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.

Lament for four nations

By Benjamin Massey · June 19th, 2016 · 2 comments

In 1965’s Lament for a Nation, Canadian philosopher George Grant asserted that Canada had functionally lost its independence. Though politically sovereign, it had been swallowed as a “branch-plant economy” of the United States. It was capable of dissent, like any other state of the union, but its domestic identity had been sunk not by malice or treason, but the small-l liberalism of Canada’s elite capitalist and intellectual classes focused on economic growth and individualism. Canada, perhaps unavoidably, became a dependency of its larger, dominant neighbour.

He explicitly did not judge anyone’s intentions. The point was not that William Lyon Mackenzie King or Lester Pearson were anti-Canadian or unnecessarily pro-American. He did not say the Americans were wicked, wasn’t sure the process could be stopped, didn’t even know if it was actually bad. He was sufficiently extreme in asserting that it had, already, happened. The government of John Diefenbaker had represented English Canada’s last chance to save itself, but it had been destroyed by the Conservatives’ own mistakes and the national Establishment in coalition, whose gains would be limited by the sort of old-time conservative nationalism that would have made independence possible1.

Grant wrote in anger, and the past fifty years have not proven him entirely right. Anti-Americanism remains Canada’s national vice, among Liberals as much as anybody. However, that anti-Americanism is often tinted in partisan colours; the NDP making “American-style” a slur while the Republicans are in office then campaigning for Bernie Sanders, that sort of thing. Being anti-American when the Americans don’t vote their way gives them something in common with a lot of American Republicans and Democrats. We stayed out of Iraq, American military adventure though it was, but under both Chrétien and Harper were at pains to “make up for it” in Afghanistan. In short, Grant’s thesis held up for the big stuff2.

Everybody shares the faith in technological (perhaps technocratic) progress which Grant considers automatically homogenizing. The pro-business consensus of the Conservatives and most Liberals has been good for our economy but makes us more culturally and economically dependent on the United States every day. Internationalism, the obsession with so-called progress, and the “emancipation of passions” remain guiding lights of left Liberals and New Democrats, opposing globalized business not with Canadian business but with pious proclamations from no fixed address. The no-hoper hardcore socialists of the Leap Manifesto aren’t the strict cultural and economic Castroist comptroller Grant suggests might have defended the nation, but a fully globalist philosophy exemplifying what Grant called “a doctrine [. . .] too flaccid to provide any basis for independence.”

Under the Grant thesis, Canada’s book has closed, and nothing in half a century has re-opened it. There is not much hope for us, but there may be some for the United Kingdom.

Next week the British vote on whether to remain in the European Union. Very nearly the full Establishment backs the EU. This includes the Prime Minister, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the leader of the third party in the House of Commons, the leader of the joint fourth party in the House of Commons, the vast majority of the Cabinet, the vast majority of the House, the President of the United States (ah!), the President of China (ah again!), every newspaper representing the British “smart set,” and a list of businesses and international organizations long enough to wrap around the German border. In favour of leaving is bloke Nigel Farage, coked Boris Johnson, joke Michael Gove, some tabloids, and, incidentally, approximately half the British public. There was less unanimity from the Establishment to fight Hitler and if “Leave” somehow wins it will be the upset of the century3.

The essential argument of the Leave movement should sound familiar to readers of Grant: that, having joined Europe for economic reasons, the United Kingdom has forfeited much of its sovereignty. The immediate consequences of this loss differ between 1960s Canada and 2010s Britain, but the principle is identical and the only surprise is that, despite the collapse of British conservative nationalism since the First World War, there is still enough fight left in the Union Jack for this to happen.

In the Grant tradition, the great homogenizers of Remain produce propaganda proving that the British economy would be hurt by leaving the European Union. Investors have grown more nervous with every pro-Leave polling twitch. Barack Obama threatened that the United States would not automatically be interested in free trade with an independent United Kingdom. These arguments aren’t without force, for the original reason for joining the European Common Market (as it was once called) was economic. For the most part, pro-Leave commentators have tried to dispute that conclusion but there aren’t many grounds to do so.

