Mill On Tolerance (Revisited)

I wrote this several years ago, but it seems timely and apt, especially as we are entering an election year and there is so much fodder out there that needs to be worked through to make an informed decision. The key point here is that we don’t know anything unless we try to know as much as possible about an issue looked at from two (or three) sides. How many of us do that today when dialogue seems to degenerate into a shouting match at the drop of a pin and folks seek to score points rather than listen and learn from one another?

Those who agree with me are the brightest people I know. Those who disagree with me are obviously stupid. Of course, I don’t really listen to the latter group, but I must be right. In a word, even though I would like to think I am a tolerant person I strongly suspect that I merely ignore opinions I do not tend to agree with and I suspect that is not what tolerance is all about. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that tolerance may simply be another form of indifference. He’s right, of course. In our culture today we all pride ourselves on tolerance but we may, indeed, simply be indifferent. There is much we don’t care about, and that includes someone else’s point of view. I know it’s true about me and I strongly suspect it is also true about others.

To be truly tolerant, it seems to me, one needs to listen closely to another point of view even knowing it to be totally opposed to our own before we decide whether to reject it or not. I recall the words of John Stuart Mill in his superb essay “On Liberty.” Mill said:

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.”

Let’s take a closer look at tolerance, taking our clue from Mill, even though he doesn’t use the word “tolerance” in the passage I quoted. Let’s say I’m listening to a political rant and after a few minutes I decide the guy is a wacko right-winger (or left-winger — they’re both wacko at the political extremes) and I stop listening to him. In a sense I am being tolerant. I haven’t bought a gun, followed the man into an alley, and shot him — as some in our society seem inclined to do. But I have certainly not been tolerant in the sense of the term Mill is speaking about. de Tocqueville is right, I am being indifferent: I don’t really care what the guy is saying.

Tolerance would require that I listen carefully and weigh what the man says — as Mill suggests. After that, I would then have to work through my own “take” on the issues being discussed and sort out those which seem to be the soundest in light of what I just heard. This might require changing my own beliefs, which is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, it is so difficult we don’t do it very often, if at all. That’s why we tend to dismiss those who disagree with us with a wave of the hand and, usually, a label of derision: he’s a “wacko,” or a “nut-case,” or whatever. Labeling the opposition is simpler than listening to him and taking what he says seriously. It makes things easier for us. So we embrace opinions that are most comfortable.

Tolerance is a very difficult virtue to practice, as Mill’s comment makes clear. We have come to the point in our society where we are bombarded by so much noise posing as personal opinions it is hard, if not impossible, to listen closely. So we don’t listen at all much of the time. We just filter it out. Or we half-listen and then dismiss, especially if we sense ahead of time that the person doesn’t agree with us.

And this is why we have become rather closed-minded and intolerant of others’ opinions. Not only don’t they fit in with the opinions we hold dearly and are reluctant to part with, there are simply too many of them out there and we need to protect ourselves from the bombardment. So we congregate with others of like opinions and watch and read those who agree with us, convinced that these are the bright ones — thereby firming up our own convictions. But, if Mill is right, and I think he is, we do this to our own detriment, because we lose out on the opportunity to learn something and have our minds grow and mature. I need to keep this in mind next time I dismiss the “wacko” on the TV trying to sell me the latest political panacea or farmland in the Everglades. Just because he’s wacko doesn’t mean he can’t be right.

Earning Respect

I didn’t watch this year’s ESPYs where a number of overpaid and self-involved athletes are placed in the spotlight to receive even more attention and applause. I did, however, get a glimpse at the highlights.  Some of the awards make sense and are well deserved, but in general it’s just one more chance for these athletes to be seen on television. One of the awards this year, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, went to Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlete who won a gold medal in 1976 and at the time was reputedly the greatest male athlete on the planet. He (She) has changed mightily. You wouldn’t recognize him (her). During her tearful speech, looking for all the world like something dragged backwards through a bush, she thanked her children for their support during her ordeal; she wanted our respect.

