It’s rush season at MIT. This is the time of year when food is free, rooms are filled with oobleck and alumni like me are roped into writing and performing spoof musicals in order to entice freshmen into choosing a living group. It’s a fun time to revisit the ol’ stomping grounds, but of course life manages to provide downsides, too. First, MIT rush is “dry,” meaning that the oobleck must be made with water and not alcohol, and that nobody can use liquid nitrogen to make a frozen tequila popsicle.
Underage drinking is endemic at the Institute, naturally, as is the case at every other university in the United States. Setting the legal drinking age at 21 makes umpteen gajilliion college students into criminals with no observable benefit, but the worst consequence may be that it means the students can’t have a rush activity where they turn beer bottles into Leyden jars to make capacitors for a Tesla coil.
The other downside of this season is that, like I said, I’m busy working on a spoof musical, which cuts into my blag-writing time. Instead of writing something shockingly original, I’ll just keep the beast at bay by feeding it a selection from Jorge Luis Borges. Today’s piece is a 1941 essay entitled “Dos libros” [Two books], originally published as “Dos libros de este tiempo” [Two Books of this Era], in La Nación (10 December 1941). This translation is by Eliot Weinberger and is found on pages 207–210 of Selected Non-Fictions. Borges is discussing H. G. Wells’ book, Guide to the New World: A Handbook of Constructive World Revolution, which had just been published.
Wells, incredibly, is not a Nazi. Incredibly, because nearly all my contemporaries are, although they either deny it or don’t know it. Since 1925, no writer has failed to claim that the inevitable and trivial fact of having been born in a certain country and of belonging to a certain race (or certain mixture of races) is a singular privilege and an effective talisman. Defenders of democracy, who believe themselves to be quite different from Goebbels, urge their readers, in the same language as the enemy, to listen to the beating of a heart that answers the call of the blood and the land. I remember, during the Spanish Civil War, certain impenetrable discussions. Some declared themselves Republicans; others, Nationalists; others, Marxists; yet all, in a lexicon of a Gauleiter, spoke of the Race and of the People. Even the men of the hammer and the sickle turned out to be racists. . . . I also remember with some amazement a certain assembly that was convoked to condemn anti-Semitism. For various reasons, I am not an anti-Semite; the principal one is that I find the difference between Jews and non-Jews generally insignificant, and sometimes illusory or imperceptible. No one, that day, wanted to share my opinion; they all swore that a German Jew was vastly different from a German. In vain I reminded them that Adolf Hitler said the same thing; in vain I suggested that an assembly against racism should not tolerate the doctrine of a Chosen People; in vain I quoted the wise words of Mark Twain: “I have no race prejudices. . . . All that I care to know is that a man is a human being — that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” (The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, 204.)
The second book Borges discusses in this review is Bertrand Russell’s Let the People Think, again published in that year. This essay collection features an interesting proposal by Russell:
In the third article, “Free Thought and Official Propaganda,” he proposes that elementary schools teach the art of reading the newspaper with incredulity. I believe that this Socratic discipline would not be useless. Of the people I know, very few practice it at all. They let themselves be deceived by typographical or syntactical devices; they think that an event has occurred because it is printed in large black letters; they don’t want to know that the statement “All the aggressor’s attempts to advance beyond B have failed miserably” is merely a euphemism for admitting the loss of B. Even worse: they practice a kind of magic, and think that to express any fear is to collaborate with the enemy. . . .
Sound familiar? Or do I even need to ask?
Russell proposes that the State attempt to immunize people against such deceptions and sophistries. For example, he suggests that students should study Napoleon’s final defeats through the ostensibly triumphant bulletins in Moniteur. A typical assignment would be to read the history of the wars with France in English textbooks, and then to rewrite that history from the French point of view.
I would add that several homework assignments in this curriculum would have a mathematical character. Lying with statistics is, after all, many an ideologue’s stock in trade.