For if Grant was right then it is that economic interdependence which ultimately forfeited Britain’s nationhood. Surely you cannot call the City of London, among the world’s financial centres, part of a “branch-plant economy” like Canada. However, though the buildings may be in Britain, the world of international commerce amounts to foreign billionaires funding foreign projects, bringing Beemers to British accountants and lawyers but actually making as much in the country as any ’50s branch plant while tying the country’s elite all the more closely to the internationalist mega-economy. Of the Sunday Times Rich List’s top 20, thirteen are non-British4 and, as Grant said in the case of Quebec, English blood is irrelevant if it’s in their interest to obviate Englishness. Britain boasts a far richer culture in 2016 than Canada on its best day but it mirrors conditions more than it drives them. The BBC moved from a voice of authority to a bastion of knee-jerk internationalism and liberalism just as the rest of society’s elites did. Indeed, for Canada Grant’s book hardly treated such concerns in more than passing.

The alternatives Grant recognized were not beds of roses. He listed only two: a program of Castroist socialism, impossible in Canada and intolerable anywhere, and Charles de Gaulle’s “third way,” “to harness the nationalist spirit to technological planning and insist internationally that there are limits to the western ‘alliance.'” As Grant predicted, the Gaullist approach is passé even in France, now facing the same threat to its nationality as Britain. The French economy and quality of life fell behind its immense potential as de Gaulle and his heirs expended effort and treasure to preserve the nation as a real thing, while more straightforwardly global-capitalist regimes enjoyed relative prosperity. It was a trade-off for France, and they paid for it, and in the long run it may not have worked. But it was an attempt to preserve the country, and French national spirit remains a weakened but living force.

The United Kingdom Conservative Party is forever the party of the City and a sort of laissez-faire, not that this translates into any degree of financial responsibility, any independent policy beyond reflexive and meaningless brushbacks against Washington and Brussels, any sort of useful national defense, any moral principles at all, any meaning to the formerly prominent word “Unionist,” or basically anything that the word “conservative” once meant. New Labour was the same, more so in some categories and less so in others, and fond though I am of a party campaigning on what it wants to do Corbynite Labour is the NDP in one of its dilettantist phases.

The Grant equation fits the United Kingdom, right down to Remain forces insisting that the British have not lost their nation at all. Complaints about Europe are universal but actual opposition is portrayed as parochial at best and the work of evil old doctrine at worst. The Scottish independence movement bears a close relation to that of Quebec in the decades after Grant’s tract, and neither Diefenbaker’s Tories nor Farage’s UKIP could work productively with their nation-within-a-nation despite very similar homogenizing pressure.

The final question Grant asked of 1965 Canada was: is this good? The British economy remains competitive. The root cause of the immigration crisis that exercises many Brits is that the United Kingdom is a desirable place to live. And maybe any form of nationalism is, in the twenty-first century, obsolete when it did such great harm to Europe in the twentieth. Grant couldn’t answer the question, but he began the last paragraph of Lament for a Nation thus:

My lament is not based on philosophy but on tradition. If one cannot be sure about the answer to the most important questions, then tradition is the best basis for the practical life. Those who loved the older traditions of Canada may be allowed to lament what has been lost, even though they do not know whether or not that loss will lead to some greater political good. But lamentation falls easily into the vice of self-pity. To live with courage is a virtue, whatever one may think of the dominant assumptions of one’s age. Multitudes of human beings through the course of history have had to live when their only political allegiance was irretrievably lost.

That seems apt for Britain as well.


By Benjamin Massey · November 25th, 2015 · No comments

As a younger man I thought I liked J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I met people who really liked him. I’d read books major and minor, had opinions on whether balrogs had wings1, and taken a remarkably large amount from a Oxford philologist’s fantasy, but I didn’t speak a lick of Quenya or Sindarin, couldn’t name Aragorn’s ancestors between Arvedui and Arathorn, and most damningly had been utterly defeated by The History of Middle-earth. This was a set of twelve large volumes forming a syllabus on the development of The Lord of the Rings; mythology, protomythology, drafts of the work, drafts of the mythology, you’d have to be an actual scholar or a crank to get through it all. It was beyond me but you’d be stunned how many people ate it up, or affected to. No scrap was worthless if it came from the pen of the master, not even juvenilia poems of the First Age which were, frankly, crap. This is a whole new level of fandom.

With every passing year I feel the same about Christopher Hitchens. I was not an early Hitchens adopter, getting in with the other atheists in the early part of the century. But once I was in I was in. I own and have re-read all of his books save the first two, on Cyprus and the Elgin Marbles. None of us know most of the output of Hitchens’s 40-year career but I’ve put a damned good dent in it. Many of his interviews and debates are on YouTube and I’ve enjoyed several. I’ve also found myself flipping through a Hitchens collection, noting a book he discussed that I otherwise would have missed, going out, and buying it; his latter reviews were rightly criticized for not being about the book at all, but the greatest compliment you can give a reviewer is doing that sort of thing more than once. In short, I would call myself a fan if I hadn’t heard from the real ones.

