Orwellian and Huxleyan Dystopias

Journalist Christopher Hitchens, who himself published several articles on Huxley and a book on Orwell, noted the difference between the two texts in the introduction to his 1999 article “Why Americans Are Not Taught History”:

We dwell in a present-tense culture that somehow, significantly, decided to employ the telling expression “You’re history” as a choice reprobation or insult, and thus elected to speak forgotten volumes about itself.

By that standard, the forbidding dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four already belongs, both as a text and as a date, with Urand Mycenae, while the hedonist nihilism of Huxley still beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus.

Orwell’s was a house of horrors. He seemed to strain credulity because he posited a regime that would go to any lengths to own and possess history, to rewrite and construct it, and to inculcate it by means of coercion. Whereas Huxley rightly foresaw that any such regime could break because it could not bend. In 1988, four years after 1984, the Soviet Union scrapped its official history curriculum and announced that a newly authorized version was somewhere in the works.

This was the precise moment when the regime conceded its own extinction. For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.

Some years before that, the social critic Neil Postman had contrasted the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

  • What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
  • Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.
  • Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
  • Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
  • In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.
  • In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

Unbelievable Truth: Aeroplanes

This is a short lecture that is entirely false save for five pieces of true information which are cunningly concealed amongst the lies. Today’s subject is aeroplanes, heavier than air flying vehicles with fixed wings which are usually powered by propellers or jet engines.

Since the dawn of time, man has gazed up in the sky and dreamt of what it must be like to sit in it somehow eating Mini Pretzels and half-watching Paul Blart Mall Cop. Well, today we can answer that question in two simple words: aero planes.

Aeroplanes have existed in the wild, of course, ever since pterodactyls. But the first man-made aeroplane was built by a pair of simple Ohio biscuit salesmen, Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Wright brothers were, as I say, pigeon farmers by trade and it was watching these majestic creatures take flight that inspired Orville to turn to his brother one morning and say:

“Wilbur, I wish I could fly! Right up to the sky! But I can’t.”
A curious light came into Wilbur’s eye as he replied:
“Orville, you can!”
“I can’t!”
“You can!”

And so, financed entirely by their day job which, you remember, was running a bike shop, they set to work designing an aeroplane.

So they set to work designing an aeroplane. Tensions ran high. As Orville was keen to build an ‘F-16’ fighter whilst Wilbur had his heart set on the ‘Boeing-747’. When such arguments arose the brothers would deliberately swap sides midway and argue the other’s point of view. At first, Orville thought this was a stupid idea but then Wilbur made them swap sides and after that Orville convinced Wilbur it was a good idea, so they did it.

Aviatress Lilian Bland built the first aeroplane in Northern Ireland using a whiskey bottle as a petrol tank and her aunt’s ear trumpet to feed it. It had the engines of a lawn mower, the wheels of a pram and the wings of an albatross. Earning her a lifetime ban from Belfast bird sanctuary.

And she called her aeroplane the ‘Mayfly’ as in ‘it may fly or it may not’. In 1929 Elsworth W. Bunce became the first man to walk along the wing of a plane in flight. In 1930 he became the first man to milk a cow on a plane. And in 1931 he became the first man to realize that no matter what wacky things he did on planes his parents would still prefer his brother.

Since then aeroplanes have been designed in every imaginable shape and size. For instance, the Lockheed McDonnell 3-12, which had both wings on the same side of the fuselage and was consequently very good at turning right but very bad at not turning right. Then there was a Caproni Ca.60 which had nine wings and eight engines and contained a cocktail bar, a swimming pool, a racecourse and an aerodrome.

See other: Unbelievable Truth Posts

PS Consult the comment section to find out the truths.

Religion and the Moral Arc

Over the last century, throughout different parts of the western world, Catholics were denied equal treatment before the law; Jews were institutionally discriminated; black people were regarded as racially inferior; women could not vote for fear that they would become masculinised. As for marriage issues, African Americans could not marry white people because it was against the word of God, and the same was true for gay marriage.

