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Friday, July 21, 2017

A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)


 

A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)

 
The first time I travelled to India, I came via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That was in 1970. Arundhati Roy was then 9 years old, living in the Kerala of her The God of Small Things (TGoST). My wife and I holidayed in Kerala in 2012, and part of the motivation was to see the literary landscape depicted in TGoST. I had contacted Noam Chomsky and Anthony Arnove (the latter listed in the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS of TMoUH as ‘comrade, agent, publisher, rock’ while the former is not … in my book about Noam Chomsky I included a photograph of Noam and Arundhati together) but neither of them obliged in giving me Arundhati’s private contact details, citing the promise they had made to Arundhati never to divulge them. I suppose if they had done so I would have asked Arundhati if we could meet her if she happened to be in Kerala at the time. I also tried to contact her mother at the famous school she runs in Kottayam but to no avail either. In the event our driver just took us to the ‘house’ in Kottayam where the Roys used to live along a river bank and where much of the action of TGoST took place. It was kind of disappointing as the area had been developed as a sort of up-market residential area. We also saw the Baker’s House in Kumarakom which featured as the haunted house in TGoST. By now it was converted into a Taj Hotel – I told the hotel manager that a plaque of literary interest might attract more tourists. He said that Arundhati Roy did not merit such honours as she advocated ‘extremist’ views.

Anyway, having come to India the first time via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1970, arriving in Amritsar, I was thoroughly immersed in what in broad terms can be called Islamic culture. Being 21 years old and having been brought up in West-Germany and having been educated to university level (Munich University, studying psychology) I had relatively little knowledge about the history of the Indian subcontinent, merely following the overland hippy-trail all the way to Australia.

When my German travel companion and I came to the Golden Temple and were accommodated there as honorary guests, we immediately adopted Sikh culture, at least as far as getting a bracelet, kara (which still adorns my wrist some 47 years later), and sporting shorts and a dagger (and of course very long hair and a beard). Personally I was even more fascinated by the many chillum-smoking sadhus who loitered along the highways and byways. After a few weeks at the Golden Temple we decided to hitchhike to Srinagar. Given our Sikh-garb it was a piece of cake getting lifts with the long procession of gaudy trucks that weaved up the Kashmir valley. I was given the honorary title of ‘commander’ by the Sikh drivers, sleeping under their trucks at night. In Srinagar we of course rented a HB (as noted in TMoUH and where tragic events happen subsequently) and paddled around in a small shikara exploring Dal Lake. In those days Srinagar and surroundings seemed to be a peaceful and very pleasant place. Having obtained a generous amount of Kashmiri opium we did not exactly have sharp political eyes – we were radical anarchist student activists in Munich in 1969 – and as such we were not aware of any frictions between the Kashmiri Moslems and Sikh Punjabis (not to mention the Hindu sadhus), nor were we actually aware that Kashmir was a divided region, torn apart between India and Pakistan. The local youth that hung around our HB were mainly interested in our music tapes that played the Rolling Stones and of course Leonard Cohen – and as Musa in TMoUH says:

              “Even he doesn’t know that he’s really a Kashmiri. Or that his real name is Las Kone …”

In those days the ‘trav’ling lady’ was more likely a hippy lady but certainly of the mould of Tilo (aka Arundhati?) and the occasional fellow hippy visitors to our HB would include some outrageous Norwegian femme fatale that even then outraged the local customs. While all and sundry were used to scantily clothed (if at all) sadhus only us HB dwellers were used to such foreign female sadhus.

In TMoUH Tilo (aka Arundhati?) on quite a few occasions gives voice to such crass gender bias which goes against her grain even in her admiration of moderate Islam:

              “Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed.” (p.387)

Not that women are treated any better in Hindu/Sikh/Western or what have you culture. One of the main points of TMoUH is of course that access to the Ministry of Utmost Happiness is only granted to the hijra of this world, and possibly to people like Tilo.

