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.

Mass Movements

I have been re-reading Eric Hoffer’s excellent book The True Believer. Hoffer was the self-educated longshoreman who wrote notes to himself while at work and later turned them into a best-seller. Eventually he wrote and sold ten books and was quite a sensation for a while. I have always thought him a deep and careful thinker with remarkable scope of mind.

Hoffer wrote about the causes of mass movements and in particular about the mentality of those who follow those movements, the true believers. Joseph Conrad, that extraordinary wordsmith, also wrote about the type in his novel The Secret Agent where he provides the following sketch of these true believers:

“. . .[they exhibit] sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt.”

For Eric Hoffer they are “frustrated,” they feel a sense of hopelessness and despair, they have low self-esteem and long to have their sense of self raised by the strong, charismatic leader of a movement, any movement, who promises them escape from their despair. He was thinking of such people as Hitler and Stalin, but his thoughts have a direct bearing on what is happening in America today where we find the beginnings of a nationalist mass movement (“Make America Great Again”) led by a charismatic leader whom the true believers follow blindly. Several passages are of special interest and I find them worth quoting at length:

“. . . the acrid secretion of the frustrated mind, though composed chiefly of fear and ill will, acts yet as a marvelous slime to cement the embittered and disaffected into one compact whole. Suspicion too is an ingredient of this acrid slime, and it too can act as a unifying agent. . . .

“Mass movements make extensive use of suspicion in their machinery and domination. . . .  Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition with the enemy threatening the movement from without. This enemy — the indispensable devil of every mass movement — is omnipresent. . . .

“By elevating dogma above reason, the individual’s intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant. . . . Thus people raised in the atmosphere of a mass movement are fashioned into incomplete and dependent human beings even though they have within themselves the making of self-sufficient entities. . . . they will exhibit the peculiarities of people who crave to lose themselves and be rid of an existence that is irrevocably spoiled. . . .

“All active mass movements strive to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. . . . To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.”

The allegiance of the true believer is to the cause and its leader not to other members of the movement. It is part of the glue that holds the movement together and makes it possible for the leader to demand sacrifices of the members whenever he or she deems it necessary. According to Hoffer the leader himself exhibits:

“. . .audacity and joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature . . . unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness . . . a boundless self-confidence. . .  [ and a determination to engage in] charlatanism [since] there can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.”

Of major interest in this regard is hatred, which is one of the primary “unifying agents” that holds the mass movement together. Hatred is readily vented by the true believer who loses his individuality in the mass movement, thereby guaranteeing him anonymity. It frees the hater to “bully, lie, torture, murder, and betray without shame and remorse.” Hatred, frequently, is of foreigners who make the “ideal devil,” though it can be anyone who happens to be more successful than the true believer himself.  Mass movements must have a devil to hate; it is more important than having a strong, charismatic leader and a lofty ideal.

What we are seeing in America today has the earmarks of a mass movement aborning.  Signs are already noticeable, especially during the rallies organized to make the group cohesive, where allegiance is sworn to the leader and to his cause and the devil is named and targeted. If the present leader of the movement remains in control, and indeed gains greater control, the movement will begin to show even more fully the signs of a mass movement that Hoffer describes here. Time will tell.

 

Long Life and Education

What a strange people we are. We apparently need reasons to pursue education — as though training the mind to be more perceptive, critical, and insightful needs to be justified. We have for years tried to send our kids off to school with the promise that getting an education will guarantee them a good job and more income in their lifetimes. Recently, however, that line of reasoning has come a cropper. It appears that the jobs aren’t there and we now find PhD’s working as greeters at Wal-Mart. Whatever!

But lately there’s a new reason to get an education. We are told that educated people live longer, as an interesting Yahoo News story reveals:

If you want to know how long you will live, you might stop fretting over genetics and family history and instead look at your educational achievements. Education is certainly not the only variable associated with longer lives, but it may be the most powerful.

If it is true this is good news indeed for those who have stuck it out in school, especially since they may find themselves financially strapped. However, there are a couple of problems with this story and the reasoning behind the conclusions drawn by the author.

To begin with, it smacks of “false cause,” the fallacy that reasons from a coincidence of events to a causal relationship: it has rained every time I put out the trash, therefore putting out the trash must be causing it to rain. Yeah, right! Believe it or not, people actually buy into this line of reasoning. In the case of length of time in school (which we wrongly equate with being educated) and length of life, there could be a great many other factors that enter in that lead to a longer life — perhaps, as suggested, the kinds of lifestyle so-called educated people live. Perhaps they know enough to stay away from the kinds of foods that cause cancer and heart attacks. But whatever we factor in, the leap from A to Z is huge. Education, in itself, cannot possibly lead to a longer life — it may not even be the most “powerful” factor in the equation.