I have no problem whatever with Ms Jenner’s sex change. I applaud it. Perhaps it did show courage, though I would look for someone who fought off a seemingly fatal disease if I were making the choice, or perhaps Ray Rice’s wife. What Caitlyn did was something she says she simply “had to do.”  But the problem I really had was when she looked at the camera, mascara running down her face, and insisted that anyone who makes the choice she made should be shown “respect.” At that moment, the little devil on my left shoulder told me, she looked and sounded like someone who absolutely did NOT deserve respect. But that was him speaking, I won’t quarrel. Well, maybe a bit. I want to tighten up the word “respect.” I think she was using it rather loosely.

The word “respect” has reference to rights which have a colorful history. The Greeks never talked about rights, perhaps because they thought themselves superior to all other peoples on earth. Perhaps they were. But the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke of rights as “God-given” to all humans at conception. This, of course, is the root of the ongoing fight about abortion. But the notion was picked up in the age of Enlightenment by such thinkers as John Locke who dropped the theological overtones and referred to what he called “natural rights,” which were attributed to all persons at birth simply because they are human. Persons don’t earn them and, as Thomas Jefferson was to note, they are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. These rights must be respected by each of us or we have no grounds whatever for claiming rights for ourselves. And the notion that certain groups have rights that apparently do not pertain to others, such as women, blacks, or native Americans, is nonsensical on Locke’s view. All humans have rights simply by virtue of being human. Some thinkers have maintained that we could forfeit our natural rights through heinous crimes, such as murder, but in general they are “unalienable.”

But then there are also civil rights, which we have when we become citizens and which we can have taken away by the government, presumably in consequence of a criminal act whereby we are locked up and lose the right to vote or lose our driving license after repeated DUIs. During the years when hell was breaking loose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, no one had any rights, civil or natural — not even those in power. Anyone at any time could be sent to concentration camps where they were simply annihilated, erased from memory. Anyone who claimed to remember those who were sent away found themselves in the same boat. Welcome to totalitarianism in spades!

In the end, respect, which those with natural rights are deserving of, is a given. We must respect the natural rights of all persons: that’s a moral imperative, the cornerstone of Kant’s ethics. But there is also the respect we earn through our efforts and abilities and which can turn to contempt if we make little effort or squander those abilities and become somehow unworthy of respect. This sort of respect might be attributed to the teacher in the classroom because of her position, let us say. It can be turned to contempt when she shows herself ignorant of the subject or unable to communicate with her pupils. This is the respect we must earn. The question is does Caitlyn Jenner deserve this sort of respect?

The angel on my right shoulder says “yes,” because she had the nerve to go public and share with others her ordeal — and an ordeal it must have been from the look of her. The devil on my other shoulder (yes, he’s still there) tells me she doesn’t deserve our respect because she is making a fool of herself, and in drawing attention to herself — including, so I have read, wearing revealing apparel in public, apparently designed to show that, yes, she does have breasts  — she is simply on an ago trip.  Such people are not deserving of our respect because they have done nothing to earn it. I’m of two minds on this one, but I tend toward the devil’s view.

And as for receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for courage, that galls me a bit, because there was a man of true courage who did whatever he could to promote the rights of his people, who attacked apartheid in South Africa, who was an exemplary human being, and in the end fought with the aids that had been injected into his bloodstream by mistake with dignity and class. Now, there was real courage. Let’s not be taken in by the imitations.

Cheaters As Heroes

I have blogged before about America’s poor choices when it comes to picking people to call “heroic,” but the situation doesn’t seem to have changed. I would have thought my posts would have done the trick, but apparently not. So we will take another crack at it.

Our choices are especially odd when it comes to our sports heroes, and that’s where most of our heroes can be found — in sweaty locker rooms and beating up their wives. We also indiscriminately refer to every soldier who ever wore camouflage as a “hero,” whether they ever did anything but serve slop in the cafeteria at boot camp. Anyway, the recent case of Pete Rose is worth pondering as he was given a “prolonged” standing ovation in Cincinnati prior to this year’s All Star game.

