In Memory of my Grandpa, Marvin C. Raether

Christmas Eve 1997

Ever year just before Christmas we piled into a tan conversion van and drove from Cincinnati to Wuakesha, Wisconsin. Apparently it hadn’t gone too badly because we had all survived and were now just a few minutes from our destination. We drove slowly so that the tires crunched on the snowy roads and then we turned into a trailer park tucked between pine trees. Grandma and grandpa’s street wasn’t a cul-de-sac. It was a dead end. The street just stopped and at the end of the street was a pile of recently plowed snow reaching almost to where the branches of the pine trees above it began, covered yet again with a fresh coat so that the pile was a hilly smooth continuation of the snow around it, twinkling in the light of street lamps. To this day when I hear the lyrics walkin’ in a winter wonderland the picture that comes to mind is of my grandparents’ trailer park.

Meanwhile at the last trailer on the right, grandma and grandpa were surely waiting for us. We hurried out of the car, skillfully ignoring dad’s calls to help carry bags inside, and we rushed to the door where, sure enough, they stood. Immediately grandma hugged us. She smelled like flowers. We hugged grandpa too. But his hug was more like an elbow grab. His hands were very strong and his hair was a smooth backwards-dancing white swoosh. His face, my mother told me, was just like an older version of my face. He had deep set eyes. He was lanky and his walk was just like mine, meandering and wide-legged. But the most important similarity was that his head was too big for his body. He was always leaning it slightly forward as if to hear you say something in confidence or to say something himself, although he wasn’t a man of many words. He could be in the room with you but not always in the room. He would sometimes seem to be somewhere else and then come back just in time to answer a question you’d asked.

Whether in the trailer or out on a frozen lake or at the bottom of a sledding hill, grandpa’s way of relating to us was very tactile. This was in keeping with his personality. He always kept a small notepad in his front shirt pocket with pens lining it on either side and a red Swiss Army pocket knife. These were important items. The pad and pens were for writing down little ideas for us, maybe about how to crack a walnut. The knife was inherently interesting because we weren’t allowed to play with knives unless it was grandpa’s. He would proudly show us the extensions inside—the little scissors, wood-saw, and can opener. We were slightly abstract little children raised with video games and TV, but Grandpa wasn’t an abstract man. He once showed us what baked Coca-Cola looked like. Out of the oven, all that was left in the pan was a sludgy disgusting looking paste. This is what you’re really drinking when you’re drinking Coke, he said. Every emotional bridge to him was via some real physical object or scientific predicament. To grandpa a knife was important because it was a tool; but to us kids that same knife was important because it was an excuse to get him talking. He of course knew this and would extend his explanations of how to crack a walnut beyond what was necessary and if we were lucky he would slip up and show his wry sense of humor or make a more general comment about something else. When I think about him now that he’s gone, the memories that come to mind are these little vignettes.

As Christmases came and went, grandma and grandpa moved from Wisconsin to Cincinnati, close to us, and the nature of our relationship changed.

For one thing, the more I saw grandpa the more I came to realize that when he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head and squinted at the ceiling, he was often slyly still listening to the room. Sometimes it only looked like he was gone on some vacation in his head, and really he was there, and would pipe up with some surprising comment or a joke when you least expected it. This happened more and more and I began to realize how little I actually knew about him. As his grandson after all, I could only bear witness to the twilight years of his life and only ever from a certain angle.

In the later years I was able to see that grandpa’s apparent distance wasn’t really distance, or, if it was, it was a complicated distance. I don’t think he was ever for a single second indifferent about anything my siblings and I said or did. He would look you in the eyes and say, how’s it going?, and he would physically hold on to you until you told him. He didn’t like small talk. He didn’t want a line. He really wanted to know. And when you told him, if you weren’t giving him a line, or could muster something half-genuine, he’d smile and let you go. I don’t know whether this change was only apparent because I’d grown old enough to see it, or if grandpa had actually changed, or both. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, but what I do know is that this change caused me to think differently about him. No longer was he a far away mythic grandpa; he was my personal grandpa, my mom’s dad, right around the corner, there every Sunday at church, there for every birthday and holiday, there for my wedding, there to see me become a father, and there to know my wife and son.

