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.”
“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.
Hugh, I was reading this in the context of the young defector from North Korea, who was on the news earlier this week. She is helping her former country people from her position in South Korea. She said they were taught in school that their leader was God- like. She said it was not until the mid 1990s, when 1 million people starved to death due to famine, for her to see this was not true. You were not allowed to help a starving person in the street as that would admit there was a problem. She later arranged an escape for herself and then went back and retrieved others. It takes a concerted effort of totalitarianism to convince others that folks are not starving in your country. And, we need to do our best here, to shine spotlights on the real truths that we do have real problems that need to be solved, as we have PR people who try to focus the lens where their bosses want. Good post. BTG
There have always been a few who braved the powers that craved total domination., Frequently they were simply dispensed with. But a few have spoken out over the years and you are right, we must continue to “shine spotlights on the real truth” and continue to insist that something is not necessarily true simply because it was said with conviction.
Hugh, terrific post. To an extent, perhaps you may overstate the grip of the rich and powerful on America, although without a doubt it is a necessity that we constantly be wary of them. The major media is, yes, being more and more consolidated into a few hands. But there is a huge wave of new media — such as blogs, Youtube, Wikileaks — that gives voice to many people and brings to light a number of otherwise ignored facts and truths. There is courage behind some of them, such as the Wikileaks release of Iraq/Afghan war documents and the journalists who helped Edward Snowden break the NSA secrets. The tricky part is finding the credible ones, of course! Wading through all the slop that is also widespread online. I also do think that most Americans take global warming seriously, and, yet — and this is perhaps where the money and influence of huge special interests like Big Oil comes into play — America continues to drag its feet on making any significant changes. We have to translate the genuine concern into genuine action.
Hannah Arendt’s wise comments on totalitarianism make me think of Kafka, who was an intellectual, but most certainly was not one of the “elites.” Rather he was an obscure member of the masses. Yet in his writing, he made the point Arendt makes about the ideal subject of totalitarian rule being the one who can’t separate fact from fiction, true and false. We have to do what we can to let those kinds of minds shine while they are alive, and be read and re-read (as with Huxley) for years and years after they are gone. Like your blogs, Kafka’s fiction gives us warnings we must continually heed.
Thanks, Dana. No doubt, there are those, like Kafka, who continue to shine in the midst of the rubble. But the rubble just seems to get higher and denser. No?
Yes, it certainly seems to!
Hugh, I am reading this while on a bus; a middle-aged woman with four children, two of them crying/screaming, is in the seat ahead of me. The oldest sibling is tending one younger one and resents her duty. My thinking is not the clearest, thanks to the chaos.
But I wonder, and have wondered, my wise friend, what would you do if you were given the job/task of reforming our educational system? How does one begin to reverse these accepted changes? And why can’t our country find someone to restore what we’ve lost in teaching morals and values? We can’t give up… I nominate you to take the reins and instill a higher-level and a renaissance in our schools and universities.
Only if you will head up the art department and BTG will be at my side!! Many thanks. But I do think the horse has left the barn.
it would be a lot of fun as well as a challenge, and there’s no telling what those students would tell their parents at the end of each school day.. it would be good if they looked forward to going to school!