Rose, of course, played for the Cincinnati Reds for years where he was known as “Charlie Hustle,” and he seemed to be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame until it was revealed that he had gambled on baseball games. He was banned from baseball and could no longer be considered a candidate for the Hall of Fame. He continued for years to insist that he had not gambled on the games in which he played and has appealed his situation in order to once again become eligible for the Hall. Then it was revealed on ESPN, complete with graphic evidence, that he had, indeed, gambled on the games he had played in and was therefore guilty of lying in addition to breaking the rules of the game he claimed to love — and assuredly played very well.

And yet, he was given a standing ovation by the thousands of fans who recently attended the Hall of Fame game in Cincinnati. Puzzling.

And then there’s the case of Tom Brady who allegedly lied about any involvement in the infamous (and seemingly trivial) “deflate gate.” Every professional quarterback interviewed after the scandal insisted that any quarterback would know instantly if the balls he was throwing were over or under-inflated. ESPN even had a retired quarterback throw three balls on camera, one under inflated, one over inflated, and the third properly inflated. He picked out each ball correctly after only one throw. The evidence is overwhelming that Tom Brady knew the balls he was playing with were not regulation. He may not have ordered them to be so, though that seems unlikely, but he insisted he knew nothing about the incident, which is highly improbable. In a process in which Brady refused to cooperate, the NFL ruled against him and suspended him for four games. He is appealing, as is the NFL Player’s Association, and the punishment may well be reduced, perhaps to a fine. But in the eyes of an adoring public he has always been innocent and remains the hero of many a young would-be football hero, even though he almost certainly lied. Puzzling.

And, of course, there is the case of Tiger Woods who is from all reports guilty of repeatedly cheating on this wife and, after an ugly divorce, underwent therapy to try to calm down his racing libido. Yet he remains ever-present on the television and his appearance at a golf tournament immediately increases revenue through attendance and television audiences — despite the fact that, truth be told, he is yesterday’s news. We try these folks in the court of public opinion and we often do not know all the facts. That’s certainly the case. But when the evidence is made public there is little room for doubt and only a strange form of denial can allow us to continue to regard these folks as exemplary, the kind of people we would like our kids to grow up to be. Puzzling.

And yet the court of public opinion can be nasty as well, and perfectly willing to find a man or woman guilty of heinous crimes without the benefit of due process — as in the case of Bill Cosby, who reportedly drugged women and then raped them. But then, Cosby wasn’t an athlete — at least not a professional athlete. And he is probably not even on the radar of the millennialists who weren’t born when he was one of the funniest men around, making millions of dollars on television.  Yet, again, he wasn’t an athlete; perhaps that’s the key. We want our heroes to be famous and rich athletes — even if they are known to be cheaters. Puzzling.

Donald Trumps?

On the surface, Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of these United States seems like a page from Monty Python. It’s a joke, right? Perhaps not. At present, he’s the leading candidate in a parade of clowns who desperately want the Republican nomination so they can beat out, presumably, the dreaded Hillary Clinton. And it does seem like a parade of clowns, to be sure. But the biggest clown of all leads the parade and it raises the question: how is this possible?

In addition to the usual Republican objectives — elimination of needless government agencies like the E.P.A., promoting the military, reducing taxes, protecting the citizen’s constitutional right to carry concealed automatic weapons, opposing abortion and gay marriage, supporting major corporations, and the like  — there are a number of reasons why this man with the strange hair and arrogant air is popular with the electorate. To begin with, he has name-recognition, which all of the other candidates — perhaps excepting Jeb Bush — lack. He’s a TV personality and people know who he is, whether they like him, or not. “You’re fired!!”

Secondly, he is a successful business man. And this counts twice: (1) he’s a businessman and that rings true with a great many Americans, especially those who lean to the right, because so many think that the business way is the only way. But, also (2) he is successful in the only way Americans generally know how to measure success: he’s filthy rich. He’s not one of us, but he’s what so many of us aspire to. Like so many filthy rich people, he likes to tell us how he made it on his own and he holds the poor in great disdain for being lazy and unmotivated; and while this is off-putting for some, it is not for many of  those who lean to the political right and wish they had the Donald’s helicopter.