On my second visit to India in 1974 (before the Emergency), in the company of a wild New Zealand femme fatale who would not bow to any religious of secular customs, Kashmir was not included in the otherwise extensive travels (coming from Myanmar, Kolkata, Varanasi, Agra, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa (again), Kerala … on to Sri Lanka). Goa was then still a haven for ‘trav’ling ladies’ and me having acquired a sitar in Kolkata and having learned to play it a bit from Mr. Khan in Kathmandu, there was no end to more of Leonard Cohen and of course Ravi Shankar (the latter who cultivated a reverse Indian guru meets Western ladies of wealth and taste …). There was a certain male Hindu menace that not only googled the ‘trav’ling ladies’ but felt free to grope and assault. Luckily my female companion in the mould of Tilo was adept in muscular self-defence and swatted them like flies. Of course we know that the rise of right-wing (neo-fascist) Hindu nationalism, so eloquently and passionately decried in TMoUH (is Modi nick-named Gujarat ka Lalla to forestall libel?) has given rise to previously unheard of levels of sexual violence against women (no woman adept at self-defence can defend against gang rape, and anyway why should a woman have to practice self-defence against men).

Back to Kashmir, surely the centrepiece of TMoUH. Tilo’s (aka Arundhati!) unflinching support for azadi is accentuated by her non-English language feature, namely Urdu. Hardly any review I have read mentions this but I as a linguist take note, and as one of the misguided protagonists (The Landlord) in TMoUH states somewhat sarcastically:

Because nothing warms the subcontinental Muslim’s heart more than a few well-chosen lines of Urdu verse (p.158).

Reading up on the history of Urdu, one is somewhat surprised that Arundhati Roy is an adept as an offspring of a Kerala Syrian-Christian family. However when considering her long life in Delhi, especially in Old Delhi, one can understand her choice of language. Not that I fully understand the ins and outs of language choices in India (or in Kashmir for that matter) but on quizzing some Indian and Pakistani colleagues at my work, one comes to the conclusion that modern Urdu is inextricably linked to Muslim culture although liberal Indians of all denominations (atheists included) appreciate Urdu as a Hindustani mutually intelligible variant of Hindi, especially as a linguistic vehicle of fine poetry.

I suppose only readers who can read and understand Urdu and Hindi in Roman alphabet transliteration – it is not clear what system the author uses – can also figure out what is what. For example the first such instance comes about when Anjum (who only speaks Urdu) says “You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?” one could safely assume that is an Urdu word. When subjected to Google Translate it yields HUG (as in ‘to hug, hugged’) which doesn’t seem to make much sense in the sentence quoted. While Arundhati does provide English translations for most of her Urdu and Hindi texts, there are quite a few – as above – where the uninitiated is at a loss, i.e. no translation is provided. I suppose as well that such language questions are a can of worms, what with an Indian author writing about India in English, an India (and Kashmir) where ordinary folks (as the main protagonists) speak no or only little English. Comrade Revathy’s (CPI (Maoist)) long letter in halting English may or may not be a genuine article in this regard. The grim content of the letter played out in Southern India mirrors that of Kashmir. When we were in Kerala in 2012 the Revolutionary Marxist Party leader T. P. Chandrasekharan was murdered and the local newspapers reported the story as internecine fighting, blaming the local CPM faction. The English language daily the Decan Chronicle (8 May 2012) reported that a suspect was ‘nabbed in a secret operation’ and that ‘the interrogation is on in a secret place’. Sounds very much like the secret interrogations in the Shiraz in TMoUH. A political commentator cum academic historian in a previous edition of the Decan Chronicle had put down the whole saga to primitive Dravidians who were prone to believe Marxist and Muslim (sic) propaganda, resulting in the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’. I wrote a letter to the editor which to my surprise was published in large print, pointing out that a complicit corporate media is to blame instead and that ordinary Keralites know as much as anybody that the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’ is a common tactic used by the elites to scare the populace into accepting extreme measures of arrest and detention (and murder by the secret state police).