But more important is the consideration I raised at the outset of this blog: assuming that this is suggested as a reason to pursue an education, why do we need such a reason in the first place? Given that education properly conceived means the ability to use one’s mind, one would hope that everyone in this country, if not the world, would want as much as possible. But we do confuse schooling with education when there are a great many people who are well schooled who are horribly mis-educated — they may be well-trained to do a particular thing, but they cannot use their minds and are captive of every intellectual fad that passes their way. And there and a great many who never went to school and who are positively brilliant — like Eric Hoffer or Abraham Lincoln. What these people did was read copiously and explore the world around them: they kept their minds open and examined every passing notion to see if it was worth holding on to. Education should help us achieve these goals, but it may not.

In a Republic like ours it is essential that all citizens acquire the capacity to use their minds, to know whether or not they are being led astray — keep an open mind, stay on top of what is going on around them, and think their way through all the nonsense to see if there is a kernel of substance at the center. Education properly pursued will assuredly lead to this end; but it is not the only way to get there. And even when schools do their job and lead us down the path to an education, it does not stop there. Education properly conceived, lasts a lifetime. If education also leads to a longer life or a better job, so be it, but neither of those should be the goals.

Education and Virtue

Socrates famously suggested that virtue is knowledge. This implies that if one knows what is the right thing to do she will do it. It also implies that virtue can be taught. Socrates’ style was ironic and one never knew whether he meant what he said. In addition, he was being quoted by an adoring pupil. But in any event, I think Socrates might have been wrong on both counts, especially since we now know a bit more about human motivation and human frailty than even Socrates knew.

This is all by way of introducing a discussion of the relationship between virtue and education. And while knowledge is not the same thing as education I want to talk a bit about the two and the supposed teachability of virtue. Education certainly involves both teaching and knowledge, even though it is not the same thing as either. But that doesn’t tell us much. To know more about what education is we need to ask what other things it is not.

Education is not schooling. There are many people who spent 20 or more years in school who are not well educated. It all depends on what they did while they were there. Furthermore, there are many well educated people who never spent much time in school — like Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer. And education is certainly not vocational training either, since this focuses attention on the how to? and not they why for? Education involves the conveying of information, which is at least part of what happens in school, and what we can be done online. But it also involves the ability to assimilate that information and bring it to bear on problems and issues that need to be thought through and perhaps solved. This is seldom taught in the schools, and it certainly cannot be taught on the internet. In fact, education is more about process than it is about information. As Robert Hutchins was fond of saying, education is what is left after we have forgotten all we learned in school. An educated person, as I am fond of saying, has taken possession of her own mind: that person is autonomous, able to make her own decisions and not easily led by demagogues and quack salesmen or devious politicians.

Virtue, on the other hand, is about character. It is molded in youth and refined as one grows older. It is largely a matter of imitation: if the parents are honest people, it doesn’t matter what they say, the child will find truth-telling perfectly natural: she will become honest as well.  Strictly speaking, virtue is not taught. And since education is all about teaching and learning, it follows that virtue has nothing to do with education either. They are two separate capacities, if you will. Just because a person is well educated it does not follow that she will be virtuous. A well educated person who can think for herself will know what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, but she may not to it. Doing the right thing is a function of character, it’s about who you are. No matter how bright and well educated a person is, they may still do the wrong thing. There’s no necessary connection between intelligence and virtue whatever.

Torquemada, according to all accounts, was a very intelligent person, perhaps even well educated. But he was a monster because he couldn’t control his fanaticism. And virtue is, above all else, a matter of self-control. History is full of examples of well-intentioned people who nevertheless do the wrong thing. The road to Hell, I have heard it said, is paved with good intentions. And an education can make clear our good intentions, but it can only lead the way. Whether or not we choose to do the right thing depends on character.

As suggested above, virtue cannot be taught, in the sense that arithmetic or grammar can be taught. It is not a function of intelligence or a good education. It is a matter of following the example of good people and having our good inclinations reinforced by parents and grandparents. Teachers can teach arithmetic and correct grammar; they cannot teach virtue. Neither can coaches, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. But these people can certainly reinforce the lessons learned in the home — which is where virtue is learned, where the child becomes the good person — or the bad person. The most we can ask of  well-educated people is that they know what is the right thing to do; whether or not they choose to do it depends on what kind of person they are, whether they are virtuous.