Today’s Hitchens fandom is something else. It was bad enough during his lifetime, when god Is Not Great was doing crazy business and auditoriums would be filled through the nave with undergraduates applauding every microwave-warmed witticism directed at whichever clergyman or pundit or ex-Prime Minister or younger brother had the nerve to face him that day. That was adulation of an undeniably great writer, mingled with a great deal of tribal loyalty. It was the atheist crowd who made Hitchens, by the standards of his trade, rich and famous, and they never ceased to cheer their most eloquent champion (and pay for the privilege) even when most of Hitchens’s time went to other topics.

His death saw this attitude expand beyond from the consumers of commentary to the producers. Countless eulogies, where writers he’d never mentioned in a trillion-word career chummily called him “Hitch” and noted his famous consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and literature like school chums while simultaneously garlanding themselves in self-effacement, were ghastly but inevitable and probably kindly-meant. (Far better were the too-few of his enemies with the guts to pick up a pen and rhetorically cremate the fucker. That sort of irreverent brio is, after all, what drew most of us to Hitchens in the first place.) Unfortunately, the initial wave of grief was not the high water mark.

Four years after Hitchens’s death the admiration of undergraduates, Twitterers, YouTube commentators, and the other ordinary people is still intensifying. The word “Hitchslap,” meaning Hitchens scoring against a political opponent, remains current among the disciples, and fresh examples are uploaded to this day. Hitchens’s brother Peter, an equally intelligent and scarcely-less witty columnist in England with a voice frighteningly like Christopher’s but quite opposite political and religious views, has made a stock routine out of people who tweet or e-mail him things like “the wrong brother died.” (Critic: “How could you and Christopher possibly be brothers?!” Peter: “Same parents.”)

Nor have writers calmed down. Many still can’t simply quote him, like they would anyone else, and even those who do give it the air of a name-drop. Rather creepy looks into his old books from one of his old outlets, Vanity Fair, are perhaps understandable but still unpleasantly voyeuristic, even idolatrous. Perfectly competent columnists, like the National Post‘s Robyn Urback, have felt the need to pay homage to the master while discussing people Hitchens probably had never heard of. American author Thomas Mallon uses Hitchens heavily in Finale, a 2015 novel set during the Reagan presidency which sees Hitchens turns vast swathes of Washington to rubble with the clusterbomb of his wit. At the time Hitchens was a comparatively obscure columnist on The Nation, hostile to Reagan but new to the United States; what matter? Even in fiction the Hitchslap is iconic.

For these partisans the latest collection of Hitchens’s essays, And Yet…, is God-sent. Hitchens released several collections of journalism in his lifetime and died months after Arguably, the last. A small book of essays about the terminal cancer which understandably preoccupied him in the end, Mortality, soon followed. You would think there was little enough left, and yet… the fine folks at Simon & Schuster have rustled up work that slipped through the gaps or that Hitchens himself didn’t want anthologized and filled a handsomely-priced cover with it. (And Yet… costs more than Arguably did in hardback, is less than half the length, and the editors needed to be inclusive to get that far. It’s still a better deal than Mortality, which charged primo rates for a collection you could read over lunch if you had the stomach.)

I have not yet read it, though I’ve read nearly all of what’s in it. This is not a book review, it is a review of reviewers.

In the New York Times Dwight Garner somehow slobbers all over Hitchens while reserving specific praise for a 2006 eulogy to the late Oriana Fallaci, an interviewer who never took it easy on even a decent subject2. He read the words but failed to read the lesson. In Maclean’s Brian Bethune at least acknowledges that Hitchens was a man of strengths and weaknesses, but his review, too is adulatory. Bethune has the excuse of space: he makes the commonplace but accurate note Hitchens tried to live up to the example of George Orwell while acknowledging Hitchens didn’t always succeed, but simply couldn’t go on any further. A National Review editor calls Hitchens “Often Wrong, Always Forthright;” the review was initially posted titled “Left-Wing but Honest” which is almost too bang-on Orwell to stand. And hey, look who it is in the first paragraph!

