Monday, May 16, 2011

The Orweillian-Bradburian Society

I am an avid reader, that much can be ascertained by the blogs themselves. However books that grab my attention are either non-fiction, current events, political and social in nature. Rarely do I find so much excitement in fiction as I have found in two novels I read recently George Orwell's epic 1984 and Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451. Although two different authors, two different books with two different sets of characters and premises, they have a point of synthesis and that is they are about an inept and corrupted societies. The difference is whether it comes from the state or the people.

In 1984, Winston Smith is a citizen of a totalitarian society based off of war, communism, and authorianism. The principle villain in the novel is the Government with its thought police, youth leagues, telescreens spying on you at all times, the Two Minutes Hate, the backwards thinking and the dumbing down of society with the use of Newspeak. The government controls everything from economics down to reproduction. The Party (as its called) has its hands in every pot, it decides marriages and terms for divorce, it regulates that sex is only for the purpose of reproduction ("our duty to the party"), it even regulates facial expressions (facecrime: improper expression on the face). But the most important thing the Party does is it changes history, it modifies human behavior, it manipulates through nationalism and emotional appeals.
The Party manipulates thought. First by controlling the language with Newspeak (the official language). Newspeak is nonsense to say the least but the purpose of it is to eliminate thought. By limiting words or by changing their meaning they can control what people believe and what they say. The more famous sayings in the book are "WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH". Notice that things are the opposite of what they really mean? This is common throughout the novel The Party even does the mind fucking when it comes to the branches of government: Ministry of Truth (which distorts the truth and blatantly changes history to fit The Party's agenda), Ministry of Peace (whose job it is to make war)< Ministry of Love (that concerns itself with law & order) and the Ministry of Plenty (economic concerns).
In the book The Party is an all powerful hero saving the people from its enemies in a perpetual state of war and fear. Fear of Eastasia, fear of Eurasia, fear of the thought police, fear of Goldstein (traitor to The Party, he dares to want freedom of speech) and The Party does thing using The Two Minutes Hate.
The Two Minutes Hate is sort of a nationwide shutdown, where all the citizens get together and watch a screen that shows their enemies attacking them. It instills fear and then shows that The Party will come to rescue them.
The worst infraction of The Party is that it changes history (Winston's actual job). The Party's motto is "WHO CONTROLS THE PAST...CONTROLS THE FUTURE". Winston's job is to edit each and every book and magazine to change words and history according to The Party's agenda at the time. The central problem is when Winston can no longer blissfully ignore that he is changing history and he seeks to find out what happened before The Party came along, before Big Brother (the head of state) and how he can escape or overthrow The Party altogether.
But BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU...and this is such a haunting statement and it is plastered all over the country but the people are supposed to believe that Big Brother is watching to PROTECT and not to oppress. But Winston says: "Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or outdoors, in the bath or in the bed-no escape. Nothing was your own except a few cubic centimeters inside your skull" (26). Your thoughts and if your thoughts were made public and were against The Party...needless to say things did not end well.

Now it is time to transfer to Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury's society is much, much different than Orwell's. In Bradbury's society it is the populace that is the oppressor. In F.451 the principle figure is Guy Montag a fireman, whose job is not to put out fires but to start them. In Bradbury's society the firemen burn books, arrest readers and the burn down the homes of people that read. The purpose of this is to keep people in a constant state of happiness and the belief that reading or people that read make others around them unhappy.
Captain Beatty, the firemen chief goes on a long speech about why books are banned:
"You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself. What do we want in this country above all? People want to be happy. Isn't that it?" (59). Bradbury is white but is not talking about blacks here in fact before that statement he writes: "Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants..." (57). What Bradbury is saying is that censorship and mass media lead society to break down and in order to not offend anyone they stopped reading. It is a war on intellectualism that is being waged. The people are only interested in sports and television things that make people happy. Bradbury continues: "With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers and swimmers instead of knowers and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual' became the swear word it deserved to be" (58). He goes on: "Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn It. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn It. Someone's written a book about tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book." (60).The society is crumbling because pleasure has taken over. People like feeling good and readers muddy the waters. Guy decides to read, which is the conflict of the story, and puts everything in jeopardy. He learns that the society even polices itself, when people turn each other in for reading. The ignorance of the masses has forced itself on every individual in this book. The concept is sweeping, books must be burned because intellectuals upset people asking questions and forcing people to think, society must be dumbed down for mass media understanding, schools are ineffective anyway and the government doesn't care because a non-thinking, pleasure-oriented society is great for them.

The reason I chose these two novels are because I see alot of America today in them. Of course they are hyperbolic in some ways but there are glimpses of both in today's world. I believe it is important to read both of these novels to get a full understanding of what Bradbury & Orwell were thinking when they structured both of these societies but it is hard not to notice that these books are very, very relevant.

Malcolm X After Death

I have always had an interest in Malcolm's life. What he thought, what he believed, what he actually said. And now after years of reading books and websites and so on about Malcolm I feel like I understand the thought and the beliefs and the change of thoughts and beliefs that occurred during his life.
I recently came across a documentary entitled Political Assassinations and the topic of the documentary was Malcolm X. The talk of Malcolm's life and all the above parts of it aside. I found myself strangely interested in his death. The actual shooting, the investigation of his shooting and the national reaction to his death. Sure this is a daunting task, probably better fit for people who write books instead of blogs but I was able to find alot of things searching the web that I would like to share.
First let me give credit to The Malcolm X Project at Columbia University because without them I would never have found all the information I present here now. They're site is chock full of newspaper clippings from major media outlets written around the time of his death. It gives a very real perspective of how the media felt about Malcolm during his day.