That the educated elites in India (see Kerala above), Pakistan and Kashmir read all this stuff in English as a matter of course is of course a mixed blessing but of course (excuse the endless pun) we (who read English only, and maybe German and French) are ever so grateful to a myriad of Indian authors whose English prose surpasses that of the English English writers. Arundhati Roy certainly is in a league of her own in this respect (but what if she were to write in Urdu?). The main point, however, seems to be that Roy’s choice of Urdu as local language flavour is destined to be an eye-opener for all of her Indian readers, inasmuch as her book is really compulsory reading for all Indians. Readers like me will miss many of the allusions, Urdu or otherwise. Readers like me will however receive an English education as to what the political, social and individual issues are. Of course it is grim reading. Roy subverts Stalin’s saying that one death is a tragedy but a thousand are a statistic. By describing the tragic deaths of individuals like children that get mowed down by indiscriminate machinegun fire, the reader has to contemplate the many more deaths, twenty at a time. For anyone who has never ever been even close to such massacres, the scenarios are beyond comprehension. Those in the midst of it all, be it in Kashmir, Syria, Yemen or whatever place you care to name, the reality of such incomprehensible suffering on an almost daily basis must amount to barbarity on a scale not seen before on this earth. How a literary voice like that of Arundhati Roy gets inside the heads of both victim and perpetrator is also short of miraculous. Sure there are other harrowing accounts of the brutality of warfare, be it All Quiet on the Western Front or the seminal The Wretched of the Earth, but written by male protagonists who experienced many of the atrocities themselves. As such there can be only few women authors who lay bare both the facts and emotions, none more cutting to the bone than Arundhati Roy. As I write this review, Guardian news from Kashmir is that seven Hindu pilgrims got shot during an ambush, inserting Modi’s tweet that ‘India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks & the evil designs of hate’. Maybe it is not too surprising that so-called liberal news media as the Guardian see the need to side with Modi. Has the Guardian forgotten that much of the Northern Ireland bloody conflict resulted from the Ulster Regiment provocations, marching through Catholic neighbourhoods under heavy military protection? A reported 115,000 Hindu pilgrims marched through Moslem Kashmir neighbourhoods last year, all under heavy military protection. Obviously violent death cannot be condoned in any circumstances but those who provoke sectarian conflict for political gain must be answerable for the gravest of human rights violations. The Modis of this world are of course beyond the law that may yet silence the likes of Roy (that she fled to London to complete her book is testament to that). The Landlord in TMoUH  is given a voice that seems to be intended to showcase how certain Indian liberal reactionaries think about Kashmir:

… I have never understood how that storm of dull, misguided vanity – the absurd notion that Kashmir should have ‘freedom’ – swept him up as it did a whole generation of Kashmiri men (p.160). 

Of course the Landlord in the end realizes his incorrect thinking when deprived of the ‘infrastructure of impunity’ (p.434) – unlike the one enjoyed by Modi. It is of course interesting to note in our era of political revenge politics that occasionally the high and mighty get caught up in the net and end up in jail – rightly or wrongly (the latter include Brazil’s former popular president da Silva and the Taiwanese Chen Shui-bian, what with the former lot including South-Korea’s impeached Park Geun Hye, and who knows if Tony Blair will for ever escape a court hearing and if Trump escapes impeachment). In TMoUH the other semi-reactionary character, Naga, the TV journalist semi-celebrity who is handled by the Landlord’s Indian Secret Service outfit gets married to Tilo after Musa is killed. One does wonder about this a lot. Would a real Tilo (aka Arundhati?) contemplate such a marriage? Arundhati’s own marriage adventure, as much as it is revealed in her various biographies, begs the question. One’s obsession to equate Tilo (from Kerala) and Arundhati also stems from the mother’s story, the Syrian-Christian who has a school – biographical coincidences? One hopes so, as Tilo’s mother dies a sad death while Arundhati’s mother is alive and kicking as far as I know. In any case if I were Arundhati’s mother I would be a bit worried. Of course there was a lot of speculation as to who is who in real life compared to the characters in TGoST, what with mother and various uncles protesting that it wasn’t them. It is common literary speculation that many a great novel has autobiographical traits – and why not? One’s real life experiences provide many facts that are stranger than fiction, and weave stories from them is an art form that Arundhati Roy surely masters like no one else.

