Memory Holes, Self-Pitying Professors, and Stoic Chinese

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(See correcting UPDATE at the end.) Last week I mentioned a post that was then in the process of becoming infamous, by a University of Chicago law professor lamenting how hard it was to make ends meet while being well into the top 1% of the U.S. economic pyramid.

Soon afterwards he deleted the post and associated comments. He explained the decision here, in another post that I hope some novelist somewhere has copied down for story inspiration.  ("I stand by the posts, the facts in them, and the points they were making. The reason I took the very unusual step of deleting them is because my wife, who did not approve of my original post and disagrees vehemently with my opinion, did not consent to the publication of personal details about our family. In retrospect, it was a highly effective but incredibly stupid thing to do.") This being the era when nothing ever goes away permanently, the whole original shebang -- initial post, farrago of comments -- is web-cached here.

As a side note, it turns out that George Orwell's warnings about the "memory hole" were too optimistic. We have the bad side of the memory hole -- basic facts being purged, forgotten, or deleted. Eg, "Don't let the government get its hands on my Medicare." [For another instance, see below.*] But we also have exactly the opposite problem: the un-deletability on into eternity of information that has ever made its way onto the web. People can't remember anything about politics, history, or public life, but they can retrieve everything about someone's personal history.

Back to the topic: two useful replies to the original "woe is me" post. One, by Brett Arends of the WSJ, is a list of actually-practical steps that the "wealthy poor" could take to avoid the constraints the professor complained about. Congrats to Arends for not just attitudinizing but taking the predicament seriously and looking for alternatives. And after the jump, one explanation for the typically low level of self-pity one encounters in modern China, where objectively there is a lot to complain about.

A reader with experience in China says that if most people there don't seem to feel sorry for themselves,

>>>it's probably because nearly everyone you meet there has had it hard (or still have it hard). The old landlord/business-owning families were "douzheng"ed ("reeducated", though the connotation is more akin to "tortured" in my mind; not surprisingly, since a bunch of folks were tortured to death or driven to suicide). The peasants always had it hard. Nobody had anything except the top cadres, and even life for them was uncertain (one day, the head of the family is a top Communist official, the next, Mao feels threatened, so he's left to die starving to death in his own excrement in a cell while the rest of the family is sent to do hard labor in the countryside).

In such an environment, you need to keep on your toes and strive to survive, so you really don't have time for self-pity/thoughts of entitlement (plus you're well aware of how much worse and capricious life could be; there are folks in China today who witnessed people starving to death and engaged in cannibalism due to Mao's disastrous policies during the Great Leap Forward). I imagine most of the "Greatest Generation" in the US was about the same way, if to a lesser extent.<<<

___

*Now, about that "memory hole." I can't be entirely sure whether George Orwell was the first writer ever to use the term memory hole, as he did in 1984, first published in 1949. But I know for absolute certain that his book brought the term into general circulation. Eg here, courtesy of Google Book Search, is the way it looked on page 52 of an early edition, in a description of Winston Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth:
MemoryHole.png
But such is the effect of unintentional memory holes that, if you prowl around the recesses of internet, you will see it assumed and asserted that "memory hole" was patterned on the astronomical term "black hole." Eg even the mighty Wikipedia nods. (And I supposed I had better point out why I say "nod.") What's wrong with this? As best I've ever heard, the very term "black hole" was not introduced until the late 1960s, a couple of decades after 1984 was published. So if Orwell was modeling "memory hole" on it, he was not only a gifted polemicist but also a psychic. Oh, the boiled frogs!

UPDATE: Reader SK writes in to chide me, not that gently but I have to say deservedly, for a memory-hole lapse of my own. The 1984 memory hole was actually more like the internet than I'm suggesting, he says: things that are politically inconvenient do disappear, but things that are personally compromising are in fact kept on file. As he points out:

You understand that what you're describing _is_ Orwell's memory hole, right? All the larger facts of history or politics are plastic but every personal detail is kept and scrutinized at the other end of the memory hole -- every piece of paper Winston ever peered at is recorded, his personal history is on tap.

I mean, it's different in that it's now on tap not just for some evil central government, but to schmoes like you and me (unlike my credit card purchases and library books and supermarket discount records and so on which only go to the government and the evil hordes of marketers.) But your example is wacked....

[In theory the memory-hole data all went into the furnaces. But:] Of course it didn't go straight to incinerators; Winston just thought it did but in fact it was pored over and archived (as with Professor Henderson's beliefs about deleting material). You know that because Winston remembers tossing a photograph with evidence that he's been lied to into the memory hole for incineration. Then when he's being interrogated, O'Brien pulls out the exact clipping. It's a stunning moment. That's the evil genius of the whole thing and oddly reminiscent of young folk purging their Facebook pages -- you think you're consigning a thing to the flames but in fact you're just putting it where only the watchers know you had it.

Uncle! Thanks for the corrective.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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