In 30s of the last century a great many liberals, including folk song icon Pete Seeger, flirted seriously with Communism.  Indeed, Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, as were a great many liberal thinkers at the time. For one thing, the ideals of Communism resembled in a great many ways the ideals of Christianity with which many in the West were familiar– if not enamored. It espoused strong communities, the eradication of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the equal distribution of all property, including wealth. It also embraced the notion that we should all care about our fellow humans. In any event, as I noted, a great many liberals embraced the ideals of Communism though most of them later became disenchanted when the reality of Communism began to stare them in the face. At the time it seemed an obvious alternative to hated Fascism and some, like George Orwell went so far as to join the anarchists on the side of Communism in Spain fighting against Franco and Fascism. The term “anarchist” denotes the confusion on the Spanish left as it included both socialists and Communists all in the name of “Nationalism.” But they were united in their hatred of Fascism.

Orwell, author of the recently best-selling 1984 (thanks to the election Donald Trump in America) wrote a journal describing the gradual awakening to the horrors of Communism that took place on the part of a young, idealistic reporter who went to Spain to write about the war and ended up joining the anarchists. His journal is titled Homage To Catalonia and it describes in painful detail the story of a young idealist waking up to the harsh reality that those in power, even those one admires and who seemingly embrace the same ideals as oneself, succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and behave just as badly as those against whom you are risking your life — perhaps worse, since they join hypocrisy to their other flaws.. Orwell was seriously wounded in battle against Fascism and nearly lost his life. He spent the rest of his days fighting a verbal game against the totalitarianism he saw up close.

Lionel Trilling wrote a paper in 1952 extolling the virtues of a virtuous man, as he considered Orwell. Not a great man, but a virtuous man, one who embraced the Victorian notion of “my station and its duties.” This was a man who walked the walk and who had no patience whatever with closet liberals who talk the talk but become lost in abstractions and find themselves lame when it comes to standing up to the sort of reality he saw up close. He was, above all else, honest to a fault. He was an advocate of democratic socialism though he saw clearly that democracy is also flawed; it has

“. . .told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs, of the heart and mind. “

In a word, it tends toward mediocrity, a leveling down of human aspirations to the gathering of wealth and the having of as much as our neighbor, the refusal to allow that there is greatness in the world, that some are actually better persons than others, that failure can be an important lesson learned. So says, Lionel Trilling. But he echoes the convictions of George Orwell who embraced democracy for all its faults — perhaps because, as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst form of government except for all the others. Heaven knows, Orwell saw the “others” up close — at least in their twentieth century guise. And he saw that the best government is the one that empowers the greatest number of people and in socialism he saw that restrictions were necessary to prevent the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few who have no idea how to manage the power it delivers to them. These things Orwell saw up close and in person. It almost cost him his life, but he lived to warn us all to be suspicious and not fall for the empty promises of ideologues and the pretty speeches of politicians whose only interest is their own welfare. And above all else, he urged us to become engaged in the world in order to preserve our precious human freedom.

Homage to Catalonia is well worth reading if only to see how painful it was for this one man to have his eyes opened to the realities of a world gone mad, a world in which even those who seemingly embrace the highest ideals also easily succumb to the temptations of power and the desire for great wealth. He worried above all else that we would be lulled to sleep by mindless diversions and political apathy

“…sleeping the deep, deep sleep . . ., from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”


Quote Of The Day (Reposted)

Göring said the following while being interviewed in his jail cell by Gustave Gilbert during the Nuremberg trials. The conversation provides an interesting perspective. I repeat it here with an added comment because it strikes me as worth a moment of reflection:

Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

I have said before that the Trumpet is not a fascist, strictly speaking. But, given his thin skin and paranoia, he has fascist tendencies; his presidency might well lead to the kind of suppression of dissent that was common in Hitler’s Germany.  This point was driven home to me today as I was watching a show on The American Heroes Channel that recounted Hitler’s fatal attraction to the German people. The parallels were chilling. Both men are megalomaniacs, both have thin skin and cannot accept criticism, and they both insist on finding others responsible for their own shortcomings — Hitler blaming the German people at the end of the war for “letting him down.” Please note Göring’s comment about the relative ineffectiveness of any sort of  checks on this man’s success — even in a system such as ours. People are easily duped, especially when the promise of a brighter day is held out. Hitler’s goal was a New Germany after their defeat in World War I, Trump’s is “Making America Great Again.”

Beacon or Mirror?

Like so many colleges and universities around the country, tiny Iowa Wesleyan, a college with an enrollment of 650 students in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has recently announced that it will be eliminating sixteen academic majors, mostly in the liberal arts, in order to concentrate on majors in more practical disciplines — where the student demand and the jobs are. As the president of the college said in a recent statement:

The reorganization will allow Iowa Wesleyan College to focus its resources on academic programs that have high demand and strong student enrollment. They include business administration, nursing, elementary and early childhood education, human services, physical education, exercise science and wellness, psychology, pre-medical studies, biology, criminal justice, and music.