These changes came quickly and with them came a realization. I had my direct experiences with him, sure—very precious memories to me. But every grandchild must realize at some point that their grandparent isn’t simply a background character in their life, and if they seem like the background that’s only because the grandchild fails to notice the very terrain they’re walking on. Indeed, now that I have a child, I see grandparents have a double influence. Once through direct experience, and then again millions of indirect times through the influence on their children, who happen to be your parents. In my own case this is my mother. Every interaction I have had with her is in some way a response to the cumulative experience of her life, of which my grandpa played no small part. These millions of conversations, gestures, and events, both conscious and not, form an invisible imprint passed down from grandpa, to my mother, to me, and to my own children, and so on.

This is why to me grandpa isn’t really gone. The effects of his life, this imprint, were there even before I knew about them and will continue to be felt even when I’m not thinking about them. This is perhaps what has always been meant by the word ‘ghost’, a clumsy metaphor for how scary it is that we are all basically making it up as we go along, and no matter how hard we try not to effect our children, in the end we will. Good or bad, our presence will be felt and responded to and the outcome of this transaction will live on whether we want it to or not.

For me the most valuable imprint came at the very end of grandpa’s life. The family was there with him when he was dying. Standing at the foot of his bed, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was all very unreal. Grandma leaned over gently and explained the situation to him. His life support was delaying the inevitable. There was no way around it. And you know what? The man didn’t bat an eye. He matter-of-factly faced down his own death. I saw a truly peaceful look on his face. He was brave and never uttered a single sentimentality, even at the very end. This and the birth of my son were the two realest things I’ve ever seen. When all pretense was stripped away grandpa allowed me to see what was necessary to do a thing like that. Call it German reticence or introversion if you like. But to me it was grace.

At week’s end, after those early Wuakesha Christmas visits, and after grandpa’s many subtle designs to catch our interest, we all piled in the van again. We pulled away and grandma and grandpa waved to us as they stood in the doorway. The plowed mound of snow at the end of the street–a once shimmering pile of possibilities–had inevitably, over the course of our stay, been mutilated by our footsteps and converted into a snow fort. Eventually grandma and grandpa receded out of sight and then the mound was out of sight and we were officially on the trip home. We turned out of the trailer park and onto the main road. Now, I sat down and relaxed in my seat. This trip would be much shorter, smooth sailing, really, because we hadn’t yet learned the art of anticipation. Home was nothing. The seven hours in the van would seem like nothing. And when we got home we would have all year to wait to take the long trip again, and every Christmas thereafter.

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The Last Jedi, or How to Take a Piss on a Great Story

I love to teach the Star Wars movies as structures. They’re like great great structures for teaching my students how drama can work, especially in a film… If you think about the original three movies. Think about the way they’re organized together. In any movie or book—not always, but traditionally—there’s a place where the character, the main protagonist, has to make an absolutely important choice, and that choice will set the consequences and the terms of the rest of the movie and sometimes even the rest of this character’s life… In the first movie Luke makes the choice that he’s going to go follow Ben Kenobi, to pursue a lifetime in the force, and become a Jedi… If Star Wars was just nonsense, if it was jibberish, it wouldn’t hang as tightly as it hangs. Star Wars has been around a really long time. There isn’t a young person who hasn’t felt the choice between “I’m going to stay and help my family,” or “I’m going to go and do something else that’s more personal, that’s more me.” What makes Star Wars so poignant is you have this character who is so desperate to leave. He desperately wants to leave this little farm. But you know what he decides when he’s given the choice? He’s like you know what, my aunt and uncle need me. It’s an ethical thing. Even though I desperately want to go and be a pilot, I’m going to stay here and help them. And that choice he makes follows him throughout the rest of the movies. He’s more loyal than he is ambitious. That loyalty is not always something, as kids, we’re encouraged to embody. So when you see someone being loyal, really loyal, making a hard choice. “I’m going to stay at home on the farm rather than be a star pilot.” Well, that seems like a real thing to me.

— Junot Diaz

According to box office numbers, many of you have probably seen The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga.

(If you haven’t seen it be warned that there are spoilers below.)

As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, here is my emotional personal reaction to The Last Jedi:

NO! No, no, no, no, NO, no, no!, NOOOO!

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OK, that’s out of the way.

