Homage to catatonia

By Benjamin Massey · January 28th, 2017 · 1 comment

The Americans had an election, meaning four more years of badly-microwaved Nineteen Eighty-Four metaphors. Colby Cosh just dealt with this (probably helping spur the Twitter reply that jogged this post), but the Donald can console himself knowing that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton got this treatment too. If you could persevere through enough Noam Chomsky, and I cannot, you could probably find examples going back to Lyndon Johnson. It’s an easy political trope because Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the only overtly political story whose plot every English-speaker broadly knows, in the same sense as Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. (Incidentally this is not because of its wisdom: plenty of anti-totalitarians had that. It’s because Nineteen Eighty-Four is, secretly, a very good novel.)

Orwell, who died seven sickly months after completing Nineteen Eighty-Four, never got to see it so mistreated. But he would have known how to deal with it if he had. His “Politics and the English Language” probably holds more insight per hundred words than any other work of English prose, and along with important political thoughts offers plenty of sound stylistic advice, the sort that takes conscious effort to apply and is therefore often ignored by people who should know better. One of his nemeses is the use of metaphors that are worthless for illustrating concepts but arise out of laziness. These are “dying metaphors;” he adds more under the heading of “pretentious diction” but his criticism of the former applies equally to the latter. How many of us actually know what makes a boot into a jackboot, and how few of us avoid the metaphor as a result?

This essay is more than seventy years old and most of those dying metaphors still hang on despite Orwell’s do-not-resuscitate order. Google any of them along with the word “Trump,” even Britishisms like “ring the changes,” and enjoy recent results from professional writers. Try it yourself. “Fishing in troubled waters,” which may actually be dead in most of the Anglosphere, appears only as a quote in a Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial but the writer likes it for the Trump campaign, so it counts. Perhaps it is a resurrected metaphor, breathing tubes shoved down its windpipe even as the doctors insist on its total brain death.

The entire essay could be aimed at modern political writing with a precision as far from Nostradamus as jackboots from tridents. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’;” bloody hell, that’s on the nose. “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Well, quite. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Apply that to whichever politician you hate most; it’s just as true for all of them.

Today, as in 1946, none of his critiques should offend your own politics. Orwell was a devout Socialist, with the capital “S,” for all his adult life, and his uninterest in the United States is infamous. It is impossible to imagine him having a millisecond for Donald Trump the celebrity/businessman, let alone Donald Trump the head of state1, but a Socialist who can be evenhanded with both Soviet Russia and Oswald Mosley would have been big enough to handle him. Orwell hated fascists enough to go to Spain and get shot through the throat by one, and by the way if you haven’t read Homage to Catalonia put your computer in the fridge and go do that. But he also had the maybe the most remarkable sense of perspective ever used in the service of literature, which is why he can survive, not only as a stylist but as a polemicist, decades after every man and every creed he inveigled against has turned to ash.

And so Nineteen Eighty-Four itself has become a dying metaphor. Big Brother in the novel is a specific kind of evil, but in your newspaper he’s anything vaguely authoritarian covering not only Trump and Obama but Google and Apple. Any metaphor that means so much really means very little. The fact that alt-rightists aren’t using Emmanuel Goldstein as a metaphor for controlled opposition must prove the book is no longer consciously mined for ideas but rather jabbed to out of reflex, the same as Orwell’s other bugbears. (What, incidentally, is a bugbear? Christ, sorry, George.) The number of people who use Nineteen Eighty-Four to make a contemporary political point and display fresh insight may actually be zero. There are writers who, perhaps, have the originality and the knowledge of Orwell to do it, but they also have the wisdom not to try.

If the rest of Orwell’s dying metaphors are any sign, this process will not get better in our lifetimes. Therefore Cosh is tilting at a windmill. Come to think of it, Don Quixote is 400 years old and that literary jousting metaphor is still dying. So Orwell isn’t special, but unlike Cervantes at least he left instructions on what to do with a metaphorical invalid.

How to make Canada great again

By Benjamin Massey · March 1st, 2016 · 1 comment

From afar these are sunny days for an American liberal. Decades spent portraying opposition to immigration or multi-culturalism as unthinkably awful have been successful. The reduction of even illegal immigration has become an intermittent and hugely controversial, a relative trickle of deportations ebbing while intake is limited only by the economy. This is besides the hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants per year, also arriving more quickly and politically unimpeachable. The quite enormous controversy in the United States over these people’s living arrangements is seldom seriously taken up by the highest political echelons where useful opposition could make a difference. Whether you vote Republican or Democrat, you will get somebody who implements the proper liberal opinions on immigration. Nativism is totally excluded from polite society.

So objecting voters must look to impolite society. Thus the rise of Donald Trump, who is loud, brash, unpleasant, boorish, not particularly conservative, and first won prominence by saying Mexico should buy the United States a wall. His aggression and cruelty became marketing materials against safe-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness opponents and their painfully politically correct culture. Trump’s success reflects that of American liberalism, proof that they have so strongly defined the political debate that it takes an outsider’s outsider to oppose their consensus. There isn’t even much downside, since between the huge number of Americans who would never vote for Trump’s trademark policies and politically-sympathetic voters who could never stomach Trump as a person, how could the White House ever need a Secretary of Comb-overs? For Trump to become president his opponents would have to do something really stupid, like run a Clinton or one of Lenin’s original useful idiots.

Oddly, in light of this Kursk-esque triumph, the victors seem unhappy. Of course Trump has conservative opposition, personal haters and tribal Republicans who want everyone to imitate Ronald Reagan based off an executive summary of the first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry1, but that’s different. That’s good old-fashioned intranecine blood-letting. No, what’s really interesting is reliable fonts of liberal opinion who are so horrified by the Donald Trump experience you’d think they weren’t the ones who created him.