Third, he’s decisive and Americans like their leaders to be decisive, even if the decisions they make, and refuse to alter, are wrong-headed (like the war in Iraq, for example). They are not wishy-washy. Effeminate. They are not smarter than us; we can identify with them. We do not like those who change their minds should the evidence show that the decision they made yesterday is totally wrong today. Just think of George McGovern’s decision to drop Thomas Eagleton in mid-campaign and pick a new running-mate not so many years ago. We do not like indecisive people and admire those who stick by their guns, right or wrong.  [One wonders if this is a consequence of the fact that in a democracy, by design, decisions come slowly — sometimes not at all — and a great many people don’t understand this and want men of action (like Ollie North) even if those actions are terribly wrong. Is it possible that these people would be happier in a monarchy? Well, not to worry, we now have an oligarchy; monarchy may yet be in the cards — or at least a despotism.]

Fourth, Donald is a bigot and this appeals to a great many Americans who lean the same way — not only with respect to Mexicans, but anyone who seems the least bit foreign. After all, this is America and we have enough immigrants running around; it’s time to keep them out. Yeah, let’s finish Bush’s wall and keep the Mexicans out, at the very least. This may make some of Trump’s employees at his many golf courses fearful and nervous, but it warms the hearts of a great many of those who wield votes. After all, those immigrants take our jobs and we need to keep America for Americans. (Let’s ignore the fact that the real Americans were the indigenous people and they were killed off, pretty much, so we could pave over their land and build Disney Worlds.)

Finally, Trump is smooth and gives every appearance of knowing what he is talking about — even if he talks out of both sides of his mouth. He’s a true demagogue, and we seem drawn to the type. Since most people don’t listen anyway, they think they heard what they wanted to hear and that’s enough for them. In a word, this man is a clown, but he is leading the clown parade at the moment and he must be taken seriously, difficult though that might be for most of us.

Thinking Short-Term

I thought I would turn my attention from my recurring concern over the death of Western civilization and the birth of a new barbarism for a moment and deal with something much more important to Americans, namely, baseball. Specifically, I want to consider the recent vote to determine this year’s All-Star teams that will play next week in Cincinnati. Surprisingly, the votes reflect a fact that adds evidence to my thesis that our civilization is weakening at the foundation, namely, one more example of short-term self-interest that seems to pervade this country. Let me explain.

The Kansas City Royals surprised everyone last year by making it to the World Series where they lost to the San Fransisco Giants. Apparently, this year they want to win it all so there was a massive PR campaign in Kansas City during recent weeks to vote as many players from that team on the All-Star team as possible. We will ignore the fact that having the fans vote to determine who the best players are is in itself a hair-brained idea to simply note that the campaign in KC worked. The team just added its fifth player to the All-Star team. Let’s think about this for a moment.

The winning team in the All-Star game can claim home-field advantage in the World Series. This is important because the American League uses designated hitters whereas the National League does not. The strategy differs and it would be to the American League team’s advantage to play at home. But if Kansas City, an American League team, has lowered the probabilities that the American League team will win the All-Star game by failing to vote for the best players, they may have just cut off their nose to spite their face, as it were. If they wanted to give their team the best chance to win that game, they should have voted for the best players in the league and not simply tried to pack the All-Star team with their own players. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

As I say, as problems go this one is tiny. But, as I also say, it provides us with yet another example of short-term thinking which has become chronic in this country and which has major repercussions (think: global warming). My own thesis is that this type of thinking — if it can be called that — stems from the tendency we increasingly show in this country to quantify all issues and then weigh costs against benefits. In a word, we have adopted the business model in all other lines of endeavor, even where they clearly do not apply, such as education and health. We seem to be incapable of anticipating consequences and thinking long-term.

As far as this particular example goes, I admit my bias. I am a fair-weather Twins fan and I was disappointed to see Brian Dozier, who is having a banner year by any standards, lose out to yet another Kansas City player in the recent fan run-off to determine the last player to be selected by the two leagues. I dare say Dozier is disappointed, because he has been having an All-Star caliber year. Mike Moustakas, the Kansas City third baseman, took his (!) place. And if I turn my thoughts to the way he might be thinking about the way he was selected to the All-Star team I recall Sandra Day O’Connor’s comment after she was elected to the Supreme Court. Asked if she would have been disappointed to discover that she was selected on the grounds that she is a woman, she replied “not nearly as disappointed as I would have been if I hadn’t been selected.” So it goes. It’s all about winning. Or is it?