As such it also perhaps no surprise that a lot of the story in TMoUH plays out in Delhi, Roy’s long-term place of residence. Her intimate knowledge of all the nooks and crannies of this vast metropolis shines like nothing else in TMoUH. Not being much acquainted with Old or New Delhi other than on my first visit to India when my new travel companion, a guy from Switzerland and I applied for an Australian resident visa at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi – of course as hippies were domiciled in Old Delhi. It was quite a lengthy process that required us to be there for a couple weeks. In those days the Australians welcomed any white-skinned Europeans, hence with my personal lack – as a German passport holder – of any qualifications other than an unfinished psychology degree but with a good head of very long hair, all I needed to do was to fill out lots of forms, get passport photos with hair out of the way and get a medical clearance by going to a flash hospital for rich expatriates and even richer Indians. Being short on money we walked for miles and only used rickshaws in emergencies. One day we ended up in a dusty park (minus the graves as in TMoUH) where squatters welcomed us like newfound brothers. We also hung around the Red Fort – minus the light shows mentioned in TMoUH – ‘shooting the breeze’ (which seems to be a favourite idiom in TMoUH). Not that we ever came across any Hijra there or anywhere in India (I did come across some in Sri Lanka though). That the Red Fort should be a special attraction for the band of Hijra in TMoUH is of course further testimony to the fact that Old Delhi and the Red Fort still are part of the essential Urdu-Moslem fabric of India (the ‘Urdu’ language itself is said to be named after the Urdu Bazaar that existed there), what with Roy also acknowledging her supporters in Shahjahanabad (the ancient capital of the Moghul Empire and what later became Delhi). The Hijras’ excursions into New Delhi, with its monstrous highways and byways, shopping malls and high-rise residences growing like tropical mushrooms by night, are both hilarious and somewhat tragic, giving voice to Roy’s anti-capitalist (anti-corporate) stance that has seen her operate as a major activist in the many environmental battles that rage across India. Delhi, now one of the most polluted super cities of the world, is destined to be submerged in the sludge of ever faster development. Roy’s dire warnings in TMoUH are falling on deaf ears. Kashmir due to its lack of rapid industrial development may well come out best in the end, if only by default. Indeed when in TMoUH  in the last (short) chapter, Tilo shows off ‘her prowess in Urdu’ to her Kashmiri tragic hero Musa , there is also Guih Kyom, the dung beetle, announcing that ‘things would turn out alright in the end’. This by the way is not an allusion to Bertrand Russell’s dystopian famous lines on how the world, trilobites and all, will return to peace when man makes himself extinct but rather a celebration of the human species ‘because Miss Jabeen, Miss Udaya Jabeen, was come’ (note the clever braking of a rule of English grammar).

The last chapter also contains that statement stretching across the page – noted by almost every review I have come across – namely ‘How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By becoming everything.’ I suppose reviewers prefer such mystical statements to the grim political narratives spanning most other pages. Actually I think this line is very much in keeping with ancient Zen practice: didn’t the Zen painter of bamboo say that in order to paint the perfect bamboo he (or possibly she) had to become a bamboo? Or is it the Kafkaesque ‘metamorphosis’ that necessitates one to become a beetle in order to understand what it is like to be a beetle? Or what does Arundhati really mean when in the first chapter Anjum ‘lived in the graveyard like a tree’? Yes, surely we have to agree with Arundhati that we have ‘to become everything’ in order to make this world a better place.

In the first place, reading her book TMoUH will make you a better person.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

TRUMP, TRUMPER, TRUMPEST


 
Below is a very perceptive characterization by Gwenda Blair of Trump and his followers:

It is this combination – the hint of menace beneath the surface added to what appears to be an unpolished immediacy – that millions of listeners take as evidence of Trump’s authenticity and spontaneity. Indeed, the way he talks reminds them of the voice inside their own heads – a rich and sometimes dark stew of conversational snippets and memory scraps, random phrases and half-thoughts – and, by extension, it somehow seems as if they’re hearing the voice inside his head.