The irony is that recent studies reveal that college graduates who majored in one of the liberal arts (contrary to popular opinion) make more money in their lifetime than those students who major in one of the “useful arts.” But I will ignore that, since the problem here is that Iowa Wesleyan is simply following a national trend and it is one that has serious repercussions for us all.

Let me begin by stating that I am fully aware of the financial pressures on small colleges (especially) these days, with tuition increases and the pressure from low-cost online colleges promising the sky to those who demand an education. The students around the country are taking courses in “practical areas” where they are convinced the jobs are and they are eschewing the liberal arts and humanities where the jobs are not. I get that. It’s been going on for some time. But it is not only wrong-headed but also short-sighted — and a serious problem when one considers that the trend takes our young people away from an education that develops their minds and simply trains them for jobs. I have blogged about this before, but it remains a problem. Indeed, it is a growing problem. Ignoring for the momenbt the fact that liberal arts graduates make more money in their lifetime, since this really shouldn’t be the issue, democracy needs citizens who can use their minds and the trend away from education to job training does not promise much in the way of enlightened citizens in the future. It worried an astute thinker such as Antonio Gramsci many years ago in Italy which stressed job training for its students and eventually went the way of fascism, and it should be worrisome to us in a nation founded by men who knew how necessary a good education was to the survival of this democracy. Education breeds leaders who can think for themselves; training breeds followers who will do what they are told.

Years ago Robert Hutchins remarked that colleges should be beacons, not mirrors. They should stand fast and hold the line against the latest fashion and the various trends that come and go. An education, properly conceived, prepares a young person for an uncertain future and also enables them to train for whatever jobs that might be available when they graduate — and, moreover, enables them to change direction quickly as trends change and/or their preferences become altered as they mature. Job training prepares that person for a specific job and if they later find it stifling they must go back to school to re-train and redirect their energies elsewhere. Colleges, as Hutchins suggests, are supposed to provide the students what they need for their future endeavors, whatever those might be, and not simply give them what they want at present

My suggestion to my students when I advised them was to find something they loved to do and concentrate on that field while they are in college, even if the subject is viewed as “useless” by their parents or the marketing people. Of course, they might be wise to also take some practical courses in such things as business and computer science to enable them to find that first job. But they shouldn’t succumb to pressure and prostitute themselves to a narrow career path that might lead to a lower income in the long run and eventually a dead-end. I have had letters from students years after they graduated who thanked me for that advice and one letter from a young woman who did not take the advice and told me years later she wished she had. In any event, the breadth of preparation is essential to a young person’s future happiness and the colleges do them a great disservice to simply cater to their current whims and eliminate those courses that have little market appeal even though they are central to a good education. The only thing certain about the future is that it will change.

Thus, Iowa Wesleyan, like so many of its sister institutions around the country, is making a mistake of the first order. It is, obviously, driven by marketing strategies (though I note in passing that the college supports fourteen different sports programs, including football, with no plans to cut any of them). But even in a nation where the demand is for the practical and the useful it is the purpose of the college to show young people the direction they should take, not simply to blindly follow their lead. As Hutchins said, they should be beacons, not mirrors. And they can survive in a very tight market by making clear what their ideals are and convincing the young that those ideals will translate into the best possible preparation for their own uncertain futures.

The High Court

In its recent decision not to allow Arizona’s stiff immigration laws (with one exception) Justice Scalia wrote a “scathing” dissent that chastises the President and the Federal government for repeated failure to deport illegal aliens — despite the fact that more “illegals” have been deported under this Administration than any previous Administration. But what truly boggles the mind in Scalia’s dissent is the fact that he seems to want to fight the Civil War all over again. Note these comments:

Arizona’s entire immigration law should be upheld, Scalia wrote, because it is “entitled” to make its own immigration policy. At one point, he cites the fact that before the Civil War, Southern states could exclude free blacks from their borders to support the idea that states should be able to set their own immigration policies.

Scalia dismisses with a wave of his hand the government’s position that immigration is a federal matter since we need to be on friendly relations with our neighbors to the North and South and individual states could stir up a hornet’s nest. But that is the heart of the government’s position and it is the reason the Court decided to throw its weight behind the government — for the most part. But Scalia insists that the states themselves should determine what the immigration laws are to be — a view that echoes the thinking of the most devout of the Southerners in the mid-nineteenth century (if not today).

Scalia’s entire dissenting opinion sounds like paranoia: fear of illegals and the “evil” (his word) they do by taking jobs from the citizens of Arizona. But the notion that an appeal should be made to the rights of the states prior to the Civil War pushes his reasoning beyond the bounds of intelligibility and makes one wonder about the soundness of his mind. This Court as a group leaves so much to be desired, but one always hopes that the members will exhibit some glimmer of good sense every now and again.

