Whitaker's Reviews > Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
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's review
Feb 13, 2014

it was ok
bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, 2010-read, fictitious-setting
Read from November 15 to 16, 2010

Original Review

Georges Perec wrote a novel without using the letter "e" even once. Dunn works a similar gimmick by writing this epistolary novel about an island that bans the use of certain letters as these drop off, one by one, from the statute of the creator of the phrase, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."

"Z" is the first to go, then "Q", then "J". Things get really difficult, however, when "D" falls off. Speech, indeed communication of any kind, gets increasingly difficult as the island's Council decrees that words that contain the offending letters must not, on pain of banishment or death, be written or even uttered. All the horrors of the police state are invoked as neighbours tell on neighbours, and a censor is appointed to read through all of the islanders' communication. Even religious fundamentalism gets a swipe since the Council treat Nollop, the phrase's creator, as--well--a Creator.

What a charming little fable about the importance of free speech. Charming, and ultimately, irrelevant.

This is not to say that I think that governments should be entitled to silence opponents by throwing them in jail or torturing them. But those are crude measures used nowadays only by political troglodytes. Welcome to the brave new world where opponents of free speech have learnt that the best way to undermine free speech is to render it worthless. When everything--including outright fabrication and lies--can be said, then nothing is said. Doublethink and duckspeak ain't nothing compared to that. In the name of the right to free speech, speech been rendered truly free, but only in the sense that it has no value anymore.

Step right up, folks! Get your free speech here! That's right, folks, we're giving it away!

Updates below sorted by date (newest first):

Update (14 February 2014)

Lest anyone think that I'm for censorship, here's an example of censorship I depore: The successful right-wing bullying by the conservative Hindu group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan, of Penguin India leading to it pulling and pulping a scholarly work, Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History .

Update (3 February 2014)

Oooh, lookie, free speech in France:
a recent obscene internet and text campaign ... persuaded hundreds of French parents that the government wanted primary school children to masturbate in class... many of yesterday’s marchers ... swallow wholesale the distortions pedalled by Mr Soral and by Catholic extremists in recent months on “la théorie du genre” – or gender theory. They demanded the withdrawal of a pilot programme in four areas of France which seeks to steer primary school boys and girls away from gender stereotypes. This apparently modest programme consists of trying to persuade girls that they can perfectly well drive tractors and boys that they can be ballet dancers if they want to. Harmless? Not as far as the marchers were concerned. It was this programme which was the subject of the obscene rumour spread by text and online a few days ago by Mr Soral’s lieutenant, Farida Belghoul. Texts, tweets and emails persuaded hundreds of mostly black and Muslim parents that there would be masturbation and cross-dressing in primary schools.
How long do you think these people who use free speech to incite hate and spread lies will allow speech to remain free if they win?

Update (20 Dec 2013)

Here's another random thought on unfettered free-speech. One foundational linch-pin in the pro-free speech platform is that truth will win out over lies. But, as with most ideas, this turns out to be more theory than fact. So, how does one deal with the fact that lies have a surprisingly tenacious ability to stay alive, especially in this age of the internet: "27 Percent of Surgeons Still Think Obamacare Has Death Panels".

Update (2 Oct 2013)

The US government shutdown today is being done in opposition to Obamacare. Given the idea that Obama care is "The Final Solution" (see the image below), it is not surprising that purist politicians have a "take no prisoners" attitude. After all, one cannot compromise with the Devil.

Proponents of free speech frequently ignore the impact of lies on passions and emotions, of the inability of people to process information rationally and logically. How many in the WEIRD countries are aware of the tragedy sweeping through Myanmar right now because radical Buddhists have been spreading lies about their fellow Muslims citizens? People are being killed and burnt alive because of these lies.

We celebrate the ability of the internet to topple Arab governments. Here's the flip side of that:
The most sinister change in the way war is perceived springs from what two years ago seemed to be a wholly positive development. Satellite television and the use of information supplied by YouTube, bloggers and social media were portrayed as liberating innovations. The monopoly on information imposed by police states from Syria to Egypt and Bahrain to Tunisia had been broken. But as the course of the uprising in Syria has shown, satellite television and the internet also spread propaganda and hate. Fraudulent atrocity stories have an effect on a war: a Libyan militiaman who believes that the government soldiers he is fighting are under orders to rape his wife and daughters isn’t going to take many prisoners.