The night I saw The Last Jedi I walked out of the theater no longer a Star Wars fan. For the rest of my life I guess I can pitifully cling to my precious original trilogy. I know. An old fart thing to do. But for those few of you interested in my puritanical originalist arguments, below are my reasons why The Last Jedi is a nothingburger movie.

#1 Rey’s story is boring

Rey is a perfectly good stock action movie character. And Daisy Ridley’s acting is incredible despite having little in the script or story to work with. But Rey, as a character, lacks the universal touch because her journey, so far, doesn’t embody anything. Paradoxically, fictional characters are made universal by their personal and particular struggles. Not from their blandness. Far from being a “Mary Sue”—a character who can do no wrong—which has been argued by many online critics, Rey is almost a totally passive character. It’s only superficially that she displays strength using the force, wielding a lightsaber, etc. Fundamentally her journey in this new trilogy doesn’t signify anything beyond itself.

The irony of Rey’s character is that, in trying to do a more interesting and updated version of Luke, she is actually made more generic. Like Luke, Rey is a straightforward orphan type. Done over and over again in literature. Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins… But unlike Luke, Rey doesn’t make any active decisions to begin her journey, nor does she risk anything personal to endear us to her struggle. She’s waiting for her parents. Okay. She’s been chilling on this desert planet all this time salvaging rusted metal and eating green muffins. Okay. Then she’s in the right place at the right time and gets swept up in an adventure. Okay. And ends up being randomly amazing at the force. Okay.

THIS MUST BE BUILDING UP TO SOMETHING.

But no.

By the end of The Last Jedi, who cares about what happens to Rey? Just like every other story-line she’s involved in, her meeting with Luke is basically a blind alley. She learns some things about the force. But nothing about her personal struggle for identity is furthered one way or the other. She tries finding identity in her meeting with Kylo, which makes no narrative sense, but that ends up being another blind alley as well. How many wild goose chases does Rey have to go on before we glean one single thing about her character?

Here’s what I think they’ll name Episode IX:

Star Wars: Chasing Pots of Gold to the Ends of the Galaxy for no Reason Whatsoever

#2 Of plot holes & story weaknesses

The plot holes in The Last Jedi are so flagrant there is really no excuse for it. But the plot holes are only the symptom of a poorly crafted story.

It’s clear to me Rian Johnson has confused creativity with subversiveness. Being subversive is easy. Any teenager or French philosopher can do that. But being really creative isn’t easy at all. Building something truly inspiring from the ground up requires an inconvenient amount of introspection and imagination.

If you pay close attention, every plot point in The Last Jedi is a cute little comment on Star Wars—an attempt to deconstruct a convention that went before it. Deconstruction is fine as long as you replace what you tear down with something better, but The Last Jedi has nothing to bring to the table to replace what it tears apart.

  1. A planet destroying super weapon plot is replaced by a more micro & local level slow motion battle ship chase plot
  2. The trigger happy space cowboy is put into his place by a “strong” self-sacrificing Christ figure
  3. The subplot to retrieve the hack for the enemy shield ends up amounting to saving space goats
  4. The Jedi are replaced by… well, nothing. Just these characters… I mean they’re fine but… C’mon, they’re not Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo.

Each plot hole directly correlates with one of these points of deconstruction. The slow spaceship chase doesn’t make sense, because an entire First Order fleet could easily take down one Resistance ship, even if that ship had a functioning shield and plenty of fuel. There is so much labored dialogue throughout these scenes about why this isn’t the case, about how they can be tracked through light speed, etc., to the point where, for me, the exposition was a dead giveaway. It was too far a stretch and I was taken out of the drama.

Poe Dameron the Whiny Space Cowboy responds to said dilemma impetuously, so much so that he invites the scorn of Vice Admiral Holdo, the new acting commander of the ship, with whom he develops something of a rivalry. This narrative piece depends on the premise going before it to work, which it doesn’t, so the drama built on top is even more flimsy: Poe wants to know the plan for escape, but Aldo won’t tell him. After all he’s being a real jerk! But beyond this it isn’t clear why Holda is leaving everyone in the dark as they float helplessly along in space without an apparent plan of action. This contention between Holda and Poe seems contrived, like it had to be written for the story to work in the way it eventually did, and when Holda goes all kamikaze, it becomes clear. This was an edifice to support Holda’s now famous hyperspace scene. A cool idea, but a forced one that produces holes in the story. To quote a recent article which put it more bluntly:

“More to the point, though, this didn’t have to be a suicide run. Hyperspace jumps are plotted by computers, and droid ships are already a Star Wars staple. There’s no reason navies couldn’t construct unmanned ships to take on this task.”