One might argue that in overthrowing the laws of Arizona the Court has in fact shown good sense. The problem is they have allowed the “papers please” law that allows Arizona police to detain suspected “illegals” with “reasonable cause.” What this means, of course, is that it gives the police almost unlimited power under the law and it will almost assuredly promote racial profiling — though the police have been cautioned not to fall into that trap. Come on! Get serious: give the average policeman the right to stop and search anyone who strikes him or her as “suspicious” — and detain them for an undisclosed amount of time — and you are inviting abuse of power.

The real fear here is fear itself (with apologies to F.D.R.). The country seems to be in a paranoid state fueled by constant rhetoric about the “war on terror” and the blatant jingoism that surrounds public celebrations such as “fly overs” and flag waiving at sporting events; this atmosphere now allows the country to exhibit its full force with impunity: the end justifies the means. If we ever could, we can no longer claim the moral high ground, as Martin Luther King would have it. We can now kill suspected terrorists abroad with drones; after ten years we still have nearly 200 untried prisoners detained at Guantanamo (including children, apparently); and we can now legally detain for an unspecified time suspected “illegals” at home. I hesitate to use the word but we seem to be inching closer and closer to Fascism, though most people don’t seem to much care.

Politics Left and Right

I once read that the psychological profile of a policeman and an habitual criminal are remarkably similar. This says something important about policemen or about criminals — or about psychological profiling! It may be the latter, but I have always thought there is a  resemblance in so many ways between the types of persons who are attracted to either end of the political extremes — right or left. In reading about those on the far right recently, I was struck once again by their resemblance to those on the far left.

In an article he wrote to distinguish political conservatives from those on the far right of the political spectrum, Mike Lofgren paints a rather frightening picture of right-wing personality types. Those on the far right “lack compassion.” Further, they are single-minded to the point of blindness. As Lofgren notes, “their minds appear to have no more give and take than that of a terrier staring down a rat hole.” That is, their thinking (such as it is) tends toward what logicians call “bifurcation,” all issues are either black or white — and of course their own view is white. This, coincidentally, explains the popularity of such ideologues as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. In this regard, they are anti-intellectual to a fault, suspicious of anyone who uses their mind, and while many call for the dissolution of government in the name of “freedom,” they really want protection and, of course, laws that prohibit things they find distasteful. As Lofgren notes in this regard, “Freedom is his prerogative to rid himself of people who are different, or who unsettle him. [Ironically] freedom is merging into a like-minded herd. Right-wing alchemy transforms freedom into authoritarianism.”

We might tend to think attitude toward authority is one point that separates the anarchist from the right-winger, the former rejecting out of hand anyone who is in a position of authority, the right-winger clinging to those strong leaders who will protect them. But not so. Both exhibit what psychologists characterize as “the Fascist personality.”

The fascist personality was described by Wilhelm Reich in 1933 as one who “craves authority and rebels against it at the same time.” This could describe folks on either extreme of the political spectrum: they follow blindly any ideologue who seems willing to lead them where they want to go — wherever that might happen to be.  Most, if not all, of the personality traits attributed to right-wingers by Lofgren can be applied to those on the far left as well. While we tend to think of those on the far left as “loners,” psychologists such as Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman who have studied the anarchistic personality point out that these people exhibit “an inverted form of authoritarian personality.” They both crave and hate authority. One begins to see indications of the narcissistic personality here.

Most interesting is the consideration that while right-wingers are “joiners” and those on the far left tend to be loners, both are attracted to strong personality types and willingly follow orders unthinkingly. In fact, the word “unthinking” applies equally to both types of personality.

While those on the political left wing seem preoccupied with a single political issue, usually what they call the “right to bear arms,” those on the far right focus on one narrow political issue as well, namely abortion or what they call “the right to life” — while they cheer speeches that promote executions of those on death row or “the prospect of someone dying without health insurance.” Consistency is not a feature of the mindset on either political extreme. Once again, we are back to the fact that neither personality type thinks at all: they just follow their emotions wherever they lead, and attach themselves to the nearest authority figure who pledges to deliver them to the promised land.

Estimates vary as to how many of these types occupy the political stream, but those on the far right could be as high as 40% of those who identify themselves as “Republicans,” though “in some key political contests, such as the Iowa caucuses, the percentage is closer to 60%.” Whatever the percentage, they are very well-organized and have considerable political clout. Those on the far left are anything but organized and tend to withdraw from the political stream altogether and become reclusive, banding together in small, anti-social groups (but note, once again, the inconsistency. In this case the  tendency to reject social groups while becoming a member of a group).

In a word, the people at both ends of the political extremes of this country resemble one another more than they differ. And, despite the fact that we tend to use words like “conservative” and “liberal” without really knowing what they mean, we should not confuse those on the political extremes as belonging to either group. They are a breed apart — or together, if you prefer.