The New York Times won’t pass up any chance to take a shot at Trump. John Oliver recently made a pious anti-Trump monologue to an audience that couldn’t include five Trump supporters. A popular gossip blog got Trump to retweet an uncited, out-of-context Mussolini quote, and opponents have enthusiastically pretended that matters. Nate Silver has been banging on against Trump for months yet says other people talk about Trump too much. No quote is too out-of-context for a derisive retweet, no ancient interview too minor for a jab, no association insufficient for guilt. The words “fascist” and “racist” are thrown around like confetti by the usual suspects, though some would call pizza fascist for burning the roof of their mouths.

It’s hard to understand. Issues of immigration and PC have been entombed so deep for the political class that it takes a reality TV star with multiple bankruptcies to advance them. Mission accomplished! So what’s the problem? I guess it’s that there’s still a big minority of the American electorate which, in spite of all of the exhortation of their betters, still has the nerve to hold opinions that should be inexpressible. That big minority has not submitted to seemingly-overwhelming rhetorical forces, and is so desperate after decades of electoral impotence that they’re even willing to line up behind a certified grade-A asshole for lack of any alternative.

Can this experience be replicated elsewhere? In Canada Kevin O’Leary is on the road trying to become some Canadian Trump. Nobody seems interested, except mockingly. O’Leary shares “brash capitalist” pedigree with Trump but nothing else; he’s more like an uglier, ruder Belinda Stronach. But O’Leary not being the man doesn’t mean the man cannot exist, for many of the same cultural artifacts that gave rise to American Trumpism are at work here.

Our Liberal government is enthusiastic about refugees and immigration. The recently-defeated Stephen Harper government was, in absolute terms, also enthusiastic but less so. Many Harper initiatives were targeted at specific immigrant groups. The attempt to ban people from wearing a face veil while taking the citizenship oath. The “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. Taking in fewer Syrian refugees than the Liberals or the NDP. Our national elites unified in opposition, calling these policies “dog-whistle politics”2 just this side of the concentration camps. Today the Conservatives are electoral roadkill. Job done.

Yet polling consistently shows these ideas had support. The niqab ban, struck down by the courts on entirely procedural grounds, has been consistently popular. Despite heart-rending photos and an undisputed humanitarian crisis, bringing in more Syrian refugees has been sharply divisive and the Liberals were eventually obliged to scale down their own plans. The barbaric practices hotline was well-liked, particularly in Quebec, and a post-election poll quoted by reliably-anti-Tory iPolitics gave the dead policy 58% approval. On balance, Canadians supported Harper’s opinions on immigration, that just didn’t overcome the myriad other reasons to ditch the Conservative candidate.

The immigration question in Canada is nothing like what it’s become in the United States. Most people didn’t get worked up and of course these issues aren’t untouchable here. Stephen Harper just touched them. It may not always be that way, though: even these modest moves provoked a media backlash. Michael den Tandt of the National Post referred to those popular initiatives as “an unmitigated disaster,” Andrew Coyne was full of implications, and Lord Black gave Harper a finger-wagging. These are no representatives of the “loony left;” that wing was far nastier, while Harper’s few allies came from choir-preachers Sun Media or The Rebel and possessed little influence beyond their actual circulation.

It’s not enough to disagree with these ideas, establish that they’re wrong, fire them full of holes until they sink without trace. There must be at least an implication that anyone suggesting them is a bad person. Intelligent arguments are made in favour of (for example) increased immigration, but when a party pushes an opposing policy intelligence takes a back seat to insinuation, accusations of ugliness and grumpiness at best and racism at worst. It’s a great position if you want to establish superior moral bona fides, and anybody who opens Twitter can see where the wind is blowing. Not one of the Conservative Party’s blue-chippers at the Manning Conference are picking up this torch, despite the polls.

We already have our own, made-in-Canada political taboos. Introducing an abortion law and re-instating the death penalty, which no candidate for Cabinet will ever look at sideways, retain multi-decade levels of public support dwarfing arguments over what sort of assisted suicide we’ll allow. Serious attention to these has been limited to the Christian Heritage Party and, very occasionally, a couple Conservative backbenchers permitted to run off-reservation secure in the knowledge that they can’t possibly make a difference. Conditions are ripening for an ignored voter base to launch a reaction that’s proportionately quite as powerful as Donald Trump’s.

Nor is our parliamentary system absolute protection. David Orchard, an anti-free trade Liberal, came close to the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives thanks to one goofy issue and a certain personal following. Provincially, Alison Redford took control of the Alberta PCs despite the opposition of more-or-less the entire caucus. Redford is now in disgrace, of course, but she was Premier, and had oil prices stayed high and sky palaces hidden perhaps still would be. And then there’s John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister for six years, maybe the last true conservative in the office, and a Western farm lawyer who was never, ever accepted as party leader by the Toronto-centric brass.

If the right sort of firebrand came along—and no, Kevin O’Leary ain’t him—could our assorted Ottawa milquetoasts fall to an angry man with invincible self-regard, the willingness to shout the practically forbidden, and 20,000 new members in his van? Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in a few years’ time? Americans aren’t uniquely stupid, and when ignored Canadians aren’t uniquely immune to frustration. Much stranger things have happened than “Ezra 2020,” and it serves everyone’s interest for important, neglected issues to be taken up by politicians who are, by the low standards of their breed, reasonably straight-shooting and civilized.

Or just treat ideas you don’t like as political toxic waste, a personal shame to anyone who dares espouse them. That’ll probably be fine.