April 2004 Editorial

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better

1945 witnessed a multitude of events: V.E. Day in Europe and the atomic bomb at Hiroshima brought an end to World War II; Ho Chi Minh and Charles De Gaulle became presidents of Viet Nam and France, respectively; the Nazi war trials at Nuremberg began; General Patton was killed in an auto accident; a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building; composers Béla Bartók and Anton von Webern died, and Benjamin Britten premiered “Peter Grimes” in London; Rocky Graziano was “Boxer of the Year”; and George Orwell published a little novel called Animal Farm.

The book is about a farm that is taken over by the animals after running off the tyrannical farmer. Their rally cry, “Four legs good, two legs bad,” serves to unite their cause. They create what is called “The Seven Commandments,” which they paint on the barn wall:

1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes.
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill another animal.
7. All animals are created equal.

The animals realize that the farm still has to be run (milking the cows and harvesting the crops), so the aggressive pigs assume positions of leadership and quickly begin to boss the other animals around. As “payback” for their efforts, they hoard milk and food for themselves and enlist nine black dogs to deal with any animals who may dispute their policies. As time goes by, the pigs move into the farmer’s house, drink his whiskey, and even execute some of the animals who plan a rebellion against the new regime. To account for the leaders’ actions and policies, some of the Commandments are changed to read “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets,” “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess,” and “No animal shall kill another animal without cause.”

By the end of the book, the pigs walk upright and have taken on the worst of human characteristics. They now chant “Four legs good, two legs better,” and the Commandments are replaced by the singular creed, “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

In Orwell’s book 1984, the government known as Big Brother constantly rewrites history to accommodate their own agenda. Revising history is not a new concept, and there remain those in current governmental positions who keep the practice alive — a somewhat daring procedure in today’s age of instant-recording capabilities. That subject alone is worth an entire treatise in light of the bait-and-switch policies of the American Presidency.

Two separate topics in TheScreamOnline have been challenged (in an indirect way) by the “school of prevailing thought” — or those who cannot think “outside the box.” The first involves John Kilgore’s excellent essay “Why Teachers Can’t Read Poetry,” which appeared in the July 2001 issue. He discusses how the textbook interpretation of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is about “individualism,” how Frost is “...urging the reader to leave behind the unthinking herd and launch forth boldly on ‘the road less traveled.’”

Kilgore dares to point out that the academic world has been parroting the same misinterpretation all along and, in fact, that Frost is really “lamenting life’s choices and the relentless one-way march of time in a wistful, quiet, lonely little poem whose speaker has no idea whether he took the right path or not, does not brag, offers no advice, hints that life is rather unfair, and seems on the whole more oppressed and puzzled than anyone.”

The tutor of a high school student wrote to Mr. Kilgore to relate the following story. Her student’s English teacher had assigned the class “The Road Not Taken,” and the student, whose original language is Ukrainian, read the poem with his tutor. As she told Mr. Kilgore, “He immediately understood the poem as you analyzed it. I, who have fortunately never been formally taught about the poem, was simply happy that he so quickly caught the meaning when given some insights into the English language that he hadn’t previously understood.”

The boy “raised his hand in class to tell his teacher what he thought of the poem’s theme and was ‘kindly’ told that it wasn’t about potential regrets or life’s unknowns or any of that — it was about bravely taking the ‘road less taken.’”

In Case #2, a young college woman in Nova Scotia saw the photography of William Mortensen in the premier issue of TheScreamOnline. It turned her life around. She had never seen anything like his work and she asked her photography instructor about him, but he had never heard of Mortensen. The girl decided that she wanted to do her final course paper on WM, which she did. She wrote to me for permission to use material from the magazine, which I gladly granted, and I supplied her with links to many other sources of information. I also put her in contact with Mortensen’s protégé, Robert Balcomb, whose work is also featured in the same issue (June 2001).

The instructor flunked her because her sources were not “real.” In fact, the eminent professor suggested that I had invented the man for the sake of the magazine!

