George Orwell and National Opposite Day

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t

Just to mess with your head a bit…still cold here in the Great Lakes; trust me. Today is the 52nd anniversary of the lowest daily high temperature ever recorded in the Detroit area: -26 below. Let’s hope that record is never quite met.

Today, though, we’re going to talk about a most extraordinary writer, a scrivener of ideas and thoughtful prose. George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair) was born in India 25 June 1903, the son of an Englishman in Indian Civil Service and a Frenchwoman raised in Burma. Orwell and his older sister were taken to England when the boy was a year old. Though his father visited from time to time, he would not live with his father again until 1912.

As a boy, Orwell was attracted to writing poetry, stories and historical essays, earning prizes and scholarships, including one for Eton. Still too broke to graduate, he took a job with the Imperial Police in Burma in 1922. While there Orwell learned Burmese, grew a mustache, had his knuckles tattoed, started his path towards socialism, and caught dengue fever. After returning to England in 1927, he resigned from the Imperial Police to take up writing full time.

His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was an homage to Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903), describing the seamier side of the largest European cities, its poverty, and degradation of people less fortunate than others. Working a number of odd jobs while writing essays and articles, Orwell associated with some of the organized labor and growing socialist movements in central Britain while writing The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which brought him to the attention of Britain’s Special Branch until the publication of his landmark–and last–book, 1984.

From late 1936 until mid-1937, Orwell participated in the Spanish Civil War primarily as a fighter, but also as an observer of the political chaos that drove the many factions in Spain to cut each other’s throats with charges and counter-charges of “fascism” and “counter-revolutionary thought.” Wounded, he left Spain somewhat disillusioned about the future prospects of socialism if not even the socialists could agree with each other.

After a long recovery, Orwell published a novel, Coming Up for Air (1939), partly based on his childhood and partly not. Rejected for military service with the outbreak of WWII, he kept writing essays, reviews, poetry, stories and a journal, where he often spoke of his disillusionment with the socialist movement in practice but never in theory. He got work supervising BBC broadcasts for India, countering German propaganda.

In 1942 or thereabouts Orwell started writing his breakout book, Animal Farm, that would eventually be published in 1945. Along the way, he suffered many shocks, not the least of which was the death of his parents, losing his lodgings to a V-1 bomb, and the death of his wife. While it was in process with his publishers, it was rejected by his first publisher on the advice of Peter Smollett, a Ministry of Information official in charge of producing pro-Soviet propaganda during the war who turned out to be a Soviet agent. How this affected his later work is speculative since the connection only came after Orwell was dead. Nonetheless, 1984‘s Ministry of Truth did have a duty to change yesterday’s history to fit today’s reality.

Animal Farm won Orwell international acclaim, and without a family he submerged himself in work, producing over 130 essays and reviews in less than a year, and publishing a collection of his review essays. A boating incident in 1947 resulted in tuberculosis, which he barely survived by early 1949 while finishing his last book, published in June–it was an instant best-seller. On 21 January 1950, Eric Blair/George Orwell died at age 46.

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell set out six simple rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

With his impressive published output, I can’t possibly disagree with these rules, but break them most of us do, and regularly. But they come from a man of contrasts, an atheist who embraced and thrived on traditional Church-of-England values, who provoked arguments endlessly but was a loner, aloof from even his most intimate friends. Sickly for much of his adult life, his views on humanism never wavered, while he raged at the humanitarians who didn’t–or couldn’t–provide enough relief for the downtrodden. He hated the idea of dictatorship, yet understood it better than nearly anyone else. He rejected the Soviet Union but embraced socialism all the more fervently. While the Special Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police maintained a file on Orwell as a possible subversive, the Home Office’s MI-5 was just as convinced that he was not only not a communist, the communists didn’t want anything to do with him.

Reading any of Orwell’s writings after reading 1984, however, is difficult because the haunted quality of his last novel almost feels as if he knew his end was coming sooner than later. Animal Farm, which I read first in the 1960s, was spectral but not with the same feeling of doom. Reading Burma Days about his life as an Imperial Policeman or Down and Out in Paris and London recalls Jack London’s desperate despair, but contains none of the feel of death that his last works have.