And even though all of these horrendous inequalities and inhumanities were carried out under a religious mandate (a force which is still to be reckoned with in some societies), there are scholars who, thankfully, find reasons to be optimistic about the future of human civilisation. To quote Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University,

“I like to paraphrase Winston Churchill in his description of Americans: You can always count on religions to do the right thing…after they’ve tried everything else. It’s true that the abolition of slavery was championed by Quakers and Mennonites, that the civil rights movement was led by a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., and that gay rights and same-sex marriage were backed early on by some Episcopalian ministers. But these are the exceptions, and for the most part people who opposed abolition, civil rights, and gay marriage were (and still are, in the latter case) their fellow Christians. […]

The gay rights revolution we’re undergoing right now is a case study in how rights revolutions come about, because we can see who supports it and who opposes it: The vast majority of conservative and fundamentalist Christians have opposed (and still do oppose) same-sex marriage and equal rights for gays, whereas secularists and non-religious people support the movement; and those religious people who do endorse same-sex marriage are members of the most liberal and the least dogmatic sects.

So, while I acknowledge that many religious people do much good work in the world, manning soup kitchens and providing aid to the poor and disaster relief to those in temporary need, religions overall have lagged behind the moral arc, sometimes for an embarrassingly long time.”

“At every turn [the religious] try to make the public forget about their earlier obscurantism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be seen for what it really is.” – Christopher Hitchens

Cocksure [Adj.]

Overconfident; confident in an excessive or arrogant way.

“Intellectuals are cynical and cynics have never built a cathedral.” – Henry Kissinger

The Destruction of Divergent Thinking

‘There was a great study done recently of divergent thinking. It was published a couple of years ago. Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but it’s an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways of interpreting a question to think what Edward de Bono would probably call laterally – to think not just in linear or convergent ways. To seek multiple answers, not one.

So there are tests for this, I mean, one kind of cod example would be people might be asked to say how many uses can you think of for a paper clip; one of those routine questions. Most people might come up with ten or fifteen. People who are good at this might come up with 200. And they’d do that by saying, “Well could the paperclip be 200 foot tall and made out of foam rubber?” “Does it have to be a paperclip as we know it, Jim?” Now they tested this and they gave them to 1,500 people in a book called Break Point and Beyond, and on the protocol of the test if you scored above a certain level you’d be considered to be a genius at divergent thinking.

So my question to you is what percentage of the people tested of the 1,500 scored at genius level for divergent thinking. Now you need to know one more thing about them – these were kindergarten children. So what do you think? What percentage at genius level? 80? 98%. Now the thing about this was it was a longitudinal study, so they retested the same children five years later aged 8 to 10. What do you think? 50? They retested them again five years later, ages 13 to 15. You can see a trend here can’t you?’

– Robinson, K. (2008, June 16) Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms. Retrieved from Ted.com

Chinese Box World

‘With the metaphor of the Chinese box Brian McHale in his book Postmodernist Fiction explains a frequent phenomenon in postmodernist literature. The phenomenon whereby a story-line is interrupted by another story, thus creating a discontinuity that may be subtle as in the case of Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, where each story represents a different ‘world’. The purpose of these novels-within-the-novel; still-photographs-within-the-novel; films-within-the novel in modernist literature “serves as a tool for exploring issues of narrative authority, reliability and unreliability, the circulation of knowledge, and so forth.” In postmodernist literature these different interrupting worlds/narratives are so frequent that the original narrative sometimes gets lost. Attention is drawn to the fact that we can never know the complete truth, we are only capable of knowing a truth, and different Chinese boxes will give us different (sometimes conflicting) information about different worlds.’

– McHale, B. 1987. Pöstmödernist Fiction London, United Kingdom: Methuen Inc. p. 113

Control Of Fire

Burn stuff
1 million years ago?

Nobody knows when our ancestors learned to control fire. The oldest direct evidence comes from Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, which contains ashes and burned bones from 1 million years ago. But there is evidence hominins were processing food even earlier, and that might have included cooking with fire.

See other: What Makes Humans Human?