Twitter perfectly matches this state of affairs, what with ‘snippets and memory scraps, random phrases and half-thoughts’ being the main fare of so-called communication. It is perhaps not surprising that this mode of communication has become the mainstream news service as well, shaping public opinion in the slipstream of contemporary politics in Western democracies. That the proponents who provide the necessary machinations have become extremely rich in the process is also no accident. Trump, as a mere bit player, used his primitive, ruthless business instincts, combined with a jovial appearance, to play the game in any which way possible, exploiting every tax loophole there is. Dabbling in realty TV, golf courses, real estate and the female beauty industry landed him in a golden circle of like-minded entrepreneurs who define luxury as a golden toilet seat. With a hint of mild debauchery and good Calvinistic morals, the contradictions are many when subjected to rational analysis. The idea to elevate this game to the presidency of the USA is as outrageous as it is ludicrous. The idea that an amalgam of political mavericks, from Tea Party Republicans to KKK, could galvanize the American voters to put Trump into the Oval Office, was however not as daft as some would have predicted. Given that Trump’s verbiage was ideal for Twitter and other such moronic social media, the road to success was all but guaranteed. Ad hoc observation of the citizenry being glued to so-called smart phones and other such mobile devices, it is not too difficult to realize that a few clever algorithms could program a simple Pavlovian stimulus-response behaviour, especially tailored for American voters (see my previous blog on Mercer and Co.). Not that there was a choice anyway: Clinton was just a lesser evil, separated by two degrees. Only Putin perceived a wider gap and thus preferred a primitive businessman to a rabid politician, and thus contributed his two cents worth of cyber intervention, which now is taken as the one and only possibility to impeach Trump as a puppet on the string of Putin’s henchmen. To take the sting out of the investigation (Comey and Mueller – which is a joke in itself) Trump’s advisers will arrange for a few military strikes against the Russians in Syria, so as to prove Trump’s true Roman Christian patriotism in the face of a suspect Russian Byzantine Orthodox ideology. Putin will be even more confused – as seen in his recent interviews with Oliver Stone who as a supposed example of American rationalism demonstrates a poor grasp of Russian and world history.

Rational people operate by forming thoughts in their brains and then try to verbalize these thoughts as best as they can, given the operational restrictions that language has. In other words, the best minds are often those who match thought with language without losing any of the essential content. Irrational people, as the saying goes, speak before they think, uttering half-baked phrases, which the brain has difficulty with in actually interpreting as something that falls within the realm of reason and common sense. Such people do get hooked on very simplistic ideas that are then applied to all and sundry environments. Take for example the simple concept of ‘freedom’ and apply it to the world of business. It means, in Trump’s world, that a businessman ought to be ‘free’ of all encumbrances, dedicated only to the aim of turning a profit. Hence if a health insurance business were to be forced by government regulation to insure people with pre-existing health problems, then a basic ‘freedom’ is violated inasmuch you cannot turn a profit from insuring sick people who lack the resources to pay for their medical bills at private hospitals. ‘The freedom to bear arms’ is another brainless phrase, easily uttered, yet with devastating consequences when applied to non-sensical contexts. The freedom of keeping out unwanted guests from one’s private property, as much as from one’s own country, is another milestone – if not mill stone - in modern, archaic political discourse. By definition there cannot be ‘freedom’ to critique the proprietors and therefore protectors of freedom, especially if such critique or opposition involves rational thought expressed in scientific language. Climate change as a science project is to be dismissed as it infringes on the freedom to say otherwise, i.e. unthinking. Indeed it is most advisable to distrust all modes of deep thought as it invariably leads to Gordian knots that then need slashing with brute force. The question then arises why there are so many simple-minded people who vote for simple-minded people like Trump. While Blair’s quote seems to give the answer via ‘…the way he talks reminds them of the voice inside their own heads’ we note that this is not an answer as much as it is a restatement of the problem, namely that birds of a feather flock together. It is quite tempting to explain such a state of mind as pathology, worthy of entry into DSM-5. Not that Trump proved as yet as insane as some of his predecessors: leafing through The Great War for Civilization: the conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk (2005) one is reminded again and again that the Bush dynasties, and Reagan before them, were certainly on par with DSM diagnoses, or as Guardian correspondent Johnston puts it for Trump:

It’s laughable when pundits try to distill a Trump doctrine from his word salad. His own words illuminate the undeveloped space between his ears.


Still, all we have to go by so far, as far as Trump is concerned, are his demented twitter messages but not much action yet. Sure he is continuing covert military operations all around the world, just like Obama did, but he has not yet started any new wars – that he is itching to start one with North-Korea may be on the cards however.

Maybe Trump will turn out to be a somewhat harmless, narcissistic gadfly, bent on entertaining his followers, doing shady business deals on the side … but what if his words (and those put in his mouth by his ghostwriters) are translated into action by maniacs hell-bent on self-destruction? The cabal surrounding Trump range from the demented to clever dicks and chicks, the latter who just see a great opportunity to feather their own beds, while the former, mainly military types, want to see how far their brinkmanship will take them.

