Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

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Still Wondering

I posted this (slightly modified) piece two years ago — before the Age of The Trumpet and Alternative Facts — but it still seems pertinent. Perhaps more so! So I decided to repost it in the hope that its might be of interest to some of my readers who missed it the first time around.

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 inept 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 are well worth pondering. Bear in mind that she was writing in 1948 and was primarily interested in Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler and their totalitarian governments. Donald Trump was not a name on everyone’s lips. 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: Eric Hoffer’s “true Believer.” This was before political correctness, of course, when “man” was generic. 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.”

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. And “New History” is all the rage.  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 that has for too long ignored the disenfranchised and are determined to right this wrong by rewriting the history books to stress the role of those who have been excluded by an elite 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 [and politicians have] 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, eliminating regulating agencies, 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.

Will To Power

It is possible to see Donald Trump’s craving for attention as simply one feature or aspect of what Nietzsche called the “Will to Power.” Nietzsche was convinced that life itself is nothing but a will to power, over oneself and over others as well. As he said toward the end of his troubled life:

“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on. . . “

Whether or not what Nietzsche said is true, it helps us make sense of the actions of certain people — for instance the very wealthy who never seem to have enough wealth, given that in our culture wealth is indeed power. There are, of course, other forms of power. For example, in ancient cultures the priests held the power by way of their superior control of language, They were the ones who could read and write while their minions were ignorant and held the priests to be gods. Their priestly power over language translated quickly into power over others.

As our country becomes increasingly run by the wealthy and powerful it seems prudent to attempt to understand the nature of power. Lord Acton told us that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That seems right as we look at such people as Donald Trump who has made the move easily from a reality show where he fired people with a smirk to center stage in a political battle where he can dismiss all who disagree with him with a wave of his hand and another insult. This means that he is the one in control: he has the power, which is much like an intoxicant: it causes the possessed to become blinded by its presence and in search for more. There is never enough. And those around the powerful are easily taken in by the presumption that the powerful are somehow “in the know,” and will soon bring them into his inner circle.  The powerful seem sure of themselves and they hold sway over others by virtue of their power and their position — not unlike the priests in the ancient world.

Except that Trump, and those like him, are not priests even though they preach the doctrine of self-importance and are able to convince the ignorant they have the answers to all the complex problems that have troubled the world since history began. Power is not only intoxicating to those who wield it, but also to those who are around it and want to be near it. By identifying with those in power, those who lack it entirely can transcend their pathetic lives and become a part of another world, a world in which they, too, are powerful.

How else can we explain how an entire country became transfixed by the power that was wielded by Adolph Hitler, a  power that began, interestingly enough, with his consummate skill with words. Germany after all was a country that was the source of some of the most extraordinary philosophy, art, and literature that humankind has ever created? The Nazi movement was successful because it promised those who followed the powerful that they themselves would also become powerful. Their nation would not only regain what they had lost in the First World War, it would expand its territory and the citizens would regain their lost pride and their nation would once again be great.

Trump’s followers live shallow, vapid lives and they seek to become one with a man who seems to them to be both powerful and invincible. In fact, however, his soul is atrophied and his skin is as thin as an onion’s, but his minions fail to see this because they live in the hope that this powerful man will also empower them. They are deluded, but it is not by the man himself; rather, it is by what he represents: he represents the very power that they themselves both lack and crave, but which they cannot possibly attain alone. They lack power and he promises that if they follow him they will become powerful — just like him.

Nietzsche may not have been entirely right in what he said about the will to power. But he was not altogether wrong, either.

Calm Voice of Reason?

Ben Carson, one of the many candidates for the Republican nomination for president, speaks calmly and with supreme confidence. He appears to be every bit the medical doctor dispensing a prescription to a sick nation. In an atmosphere charged with the electricity generated by such clowns as Donald the Trumpet, Dr. Carson strikes many as the sensible alternative. His popularity is increasing daily. But when one gets past the calm exterior one worries about the substance of his positions. He claims, for example, that women are primarily responsible for rape and that Obamacare is a form of slavery. Moreover, in a personal letter addressing me by my first name, Ben asked my support for his candidacy and noted that he opposes such things as Planned Parenthood, and

“believes in peace through strength. We must defeat our enemies before they become strong enough to destroy us. We must seal our borders right away.”

Now there’s a bit of paranoia for you and the typical Republican appeal to fear.  He believes the country needs a “spiritual awakening,” which (apparently) only he can bring about. Indeed, he has a number of strange views that worry those who seek to know where the candidates stand on critical issues.

In an interview on CNN following the publication of a recent book, for example, he advanced the notion that if the Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany Hitler would never have been successful in carrying out the “final solution.” As Yahoo News reports, in part:

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said. “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take guns first.”

The comments drew a swift response from the Anti-Defamation League.

“Ben Carson has a right to his views on gun control, but the notion that Hitler’s gun-control policy contributed to the Holocaust is historically inaccurate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the organization. “The small number of personal firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.”

What we are dealing with here is what logicians call “counterfactuals.” It’s impossible to prove or disprove counter-to-fact statements of the type “If the Jews had been armed the Holocaust very likely would not have happened” We can have fun with such statements, as many historians do in speculating about the past, but we must bear in mind that it is just that: speculation. Whether or not the Anti-Defamation League had responded as they did to Carson’s remarks, it is clear that those remarks are on the weakest possible historical grounds. They cannot be proved or disproved. The man seems to be enamored of unverifiable historical claims, however, since he said in the same interview that

 “passengers on Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11, helped avoid further tragedy by rushing the gunman.”

There is simply no way of knowing whether this claim is true or false. We might like to think it is true, but that is neither here nor there.

Thus, in the case of his claim about the Holocaust, the notion that IF the Jews had guns THEN Hitler would not have been so successful in carrying out his Final Solution is totally unfounded, mere speculation. One might be tempted to say it is irresponsible in the climate of the discussion (can we call it that?) of gun control in America in 2015. When the issue is raised, as it invariably is, in an atmosphere of heat and very little light, it is irresponsible to seek analogies with situations that never occurred —  suggesting what would have been the case if events had not turned out as they did in the last century.

Dr. Carson’s demeanor is reassuring and it is a pleasant change to hear at least one candidate speak calmly and assuredly about issues that confront us all. It is, in its way, a breath of fresh air. But when one reflects on what is said and not the manner in which it is said, one realizes that this man is not all that far from folks like Donald Trump at the far right of the political spectrum. Beneath the calm exterior one can sense an element of hysteria. We need to listen to what these people say and not be taken in by the fact that they seem self-assured and confident in the claims they make. Facts do not speak for themselves; they must be supported. Speculation is just that: it is not fact and it is ultimately groundless.

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.”