The Shooting
The Audubon Ballroom. Harlem, New York 3:15pm
Anonymous Eyewitness: "Everybody turned and so did I, and then I heard Malcolm saying 'Be cool now, don't get excited' and then I heard this muffled sound and I saw Malcolm hit with his hands still raised and then he fell over the chairs behind him. And everybody was shouting and I saw someone firing a gun from under his coat behind me, I hit it [the floor] too. And he was firing like he was in some Western, running backward toward the door and firing at the same time." (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1965)
The "someone" this eyewitness saw was named Thomas Hagan, a 22 year old Black Muslim firing what the Police Dept. Community Relations Bureau stated was a "double barreled shotgun with shortened barrels and stock" at a prone Malcolm. The melee that ensued after the shock of the shooting left Hagan himself shot in the leg and being pummeled by Malcolm supporters. Hagan then begged the police for assistance and after rescuing him, the police found in his coat pocket 4 unused .45-caliber shotgun shells (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1965).
The Assistant Chief Inspector would state Malcolm was hit with 6 shots in the chest and 1 in the arm, which is contrary to the police saying Malcolm was struck with 7 bullets (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1965)
. The Los Angeles Times (Feb. 22, 1965) would report that an autopsy found 16 wounds in Malcolm's body. Doctors messaged his heart but Malcolm was pronounced dead on arrival at 3:30pm.
Witness, Stanley Scott: "There was a scuffle in the back of the auditorium, possibly to distract from the assassins...shots rang,women and children ran for cover. The stretched out on the floor and ducked under tables. His wife Betty--who was in the audience--ran about screaming hysterically, 'they're killing my husband' (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1965).
Witness "Registered Nurse": "Two men rushing the stage and firing from underneath their coats...I rushed to the stage even while the firing was going on...I don't know how I got on stage, but I threw myself down on who I thought was Malcolm--but it wasn't. I was willing to die for the man. I would have taken the bullets myself. Then I saw Malcolm and the firing stopped, and I tried to give him artificial respiration...I think he was dead then" (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1965).
Such chilling accounts of the assassination make the blood both boil and freeze. How one could recall such a deed so vividly makes it feel like you were there and that you yourself had seen and would never forget it. The media was very useful here but it wouldn't always be so.

The "Obituary"
New York Times, Feb. 22, 1965:
"Malcolm X had the ingredients for leadership but his ruthless and fanatical belief in violence not only set him apart from the responsible leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the overwhelming majority of Negroes. It marked him for notoriety and a violent end....Malcolm X's life was strangely and pitifully wasted. But this was because he did not seek to fit into society or the life of his own people....The world he saw through those horned-rimmed glasses of his was distorted and dark, But it was made darker still with his exaltation of fanaticism."
First thing I thought when I read that..."what the fuck kind of obituary is this?"
Then I had to remind myself its the 60s, and the writer--probably white, was not the biggest supporter of Malcolm's goals. The "fanaticism" argument is very prevalent in alot of the articles posted on the Columbia University site. I cannot imagine living during this time and being ignorant of what Malcolm stood for and this being my introduction or this being a proper farewell for him. Malcolm is colored a racist, a bigot, a radical, violent, ruthless and just about anything except a good man. His messages are cherry picked for the purpose of self-fulfilling prophecy. This is one of the times I am glad to be looking back and not being a person who lived during this time.

The Burial
This is perhaps my favorite part. The very unorthodox funeral for Malcolm seems to fit his life to me. Malcolm died El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a believer in Orthodox Islam and as such there are certain ways of committing bodies to the ground. One of the big issues was that Malcolm was buried 6 days after death, Islamic law requires burial within 24 hours. His wife postponed the service so that Malcolm's African friends could attend. The service itself was held in a C.O.G.I.C (Church of God In Christ)church, a Christian church! One of Malcolm's religious advisors Sheik Faisal pointed out all the deviations of Malcolm's funeral from Islamic Law. Faisal stated that: "Death is a private matter between Allah and the deceased" and that "nothing should be done during the services that create emotion or a sense of bereavement". Yet both happened. There were sermons and eulogies both of which are a no-no, it was widely covered in the media, thus it wasn't necessarily a "private" matter.
The funeral did adhere to some Islamic fundamentals too. Malcolm was wrapped in the seven white shrouds in accordance and even though the service took place in a Christian church there were no hints of Christianity. The rule of no Christianity was a very serious one, if there were any Christian sermons or prayers etc Malcolm would have be deemed a non-believer in Islam altogether (New York Times. Feb. 28, 1965).

I felt a strange completeness, I felt closure after reading those clippings. Of course there are still many things to learn and more than just what a very few articles could cover but it gives a very broad overview which is something I never had before. So hopefully the reader of this blog learned a few things after reading it and as we approach Malcolm's 86th birthday on May 19, 2011 and although he has been dead for over 45 years there is still much to know, much more to uncover, many more books on him to read (Manning Marable recently released a book on him and I still haven't read the Alex Haley autobiography) but this will have to do for now.
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