Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 121 in December, 2009.
Editor’s Note (December 2009): Hi-Tech Taliban does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Evergreen Review. There has been a strong online reaction to his article: The Electronic Book Burning. We now have a LETTERS TO THE EDITOR column and invite and encourage your comments on any piece that appears on our website. One thing is certain – Alan Kaufman has touched a very vital chord in the American psyche.
Part Two of Two:
by Alan KaufmanIt's no coincidence that the two authors in America who have stood up to sound the alarm about the Hi-Tech corporate destruction of books and book culture, Sherman Alexie, a Native American, and myself, the child of a Holocaust survivor, are sons of genocided peoples.
No other authors have stood up to vocally protest what is happening to the book in our society: a fact that I anticipate will some day consign a good many writers to a less then proud place in the history of letters. Only Mr. Alexie and I have taken an unequivocal stand against the book's extermination. Otherwise, the writers, and our representative organizations, as well as a majority of the publishers, have bowed, shamefully, to Hi-Tech and corporate market pressures, or stand silent, as the brave new bookless world unfolds. Not for them Kenneth Patchen's vow, made in one of his poems, to:
“fiercely defend the things I love.” I accuse them all of collusion in the death of the book.
How strange, too, that this society which has for the past decade soapbox preached about “diversity” and respect for minorities and other such laudable pieties, when now faced by two who stand up to state, each in our own way, that the Hi-tech assault upon the book hints darkly at our own cultural experiences of genocide, dismisses us with ridicule and warns us to go home.
I have spent a lifetime on consideration of what constitutes the emergence of genocidal societies and have noted this predominant trend: even well in advance of the resort to criminal political machinations and then escalating violence, emergent totalitarian systems with potentially genocidal agendas often first make war upon the sacred artifacts and monuments of the culture they seek to engulf. Following which, tyranny proceeds apace.
Today's Hi-Tech Taliban are mobilizing to decimate the economic base of print publishing, while at the same time destroying the validity of the book as sacred cultural artifact and, finally, seeking by any and all means not only to gain control of our reading matter but to violate the act of reading itself, the very ways in which we read. All this sets my nerve ends a-tingle with Holocaustal signs and warnings.
That is my point in referencing the Holocaust in my essays in the first place and why the constant knee-jerk invoking of Godwin's law to discredit my use of these analogies is dead wrong. For Godwin had argued that when an on line discussion thread has grown so long that it must devolve into use of Holocaust references to support its claims, then the argument has been lost. However, my essays reference the Holocaust right from the gate and therein continue to frame their premises within a Holocaustal paradigm.
It is quite easy to do, there are so many resemblances and these my essays serve to illustrate. In fact, my entire argument regarding the conduct of Hi-Tech in its assault on the book and book culture is no mere metaphor intended to shock, but depends entirely upon the Holocaust analogy. To drop that from one’s response to my arguments is like discussing Wounded Knee without reference to the Sioux.
In fact, I have formulated my own little law: "Efforts to thwart the finding of contemporary relevance in the Holocaust are a form of Holocaust denial."
Godwin, by the way, whose so-called “law” Techies now handily trot out when faced with the Holocaust as reproach to their cold-blooded cultural extermination, is a technology attorney, the Goebbels of High-Tech's bookless world-- a totalitarianism realm of addictive devices, robbed privacy and ever-more surrendered control of our personal lives to outside agencies.
One of the yardsticks of a society's ability to prevent its own descent into darkness is precisely a regard for its artifacts, an emotional respect, that supersedes even the mindless mechanistic advance of technological innovation. But today's young people who should comprise the first front line of independent thought and revolutionary action have instead been duped by gadget-generating corporations into swallowing, hook, line and sinker, the idea that Hi-Tech is the future and the way.
In the Eisenhower era that followed WWII, the corporate man began his rise on the back of technologies and through systems of organization that were produced, in large part, to serve war aims, but now applied to civilian life. The combat vet traded in his uniform for a gray flannel suit: to became an economic soldier in the war to make the world Capitalist. And in response to what at first seemed advantageous but was increasingly revealed to be just a form of social mind control, youth revolted, first through Rock, then Beat Lit and later, through the cultural and revolutionary explosion of the 60s.
By contrast, today's youth have been subjected to the most masterfully orchestrated marketing campaign in history--one that by comparison makes the selling of National Socialism or Communism to their respective constituencies seem primitive.
This new corporate mind-control marketing of ever-more addictive devices has obviated even the need for political machinations or immediate threat of brutality to advance its aims. Rather it pacifies and spreads by means of addictive Hi-tech devices, multiplying apps, online social networks, eye-candy software, psyche-raping advertising and nonstop entertainment. To ominously hint at what fate lies beyond the far horizon for potential subversives, government has ingeniously introduced the torture of other distant peoples, such as our foes in war, and in response, we have become like the horse to whom one needs only show the shadow of the whip to spur it on. We live in the shadow of this whip, consumed with fear, gaming and Facebooking our lives away in a condition of perpetual distraction and futility, the end game of which is no different than that in any other totalitarian system.
How, I wonder, do young people not plainly see all this and, seeing it, rise up in outrage to destroy the machine that is devouring them? Instead, they are among Hi-Techs's most fervent advocates, the tragic children of Hamlin Town.
As an undergrad, I studied with Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust author and Nobel Laureate, who said that while most consider the Holocaust as a terminal point in civilizational depravity in fact history has shown that any precedent, such as the Nazi innovation of mass produced technologically-empowered genocide, will only lead to yet further, better innovations of a similar but even more murderous kind. And therefore we must learn to read for the early warning signs.
That we might call, “Wiesel's Law.”
We cannot recklessly wreak havoc upon the very same cultural mainstays such as books and bookstores that not long ago, with aplomb and callow disregard, Nazis once targeted, without ourselves becoming Nazis. And we are becoming Nazis. Anti-semitism is everywhere on the rise. Humans’ indifference to each other's suffering has never been greater. Our academic institutions have become Inquisitorial centers of cant and political correctness. We live in a world of laptop-fixated isolation, circumscribed by inexplicable dreads and suspicions, in which human identity itself is slowly vanishing into nameless regions of cyberspace. And those of our intelligentsia who might make a stand on behalf of the book most often are in the vanguard of its death: publishers and librarians and even teachers who, rather than instill a love of reading, campaign to have a laptop for every child, who proudly dismiss their attachment to physical books as “sentiment,” and stand ready to embrace Big Brother.
Well, this too reminds me of the repugnant behavior of intellectuals during the Nazi years in the academies and cultural spheres, who rushed to embrace the new visions of a technology-empowered better world.
Lastly, as the child of a survivor I do not feel towards the Holocaust the sort of hands-off piety that puts it somewhere over there on a pedestal and me over here in the Land of Eternal Decency. When growing up, stories of hunted Jews were my Harry Potter tales. It was not something remote from me, a grainy photograph. It was my mother, right there beside me, her eyes and flesh and breath that had been sought after by Nazis to kill. My pledge to myself was to learn everything about it that I could, and I have studied it for almost the entirety of my intellectual life. And I have learned that not only can it happen again, but that it is happening again and will never stop happening unless we learn to read for the early warning signs, which appear, as they did in Nazi times, wrapped in illusions of progress, even of normalcy, and that seem to make perfect sense even as they decimate our sense of who we are.