27 February 2017

Politics Hidden in Literature

So, what does last week's story of our lives and other things look like?

  • Over at the NYT, Andrew Higgins tries to explain the folly and political context of the Prince of Orange's designation of the media (among others) as "an enemy of the people." Unfortunately, Higgins doesn't go quite far enough, and misses perhaps the most-disturbing undercurrent: Ibsen's play of that name (older translation to English).

    Ibsen's play in the original is a disturbing enough referent: It concerns a doctor — as it happens, a pretty petty individual — who discovers contamination of the town's water supply by a local mill, objects publicly, and is thereafter vilified. That is, the "enemy of the people" is the hero of the play, however flawed, precisely because he won't shut up when those with power — and, in particular, those with economic interests in the status quo, based largely upon inherited land ownership — attack him for the temerity of stating facts.

    But things get even more disturbing when seeing Ibsen's work on the American stage: The dominant translation/adaptation is by Arthur Miller, made during the height of the McCarthy era. Miller's version removes much of the comedy and ridiculousness of Dr Stockmann in favor of a more dualistic, polemical opposition between an unpopular opinion based on science and a popular opinion founded in economic self-interest. In that, Miller's version is an excellent reflection of America before Silent Spring brought the twin concepts of "environmentalism" and "long-term consequences of ignoring scientists" into even the reptilian hindbrain of American thought. But Miller's version is also a reflection of not just the debate itself, but attempts to suppress the debate, as reflected in the Army-McCarthy hearings.

    In this sense, Mr Higgins missed the point — probably due as much to space constraints in the print edition of the NYT as anything else. But it is a missed opportunity to ask the Prince of Orange, and in particular Stupid Spice (the most horrifying of the Spice Girls):

    You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

    Army-McCarthy Hearings, 09 Jun 1954. Of course, I expect only bluster in response… which is exactly what Mr Welch got when he asked.

  • PW's party line continues to display its abject ignorance with a story misleadingly entitled "Ranking America's Largest Publishers" — by which it means trade publishers (which necessarily ignores two-thirds of all publishers, including three with greater total revenue than any of the Big Five), and "based on unit sales made at retailers that report to BookScan." Umm, guys: Online sales are not reported to BookScan, and accounting for sales of e-books as "retailers" is inconsistent at best. Most college-bookstore sales (in particular, textbook-department sales) are not reported to BookScan. More to the point, sales of PW (and, largely, of PW's parents and affiliates) are note reported to BookScan…
  • And meanwhile, blaming the infrastructure continues in fine form over last night's quickly corrected gaffe at the Oscars (which themselves remain fundamentally flawed in so many ways that they're essentially marketing fluff).
  • Sometimes, truth emerges in story. More to the point, the acceptance of truth (or of… other versions, as Professor Harold Hill might acknowledge) emerges not in, but through the results of, the storytelling process.