Prescient

In 2015 I posted some snippets from a book by Aldous Huxley which seem to me to be more pertinent than ever — especially since there are so many in this country, in particular, who seem to prefer a dictator to what is left of our democratic system. I repost here.

I have referred a number of times to Huxley’s 1931 “fable” Brave New World which predicted the future with astonishing accuracy. It is still, in my  mind, one of the most remarkable works ever written: prescient if not great literature. And it sold many copies. But few have read the sequel, Brave New World Revisited, that Huxley wrote in 1958 in which he admitted that he was even less optimistic than he had been when he wrote his classic fable. The newer work is not a novel, but a series of essays about the topics he touched on in his novel and which still bothered him twenty-seven years later. He starts off with the major problem as he saw it then, overpopulation, about which he has this to say:

” On the first Christmas Day the population on the planet was about two hundred and fifty million — less than half the population of modern China. Sixteen centuries later, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, human numbers had climbed to a little more than five hundred million. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence world population had passed the seven hundred million mark. In 1931, when I was writing Brave New World, it stood at just under two billion. Today, only twenty-seven years later, there are two billion eight hundred million of us.”

As I write this in 2015 the population on earth numbers 7.3 billion. In a word it has more than doubled since 1958. It boggles the mind. As Huxley goes on to say,

“Unsolved, the problem will render insoluble all other problems. Worse still it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. . . .There are many roads to The Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases [in the human population].”

It’s bad enough we refuse to deal with the issue of climate change, but it is tragic that we even refuse to discuss the problem of overpopulation, which is, in my view, the problem at the root of all others.  However, this is only one issue Huxley dealt with in this book. As anyone knows who read Brave New World, Huxley was very concerned about the loss of individual freedom in a society that absorbs the individual  in an increasingly crowded world that is headed inevitably toward an all-poowerful central government. In that world a few will be forced by circumstances to take complete control of the reins of government while the rest spend their time seeking pleasures. As he noted in this regard:

“Only the most vigilant can maintain their liberties and only those who are consistently and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who manipulate and control it.”

None knew better than Huxley how insidious are the factors that control the minds of those otherwise preoccupied with trivia such as social media and games. He understood better than most that true freedom is not a function of how many loaves of bread there are in the grocery store, but in the knowledge which loaf is best for one’s health. He knew how important education is to the maintenance of human freedom and the democracy that is trending, even in 1958, toward dictatorship  — not a dictatorship held together by violence, but a dictatorship held together by subtle psychological manipulation. The kinds of manipulation that gets us to buy things we don’t need.

He understood how good salesmanship, whether one is selling soap or a political candidate, is simply another word for propaganda and he understood how clever propaganda works on the human mind and how easy it is for demagogues to capture the untrained minds of apathetic people.

“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..'”

Sound familiar? Huxley examines the workings of propaganda in great detail over two chapters in his book. He thinks we should have learned from Germany’s example; but, of course, we did not. Propaganda still works and it works well, whether the product is toothpaste or presidents.

“Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.. . .[Their techniques will include] scientific selection of appeals and planned repetition . . . Radio [and TV] spot announcements and ads will repeat phrases with a planned intensity. Billboards will push slogans of proven effectiveness. . . . Candidates need, in addition, rich voices and good diction, to be able to look sincerely at the TV camera.”

Huxley seemed to have sensed exactly where we were headed in the 50s. Today we seem to have arrived where he pointed to back then, though there are a great many people who would deny it. In the end, he has the final word:

“By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts, and all the rest — will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

 

Advertisements

The Genius of Aldous Huxley

Readers will agree that I have drawn on Aldous Huxley a great deal over the years — and for good reasons! As  happy New Year gift, I am reposting one of my previous blogs with revisions and additions in order to demonstrate once again how  brilliant the man was. I was especially struck by the final quote below.

I have referred a number of times to Huxley’s 1931 “fable” Brave New World which predicted the future with astonishing accuracy. It is still, in my mind, one of the most remarkable works ever written: prescient if not great literature. But few have read the sequel, Brave New World Revisited, that Huxley wrote in 1958 in which he admitted that he was even less optimistic than he had been when he wrote his classic fable. The newer work is not a novel, but a series of essays about the topics he touched on in his novel and which still bothered him twenty-seven years later. He starts off with the major problem as he saw it then, overpopulation, about which he has this to say:

” On the first Christmas Day the population on the planet was about two hundred and fifty million — less than half the population of modern China. Sixteen centuries later, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, human numbers had climbed to a little more than five hundred million. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence world population had passed the seven hundred million mark. In 1931, when I was writing Brave New World, it stood at just under two billion. Today, only twenty-seven years later, there are two billion eight hundred million of us.”

As I write this in 2015 the population on earth numbers 7.3 billion. In a word it has more than doubled since 1958. It boggles the mind. As Huxley goes on to say,

“Unsolved, the problem will render insoluble all other problems. Worse still it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. . . .There are many roads to The Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases [in the human population].”

