The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell

Man, this book is one weird little kettle of fish. Starting with a faintly apologetic prologue from its patron, who seems a bit confused as to how Orwell reached the conclusions he reached. I’m a bit confused too, and I’m not sure Orwell was clear on it himself.

The first half of the work is really very good, making the best use of Orwell’s reporting skills to deliver a stark and fairly harrowing view of lower-class life in a dreary mining town. There are occasional digressions into what appears to be his main point in the second half of the book, but for the most part this section is both emotionally effective and well-observed.

But it all runs off the rails when Orwell abandons report and takes up the form of a manifesto. Having explored the sad lives of the working classes in Britain, Orwell is prepared to deliver a report on what socialist movements have to do in order to actually get this class onboard: namely, jettison all those supercilious academic types. I can admit a certain amount of sympathy with this viewpoint, despite being a supercilious academic type myself. There’s certainly a sort of intellectual evangelist out there (which I have particularly noted in the realms of free software, atheism, vegetarianism, and polyamory) whose arguments for how much superior their beliefs are get enrobed in such a thick layer of smugness that they lose the sympathy even of their own allies.

I’ve always marveled at the way that the poorer states and classes in America — particularly the ones who would benefit most from a strong social welfare system — time and again vote against those who would implement it. There are a lot of complicating factors (especially in America, where race and guns muddy the issue a lot more than they do in Britain), but there’s definitely an image-management issue on the left, which somehow has been successfully spun as the left wanting to “tell people what to do”, presumably in that unbearable supercilious way of theirs*.

Now, if I knew how to deal with this problem, I would be a Democratic Party strategist and not a math professor, but I’m pretty sure Orwell is on the wrong track. Orwell’s solution appears to be to excise enough from the progressive agenda to no longer represent actual progress (actually, on rethinking, maybe the actual Democratic strategists figure Orwell had the right idea). To provide a quick list of the people Orwell thinks do more harm than good in the party, here’s a good contemptuous quote:

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

Lest you think I’m unfairly highlighting a particularly absurd litany, later he gets mad enough to list the dilettantes of socialism again, and refers to
that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of “progress” like bluebottles to a dead cat.

So, what does Orwell hold up as the true perils to the movement? Fruit juice. Sandals. Feminism. The first two are honestly bewildering and perplexing; the third is reactionary but I can at least see why he might view feminism as alienating to the salt-of-the-earth types.

But what Orwell seems to miss completely is that a political movement can’t be made exclusively of the lower classes, not without actual violent revolution. Political activity is basically a middle- and upper-class predilection, and these classes take a wider view of “progress” than purely bettering the lot of coal miners (although, yes, coal miners are on the agenda). He also doesn’t seem to recognize that progressive purposes are interlinked: that pacifism can and should coexist with a focus on social welfare, because funding is finite and wars are expensive. To say nothing (unlike the patron, who really rips into him for this) of birth control as a significant part of empowering the lower classes to take charge of their fortunes.

So it’s not clear to me why Orwell really thinks that the party has to ruthlessly trim the effete intellectuals away from their ranks. He wants his party to be full specifically of miners, or whom he says:

It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small… but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.

Ahem. Goodness. I can see how that might appeal to a certain sort of person, but it’s a very poor criterion for admission to participation in the cause of Socialism.

* Admittedly, this doesn’t explain Newt Gingrich, who remains popular among anti-intellectuals despite radiating intellectual smugness without the mitigating factor of actually having something intelligent to say. back.


Thibble Thursday: Everybody must get stoned (Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17)

It’s hard to get too excited about Deuteronomy, and I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm last night. But today I have פָּרָשַׁת ראה (“See” portion), which finally gets into some legalities instead of the interminable repetition of blessings and curses.

The quick snarky summary: You’ve already heard all this before, but there are complicated civic laws pertaining to tithes and meat consumption and debt remission. Also, go to the Temple a few times a year. And, just in case you forgot which book you’re reading, I’ll pepper the entire set of rules liberally with admonitions against idolworship.