William Mortensen was a contemporary of Ansel Adams, a founding member of the f-64 Group, which derived its name from the smallest shutter stop on the camera and which formulates their main ethic of obtaining maximum sharpness. They also believed in exposing for the shadows and developing for the highlights. Mortensen thought the opposite (exposing for the highlights, developing for the shadows). Adams was a purist. Mortensen manipulated the print. For those reasons, influencial photographers such as Adams and Beaumont Newhall made a concerted effort to discredit Mortensen and exclude his work from photography books and reference sources, and succeeded very well in doing so. Only in the last 20-or-so years has his work become very valuable and recognized for the fine art that it is. Even a cursory search on the Internet wields a cornucopia of material about the man. He wrote nine technique books and published two volumes of his work, all of which are highly collectable. How hard could it be for the girl’s instructor to bone-up on a modicum of knowledge about the man?

By parroting the party line, the instructor bought into the misguided and selfish intentions of the f-64 Group by perpetuating remnants of an outdated prevailing attitude. I never did hear if the girl rewrote her paper, but I did suggest that she go to the Dean of the college to complain about such narrow-minded teaching.

Robert Frost was once asked what a certain poem of his meant. He wisely said, “I don’t know.” Why forever close the door on individual interpretation by sealing the meaning in concrete? Every single person on the planet is entitled to his own opinion, as long as he reads the work with eyes wide open, fully taking in what the author has so carefully laid out. In the case of “The Road Not Taken,” all the clues are there. Frost has hidden nothing. Even making room for the prevailing translation, it should not be allowed to overtake all others by imposing itself as the final word.

I find it interesting that the Ukrainian student perceived the poem in the way that he did. Is it possible that his cultural upbringing and his understanding of the words as he read them allowed him that certain perception? Does the ever-so-proud, Manifest-Destiny American mindset automatically push us toward the “less taken” route whilst other cultures may provide the idea of that which is “not taken”?

Parroting the party line exists in many other areas, especially in Art. Students are told what is good Art and what is bad. Instructors licensed with a piece of paper in their hip pocket ordaining them to be Ministers of Pre-packaged Information daily dispense the Truth, and the usual casualties are creativity and individual thought. The real growth seems to come from those who either drop out and pursue their own muses or those who are flunked for their radical, innovative ideas. There seems to be no tolerance for subtle degrees between True or False answers or for variations on “coloring inside the lines.”

So, do we play by the rules, not make waves, and parrot what They want to hear in order to get the grade? If so, then I dearly hope that the tutor’s student will know what he is doing and why, and still retain his capacity for individual thought.

I heard a comedian once say, “What are the tyrants, despots, and dictators of this world really afraid of? Not WMDs or the might of our armies. They’re afraid of words! Ideas, slogans, books, poetry! Poetry?! When was the last time you were mugged by a poet?”

Funny, but true. One of the biggest threats to communist Russia was Radio Free Europe. The KGB did their best to scramble the broadcasts of free speech, the jazz programs of Willis Connover, and any other ideas that ran counter to their ethics. Printing presses and photocopy machines were fiercely guarded lest they be used to distribute ideas.

Whether they know it or not, our schools, by “kindly” telling our children that they are WRONG and issuing a failing grade, are simply preparing them for the real world, in which governments use character assassination, intimidation, and financial ruin on those whose ideas conflict with their own.

Reporter Bill Hangley recently told President Bush “I’m very disappointed in your work so far,” and received this most telling response: “Who cares what you think?” Is that to say that the reporter’s life is totally devoid of any worth? He has nothing to contribute to the world, and everything that comes out his mouth is completely dismissable? Is that the new motto of our school system — “Who cares what you think?” Are those students who veer from the norm, those voters who wish for a world not run by Big Brother (read “Corporations”) — are those elderly citizens who are unhappy with the rape of their health plans to be dismissed, swept under the rug, even locked up forever because “who cares what they think?” What happened to free thought, freedom of speech, opposing ideas? Why are those concepts now considered to be treason — and in the United States, unAmerican? Where did it all go so wrong?

Almost with each passing day we see our liberties erode away and tolerance for differences becomes almost non-existent. If we accept what we are told that black is white and different rules apply to those in charge, we do great disservice to those who died at Hiroshima, Antwerp, and Iwo Jima; to Béla and Anton; we undermine the efforts at Nuremberg; and we sabotage not only our own dreams for what we want to become, we destroy what future we wish for our children. If we bow our heads and parrot the company line, then some animals are indeed more equal than others, and we deserve eveything we get.

© 2004 Stuart Vail

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