Through the Years With Muse Machine

Orwell at the Convention

Posted on August 26, 2008

Watching some of the Dem Convention last night, something crystallized in my mind. It had been tickling around in my head for a few months, ever since I watched  two Iraq vets “debate”–to smear a word with a distinguished history– on Chris Matthews’ show. One of the vets actually tried to engage with the questions, whereas the other simply strung together one talking-points cliche after another like an on-message automaton. Nothing original, nothing surprising, nothing that betrayed any hint that a thinking as opposed to merely reacting mind was at work.

Naturally, it came to me last night, Orwell noted this depressing phenomenon long ago as he listened to countless party hacks, Communist and non-, echo their party lines. Here’s what he wrote in “Politics and the English Language.”

The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

I’ll watch a few “highlights” this week and next during the GOP carnival, but anyone with a live brain can only take so much of this “reduced state of consciousness.”

By the way, the above helps to explain one of the most irritiating rituals of political conventions, the “interview” from the floor. Consider the dynamics:

The Party Hack has only one purpose: to get out the Line of the Day/Week, etc. He/she will not be deterred from spitting out the spiel. By the time these people have been at it a few years, there is nothing the most astute interrogator on earth could do to shake loose an unplanned syllable. Halfway through your question, you could produce a 150-pound snapping turtle and make it clamp its iron jaws onto the pol’s neck, but the drearily predictable babble would still flow.

The interviewer knows all this, of course, but he/she  can’t just walk away, because that would be the end of the show. But the journalist is inwardly angry, because he knows he’s being used to publicize the Line of the Day. So he tries to get sharp and edgy and maybe a little insulting, which does nothing to throw the hack off stride, but people watching at home get upset with the journalist or the hack because 1) the viewer is a stone partisan, and actually believes the line being spewed, or 2) the viewer is undecided and would actually like a little news, y’know, usable info, perhaps an insight or two,  and of course there’s none of that to be had. And so it goes.

Steve Jobs: “Live Each Day As If It Was Your Last”

 Steve Jobs’ announcement that he is leaving his post at Apple almost certainly means that his health has worsened following repeated treatments for pancreatic cancer.  This is a good time to re-read the great commencement address he gave at Stanford a few years back. One of many key quotes:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

The full address is here.

Earthquake-Related Political Joke of the Week

Bouncing around the vast time-wasting machine known as The InterWeb:

The Weather Channel says Tuesday’s East Coast earthquake was caused by an unknown fault line running under Washington,  D.C. and through Virginia. It is now being called Obama’s Fault, though Obama will say it’s really Bush’s Fault. Other theories are that it was the Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves or that what we all believed to be an earthquake was actually the effect of a 14.6 trillion-dollar check bouncing in Washington.

Ominous (for Obamaphiles) Quote of the Week

Today, President Obama’s Gallup approval ratings are at an all-time low (38 percent). For the last two weeks, his approval rating has basically been stuck around 40 percent. For the last 60 years, an incumbent president running for reelection has basically received in national vote share the same percentage as his Gallup rating going into Election Day. If a president’s approval was 50 percent or more, it didn’t matter who his opponent was, he won. And if a president’s approval was below 45 percent, it didn’t matter who his opponent was — he lost. 

Matthew Dowd, The Atlantic, August 24

Full piece here. 

Texas Schools: Better Than Perry Knows

Even as our own Guvunah paints Texas schools as backward pits of Bible-bound ignorance (see yesterday’s post), NY Timesman Ross Douthat says that ain’t the whole story, podnuh:

On Friday, in a Bloomberg Television interview, Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to open up another anti-Texan front, saying he feels “very, very badly for the children” in Texas’s supposedly underfinanced public schools. But here, too, the evidence doesn’t back up Duncan’s criticism. Texas does have higher high school dropout rates than the average American state. But then again, Texas isn’t an average state: it’s an enormous melting pot that shares a porous, 1,969-mile border with Mexico. Once you control for demographics and compare like with like, the Texan educational record looks much more impressive.

When a 2009 McKinsey study contrasted Perry’s home state to the similarly sized and situated California, it found that Texas students were “one to two years of learning ahead of California students of the same age, even though Texas has less income per capita and spends less per pupil than California.”

When it comes to minority achievement, Texas looks even better: On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam, black eighth graders in Texas outscored black eighth graders in every other state.

So take that, once-proud Golden Staters.

Rick Perry: Wrong About Earth, Wrong About Texas

From Rick Perry’s recent outing at some State Fair or other, courtesy of CNN:

The mother pushed her son towards Perry and insisted he ask the governor about the age of the earth.

“How old do I think the earth is? You know what, I don’t have any idea,” Perry said. “I know it’s pretty old so it goes back a long long way.  I’m not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how long, how old the earth is.”

Uh, well, Gov, actually, they do.

While Perry was answering the child’s question, the mother continued to loudly whisper in the child’s ear to ask him about evolution and why he doesn’t believe in science.

“Here your mom was asking about evolution, and you know it’s a theory that’s out there, and it’s got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both creationsim and evolution in our public schools,” Perry said.  “Because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.”

Uh, well, Gov, actually, we don’t teach creationism in Texas schools. My daughter, now a senior, has taken several courses in biology, physics, and chemistry, all of which involved ideas from evolution. Creationism was never mentioned.

As I’ve noted before, if schools want to address C-ism in classes about mythology or comparative religion or “Turtles All the Way Down,”  no problem. But science classes are for science, and God knows (Darwin Knows?)  our kids need more of it, not less.

Rick Perry and the Gals

Looks like the trash-talkin’ Perry has already kicked up one heck of a dust storm in the early going, and his incendiary hoo-raw has some GOPsters nervous. But in the meantime, syndcol Kathleen Parker is all aflutter over Perry’s boot-scootin’ macho appeal. Key quote:

Upon meeting Perry, you can’t help thinking that he’s just like Dubya. They share not only the same speech patterns, but they also have that same je ne sais quoi that corresponds to the way a confident Southern male asks a girl to take a spin around the dance floor: “Wanna dance?”

There’s something slightly lazy in the mouth, half a smile, a knowing look. Both share a devil-may-care, towel-snapping streak — an attitude that either connects them to their quarry or sends their prey howling into the outer darkness. The same things that drove liberals mad about George W. will repeat themselves with Perry.

It’s that certitude mixed with bravado. It is also, dare I say, their certain brand of manliness. Weathered, creased and comfortable in jeans, they convey a regular guyness that everyday Americans relate to. Take it or leave it, it happens to be true.

her full piece is here