In The Book of the New Sun (see previous post), the protagonist’s nation is at war with a group called the “Ascians,” Wolfe swears this shouldn’t be read as “Asians,” but Wolfe saw combat in Korea…. so yeah, they’re the Yellow Hordes, and their “language” consists solely of quotations from government propaganda. A central episode of the final novel is the narrator listening to a “story” by an Ascian prisoner, told entirely in soundbites from (the far future equivalent of) Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
Folks who study totalitarianism call these quotations “thought-terminating cliches,” and while the prisoner is capable of making his meaning known with them, the story he tells is itself a cliche — that of a just man being persecuted, then rescued by The Party. It’s a neat trick. Wolfe both humanizes the prisoner, by showing his inventiveness, while also showing that collectivism reduces even the most intelligent, inventive man to thinking in patterns no more complex than a fairy tale.
Orwell tried a different technique in 1984. The Ascians are window dressing in Wolfe’s books, but Newspeak is central to Orwell’s. As Orwell explains, Newspeak aims to reduce human thought by reducing vocabulary. With only a handful of words that have unchanging, concrete meanings, one simply can’t express abstract concepts like “love” or “justice” or “freedom,” and so they cease to exist.
Our modern Ed Biz gurus haven’t gotten quite to either point yet — though not without some serious effort in both directions — but they’ve come up with something equally insidious, that works almost as well: Stuffing students full of disconnected factoids. Ray Bradbury described it in Fahrenheit 451:
chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking.
That’s modern “education” in a nutshell: Endless praise for the endless regurgitation of “facts”… and punishment for putting any two facts together.
Just to stick with a theme from the Hard Truths, consider two “facts” that “everybody knows” about human beings: 1) We share 96% of our DNA with chimps, and 2) the “theory” of evolution is true. Now, suppose for the sake of argument that both of them actually are true. If one were genuinely curious about human origins, one would ask the immediate, obvious question these two facts raise: What’s in the 4%, that gives us language, music, and the Designated Hitter? There’s only A, C. G, and T, for pete’s sake — which combo do we have, that chimps don’t have, that lets us paint the Sistine Chapel while their only art form is flinging poo?
But now the punishment kicks in. I bet some of y’all were even tempted to it yourselves — “whaddaya mean, suppose evolution is true? What are you, some kind of gap-toothed fundamentalist?”
See what I mean? You’re Smart for knowing that evolution is true, and you’re Smarter for knowing we share 96% of our DNA with chimps. Everyone who Fucking Loves Science does!!
It’s not quite Newspeak, but we’re getting there.Loading Likes...