Totalitarian Threats?

Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins Of Totalitarianism nearly 70 years ago and it focused primarily on Germany and Russia, the countries that at that time were most obviously totalitarian in their treatment of their citizens. One might think that such a book with that particular focus would be  dated and not at all relevant to today’s world. After all, Germany and Russia are no longer the countries they were when Arendt wrote. But the totalitarian tendencies about which she was most interested survive to this day — and not only in those countries, but elsewhere as well.

I venture to predict that as the pressures on all of the countries in the world become greater with the globe warming and food and water increasingly scarce the totalitarian threat will become an increasing concern: power will devolve to fewer and fewer hands to control unrest. And, as Lord Acton reminded us long ago “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But I also worry about today and about the trend in this country, led as it is by a man who completely misunderstands the workings of a free society, a man who has shown himself in sympathy with some of the most autocratic leaders on the globe and who has also shown those tendencies himself.

In any event I shall let Arendt speak for herself. I will only add that when she speaks of the “elite” she speaks about the “intelligentsia,” those who have had the most schooling (but may not be well educated) and have assumed leadership roles — those, for example, who have assumed positions of strength in our universities and colleges. And bear in mind that in the not-so-distant past the intelligentsia, especially the young radicals, tended to support the Jacobites, the Nazis and the Communists.  As she says:

“. . .  there is no doubt that the elite [in Germany and Russia] . . . 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 might force their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which 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 [think: “New History”]. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last shall be first had disappeared. Injustices in the past as well as the present became intolerable when there was no longer any hope that the scales of justice eventually would be set right. Marx’s great attempt to rewrite world history in terms of class struggles fascinated even those who did not believe in the correctness of his thesis, because of his original intention to find a device by which to force the destinies of those excluded from official history into the memory of posterity. . . .

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots [again, think: “New History”], must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination with 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. . . .

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

In describing what might be said about the present state of many of our universities and colleges, not to say society itself, she is revealing to us the way the “elite” take over the minds of the young students and outside the academy how propaganda works by recasting the truth in the form of, shall we say,  “false news.” And her discussion of those who have “been excluded unjustly” from the seats of power and who now struggle to find a place at the table is timely indeed  — especially since the “excluded” in America have managed to elect one of their own to the position of greatest power in this country if not the world.

There is more, of course. A great deal more — including a remarkable analysis of the totalitarian type, which is to say, the type of person attracted to absolute power and the steps such a type will take in order to acquire and maintain power. Regarding Hitler, for example, she had this to say:

“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, this tendency is strengthened so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong.”

In reading Arendt’s analysis bells continually go off, especially her description of modern society with its “characteristic lack of discerning judgment.”  I put that down to our floundering education system, as you know. She understood power and its abuses perhaps as well as or even better than Machiavelli. More to the point, her analysis is timely and shines a light on contemporary America, revealing aspects of our present situation that we must always try to understand and struggle against if we are to remain free.

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.

Our Violent Age

In a brilliant short story the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges attempts to get inside the head of a Nazi war criminal, Otto Dietrich zur Linde. The man awaits execution and is writing, not an apology, but an explanation of what led him to assist in the execution of Jews. He feels no contrition since he is convinced he is part of a historical movement that will bring the dawn of a new day — even after the defeat of Germany by the allies. He believes that he is dying for a great cause, much like the martyrs who died for Christianity. And that thought consoles him. “To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully. . .The battle and the glory are easy.” And Nazism was a religion, of sorts.

One of the Jews that zur Linde must “deal with” is a poet by the name of David Jerusalem who is brought before him, a man he greatly admires. Finding himself unable to condemn Jerusalem to the gas chambers, he gradually drives him mad until the man takes his own life. Still, zur Linde has no regrets. With Jerusalem, he tells us, whatever compassion he may have felt died.

The “new age” that zur Linde thinks is dawning and which makes these sacrifices worthwhile is an age of violence.

“Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age and are now its victims. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules.”

