or the like -- but a few days ago I caught part of a very interesting mini-conference at the New York Public Library. The conference took place back in November -- one month before the 2008 election -- and 60 years after Orwell published his essay, Politics and the English Language.

I only caught one panel from the conference on [CSPAN]
Moderator: Orville Schell; Panelists: Konstanty Gebert, Warsaw-based former Solidarity activist; columnist and international reporter, Gazeta Wyborcza · Masha Gessen, Moscow-based author and journalist; contributor to The New York Times, The New Republic, and US News & World Report · Jack Miles, senior fellow for religious affairs, Pacific Council on International Policy; distinguished professor of English and religious studies, UC Irvine · George Soros, chair of Soros Fund Management LLC; philanthropist and author

The talks by Soros, Schell, and Gebert were excellent. I will probably show Soros' talk in my Collection Management class. [You can read much of that talk online, although the Epilogue to the book is better]. Soros makes a good case on how American political discourse is no longer an honest discussion of ideas, but rather an effort to emotionally sway the public and influence not what people know, but how they feel. He calls for the public to stop politicians from using Newspeak. He said that whenever a politician uses Newspeak (like "war on terror" = "war in Iraq") we should do a Reaganeseque "There you go again!"

I rarely quote the Gipper, but could not agree more. Soros also called for the media and general public to demand a new set of ground rules on politics in order to return it to a cognitive discussion on policy:
...The cognitive function in political discourse cannot be taken for granted. It can be ensured only by an electorate that respects reality and punishes politicians who lie or engage in other forms of deception (197-8).

He also points out that now is an ideal time since the public is so aware of the real costs of how deception got us into our current political mess. Yes!

The conference celebrated the launch of the book, What Orwell Didn't Know. After watching the panel, I had to go get the book. Although some of the chapters were frankly somewhat uneven, I think it is an important volume for librarians and the general public, especially the Second Part (Symbols & Battlegrounds), Third Part (Media & Message), and Epilogue. It is too late at night to write a review, and I have too much to do, but I hope that this book makes it to readers in this important election year.

On Libraries
The book has been out for two months, but is not in a single public or academic library in Hawaii, and is only in 90 libraries according to OCLC. The book was published on 5 November 2007, and I am writing this on 29 December. I don't mean to say that this is the most important book of the year, but it is a very sad reflection on the impact of how library budgets are being crunched by many forces, including a decrease in public support. This takes a huge toll on book budgets, which are so important to making a public commitment to studying politics. Databases and serials are certainly important too, but many ideas are complex, and are best communicated in a book.

Personal Memories of Reading Orwell and Dystopian Fiction
This book and the conference really hit home with me for a few reasons, which probably explains my enthusiasm for the project. Of course, some reasons include that I teach Library Studies, do research on publishing, and am very committed to strengthening public discourse for American democracy. (I know this sounds absurd on a blog... but allow me to ramble). The other reason is that I was sort of obsessed with Orwell for years when I was in high school and an undergraduate. Of course everyone in school had to read Animal Farm and 1984. I remember both being taught basically as anti-Communist parables. I can't remember what it was that helped me to later understand that Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning of what democracies could become. After that I discovered his Homage to Catalonia, which retells of the betrayal of the Spanish Republic, which he observed firsthand. I became obsessed with the Spanish Civil War, which was a trial run for Hitler's and Mussolini's Fascist expansion in Europe. Later, I recall devouring Orwell's COMPLETE WORKS as well as some interesting biographies on him as well.

I also was obsessed with reading other dystopian (anti-Utopian) novels, like Brave New World (Huxley), We (Zamaytin), 1985 (Burgess), Handmaid's Tale (Atwood), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury). It sounds kind of depressing, and it probably was to some extent along with Hesse, Kafka..., especially when you compare it with the wider time in the late 80s, which can be typified by the song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Despite living comfortably in the Midwest, these books seemed real to me since I had a good friend who told me countless surreal stories of life in the Soviet Union.

Of course, my growing up Jewish was very important in all this. Ever since the 4th Grade I spent hours trying to understand the Holocaust. I devoured every book in my elementary school library on the war, and then read a good deal of the many books on the Holocaust in my public library, as well as the library at my temple and the Hebrew school I attended a few afternoons a week. I became really frustrated because I never could answer how it happened. Don't forget that Hitler came to power during the Weimar democracy (which is key in Orwell's mind back in 1948). I still don't have a good answer, but much of the National Socialists' "success" can be attributed to censorship (direct and indirect) and advances in propaganda. The other key is that so many people went along with the NAZI policies. [One can debate the findings of Hitler's Willing Executioners, but there were many levels of cooperating with NAZI policies... (As a related aside, America also has blood on its hands for refusing to allow many refugees to seek shelter here, but that is another story, and it is late)].

It is depressing to reflect on all this after Darfur (getting worse), Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, but that is the point. We librarians as intellectuals and citizens must not turn our heads from such depressing news. Materials on the war (especially the underside of the war), genocide, and the like won't get lots of advertising or free PR in the mainstream media, so they probably won't fly off the shelves, but we have a social responsibility to contribute to intelligent discourse on critical questions facing this country, such as what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what kind of future we want for America and the world.

On that note, I wish you a Happy New Year.

3 Comment(s):

  • I have been thinking about this for much of the day while puttering about the house and kitchen. Broadly, I've been thinking about: How/Where does the average American get their news? Who votes in the U.S.? Who/What has made "sound bites" and "Newspeak" acceptable? Church sermons. Social responsibility in all professions. Personal responsibility.

    Clearly, I haven't tried to articulate my thoughts well. I probably won't in the foreseeable future. But thanks for the thought-provoking afternoon. I'll likely be borrowing the book from one of those 90 libraries.

    By Blogger JenWaller, at Saturday, December 29, 2007 4:29:00 PM  

  • Dear Dr. Drew: I am the author of The i Tetralogy, a historical fiction on the Holocaust which took me a decade to complete; it has received remarkable reviews around the world. I was drawn to your interest to the Holocaust. If you Google my name and the title, you come upon reviews and interviews, et al. I give my book away free to survivors and to those who are not indifferent to the subject. May I forward a copy of the book to you without any conditions at all! In this way we may possibly share our thoughts on the subject.
    kind regards,
    matt freese, csw

    By Blogger matt freese, at Monday, December 31, 2007 5:11:00 AM  

  • Thanks Jen I'll be very interested to know how that is treated at the iSchool!

    Thanks Matt. Kind of you to offer. I have a pile of novels that I want to read, somewhere the pile of monographs and journals I have to read. I am afraid I could not share many helpful thoughts at this point. I did find several reviews of your work online, but might encourage you to send it to some more mainstream review sources for opinions that librarians and booksellers would take with more authority. Some of the reviewers seem to blur the line between book publicists and traditional reviewers.

    By Blogger Dr. Drew, at Tuesday, January 01, 2008 11:13:00 PM  

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