Ladies and Gentlemen

Tennis has always been a large part of my life and while I cannot play any more I watch as much as I can on the television and especially look forward to Wimbledon (“The Championships”) every year at this time. Having played on grass only once in my life and thinking at the time I had died and gone to Heaven,  I watch with dismay as the back-court area turns to dirt and the beautiful grass gradually disappears; I recall another era when the path between the baseline and the service line became worn down with players serving and volleying, chasing every serve quickly to the next. But no more. With the new equipment, it has become fairly easy to pass someone going to the net, so the vast majority of players stay on the baseline and hit the ball as hard as they can — often with good effect — and make the grass disappear.

I also watch with dismay players such as the young Australian I watched recently (who will not be named) with pierced ears and artfully shaven head who prowled the court with a permanent scowl — while he wasn’t “tanking” the entire third set — and was cheered on by his entourage (I suppose) all dressed in yellow shirts with “AUS” printed on them. They, too, looked like something the cat dragged out from under the sofa. The players all wear white, as required, but that’s the only remnant of the “old days” when ladies and gentlemen seldom, if ever, resorted to histrionics and who played the game for a trophy and not for millions of dollars. (Uh oh, I hear some say. Here he goes again. And yes, here I go again.)

I have blogged about the demise of manners before and I will not go back there except to expand on something I wrote a couple of years ago about this sad phenomenon — sad because manners are all about being mindful of the other, and it has become abundantly clear that the other has dropped off the radar of increasing numbers of folks in the Western world — perhaps because there are so damn many of us. Anyway, here’s the clip (with additions):

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It began with courtly behavior and the recognition of our “betters.” But it expanded in important ways as we learned to control our emotions. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorites was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.” These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics who have not been to court or lived among refined and honorable people, [and who] relieve themselves without shame or reserve in front of ladies….”

These quaint recommendations strike us as funny, but, again, they are directed toward the goal of “civilizing” human beings, making them suitable for a life among others. As Elias would have it, manners were born as humans living together became increasingly aware that their own behavior must take into account the feelings of others,  restraining oneself “out of consideration for the embarrassment of others.” Ortega y Gasset once said “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” which captures the same thought.

In and of themselves a lack of courtesy and poor manners are trifles. But as signs of something deeper they must give us pause. I simply point out that when I speak about “manners” and “courtesy” as signs of a civilized person, I do not refer to the superficial behavior, the pretense, the bowing and scraping, the obsequiousness that hides a rotting soul. These are mere formalities and they do not necessarily imply the recognition of one person by another. Rather, I speak about a deeper sense on the part of each person that others matter, a sense of the other that leads readily to true virtue, to the practice of what has been called “the Golden rule.” Being polite is just the beginning of doing the right thing by another who deserves respect and at times sympathy.

The fact that we are becoming increasingly uncivilized, that we care less about others or about living with others — except, perhaps, for those few who are in our narrow field of vision — is a sign of what I have called “inverted consciousness.” Let me explain. Consciousness, as Edmund Husserl reminds us, is always intentional — it has an object; gradually over the years our consciousness has turned upon itself and the subject itself has become the object. In plain words, “it’s now all about me.” The other has disappeared, for all practical purposes, and so one can behave boorishly on a tennis court, chant and cheer loudly when the opponent commits an error, and forget all about court etiquette, or, indeed, etiquette of any sort. This, of course, is a reaction to past behaviors which a Victorian age, wrapped in mere formalities, stressed to absurd lengths and which we have tossed on the rubbish heap along with the all-important sense of the other as worthy of respect. This in the name of “letting it all hang out.”  Next I suppose we can expect to see our neighbor urinating on the road or in his front yard. No, wait: I have already seen that! But I didn’t greet him while he was in the act. As Erasmus reminds us, it would have been impolite.