Of course George Orwell couldn’t always live up to the example of George Orwell either. (In his book on the man Hitchens does not miss this.) Comparing Hitchens and Orwell is fair play, and I’d bet my life Hitchens did it himself3. Yet the comparison often tries to elevate Hitchens to Orwell’s level of seriousness. Orwell could be as droll as anyone4, and he was certainly a polemicist, but while Orwell sought to give his views and change minds while viewing provocation as a not-unwelcome bonus, to Hitchens provocation was not only pleasure but part of the point. This is how Hitchens is still emotionally loved by readers in a way Orwell never was: Orwell argued, as clearly and as honestly as he knew how, while Hitchens took a poke at the bad guy. To put it simply, much of Hitchens’s fame came from the fact that he was such a good troll.

The best example is Hitchens’s witty, outspoken, and affirmative brand of atheism. god Is not Great asserted not only that atheism is moral but that religion is immoral. It was more than a troll, but it took Hitchens’s beliefs and torqued them as tight as the material would stand, and the outrage directed at it almost formed part of the reading experience. Great fun, and great reading, and it made the end of Hitchens’s career as lucrative, successful, and admired as any essayist can hope for. The smart modern undergraduate left, disdaining religion and chafing under restrictions left over from its days of power, loved it and loved him for it. Yet did anyone learn anything from god Is Not Great, apart maybe from a few specific examples picked from Hitchens’s vast reading to wave in the face of your Christian aunt? Did even one waverer emerge persuaded? It was an address to the flock, and a glorious one.

Hitchens was also, to put it unkindly, a warmonger, but in a more straight-argumentative mode. He enthusiastically advocated the second Iraq war, attacking Islamist terror on its home turf, “regime change,” and the export of democracy as a good in itself. He promoted the cause of the Kurds and, long before 9/11, wanted the West to intervene in their favour. He did not shy from the consequences, either in person or in print. Unlike many, he traveled seldom-taken paths to dangerous places of the world and got to know as best a flabby self-described coward could the level of the shit he wanted the flower of America’s youth wading in. He was probably one of the few anti-Islamofascist commentators in the United States to be beaten up by an Islamofascist gang. In addition, to pick an issue that’s gained in recent importance, Hitchens was a free speech absolutist, a to-the-knife defender of his friend Salman Rushdie against the fatwa, and an enemy of totalitarian thinking and “speech codes” anywhere he went.

Hitchens could speak against religion at a California university and be applauded off the stage by students who would immediately protest a cause Hitchens spent far more time on: the violent liberation of the Middle East. There’s no inherent problem there: everyone alive agrees with everyone else on some points and disagrees on others. It takes something special, though, to make such a fetish of a man for such slivers of his ideology. The Times review I quoted above approves each of Hitchens’s shots at Christmas and religious sanctimony without once mentioning the Middle East. National Review praises Hitchens as worthwhile reading for conservatives without noticing his opinions on God and Church. We all have authors we like and agree with but only conditionally; we even have heroes. We don’t, however, share videos of these authors like samizdat, or make faux-motivational posters with a quote from a stranger about thinking for yourself, or fawn over them in print in a way that requires you to pooh-pooh or ignore any deeply-held and oft-advocated beliefs which conflict with your worldview.

Now and again the provocateur would show his teeth. The reaction to his 2007 essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” was almost as good as the article itself. Right-on modernists who roared to the heavens when Hitchens devoured Christians, not because he was fair but because he was entertaining, utterly failed to handle Hitchens turning on one of their cherished princples: the absolute equivalence of male and female ability. Hitchens’s mode of attack should have been familiar to anyone who knew his work, and yet huge numbers of “fans” failed to pick up on it. Everything about it was terrific. Months into the controversy, Hitchens was still having fun:

Now [female comedians] are prettier and sexier and they wear less and care less about the proprieties, so what has been the achievement of my essay? It’s been to make sexier women try harder to amuse me. Well, that was my whole plan to start off with.

A self-described Hitchens fan, long marinading in his mockery in print and on video, missing what was going on there is inexplicable. Yet they did, and do, and when Hitchens comes up among his cultists that sort of thing is defended on unsuitable grounds, or more often ignored. Force it on their attention and brace for an explanation along the lines of “that’s the way he was,” which is true, but the rest of his œuvre benefits so little from this analysis that it looks like an excuse for behaviour the commentator doesn’t quite understand. Really big fans can overlook parts that don’t quite fit.

There’s no danger of any reader being confronted with awkward shots at lady comics in And Yet…. (Since it was already in Arguably.) The selection appears very safe. Then again, this makes sense, because Hitchens had exploded the dynamite back in 2011. What we are left with are the squibs and firecrackers, pretty and not valueless, but not the same. Just the thing to appeal to the reader more interested in cheering on boisterous Hitchslaps than looking too deeply at what they mean. I see Amazon.ca is already out of stock.