For those of you who know nothing of Orwell’s prodigious body of work, you should read the significant books in the order they were published.

And if you have read him already, pause today in memory of the late Eric Blair…when the clock strikes thirteen.

One of the most extraordinary things I get to do on this blog is making pithy observations about what people expect versus what is–ahem–real. It is with the height of irony that Friday, 25 February is called by some National Opposite Day. I say “by some” because not everyone agrees that 25 February is National Opposite Day; some insist that it’s 7 January, yet others demand recognition of the “fact” that the 25th of every month is Opposite Day. Several sources speak about “experts” in the field of national days.

Orwell would have loved/hated it. “Experts on national days”–there are such things? And the idea of opposite days–where you say one thing and do another–would have fit into his Oceania very well.

No one knows when or where “opposite days” started, but the earliest reference is in the 1920s when Calvin Coolidge declared “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” At this, the punditocracy began debating if he was running or not (he didn’t).

Opposite Day is a self-referential paradox, and the perfect way to commemorate the death of George Orwell. Declare Opposite Day, and there can never be one–Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth will ensure it. Declare an orgy on Opposite Day and Julia of the Junior Anti-Sex League will spend hours deciding if she should or not.


Benjamin Harrison and National Radio Day

August is nearly done, and so is summer in the Great Lakes. Still hot, still sticky, air conditioner still grinding away–thankfully. But I replaced the furnace this year, so at least I know that blower will run all summer–and is on warranty.

On 20 August in the year 2 (we think), there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter visible in the morning sky on Earth. This happens every three years and change, but this one was so close that it may have been visible in daylight and is one scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. On 20 August 1794, near what is now known as Maumee, Ohio, the Battle of Fallen Timbers ended the Northwest War between the United States and the loosely-joined Native American tribes in the Western Confederacy and helped to open up the Ohio River country for American settlement.  The battle was fought by a purpose-built 2,000-man American force led by “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a famous Revolutionary War commander, and a similarly-sized Native American force that included a company of British regulars. Also on this day in 1914, Britain, France and Germany started the bloodletting in France in what would come to be called the Battle of the Frontiers. Simultaneously, the Russians and Germans had at each other at Gumbinnen, over in Prussia. The supreme irony here is that, on 20 August 1940, France would surrender to Germany. Today, for reasons surpassing understanding, is also National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day. But today we’re going to talk about an obscure but essential president, and about radios.

These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Benjamin Harrison, born 20 August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, is frequently said to have been something of a cipher. He was the grandson of the president with the shortest tenure, William Henry Harrison (31 days); a Civil War general of not great repute but enormous competence; and the president best known as the one between Grover Cleveland’s two administrations. These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

Ben Harrison only held two elected offices in his life: a one-term senator from Indiana (1881-1887) and a one-term president (1889-1893). A more-than-competent attorney, Harrison always managed to be in the right place at the right time, and even though his friends in high office were few, US Grant was among them. He was a gifted orator, a better-than-average legal writer, a savvy investor who didn’t lose money in any of the various postwar panics, and a reliable campaign friend to have in Indiana. Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many jobs like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison wasn’t the first to be elected without winning the popular vote, but his election in 1888 may have been regarded as the most suspicious until 2016. The Electoral College vote wasn’t even close–233 to 168 in his favor. Then, as now, the losing Democrats wrote editorial after editorial arguing that the Electoral College should be disposed of. But Harrison ignored his party when selecting his cabinet, frustrating Republican bosses across the country by avoiding patronage. And patronage was at the heart of the civil service reform that was popular among politicians at that time, with a merit system being described and argued. The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many positions like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House, was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison was in the White House when the last battle of the Long War between the Europeans and their African and Asian allies and the Native Americans broke the revivalist Ghost Dance movement among the Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on 29 December 1890. He didn’t have anything directly to do with it, but, like George HW Bush was in the scene when the Cold War ended, Harrison saw the end of the most protracted American war. But Harrison saw more states enter the Union than any other president–six–and his face appears on more stamps than any other Chief Executive–five. Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House (though he was too frightened of electrocution to turn them off), was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.