Are We There Yet?

As Hannah Arendt uses the term, “totalitarianism” is any form of government in which those in power seek to gain “total domination” of the minds and actions of the citizens by any means — violent or otherwise.  In this sense, Huxley’s Brave New World is a totalitarian state in which a benign dictator, convinced that he is doing the right thing, makes sure his people think they are free while all the time he guarantees their continued mental captivity in a world of pleasure and endless diversions. If this sounds a bit familiar, it may well be, though in these United States it is not clear whether there is a single person or a group that is in complete control. But it is certainly the case that we are provided with endless diversions and a mind-boggling array of entertainment to keep us convinced we are free while all the time we are buying what the media are selling, electing officials who are cleverly marketed like toothpaste, and embracing the platitudes we hear repeatedly. Seriously, how many people in this “free” nation really use their minds?

In any event, I came across a passage or two in Arendt’s remarkable book about totalitarianism — which I have alluded to previously — that strike a responsive chord in this reader. Bear in mind that she was writing in 1948 and was primarily interested in Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler and their totalitarian governments. She was convinced that this period in history is when the “mob mentality” that later theorists latched upon came into the historical picture and “mass man” was born. This was before political correctness, of course, when “man” meant everyone. The “elite” of whom she is speaking is the educated and cultured individuals in those countries who should have known better — but who did not. There are subtle differences in the mentality of the two groups, but Arendt was convinced that they were both easily led astray.

“This difference between the elite and the mob notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the elite was pleased whenever the underworld  frightened respectable society into accepting it on an equal footing. The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which the totalitarian regimes are guilty and which announce themselves clearly enough in totalitarian propaganda. They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case, since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and the insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last would be the first had disappeared. Injustices in the past as well as the present became intolerable when there was no longer any hope that the scales of justice eventually would be set right. Marx’s great attempt to rewrite world history in terms of class struggles fascinated even those who did not believe in the correctness of his thesis, because of his original intention to find a device by which to force the destinies of those excluded from official history into the memory of posterity.”

And again,

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

Those who might question the notion of a historical parallel here might do well to reflect on the fact that postmodernism has literally “taken over” our college campuses. The basic tenet of deconstructionism, which lies at the heart of postmodern thought, is that truth is a fiction — or as the American philosopher Richard Rorty has said truth is nothing more than “North Atlantic bourgeois liberalism.” His famous predecessor Jacques Derrida said, unblushingly, that truth is simply a “plurality of readings” of various “texts.” A great many of these intellectuals are convinced that history is a fiction and are determined to right this wrong by rewriting the history books to stress the role of those who have been excluded by a white, male hegemony. And while the motive may be admirable, one must question the premise on which these folks operate, since this is coming from those whose job, traditionally, has been that of protectors and transmitters of civilized thought. Popular culture has simply latched on to the droppings of these intellectuals and reduced truth to subjectivity: truth is what you want to be the case: we do not discover it, we manufacture it. Say something often enough and loudly enough and it becomes true.

In the event that anyone should suggest that the rejection of objective truth is trivial, I present the following observation by Ms Arendt:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”

Bearing in mind that totalitarianism need not be violent, this appears to be the direction we are headed. Or am I wrong in thinking that the signs of totalitarianism are increasingly clear and it appears that a small group of wealthy and powerful men — supported in their ivory towers by “elite” intellectuals who would never admit their allegiance to this group while they deny objective truth and busily rewrite history — are slowly but surely gaining control of the media and by attacking the public school system, ignoring such things as global warming, approving numerous invasions of personal privacy, and picking and choosing stupid and malleable people to run for public office are increasingly able to make us think we are free when, in fact, we are simply doing their bidding? I wonder.