It’s bad enough we refuse to deal with the issue of climate change, but it is tragic that we even refuse to discuss the problem of overpopulation. However, this is only one issue Huxley dealt with in this book. As anyone knows who read Brave New World, Huxley was very concerned about the loss of individual freedom in a society that absorbs the individual in an increasingly crowded world that is headed inevitably toward totalitarianism. In that world a few will be forced by circumstances to take complete control of the reins of government while the rest spend their time seeking pleasures. As he noted in this regard:

“Only the most vigilant can maintain their liberties and only those who are consistently and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and the soap opera of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who manipulate and control it.”

None knew better than Huxley how insidious are the factors that control the minds of those otherwise preoccupied with trivia such as social media and games. He understood better than most that true freedom is not a function of how many loaves of bread there are in the grocery store, but in the knowledge which loaf is best for one’s health. He knew how important educations is to the maintenance of human freedom and the democracy that is trending, even in 1958, toward totalitarianism — not totalitarianism held together by violence, but totalitarianism held together by subtle psychological manipulation. The kinds of manipulation that gets us to buy things we don’t need and vote for people who are not qualified for political office.

He understood how good salesmanship, whether one is selling soap or a political candidate, is simply another word for propaganda and he understood how clever propaganda works on the human mind and how easy it is for demagogues (such as Donald Trump, for example) to capture the undeveloped minds of frightened people.

“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..”

Sound familiar? Huxley examines the workings of propaganda in great detail over two chapters in his book. He thinks we should have learned from Germany’s example; but, of course, we did not. Propaganda still works and it works well, whether the product is toothpaste or presidents. In the end:

“By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts, and all the rest — will remain.
The underlying substance will be a new kind of totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

Are we there yet??

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.

Bread and Circuses

A number of theorists have drawn interesting parallels between Rome and contemporary America. With one eye on Rome the founders of this nation feared the dissolution of our Republic from within as people lost their sense of civic virtue and went off on tangents into self-indulgence and the seeking of unnecessary wealth. Aldous Huxley later warned Western civilization about its urge to satisfy endless pleasures. I doubt, however, that any of these people could have foreseen the sort of incident that happened in Florida recently.

It is certainly the case that our nation can no longer brag about its commitment to the common good and its practice of public virtue which puts the good of all above one’s  own self-interest. The pursuit of wealth has become synonymous in the minds of many with democracy and freedom. In this regard we do resemble the ancient Romans. But one of the most compelling parallel between today’s Republic and the Roman Republic is our love of diversions. The Romans loved their bread and circuses. Clearly there need to be some diversions, especially at a time when there are pressures from all directions on nearly everyone in this country. But as Aristotle warned, “everything in moderation.”  The love of diversions in this country has reached absurd limits when events like Nathan’s hot dog eating contest takes center stage — only to be upstaged recently by the eating of worms and cockroaches. A recent story tells the sad results:

MIAMI (AP) — The winner of a roach-eating contest in South Florida died shortly after downing dozens of the live bugs as well as worms, authorities said Monday.

About 30 contestants ate the insects during Friday night’s contest at Ben Siegel Reptile Store in Deerfield Beach about 40 miles north of Miami. The grand prize was a python.

If it weren’t so sad it would be positively funny — shades of Monty Python (sorry, ‘had to go there). But one must ask, really, where are we headed in this culture? How does this sort of absurd spectacle pass as entertainment? Even if the man had not died — and he may have died for a number of reasons having nothing whatever to do with his latest meal — what’s with 30 people standing around watching idiots wolf down bugs and worms to see who would win a snake? The sponsors of the “event” thought it fitting to donate the python to the family of the man who died. As the story tells us, “The Miami Herald reported the grand prize has been put aside in Archbold’s [the diseased] name and will be given to his estate.” If we knew how to laugh at a person’s untimely death (as Mary Tyler Moore did)  this, too would be funny. What on earth will this man’s grieving family do with a python?

Twenty years after writing Brave New World Aldous Huxley revisited a number of the themes he had raised in that novel and collected his essays in a book titled Brave New World Revisited. It is a fascinating take on events in the late 50s in light of Huxley’s own predictions in the 1930s. I quoted him in a previous blog as he notes “mankind’s almost limitless appetite for distractions.” Never were truer words spoken and this should make us take seriously his many other warnings about the future of a people who seek nothing more in life than the satisfaction of their own pleasures. But eating bugs and worms? You must be kidding! Surely this is the reductio ad absurdum of our love of distractions and invites another long look at ancient Rome.

Prophesies and Portents

Back in January I wrote a blog about Huxley’s classic Brave New World, which has always been one of my favorite books. I taught it for years and have always found mountains of issues worthy of serious thought and discussion. In 1985 Neil Postman wrote another provocative book titled Amusing Ourselves To Death in which he promises to discuss the question whether Huxley might have been right in his predictions about what was to become of Western culture. Bear in mind that Huxley wrote his novel in the 1930s and he was English.