There is an obvious analogy with the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (as told by Gibbon) whereby a long list of emperors (read ‘presidents’) become more and more unhinged (Nero and Caligula being outstanding examples) until the whole edifice crumbles in the dust of history. The only worry now is that the ‘dust’ will engulf the whole world and we will literally experience the end of history. Or else it could be a protracted decline – assuming that no nuclear war breaks out – by way of climate change deniers, heralding a gradual but accelerating descent into the hell of a global storm. In the meantime, the show must go on, babies must be born, lives lived, menial jobs to go to, money to be made, bubbles to be made of real estate, billionaires to be created, feudal states to be celebrated, slaves voting for their masters, climate refuges drowning in the oceans, esoteric science to be funded very well, escapist entertainment quadrupled (give the people bread and circus), fashionistas designing body bags, artists encrusting the latter with diamonds, the Internet bulging with fake news and bodies, sex robots looking for customers, people with good insurance cured of old age, a little love here and there, a sunny day after weeks of rain, a lonesome flower … all punctuated by ever more bizarre presidential and prime ministerial campaigns in Western countries while the Orient (China in particular) will remain true to its mysterious machinations, political and economical, but all the same gripped by the maelstrom that goes from Trump to Trumper and eventually to the Trumpest, creating instant history as a farce.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

COMPUTATIONAL LINGUISTICS à la R. Mercer: GROSS AND CRUDE


COMPUTATIONAL LINGUISTICS à la R. Mercer: GROSS AND CRUDE


Chomsky’s 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour saved us from ‘gross and crude’ behaviourism in linguistics, if not in psychology itself. In fact, behaviourism in the world of business (marketing and advertising) still rules supreme, and if not checked will lead to neo-fascist models of behaviourist manipulation, as Chomsky also warned.

It is my contention that this threat to human civilisation has been further exacerbated by what one can call either an extension of behaviourism or else a new development occasioned by computational linguistics. Initially popular science was enamoured by the idea that language can be compared to the computer in terms of the human brain being some sort of hardware which can be programmed by some clever software. The software in question would have to be something like Chomskyian parsing programmes, embedded in Artificial Intelligence, with the ability to acquire language like children do. Given the slow progress in this seemingly impossible task, this raised the ire of the business community that wanted results so that language could be commercialized – in combination with military applications of course.

The enfant terrible in this case, unlike a somewhat benign Skinner before him, is one Robert Mercer, who not only subverted computational linguistics but also made a fortune from it and now bankrolls the likes of Trump and Bannon. The story is described somewhat diffidently in a Guardian article subtitled ‘With links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, the rightwing US computer scientist is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network’.

Mercer, a non-linguist, had the brilliant idea that voice recognition and machine-translation can be achieved by simple statistical matching: when you say ‘hello’ when you phone your insurance company about a claim, the voice recognition program immediately constructs a digital oscillation and compares it to a stored model recorded by an average speaker, and if there is a match within an allowable range, the computer program accepts your ‘hello’ and then responds with a phrase that has a high statistical value in the context of an insurance claim, like ‘hello, we value your call, please state your claim number’. Similarly if I want to translate this phrase into German, the program will check the data bank for previous translations of this phrase and select the one with the highest statistical value, given some context that is calculated by some clever algorithm. Given the advent of ‘big data’ just about everything that has ever been said and written can be stored in digital format and can be statistically matched to anything you say or write.

The commercial application is fantastic: language is automated, making call centres redundant (even the ones that employ cheap labour in India or the Philippines). The military complex is equally jubilant, what with secret services now being able to monitor and analyse all voice and written traffic all around the world. The Orwellian nightmare of your TV watching you as much as you watch the TV has become a reality. Leonard Cohen’s line that the rich will monitor the bedrooms of the poor – for entertainment – has equally become true. The Huxleyan dystopian vision in Brave New World also rings true: information overload as a sedative, pills that make you happy and dissidents kept in human zoos. Orwellian newspeak and linguistic subversion (‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’) have become the stuff of fake news and Breitbart rhetoric.

So why has no eminent linguist debunked Robert Mercer? Why has no academic linguist commented on the ‘gross and crude’ travesty visited upon human language by Mercer and his ilk? After all he received quite a few academic honours along the way. Why has no linguist pointed out that language as a creative human facility cannot be restricted to what is stored in a data base? Wasn’t it a Chomskyian dictum that language with its set of finite syntactic rules can create an infinite output of sentences? Isn’t that the basic idea of language? People who seek to stifle this creativity are of course troubled by its potential, namely to bring unlimited (infinite) freedom of expression to the people of the world, including ideas that provide social justice and a measure of economic well-being for all. Neo-fascists (alt-right) like Erdogan, Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Petry, Bannon, Mercer and a million others who call others fascists fascists in an Orwellian merry-go-round of meaningless language, engaging in what Wilhelm Reich has called the ‘mass psychology of fascism’, emptying language of meaning, and substituting complex sentences with ever shorter slogans. The British author Ian McEwan quite rightly noted that ‘Brexit’ reminded him of the Third Reich whereby the voice of the people becomes a series of manipulated referendums.