Demagoguery

With the vast improvement in the transmission of pictures and words quickly to more and more people, the always present threat of demagoguery increases. We have seen a number of such (whose names will not be mentioned), but all learned their  techniques, directly or indirectly, from Adolph Hitler. And in order to understand the man’s success no one has studied Hitler more closely than Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was forced to leave Germany in her childhood and later became a teacher and writer of international fame. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a large book that established her reputation firmly as one who had a penetrating insight into some of the most important events of the past which she was convinced should enable us to better understand the present and anticipate probable future events. In a lengthy footnote in that book she reflects on the success of the depressingly ordinary Adolph Hitler “who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune.” Indeed, anyone who has seen films of Hitler before a crowd, even if he is not fluent in German, finds himself swept up in the emotional theater and inclined to agree with whatever the little man is saying. What is it that makes this possible? As Arendt notes:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, the tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and the ‘conviction . . .that everything is balderdash’ could best be avoided by adhering to one of many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency.’ The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates.”

There are a number of features of this comment that invite our attention. Clearly, Arendt has studied her subject closely and asked key questions about how it is that such a person as Adolph Hitler could hold vast numbers of people spellbound and convince them that black is white. To begin with, as she says, he grabs one of the many opinions floating out there and presents it with absolute conviction as the only possible truth, bringing order out of chaos. Repetition, conviction, and consistency, with the assurance that people will believe what you say if they hear it said often and without doubt or hesitation. This is key. Please note that it doesn’t matter in the least whether the opinion is true or false. What matters his whether or not the speaker says it with conviction. Hitler never doubted himself; he never second-guessed. He simply asserted what he wanted people to believe, knowing they would believe what he said if he said it often enough and without any hint of uncertainty.

But as Arendt points out, it matters also that this opinion must be asserted in a group where there is confusion about what matters and what is true. They seek release from the bewildering array of opinions on every side: they want something firm to grab onto in a world filled with conflicting opinions. In Hitler’s day when the mass media were just aborning, the situation was less chaotic than it is in our day when we are overwhelmed with numberless opinions on every subject. We are bombarded on every side by claims and those who presume to be experts about things we may know little about. We all have opinions, but we also are easily persuaded by one who seems to be certain of the truth, even if that truth runs counter to what we ourselves believe. And even if it is blatantly false. The appeal is always emotional, not intellectual., This is not philosophy; it is rhetoric. The demagogue knows how to “work on” the emotions of his or her listener. And as Arendt points out, when the audience evidences ” a characteristic lack of discerning judgment,” as it does in our day especially, the job is made so much easier.

So we should not be amazed that folks like Rush Limbaugh and, in his day, Paul Harvey are immensely popular: they make complex issues simple by  stating “with unbending consistency” and without wavering an opinion (any opinion) that floats in the air and assert it with smug confidence. Their listeners seem to be sitting at the feet of wisdom itself. How could we not have seen that before? It seems so clear now. The demagogue doesn’t know any more than we do. He simply appears to do so and he does so with swagger and with firmness that seem to make disagreement impossible. So we buy what he is selling, whatever that might happen to be. And we feel a sense of relief in doing so, because by agreeing with the demagogue we are ourselves now also wise. Where we had doubts before, we now have certainty — even if we are “demonstrably wrong.”

The Eye Of The Beholder

After forty-one years of trying to open the minds of college undergraduates to the possibilities of fine art, several things finally dawned on me. To begin with, in the end it is a matter of taste. The fine arts, including painting, poetry, sculpture, literature, and dance, are immensely complex and there is no argument (that I have come across) that will make a person appreciate what they find dull and uninteresting. That’s the first thing, though things are not this simple as I shall try to explain below. The second thing I have learned is that the sensibilities of the spectator, whoever it may be, vary immensely and since no two people are alike, reactions to the same object will vary proportionately.

There are three things to consider when talking about the fine arts. There is the object itself, say, the painting in the gallery. Next, there is the spectator who is gazing at the painting with varying degrees of attention. And finally there is the interaction between the two — which some insist is the actual “work of art.” But we will ignore this third thing entirely (which gets us into metaphysics) to focus attention on the first two. Let’s talk about the object itself, the painting on the wall. There are objective factors that all can see — the canvas, the paint, the arrangement of the figures in the scene, for example — and there is also what some would insist is the tendency to evoke a certain response, say, fear, delight, rage, or perhaps calm. These things can be pointed out and an “expert” is the one to do this because she has had the training and is probably a painter herself.