The situation has grown worse since Libya. The ‘YouTube war’ showing atrocities on both sides has outpaced the actual war in Syria as an influence on both rebels and government supporters. Satellite channels such as al-Jazeera depend on these propaganda clips. Many of the atrocities are real. Rebels can see film of mass graves of people killed by poison gas or children writhing in pain from napalm burns. In government-held parts of Damascus people don’t go out much in the evening but sit at home watching footage of captured government soldiers being decapitated or Christian priests and Alawite soldiers having their throats cut. Much of this footage is real – but not all. A correspondent in south-east Turkey recently visited a Syrian refugee camp where he found ten-year-old children watching a YouTube clip of two men being executed with a chainsaw. The commentary claimed that the victims were Syrian Sunnis and the killers were Alawites: in fact the film was from Mexico and the murders had been carried out by a drug lord to intimidate his rivals.

The diet of snuff movies helps explain the ferocity of the conflict in Syria and the degree of hatred and terror on both sides. It also explains why the two sides find it so difficult to talk to each other. How would Union soldiers in the American Civil War have reacted if they had repeatedly watched film of a Confederate commander cutting open the body of a dead private in the Union army and eating his heart?
Too much of the debate about free speech is unnuanced and hysterical, with no considered discussion being given to its darker sides. The slippery slope argument is pulled out again and again in support of rampant, unfettered free speech. Supporters of unfettered free speech seem unwilling to grapple with or even admit its darker, less savoury consequences, seemingly preferring instead to pretend that these don't exist. The tragic consequences of a dictatorship which censures and censors have been well and fully ventilated. It might help to remember that as with all things in life, humans are more than capable of using ANY tool for both good AND ill.

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Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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message 1: by Scribble (last edited Nov 19, 2010 10:27PM) (new)

Scribble Orca Whitaker wrote: ""...When everything--including outright fabrication and lies--can be said, then nothing is said."

Brian wrote: "...where speech is free (it) is the responsibility to ferret out the truth for one's self.."

That is the pre-requisite for being capable of appreciating anarchy. Thank you, Brian.

Whitaker, wasn't there a discussion precisely about developing an understanding about the patterns of language to be used as a tool for separating manipulative lies from truth over in Trevor's review of a functional grammar book?

message 2: by Whitaker (last edited Nov 20, 2010 07:20AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Whitaker I should perhaps clarify that the sentence is not prescriptive for the purposes of policy making. At one level, it is merely meant to be descriptive. By way purely of illustration, imagine as a thought experiment a situation where everyone walks around lying all time. In such a situation, nothing that is said has any value.

The very highest I would even try to pitch a prescriptive proposition is to say that if a society is to value free speech, then there must a concommitent respect for checking and stating facts, and for valuing honest brokers and devaluing those who feel free to make up facts. Many people, I'm afraid, don't have those values. Many even prefer to hear comfortable lies from their leaders rather than uncomfortable truths. And it is admittedly difficult and painful for all of us to struggle with facts that contradict what we believe or cherish. Most of us would rather not.

But again, I don't need to state this at a level higher than to simply point out that often we are, in this day and age, unequipped to ascertain the truth for ourselves, in the sense that we can verify facts and conclusions with our own efforts. All we can do is rely on what people tell us. And in this respect, we all do so depending on irrational factors of faith and trust.

Here's an example. At one time, Muslim villagers in a certain African country (I can't remember which) were told that the polio vaccine for their kids was in fact, as a result of an evil US plot, nothing but plasma from pig's blood and hence a complete taboo for them to use. Many many children died as a result. These simple illiterate villagers were in no position to verify the truth for themselves.

Does this sound like something that would only happen in an African village and hence irrelevant to us first-world educated intelligent folks? An analogous episode in the US is the fear over the BCG vaccine causing autism. Parents have refused to vaccinate their kids because of this, and as a result, a few kids have died from wholly preventable diseases like measles. What would these parents need to do to ferret out the truth for themselves? Take a medical degree and conduct scientific tests? Go to google and read up, only to find 1,001 views all stating different things, some of which--the more scientific papers for example--they cannot fully digest, appreciate and understand unless they undertake a phd in medical science? Even worse if some of those scientific papers have been paid for by people trying to push a certain result out of ideology rather than respect for truth.

