Velvet glove, iron fist, and irony
It has been said that, looking back now, it is apparent that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written at the beginning of the 1930s, has turned out to be more prophetic than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written at the end of the 1940s. I did not know, however, until I read Jeffrey Meyers’ new biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, that Huxley expected things to turn out this way, and delicately explained why to Orwell in a letter of October 1949.
Huxley praised Nineteen Eighty-Four very highly: “Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is.” He then went on to say:
“The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.
“Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful.
“My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and that these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World …
“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience …
“The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Animal Farm before it (Meyers reports that Orwell rushed around London bookshops taking Animal Farm out of the children’s section and putting it in the adult section), was of inestimable importance during the Cold War in alerting people to the reality of Soviet totalitarianism.
Our debt to Orwell on that score can never be fully repaid. But Huxley recognised a half century ago what is now evident to all, that the brutal boot-on-the-face tyranny of communism was terribly inefficient.
There are still in the world plenty of tyrants who rule by the boot, machete, club, and machine gun, and there likely will be for a long time.
But the more sophisticated who want the total control that is totalitarian tyranny will resort to means more like those depicted in Brave New World – baby hatcheries, cloning, the elimination of the the unfit, and the exclusion of moral and historical reasoning by a uniform sense of therapeutic well-being induced by what Huxley called soma and is today chillingly similar to multiple variations on Prozac.
It will be a softer, and therefore more efficient, totalitarianism.
In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, John Paul II speaks of what can happen when moral reasoning is eliminated from public life and politics is reduced to the manipulation of desires and images in order to secure the acquiescence of a compliant majority. The result he calls “thinly disguised totalitarianism”.
The danger at present and in the future is more Huxley’s velvet glove than Orwell’s iron fist, although, to be sure, the velvet glove is not entirely absent in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the compassionate and gentle manipulations of Brave New World only thinly disguise the iron fist.
Meyers’ Orwell is, by the way, a very good read. One does wish, however, that he had not tried to explain Orwell’s relentless truth-telling and life of self-deprivation in pop-psychology terms of guilt feelings.
It is more convincing that Orwell’s determination to tell the truth was just that, a determination to tell the truth because he hated brutal and self-serving lies, and because he believed that decent people should counter lies with truth.
Then too, Meyers’ claim that Orwell was the greatest and most popular writer of his time leads him to exaggerations that undermine his otherwise admirable defence of Orwell’s achievement.
Particularly egregious is his citing, among many others, spy novelist John le CarrŽ in praise of Orwell. Le CarrŽ says:
“Orwell’s hatred of greed, cant, and the ‘me’ society is as much needed today as it was in his own time – probably more so. He remains an ideal for me – of clarity, anger, and perfectly aimed irony.”
That is a self-serving statement of a very low order. Le CarrŽ’s novels of the Cold War all too often were almost perfect exemplifications of the “moral symmetry” that denied any real moral difference between the free world and the Soviet Union’s evil empire, or at least any real moral difference in their struggle to prevail.
Orwell wrote not against the “me” society but against the totalitarian “them” who denied the possibility of “I.”
As for perfectly aimed irony, there is not a hint of irony in Orwell’s depiction of the difference between human freedom and dignity, on the one hand, and a regime of oppression and debasement, on the other.
Orwell’s perfectly aimed anger is directed, then and now, at those whose playful irony makes light of the murderously inverted rules of the animal farm.
– Richard John Neuhaus, First Things, March 2001
The remarkable particulars of today’s global march toward smaller family size fly in the face of many prevailing assumptions about when rapid fertility decline can, and cannot, occur.
Poverty and illiteracy (especially female illiteracy) are widely regarded as impediments to fertility decline. Yet, very low income levels and very high incidences of female illiteracy have not prevented Bangladesh from more than halving its total fertility rate during the last quarter century.
By the same token, strict and traditional religious attitudes are commonly regarded as a barrier against the transition from high to low fertility. Yet over the past two decades, Iran, under the tight rule of a militantly Islamic clerisy, has slashed its fertility level by fully two-thirds and now apparently stands on the verge of sub-replacement.
For many population policymakers, it has been practically an article of faith that a national population program is instrumental, if not utterly indispensable, to fertility decline in a low-income setting. Iran, for instance, achieved its radical reductions under the auspices of a national family planning program. But other countries have proven notable exceptions. Brazil has never adopted a national family planning program, yet its fertility levels have declined by well over 50 per cent in just the last 25 years. What accounts for the worldwide plunge in fertility now underway?
The honest and entirely unsatisfying answer is that nobody really knows – at least, with any degree of confidence and precision. If you can find the shared, underlying determinants of fertility decline in such disparate countries as the United States, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tunisia, then your Nobel Prize is in the mail.
Two points, however, can be made with certainty.
First, the worldwide drop in child-bearing reflects, and is driven by, dramatic changes in desired family size. (Although even this observation only raises the question of why personal attitudes about these major life decisions should be changing so commonly in so many disparate and diverse locales around the world today.)
Second, it is time to discard the common assumption, long championed by demographers, that no country has been modernised without first making the transition to low levels of mortality and fertility.
The definition of “modernisation” must now be sufficiently elastic to stretch around cases like Bangladesh and Iran, where very low levels of income, high incidences of extreme poverty, mass illiteracy, and other ostensibly “non-modern” social or cultural features are the local norm, and where massive voluntary reductions in fertility have nevertheless taken place.
– Nicholas Eberstadt, Foreign Policy, March 2001
Global warming – the facts
“The physics of atmospheric warming are uncontroversial, as is the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing. Added carbon dioxide should increase temperature, which should increase water vapour (the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas), which should lead to higher average temperatures. Climate computer models try to replicate this process so as to predict what the earth’s climate will be over the next century. So far, though, the model results do not match the actual temperature trends found in the satellite record. What causes this disparity? Clouds are probably the main cause. It is well known that the computer models are rotten at explaining the effects of clouds on climate.
“Richard Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has published a study in the current issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society which could explain what’s going on. Lindzen and his colleagues find that the tropical Pacific Ocean may be able to open a ‘vent’ in its heat-trapping cirrus cloud cover and release enough energy into space to significantly diminish the projected climate warming caused by a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“High, thin cirrus clouds tend to act as insulators, trapping heat before it can radiate into space. Bright cumulus clouds (thunderstorm clouds) tend to reflect sunlight back into space before it reaches the surface, thus cooling the atmosphere. What Lindzen and his colleagues think they’ve found is a negative feedback loop (a thermostat) that tends to lower the temperature of the atmosphere.
Looking at weather satellite cloud data and ocean surface temperature data for the western Pacific, Lindzen found that for every 10C increase in ocean surface temperature, there is an average 22 per cent decrease in cirrus cloud cover. Lindzen suggests that cumulus clouds over warmer seas produce rain more efficiently thus leaving less moisture in the atmosphere to produce heat-trapping cirrus clouds. Fewer cirrus clouds mean that excess heat can vent into space.
“Preliminary calculations using this cloud thermostat cut computer climate model temperature estimates of global warming by almost two-thirds. So instead of rising 1.50C to 4.00C (as the early models suggest), the earth’s temperature would rise between 0.640C and 1.60C by 2100, all other things being equal. For perspective, keep in mind that the last century saw a temperature increase of about 0.60C.
“Despite claims from environmentalists committed to global warming catastrophe scenarios and the politicised scientists who run the IPCC, it is clear that the science of global warming is far from settled. As Carl Sagan once said (but didn’t practise), ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’.”
– Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, March 21, 2001