#3 It’s just a Marvel movie in space

This all may seem like a bunch of nit-picking. And it is. To be fair, as a standalone movie The Last Jedi is fine, passable, a piece of neatly crisped toast. But as an extension of a story that has meant a lot to serious fans, who see it as maybe just a little more than a movie, The Last Jedi represents a concession to mainstream low-grade movie writing. It would be impossible to overestimate the role Star Wars has historically played in shaping the art of the Hollywood blockbuster. Star Wars wrote the playbook for big epic movies and now, instead of paving the way for new territory, continuing to blaze new trails, it’s absorbed the worst of it’s own cheap imitators.

I want to be very clear (if you’ve made it this far in the article). There’s nothing wrong with enjoying this movie. If you liked The Last Jedi, that’s good by me. Honestly I, and other Star Wars fans like me, are really not out to score hipster points at this late stage in the game. That’s not what it’s about. It probably sounds very snooty to be all about the ‘originals.’ But the apparent anger we feel really has more to do with the life cycles of art, which can be brutal. Trends go up and down. Mediums go in and out of fashion. Sometimes a lot of creative energy is concentrated in one industry while another flounders and has to re-find its footing. People are inspired cross-culturally by different things at different times. And every so often a thing has enough longevity to cross over into a new generation or a new medium and is reinterpreted. Sometimes this goes over really well and other times it doesn’t.

Here are three great videos you can watch that do a better job explaining everything wrong with The Last Jedi.

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Cincinnati: Summer 1995

(This post is dedicated to and inspired by James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 which you can read here.)

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Time moved very slowly when I was six years old. I have read many theories about this. Some say that because a child’s brain and body are so new, the blood and heart so fast and the cells so active, the speed at which they are moving actually causes time to slow down around them. Others say that because young minds have a shorter attention span, they become bored more easily and therefore feel time’s passage more acutely. Like staring at a clock. I don’t necessarily think these two are incompatible or contradictory. My own theory is that, being shorter, kids’ heads are closer to the earth’s gravitational pull. You know, Einstein’s Law of Relativity and all that. Like I say, I remember these long days. Especially in summer. There are echoes and images of days like this buried in my mind, like at the bottom of the well, folded in upon one another, made complicated and probably inaccurate by time and age, but with a common innocence strung together by cracked sidewalks and chain link fences and telephone wires. For instance, one strong image is of our next door neighbor’s bird bath which was always splotched with moss, and the stone it was made of looked very old like a gravestone from the Civil War. When I was finally tall enough to see over the bowl, I remember being disappointed to find that there was no water in it. And no birds either. There were only the husks of dead nuts, leaves, and twigs that had fallen from the trees above. Now, I realized why squirrels would have wrestling matches in there.

At this age my head was still pretty close to the ground but also I was growing up. This summer was a transitional one. I was learning how to ride a bike. And having just turned six years old that July, I was to begin kindergarten in mid-August. How could I have known that from here on out, after this point we all cross, I would always have somewhere to be during the day and some task expected of me, and that every summer thereafter would be an unsuccessful attempt to recreate a freedom that only exists in childhood? No, none of us really know what is coming. We are so eager to grow up.

Our street was somewhat narrow. The houses were close together, built before World War One, a type of classic American look, with thin strips of yard and thin strips of driveway and small porches, and sometimes brick and sometimes vinyl siding. There wasn’t a single rainy day on that street. Well, of course I’m sure it did rain sometimes, but if it did I don’t remember, and it’s my childhood memory, so what the hey; every day on that street was sunny. And the summers especially were hot and blue.