In this respect, there is a very very interesting article in the Atlantic (this month's I think) which discusses how certain medical studies continue to be relied upon by doctors even though they have been conclusively discredited because there is so much medical research literature out there being generated every single day that it is not humanly possible for any one to keep up even if all they did was read the literature 24/7. And if you depend on others to feed you the relevant information, which we all do, then there is much truth that simply passes us by.

Sure, to say that it is the responsibility to ferret out the truth for one's self is true. But that statement needs to be tempered by the acknowledgement that:
(a) not everyone has the intelligence and capacity to determine some truths for themselves (Does E really equal mc2? Darn if I know. I can only trust that what I'm told is correct.)
(b) not everyone has the time or money to engage in fact checking (If I'm told that Ireland's debt will exceed EUR60 billion, I pretty have to take it on faith that this is so since I am in no position to check the documentation or even test competing statements.)
(c) the amount of information out there is expotentially greater by a factor of several hundred times than was the case 100 years ago. (If 1,000 people say A (plus 999 variations), another 1,000 people say B (plus 999 variations), another 3,000 people say not A (plus 2,999 variations), another 5,000 people say not B (plus 4,999 variations), then how do you decide which of A, B, not A and not B (and their thousands of variations) is correct?)

In these instances, let's face it, all we are able to do is rely on sources we trust. And if those we trust feel free to lie...

message 3: by Scribble (last edited Nov 20, 2010 07:52AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Whitaker, I admire you. Even if I don't always agree with you. But in the long run, we are all dead.

Edit: why did you remove your line about in the long run we're all going to die so what we think of as truth won't matter anyway? That was a brilliant punch-line!

(And I'm sure Brian could have done something much more interesting with it!)

message 4: by Whitaker (last edited Nov 20, 2010 07:26AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Whitaker G N wrote: "Whitaker, I admire you. Even if I don't always agree with you. But in the long run, we are all dead."

Thank you, G N. I wish I could have your faith in people. I lost that a long time ago (I blame it on working in large corporate concerns). Consider this the disenchantment of a disappointed lover.

message 5: by Scribble (last edited Nov 20, 2010 07:29AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Let us drink together in disillusioned sorrow, old chap!

(But isn't the Singapore Government run like a large corporate concern?)

Whitaker G N wrote: "(But isn't the Singapore Government run like a large corporate concern?)"


message 7: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca You see, you're laughing again! With antidotes like that, who needs medicine?

Whitaker G N wrote: "Edit: why did you remove your line about in the long run we're all going to die so what we think of as truth won't matter anyway? That was a brilliant punch-line! (And I'm sure Brian could have done something much more interesting with it!) "

Thanks! I sort of felt that I was putting it too strongly. :-)

message 9: by Whitaker (last edited Nov 22, 2010 09:03PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Whitaker Brian, hey. Thanks for your comments, and that very interesting information on vaccines. We really don't seem to be all that far apart in our views. If anything, the difference sounds more like the difference between saying the glass is half full vs saying the glass is half empty.

I think we agree on the following three propositions:
1. That the ability to speak freely, especially to address concerns about society is important.
2. That people listening do have a personal responsibility to sort out fact from fiction, and opinion from fact.
3. That people speaking should not fabricate information or lie. I would even go so far as to say that we have a personal responsiblity to not speak recklessly and irresponsibly.

I think that public discourse tends to focus on (1), and that is my criticism of the view presented in this book. I think that for free speech to work, all three aspects need to be emphasised; like the legs of a stool, if only one or two of the three are present, you lose stability. I feel civil libertarians tend to focus on the dangers of authority abusing (3) but fail to point out the dangers of demagogues of all stripes abusing (1). Again, I emphasise that meaningful discussion on free speech needs to discuss all three limbs of this triptych, and not just one or two.

For clarity, I need to point out that I am not prescribing how these three limbs should be applied in specific circumstances in real life. I think each stable and peaceful society tends to arrive at a balance that works for it. The balance is drawn differently in different societies in different times. What works for one society may not work for another. I also think that how the balance is to be struck will vary in specific cases depending on the specific factual matrix. I think that that complexity needs to be acknowledged by us all.