The election of 1892 was a low-key affair in no little measure because Harrison’s wife Caroline was dying of tuberculosis (she passed two weeks before the election). Grover Cleveland won both the popular and the electoral vote handily, reentering the White House in March 1893. Ben Harrison went home to Indiana, remarried in 1896 (at 62, to a 37-year-old widow), and fathered another child in 1897. Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.


Something we can all identify with

Now, National Radio Day is today, 20 August. Once again, who first decided this is a mystery for the ages, though one theory is that 8MK, now WWJ in Detroit, first broadcast in the clear on 20 August 1920, and someone, some time decided to commemorate that day. The day has been observed regularly since the early 1990s, mostly as a promotional gimmick I would imagine.

The pretty young ladies on the beach in the lead picture, struggling to hold that (probably empty) boom box over their head, are posing for the camera. I do not know of anyone who gets that excited over commercial radio in the 21st century except maybe the broadcasters. Perhaps that’s the reason why there’s a website supporting National Radio Day that lists stations across the US that support National Radio Day in some way or another.

It’s been a long time since I listened to broadcast radio in any form, though I do get satellite radio in my car from time to time. Like most music-only consumers, I prefer commercial-free satellite radio or streaming these days. The babbling DJs, the shouting pundits I can do without.

Still, commercial broadcast radio has had an outstanding, salutary role in American society and the world. Most Americans first heard of the Pearl Harbor attacks and the death of Franklin Roosevelt on the radio. Many adults–especially those over 40–courted their current significant others to the sound of the radio in the car or the park or the basement. So you don’t have to listen to appreciate radio anymore, just know and recognize what a role it has played in our lives for nearly a century.

Something Happening Here…

And what it is pretty damn clear.

Last week some murderers in Paris killed a hundred-odd people in the name of their god.  Since then the mass media has taken certain people to task for not saying the right words, the right descriptions for the murderers who boasted about what a good job they did at killing, and what a better job they will do at it in the near future.

But words are meaningless.  Actions only have meaning.  And the French did something, just as the murderers did.  The French military attacked the center of where these murderous fiends are getting their support.  Made them hurt, if only a little.

And now a majority of American governors have declared that certain refugees are not going to be allowed to come to their states…as if they have any say in it.

What’s happening here is a bunch of very un-serious people who are in positions of influence and even authority in America are trying to tell the rest of us that this murder rampage that’s been going on in Syria for years is all the fault of…somebody else, somebody not in power any more, or someone who is in power but has the wrong letter (either a D or an R, depending on the speaker) after their names.  No one in the West is taking responsibility for what it going on except for those who are doing the majority of the murdering.  And they are proud of it.

So what now?  Not much, likely.  No American politician will commit the resources needed to anything that will last beyond their own tenure in office, and we all know that the American president will last no more than eight years.  So, the United States will essentially do nothing about the rampage.  And because the Americas can do nothing, very little else will be done by anyone else, except the French for a few wees, and the Russians who will continue their desultory campaign as long as the cameras are rolling.

I will say the words “Islamic terrorists” so that the right-wing media will not chastise me for my failure to key them to my sentiments correctly.  Then I will tell them they are phonies just as those that they condemn.  Their war of words is a meaningless exercise, a smoke screen to cover their lack of influence and real power.

Then I will say the words “Islam is the religion of peace” so that the left-wing media will not start their “racist/sexist/homophobe/Islamophobe” drum-circle chanting and condemn me with their “Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism” and “climate change causes terrorism” fantasies.  They will chant that they, too, are committed to ending the killing, but their solutions like a jobs program, or Muslim outreach in NASA, have as much to do with stopping it as a rubber band has to do with trout fishing.

This bloodletting needs to stop, but serious people need to commit to the HUMINT resources necessary, to start the enormously expensive and time-consuming work of understanding how their message of “my way or the highway” is so superior to the disaffected that it makes people want to kill–and to die while killing.

Terror networks are run by serious people.  Serious people need to oppose them.  We don’t have any serious people in America even talking about what needs to be done.  Our “leaders” and wanna-be leaders are too interested in the right words, in popularity and what they get credit for.  Networks like ISIS can be forever and claim that their credit will only be given after the are dead.  Western leadership is very short term, and thinks only in the short term.  Someone in the West has to take responsibility for something they will never get credit for until they are long gone.