Obviously Mercer and Co. exploit ‘big data’ not only for human voice recognition and machine translation but also for a new brand of ‘manufacturing consent’ (à la Herman & Chomsky) that forces language into a statistical straightjacket, allowing only for a algorithmic paradigm that supports the dominant discourse of the alt-right. The traditional vehicle for such manipulation – the mainstream media – has until recently played the part of benign collaborator of neo-liberal politics and capitalist economics but is now branded by Trump and Co. as the enemy lest they tow the line and begin to support with great enthusiasm the narcissistic leaders of the alt-right. Bypassing the traditional media with bizarre social media forums like Twitter and Facebook, the new media will dictate what can and cannot be said. Ever more blatant verbal attacks on perceived domestic opposition will eventually give rise to brutish violence, given many a historical precedent, e.g. the Nazi propaganda machine.

Unfortunately Mercer and Co. do understand the value of a human-specific language, hence in order to de-humanize large sections of the population, one has to limit if not to destroy language as the only faculty that makes us human. Wars cannot be fought by being polite and considerate: pathological aggression must be mirrored in narrowly prescribed language use – as the handbooks of all armed forces around the world will tell you. The categorical imperative of what one ‘should’ do is replaced by a simple ‘must’.

Computational linguistics as statistical modelling has already reached new heights in English language testing, as for example in the Pearson Test of English, which is totally computerized in all language modes, i.e. speaking, listening, reading and writing. While the passive modes of listening and reading have long been subject to education systems that control and limit freedom of expression, it is now the active modes that have been harnessed. The algorithms that check your essay writing will not allow sentences that  - while grammatically correct – find no match in the prescribed data base. If you write, à la Chomsky, that the United States are a terrorist state, along with North-Korea, Israel, Saudi-Arabia and any other state you care to mention, you will fail your English language test and in addition will be referred to various secret service agencies that mine such data for dissenting language. That all this is now possible without direct human intervention says a lot about the success of computational linguistics, devised and run by non-linguists like Mercer. Naturally these systems are ‘gross and crude’ and are subject to all kinds of hacking and cyber warfare – and are being disclosed by the occasional whistle-blowers like Snowden – simply because the underlying mechanisms of language use are as ‘gross and crude’ as that of Skinner, if not more so. Computational and corpus linguistics are therefore misnomers.  They reveal absolutely nothing about human language competence per se but tell us everything about language use, like the very high statistical probability that members of the Ku Klux Klan will use ‘race’ as a key concept in their daily discourse. Statistics of this sort only confirms what we know already. In a similar vein Chomsky pointed out that linguistic fieldwork of the descriptive sort will only confirm what we know intuitively about language. Why then are we sliding into this pseudo-scientific morass that elevates computational linguistics to the absolute heights of the human sciences?

The LinguistList used to mainly advertise jobs for linguists in universities; now there is a preponderance of jobs advertised for a plethora of private companies that specialize in computational linguistics. Sure, big money is to be made if you crack the code and develop a program that will ghost-write perfect speeches for Trump and Co. Obviously one of the requirements will be to repeat and repeat key sentences (slogans) so that the message will not be lost on those millions whose attention span is less than a millisecond. Tragically the computerized speech writer will produce dumb text that will be celebrated as the height of literary rhetoric (witness Reagan’s ‘axis of evil’, Obama’s ‘yes, we can’ and Trump’s ‘make America great again’). Human language will be reduced to passive click-bait consumption. The neo-feudalist class of super-managers surrounded by computer geeks will reap all the material benefits of the vulture economy and laugh all the way to the club of billionaires.

Eventually however, the irrepressible human facility for creative language will give rise to yet another French/Russian/Chinese/Cuban-style revolution that will transform societies as never before, and by the way reinstate bio-linguistics to the top of human sciences.