PS: As a side comment, I think it's both sad and telling that Bush's venality about wiretapping was ignored, while Clinton's about his Lewinsky affair consumed America for two years.

message 10: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Hey youse guys - I am catching up on some old GR updates, hence a random weeks-late comment here. I think an interesting aspect of the vaccine/autism controversy is this. Here in the UK there was a doctor who published a 1998 paper in the Lancet linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Immediately thousands of parents reacted very strongly. Wiki says

"After the controversy began, the MMR vaccination compliance dropped sharply in the United Kingdom, from 92% in 1996 to 84% in 2002. In some parts of London, it was as low as 61% in 2003, far below the rate needed to avoid an epidemic of measles. By 2006 coverage for MMR in the UK at 24 months was 85%, lower than the about 94% coverage for other vaccines."

It seems as if many people in general - here, specifically parents - are instantly willing to disbelieve the authorities and believe the guy saying the autorities are wrong. It has taken twelve years for the official refutation of the MMR/autism link to become widely accepted but Wiki points out

"In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in the UK, meaning that the disease was sustained within the population; this was caused by the preceding decade's low MMR vaccination rates, which created a population of susceptible children who could spread the disease".

Therefore it does appear that the world is like the theatre audience absolutely agog for the cry of "fire" so that they may stampede. The willingness of many to believe that the authorities would perpetrate a con over them even when the subject is the health of the nation's children is, I suggest, quite interesting.

message 11: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant You and a whole lot of people. Not to mention the statement that Saddam had WMD. Our political leaders are not credible anymore. There was a time when we believed them. Imagine that! However, as you know, I resist the notion that that gives carte blanche to all the conspiracists out there. So for the ordinary schmuck in the middle of it all, it's a puzzle.

message 12: by Manny (new)

Manny I had not seen the poster before. The idea of presenting affordable health care for poor people as equivalent with the Nazi death camps is indeed ingenious. It's a pity that most Tea Party activists portray themselves as Christians for tactical reasons. Otherwise, I'd have rather liked to see their explanation of why the Sermon on the Mount is pretty much the same as Mein Kampf.

message 13: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W Paul wrote: "You and a whole lot of people. Not to mention the statement that Saddam had WMD. Our political leaders are not credible anymore. There was a time when we believed them. Imagine that! However, as yo..."

The debate (if one could call an alley fight a debate) has little to do with health care. It's purely an anti-Obama maneuver. Obamacare was based on Romneycare in Massachusetts which had been copied from the 1991 Heritage Foundation proposal (emphasizing the individual mandate - it was actually published in 1989)** which was proposed as an alternative to the Clinton health care proposals. If these folks were truly serious about being anti socialist they would dismantle the VA system and Medicare (quasi-socialist) but they love those.

This kind of stuff leads to cynicism on the part of the electorate (duh.) On the other hand it's been typical of American politics since 1789. Just look at the Jackson election or the fights in Congress before the Civil War. I'm guessing a parliamentary system would serve us better.

Ref: http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothe...


message 14: by Traveller (new)

Traveller I appreciate a lot of what you say, Whitaker, and I don't think the generally accepted definition of free speech should include the freedom to tell untruths ( whether for purposes of manipulation or whatever reason).

Perhaps, then, one should rather define that what it is that one supports, is the right to objective transparency.

The examples you use in the first part of the review here, seems to me to be propaganda, rather than objective, balanced reportage, and yes, I can see how that clashes with the traditional definition of "free speech". I do think that that may be part of what you are trying to point out here.

Maybe the definition of free speech should be tempered with responsibility in the same way that "freedom" is in the 'free' world, tempered with responsibility.

Everybody only has freedom within limits--there's no such thing as freedom as an absolute.

message 15: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Just waiting the shutdown IRL to be equated with the GR Tuts of Sir Vice IVL.

message 16: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Scribble wrote: "Just waiting the shutdown IRL to be equated with the GR Tuts of Sir Vice IVL."

Well, they all appear to be situated on the right-hand side of my horizon...

Whitaker Hi, all -- The comments are much appreciated although I've not really had time to respond.

@Manny: LOL!

@Eric: I agree that it's more an anti-Obama thing. Outside of the US, the impression is that these are Republicans catering to a particular faction among their voters, so I'm not sure why you appear to make the distinction between the congressmen and the electorate. In any event, it is certainly true that a Parliamentary system would minimise such deadlocks.

@Traveller: I agree with you. The hard work is determining where those limits are and how those limits should be policed, and what one means by "responsibility". The lines to be drawn are often very contentious, and I personally doubt that clear bright line rules can be drawn. The best we can make do with is fuzzy grey lines. Each society will have to come to its own conclusion--however that is arrived at--as to what works for it at the particular period of its social-cultural development.

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