Festivals and feasts

Wibble Wednesday: A Little Bit Louder and a Little Bit Worse (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25)

I totally meant to write this up last night, and then I sat down to work on removing the carriage of a Nippon HL-21, and before I knew it, it was midnight. Have no idea what I’m talking about? Go on over to Mathematical Cranks to get a look at what I’m doing when I’m not taking the piss out of the Torah.

Slogging on through, to פָּרָשַׁת עקב (“Because” portion). I’m really ready for more actual laws.

The quick snarky summary: You Israelites suck. It’s a good thing for you that the Canaanites suck even more. Get on over there and slaughter those lesser beings. Hey, do you remember that time that you built an idol while I was away and God decided to kill you all and I had to spend upwards of a month talking him out of it? Ha, ha, *sigh*. Yeah, good times.

I applied to be leader-prophet to the Elamites, but they wanted, like, five years’ experience in leadership-prophesy

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I had read that Graceling and its sequels were unusually good as young adult fantasy goes, and had particularly good handling of gender. That was enough to get me on board, and for the most part it delivers on its promises.

So taking on specifically the gender issues: Cashore manages to work a fair bit of exploration of gender roles and expectations into the narrative without making it an overdominant theme. Katsa coming to grips with her place as an atypical woman in a society with definite ideas of feminity is thoughtfully done, and well-focused by the choice of minor focus characters like Giddon and Hilda, both of whom embody ideas about feminine roles which Katsa subverts. Her relationship with Po, by way of contrast, presents an example of admiration unfettered by gender expectations. All in all, there’s a lot to like in the presentation of female characters — there aren’t a lot of them, I’ll admit, but the ones there are turn out to be very well realized.

It’s also a debut novel, which I would normally grant significant latitude in terms of style and craft, but honestly Cashore doesn’t seem to need it. She’s got a good grasp of style, with a well-balanced expository depth: scenes and action are well-described but not overdetailed. I recall encountering a few bits which fell very slightly flat stylistically, but the fact that I don’t remember specifically what they were means they can’t have been that bad.

There are a few flubs, to my mind, in worldbuilding and characterization. I’m a bit annoyed by the cultural/racial essentialism in having one of the Seven Kingdoms be the designated Good Guys: the nice folks with a thriving economy and significant gender equity and no prejudice against the Graced. There are of course decent (and not-decent) people from the other societies we see, but there’s a pervasive feel that the Lienids are just inherently good. A few of the characters feel a bit wrong to me too: most of them are fleshed out well, with a believable blend of good and bad points, but I have some trouble with our protagonist and the big villain (whose identity is a mystery for much of the book, so I’ll leave him unnamed). Katsa’s problem, to me, is that her flaws don’t really sync too well with her history. We see in detail how she is impulsive and impatient, and needs to be reined in by er more even-tempered associates. This doesn’t quite square, to my mind, with the established history of her forming a covert injustice-fighting network spanning the five central kingdoms. It seems it’d make a lot more sense to attribute the administration to Raffin or Oll, both of whom seem like awfully organization-minded guys. And then there’s the villain. He’s authentically terrifying, but he could be terrifying simply by being power-mad and domineering. The petty sadism (he chops up puppies!) tips him over a little bit into farce. I’m not sure what the sadism is doing here, to be frank, unless it’s just for shock value.

However, despite my dwelling on the few places where this book got it wrong, it got it right a lot more, and was an enjoyable page-turner. It packed a lot of good stuff into a fairly short read (which is also welcome; in the wake of Harry Potter, it seems that enormous tomes for the young-adult set are popular, and enormous tomes in fantasy have always had their fans, so it’s nice to see a short book deserve its hype).

Sibble Saturday: The Magic Words (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11)

Man, I suck at this once-a-week stuff. Maybe it’s being surprisingly busy, or allergic, or just having a hard time slogging through Deuteronomy. Whatever it is, trying to get back on the ball here. We move on with פָּרָשַׁת ואתחנן (“And I begged” portion), which runs full-tilt into what’s known as the “Deuteronomic code” of laws. It also includes some sections of rather special importance to both Judaism and Christianity.

The quick snarky summary: God’s done great things for you, so listen up, y’all, and don’t piss him off.

Every dog and every cat and every people has שמע ישראל