Now, aside from the fact that zur Linde is borrowing from Nietzsche, whose philosophy informed the thinking of many a Nazi and who condemned Christianity as the religion of the weak, we have here a profound and penetrating observation: we now live in an age of violence. All international disagreements are solved by killing. The Christian religion of love and forgiveness, if it ever truly blossomed, is no longer possible in this new age.

This is a bleak outlook, to say the least. And it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a novelist’s attempt to understand the tortured thinking of a condemned Nazi. It is all of that, and it is gruesome, to say the least. Evil is gruesome and most of us cannot stand to even think about it. Hanna Arendt, after studying the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, concluded that evil is banal, more common than we can imagine. That, too, is a gruesome thought. But it is one we really ought to ponder, since it does appear that Christianity is no longer a force in our world — it does not course through the veins of the average Westerner as it did in the middle ages when, we are told, there were no atheists. Today we do not find a religion that demands sacrifices and appeals to the weak the least bit appealing, since we cannot imagine ourselves to be such a person. We are strong and life is not about sacrificing what we want. And we solve our problems with violence, not diplomacy and civil discourse.

I don’t know how much of Borges’ tale I buy into. But I find it worth pondering, since we do seem bent on shooting first and asking questions afterwards. “Make my day!” To be sure, men have been prone to violence throughout the ages. But while we regard the “Great War” as the war to end all wars, it “only” cost an estimated 20 million deaths, as contrasted with the Second World War which cost an estimated 60 to 85 million deaths. Joseph Stalin alone was supposed to have been responsible for 20 million deaths, in addition to the millions the Nazis killed. At the end of World War II England ordered the bombing of Dresden, which had no military objective whatever. And even ignoring the atom bomb, which may or may not have been justified by war standards, America, which is supposed to command the moral high ground, has recently condoned torture and sent drones into the far East to kill supposed terrorists, while also taking thousands of civilian deaths in what is callously referred to as “collateral damage.” Moreover, nine countries count 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals, any one of which would drarf the atomic bombs used in the Second World War.

We tend to think of strangers, such as the Syrian refugees, as a threat rather than as folks to be welcomed into our hearts and homes. We find it difficult to “live religion fully.” Instead, we pay lip service to religion and bend it to our preferred way of looking at the world. True religion makes demands on us and we are not comfortable with a doctrine that requires that we do our duty and love our neighbor. Perhaps we do live in a new age, one that rejects love and finds it much easier to hate.

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 very much 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 recently as I was watching a show on television that recounted Hitler’s fatal attraction to the German people. That, together with Elizabeth Warren’s reminder that we should not remain silent at a time like this, led me to post this again.

The parallels between the two men are chilling. Both men are megalomaniacs, both have thin skin and cannot accept criticism, and they both are chronic liars who 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 the defeat in World War I, Trump’s is “Making America Great Again.” As I say: chilling.

Alternative Energies

Germany is one of the countries leading the world in the switch to renewable energies. And like other countries that have seen large-scale switches to clean energy, the utilities are taking it in the shorts and crying “uncle.” This includes not only private homes but also the industries in Germany, 16% of which are now off the grid — double the percentage of the previous year. This is cutting into the profits of the utilities, Germany’s mega-utility company, RTE, claiming to have lost $3.8 billion lat year alone. The Swedish utility company Vattenfall, which has large investments in Germany, claims to have lost $2.3 billion last year.

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Needless to say, this doesn’t disturb the clean-energy advocates one bit but, more to the point, it should have been seen coming by the energy companies. Germany has been shifting its energy priorities for some time now and it is inevitable that the utility companies would see their profits fall. As a recent story tells us:

When unveiling today’s dismal earnings, RWE’s Terium admitted the utility had invested too heavily in fossil fuel plants at a time when it should have been thinking about renewables: “I grant we have made mistakes. We were late entering into the renewables market — possibly too late.”