But when it comes to the spectator things get very complicated indeed. The supposed “tendency to evoke a particular response” may fall on deaf ears (as it were). The spectator may be color-blind, inattentive, or bored. He or she may never have looked at a painting before and doesn’t know how — which may sound strange, but it takes sensitivity,  attention, and concentration to appreciate the many complex factors that go into a single painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Not everyone has these abilities. Indeed, in our age it becomes increasingly difficult to get young people, in particular, to stand and look at a painting that is simply hanging there and not moving and/or making noise. It takes work, in a word, and a great many people simply don’t want to make the effort or have diminished attention spans.

The last thing I have learned is that the quick response to fine art, that it is (just) a matter of taste, is a sign of intellectual laziness, the same sort of laziness that makes it difficult, or impossible, for a person to stand before a painting and open himself or herself to the many qualities that are there for all to see and appreciate. It is easier to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “who’s to say?” This translates into: “don’t bug me. There’s a party Thursday night and I have to get the keg. I have more important things to think about than this damn painting (class,problem, issue, etc. etc.)

Thus, while art IS a matter of taste in the end, there is much that can be said before we reach that point. And taste can be affected by having features of the work pointed out and increasing one’s experience and sensitivity to the things that “go on” in the painting. It can be “improved” as we say — which doesn’t mean “more like mine,” but more aware of what is going on in the work itself. Think, for example, how much more complex is a Beethoven sonata than, say, the latest hit on the top 40. There’s more there for the mind to get ahold of, and it takes an effort and willingness to be open to the new and different. The same complexity is present in all works of fine art and it takes an effort to appreciate this complexity. The unwillingness or inability to open oneself to these complexities results in a flattened world that is devoid of the many features that surround us and can make our world a richer and more exciting place to live. Not only in the fine arts, but also in the world the artist is revealing to us.

More Huxley Snippits

I mentioned in a previous post in which I quoted at length from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, that he was very concerned about the loss of human freedom in a world increasingly crowded and tending toward what he calls “dictatorship.” I want to continue to quote from his book because what he has to say is so relevant today and has the ring of truth. Speaking of truth, he thinks the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false are essential elements in a good education. Imagine!

“An education for freedom (and for the love and intelligence which are at once the conditions and the results of freedom) must be among other things an education in the proper use of language.. . . .Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper use of language — education on every level from kindergarten to graduate school — are now available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. Indeed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders even in the democratic countries do not want them to be given this sort of education.”

Indeed, their parents want them to learn a trade, to be able to earn money right after graduation — which is important, to be sure, but not of first importance. Given that the distinguishing mark of the human species is the use of symbols, it is of first importance, as Huxley suggests, that our children learn to use their minds, to learn how language functions and to see how easily facts can be manipulated in order to persuade the unwary. Huxley, as I have mentioned before, understood the nature of freedom and the ease with which it can be taken away from us — without our knowing it has been lost. As he says in this regard:

“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not to be free — to be under no physical restraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel, and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel, and act. There will never be such a thing as a writ of habeas mentum; for no sheriff or jailer can bring an illegally imprisoned mind into court, and no person whose mind has been made captive by the methods outlined above [in his discussion of propaganda] would be in a position to complain of his captivity. The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible and he believes himself to be free.” [Italics added]

The result, of course, is a society like that in Huxley’s novel, a society of captives who think they are free: denizens of an ant hill, as Dostoevsky put it.  When I asked my classes to read Huxley’s novels most had no idea what he was talking about: his world was so unlike theirs. Or so they thought.

“That so many of the well-fed television watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing but not surprising. ‘Free as a bird,’ we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unfettered movement in all three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone. ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘make us your slaves, but feed us.'”

One wonders if the plethora of entertainment that surrounds us and diverts our attention from important matters could possibly be part of an attempt to dull our minds, weaken our critical faculties. Is that far-fetched? In any event, apropos of Huxley’s last comment, the interesting, albeit disturbing, question is what will happen to these Dodos when there isn’t enough bread? They will then be forced to think in order to survive, but almost certainly, as things now stand, they will be unable to do so.