Tag: Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess on “the Duty to Distrust the State”

Anthony Burgess wrote some 50 books, but he became most famous for one that was made into a hit movie – A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962 and filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Two years later Burgess wrote an essay reflecting on the book, the film, and their message. But the essay was not published until 2012, in the New Yorker, where it could be seen only by subscribers. Only this summer did the New Yorker open access to its archives, if only temporarily. So at last I have a chance to draw attention to the section of it I particularly enjoyed, on the dangers of the modern state:

We probably have no duty to like Beethoven or hate Coca-Cola, but it is at least conceivable that we have a duty to distrust the state. Thoreau wrote of the duty of civil disobedience; Whitman said, “Resist much, obey little.” With those liberals, and with many others, disobedience is a good thing in itself. In small social entities—English parishes, Swiss cantons—the machine that governs can sometimes be identified with the community that is governed. But when the social entity grows large, becomes a megalopolis, a state, a federation, the governing machine becomes remote, impersonal, even inhuman. It takes money from us for purposes we do not seem to sanction; it treats us as abstract statistics; it controls an army; it supports a police force whose function does not always appear to be protective.

This, of course, is a generalization that may be regarded as prejudiced nonsense. I personally do not trust politicians or statesmen—very few writers and artists do—and consider that men enter politics for the negative reason that they have little talent for anything else and the positive reason that power is always delicious. Against this must be set the truth that government makes healthful laws to protect the community and, in the great international world, can be the voice of our traditions and aspirations. But the fact remains that, in our own century, the state has been responsible for most of our nightmares. No single individual or free association of individuals could have achieved the repressive techniques of Nazi Germany, the slaughter of intensive bombing, or the atomic bomb. War departments can think in terms of megadeaths, while it is as much as the average man can do to entertain dreams of killing the boss. The modern state, whether in a totalitarian or a democratic country, has far too much power, and we are probably right to fear it.

It is significant that the nightmare books of our age have not been about new Draculas and Frankensteins but about what may be termed dystopias—inverted utopias, in which an imagined megalithic government brings human life to an exquisite pitch of misery. Sinclair Lewis, in “It Can’t Happen Here”—a novel curiously neglected—presents an America that becomes fascist, and the quality of the fascism is as American as apple pie. The wisecracking homespun Will Rogers-like President uses the provisions of a constitution created by Jeffersonian optimists to create a despotism which, to the unthinking majority, at first looks like plain common sense. The trouncing of long-haired intellectuals and shrill anarchists always appeals to the average man, although it may really mean the suppression of liberal thought (the American Constitution was the work of long-haired intellectuals) and the elimination of political dissidence. Orwell’s “1984”—a nightmare vision which may conceivably have prevented the nightmare fact from being realized: no one expects the real 1984 to be like Orwell’s—shows the unabashed love of power and cruelty which too many political leaders have hidden under the flowers of “inspirational” rhetoric. The “Inner Party” of Orwell’s future England exerts control over the population through the falsification of the past, so that no one can appeal to a dead tradition of freedom; through the delimitation of language, so that treasonable thoughts cannot be formulated; through a “doublethink” epistemology, which makes the outside world appear as the rulers wish it to appear; and through simple torture and brainwashing.

Both the American and the British visions conjoin in assuming that the aversive devices of fear and torture are the inevitable techniques of despotism, which seeks total control over the individual. But, as long ago as 1932, Aldous Huxley, in his “Brave New World,” demonstrated the submissive docility that powerful states seek from their subjects as being more easily obtainable through non-aversive techniques. Pre-natal and infantile conditioning makes the slaves happy in their slavery, and stability is enforced not through whips but through a scientifically imposed contentment. Here, of course, is a way that man may take if he really desires a world in which there are no wars, no population crises, no Dostoyevskian agonies. The conditioning techniques are available, and perhaps the state of the world may soon frighten man into accepting them. 

The whole thing is worth reading, with its reflections on freedom and conformity, good and evil, Orwell and B. F. Skinner (he was big in 1973).

Beware the Data, II

A couple of months ago I warned about the dangers of having government gather and publish growing reams of information in the name of making education better. Sure, it sounds great – help people get as informed as possible! – but the dangers are legion. You can read about several such pitfalls in that old post. You can also get a sense of the great wealth of data already out there in this op-ed. What I haven’t discussed – and what might concern many Americans more than anything else – is the threat that massive data collection poses to our privacy.

Articles over the last week or so have started to draw significant attention to the growing education-information complex and its connection to long-standing efforts – especially federal – to accumulate information on Americans from birth to boardroom. Gaining particular traction has been a story about how student data collected in New York could be sold to companies or other entities outside of school districts. Even more concerning is a story by Joy Pullmann in the Orange County Register about lots of data collection and mining that is either already happening or under consideration nationwide.

What’s especially troubling to some people, including Pullmann, is that not only is there ever-growing centralization of curricula such as the federally backed Common Core, as well as centralized testing of knowledge, but there are also moves to assess students’ “affect” that could include wiring them to “facial expression” cameras and “skin conductance sensors.” Contemplating such things, it’s hard not to conjure up images of A Clockwork Orange.

When you read the federal report that proposes using “affective computing methods” such as skin sensors, it doesn’t appear that the authors have nefarious, big-brother intentions. The object of the report is to examine how students’ “grit” and perseverance can be improved, and that is a reasonable goal. Similarly, furnishing information about the academic status of incoming freshmen at a college, the amount they learn while in school, and how well they fare after graduation, is driven by good intentions.

But we must never feel content with good intentions. We must care primarily about the effects of the policies stemming from our golden goals, and as I’ve written previously, there are likely big, negative, immediate effects that would go with empowering more government data collection. There are also potentially even worse long-term consequences, including that government would begin to try to adjust students’ feelings and attitudes if doing so might produce better test scores or some other, politically determined, outcome. Indeed, such affect-engineering arguably already takes place with huge increases in ADD and ADHD diagnoses that lead to personality-altering drug-taking.

It’s easy – and almost always innocent – to say that we need more information so that we can make things work better. But with that comes very big potential dangers we must never ignore.

Cross-posted at seethruedu.com