In his “Foreword” Postman contrasts Huxley’s remarkable book with Orwell’s equally remarkable book 1984. I shall largely ignore what Postman said about Orwell, but will summarize what he said about Huxley since it is most apt. In America, especially, we love to boast about our freedoms, which we would insist are many. Is it possible that this freedom is an illusion? In Huxley’s view, Postman tells us, “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” Anyone who claims it is possible to remain free despite their inability to think is delusional. Further, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” Huxley feared that we would be so inundated with information that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalence of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

Moreover, “As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited [which few people read] the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.'” In 1984, Postman added, “people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we loved would ruin us.”

I used Brave New World numerous times in ethics classes and in honors seminars. Discussions were generally lively and the students seemed genuinely engaged for the most part. In one of my last years of teaching I assigned it to a required Freshman class involving well over a hundred students. We met once a week and spent a month on the book. We had a biologist. a psychologist, a philosopher, and a professor of English literature talk about the book from the perspective of their own discipline. We discovered later that many of the students could not read the book — could not comprehend it. Many could not comprehend the cheaters (Cliff’s Notes) they bought that were supposed to explain the complex text (!) to those who apparently cannot read simple prose. Many did not even bother to buy the book. But when the course evaluations came in at the end of the Semester, a number of students, more than I care to recall, asked in unison: “What does this have to do with me?” Indeed.

Education or Catastrophe?

In the 40s of the last century H.G. Wells told us that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Since that time, education has been weighed down by the burden of low regard, and it is not clear, given today’s political climate, that it can win the race.

Victor Scheffer, a marine biologist of international reputation worried about the battle that is going on in public education and suggested that “Education may now be entering a feedback loop in which ill-informed voters are continually creating administrations that blindly deny the value of education.” Indeed. Given the hostility in Wisconsin of late toward the audacious attempt on the part of teachers and other public employees to make a decent living, one suspects that this ship has sailed. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as taxpayers in other states seem to be following Wisconsin’s lead in their mania to save a few dollars at any cost. Sad to say, part of the fault for this reaction on the part of the voters must lie with educators themselves. But only part.

I have argued in print for some time now that education has lost its way. It suffers from a lack of a clearly articulated purpose. Instead of concentrating on the essential role of putting young people in control of their own minds, educators have gotten side-tracked and bought into the myth that education is really about building self-esteem, or, worse yet, training the young to get a job. Further, those who fund education are married to a business paradigm that requires that all “outcomes” be quantified and the bottom line be black, which is absurd. This is part of the explanation of how we could have come to the point where people like Dr. Scheffer rightly worry about the “feed-back loop.” The schools have built an immense bureaucracy that towers over them and dictates educational policy; they are overseen by shortsighted managers who hold teachers to inapplicable standards; and the teachers themselves stumble about in the dark trying to teach out-of-control kids who are ill-prepared for school in the first place. The result is that the schools simply are not turning out the kinds of graduates who can see beyond their own immediate, short-term demands — much less the “common good” that is supposed to be the focus of a democracy.

It was widely understood by our Founders that in order to work a democracy must presuppose educated citizens. This is why, given the uneducated masses, they restricted suffrage well into the Jackson years. And this is why as suffrage was extended the nation opted for universal, public education. As Dr. Scheffer suggests, education is the key. But if so, it is a key that doesn’t seem to be turning in the lock.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley predicted that America would eventually elect an actor to the Presidency. We not only did that, we also elected the village idiot to that highest of offices. Huxley saw what was coming. But my home state has no room to crow: we elected a former professional wrestler to the governorship. And we now have a comic as one of our Senators (though, ironically, that might be appropriate). In any event, we should know better: education does seem to be failing to play the key role it must play in a Democracy. And if this is to turn around, parents must spend more time with their children, and those who would teach the young must learn to put their students’ needs first — not their “wants,” but their needs. They must realize that they themselves know what is best for the students in their charge, or there is no reason whatever for those students to be there in the first place. Education must stop being a mirror, as Robert Hutchins said many years ago, reflecting the demands of unknowing, spoiled young people, and become the beacon it was supposed to be in the first place.

If and when educators put their house in order, those who graduate from the schools  and go to the polls must be willing to spend money on education and recognize that education requires more than the measly 2.1 % of the national budget (contrasted with the military’s 42%); they must be willing to allocate sufficient funds at both the state and national levels to pay those who teach a living wage and make teaching an attractive vocation for the best and brightest minds in the country. As Dr. Scheffer said, “I wish that we Americans would respect, value, and compensate our teachers — caretakers of the mind — as we now do our physicians — caretakers of the body.” Until we do, we will continue to lose the race, and while “catastrophe” is a strong word, if Wells’s dichotomy is viable the fact that we are in a “feedback loop” does not bode well for a democratic system that seems to be faltering, led as it is by weak men and women who are subject to corporate pressure and unable to rise above self interest and party politics to envision what is best for the country.