I was shooting basketball at our next door neighbor’s house—their whole backyard was an asphalt driveway rimmed with some dumpy looking trees—and, as I dribbled the ball around, before every shot, I thought, God, help me to be more like the Red Power Ranger.  Dear future self: please do not end up like Creulla de Vil. If I made the shot that was God telling me I would be more like the Red Power Ranger. There were many other such scenes that summer. If, for instance, I could put my head under water long enough to touch the bottom of the pool or if I went across the monkey bars all the way without letting go, I had achieved a certain type of acceptance from the universe. That was how games and dares worked.  Without the ability to distinguish between Republican or Democrat, I was working very hard and crudely on the ideas of good and bad. I can’t remember this, but I would imagine that the tenor of public life back then was still very colored by the falling of the Berlin wall and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But I was not even tempted to think about that because, as kids say, that was grownup stuff. That was for people who had shrunken down the world to an unmysterious thing they could fit inside their head.  But kids know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The idea was to be brave in real life. Like dad. He had a mustache. And when he shot a basketball he made it. At the park the other taller men looked silly when he dribbled around them and he swished three pointers. The taller men, with their hands on their knees, would say, Oh, man, he’s quick. I knew if I did everything right and brave I could one day be a man with a mustache, dribbling around taller men, shooting three pointers.

This is all very cute but I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. What we talk about when we talk about earlier times, about our childhood, is an imposed simplicity that only exists in the mind. What is truly idyllic are probably not periods of time in history but periods of time in personal history. But, what of it? Lest we prematurely jump to the wrong conclusion, we should also ask, What isn’t in the mind? And what is the real imposition? Even when our bodies get old and our blood slows down and our heads get further from the earth and we grow mundane and sober and we begin to be tempted to think that the End is Nigh, is that not also in the mind?

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Whispering into the Megaphone

In 2007 the writer George Saunders published a collection of essays entitled The Braindead Megaphone. The subject of the title essay is the description of a metaphor for how media consumption has evolved overtime to the present moment:

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, owned businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase, “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

I love a good metaphor.

This was written in 2007. Can you imagine? Twitter was just a year old. The first generation iPhone was released three months prior. George W. Bush was the president! Saunders was concerned primarily with cable news on TV. How quaint is that in 2017? The party has turned into something else. But Saunders was on to something that we certainly haven’t reckoned with ten years later, and continues to grow worse.

We’ve become used to Megaphone Guy and are even starting to like him, and getting cozy with his methods because, well, everybody’s doing it, man. Now, as party favors, there are little megaphones for everyone. Sure, some are larger than others. All the more reason to let your voice be heard!

But the real effect is this: what looks like everyone’s voice being heard is really the original Megaphone Guy’s voice being amplified not once but twice. Once through the original message, and then again through the echoing blasts of his supporters or detractors downstream who claim to proffer something new and different, but—whatever they may claim—they are still having to respond to an agenda set by the biggest megaphone in the room. And while it’s true that technology has made the distribution of megaphones more widespread and democratic, the quality of information has remained the same. Or gotten worse. The laws governing attention are no more based on who is “the smartest, most experienced, or most articulate” person at the party:

Imagine that the Megaphone has two dials: One controls the Intelligence of its rhetoric and the other its Volume. Ideally, the Intelligence would be set on High, and the Volume on Low—making it possible for multiple, contradictory voices to be broadcast and heard. But to the extent that the Intelligence is set on Stupid, and the Volume on Drown Out All Others, this is verging on propaganda, and we have a problem, one that works directly against the health of our democracy.

If that’s not prophecy–

I would love to be able to claim to be part of the solution to this, but I can’t. Perhaps like some of you, when I’m supposed to be doing work, I have a secret hunger for the noise and refresh my news webpages more than I need to, and I find myself doing it regardless of whether I really want to or not, like an impulse, and sometimes, like right now, when I am writing, I have to turn off the WiFi altogether or I will continually go back to the same pages to look for new developments in a day that I allow to be defined by the Megaphone guy.

But maybe we can get out of these habits if we try.

My dream for this blog would be to carve out a little section of the party for people who want to turn the Megaphone Intelligence up and the Volume down. Maybe we can even find a side room or something, throw the Megaphones out the window, and talk again. And who knows, maybe other people will come and join. Maybe the loudest only seem to win and in the end they really don’t. Maybe if we ignore Megaphone guy he will get tired and go home. There is only one way to find out. We have to start trying something different:

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

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State of the Blog

Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?

Well, hopefully, no.

Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.

This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.

When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.

Stay tuned.

 

At a Small Smoky Jazz Bar in a Forgotten Corner of Heaven

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A Friendly Reminder from George Orwell: Nothing is New under the Sun

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends… What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency… But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are all powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

– George Orwell, Diaries, March 27, 1942

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