To which I simply add: Duhhhhh! One can only ask when Big Oil and Big Coal in this country will climb aboard the clean energy train. In its small way, alternative energies like wind and solar are already making inroads into the profits of the utility companies — in places like Hawaii, for example, as reported recently. And this despite the absence in this country of a clean energy policy and very little Federal support.  In fits and starts the switch to clean energy will continue to happen, despite the unwillingness of the Congress to get behind alternative energies and the necessity for private investors like T. Boone Pickens and Warren Buffet, and a few of the states, to lead the way. It will happen. This country will eventually follow Germany’s and China’s lead into the 21st century and if the corporations that blindly push for fossil fuels continue to ignore the handwriting on the wall, their overpaid CEOs will echo the cries of “foul” we now hear from Germany. It’s not rocket science, it’s just good business. One would think that American businessmen who are supposed to be among the best and brightest in the world would realize where their own long-term best interest lies. But, then, business doesn’t teach us much about the long term; it’s almost always about short-term profits. Brace yourself for the coming outcry! Relish it when it comes.

It’s All Relative! Really?

A recent story in HuffPost begins as follows:

A gay Somali teen was allegedly stoned to death on March 15, according to an advocacy group that posted about the incident online.

A Facebook group calling itself Somali Queer Community posted information and photos of the alleged stoning on its social media page Saturday. The post states that Mohamed Ali Baashi, 18, was tried and convicted of sodomy by a rebel judge from the Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab in the Barawa area of southern Somalia. In front of a crowd of villagers, Baashi was reportedly pelted with rocks until he was dead, the group’s post goes on to claim.

During the many years while I was teaching ethics the prevailing prejudice I continued to run into is that all values are relative. I call it a prejudice because it was seldom a conclusion reached after serious thought. The claim was that in ethics if those values are not relative to the individual, they are at least relative to cultures. We have been told that values are “enculturated” in us and we simply adopt the values of those around us as we grow up. If someone in another culture does something we regard as wrong who are we to say it is wrong? It’s just what they do. We hear the bromide “don’t judge another person unless you have walked a mile in his shoes.” In fact, we are constantly admonished not to be “judgmental.” But let’s take the story above as a case in point. It raises serious doubts about the viability of the whole relativism thesis: failure to judge might even be regarded as the height of irresponsibility.  I have never thought that people take relativism seriously, though, they just lean on it because it is easier than thinking.

In my classes I would ask the students if they thought that the Nazis were right to “relocate” the Jews and send millions to their death. Most students would stick by their guns and say, “of course, who’s to say?” Then I would ask them if they would still believe this if they were a Jew living in Germany in the mid-thirties of the last century when the purge began. That would usually give the students pause, though I don’t know if it ever changed a single mind. But the idea was to get them thinking about a complex situation they probably never thought about before. It helps us to see evil more clearly if we imagine ourselves to be the victim.

But the story above tells us about a judicial process in Somalia in which a young gay man is found guilty of sodomy and is summarily stoned to death. The cultural relativist would say, “that’s the way they do things there. Who are we to say it’s wrong?” My response is: anyone with half a brain knows it’s wrong regardless of where or when it happened. The value of human life and the respect all human life is owed transcend cultures and makes it wrong to inflict harm on others; we have duties as moral agents to alleviate human suffering whenever possible. Now, whether or not our culture teaches us this any longer, it is the heart and soul of any viable ethical or religious system known to developed minds. The obvious conclusion in this case is that the process that found the young man guilty was flawed and the “rebel judge” handing down the judgment was blinded by prejudice. We know this happens: we see it happening on a daily basis all around us. In this regard, the Somalis are just like us and they should know better. Certain values transcend cultures.

Many think that this position smacks of “absolutism,” the claim that values are absolute and a few people know them while others do not — those few wearing clerical collars or holding degrees in philosophy no doubt. We are uncomfortable with this view and regard it as the height of intolerance, though we don’t distinguish carefully between tolerance and indifference. But while I make no claim to absolute knowledge about values, since all human knowledge is partial, there are things that are inherently wrong and simply should not be tolerated. Does this mean we should send in drones and invade Somalia with our armed forces to bring the Somali people to their knees and make them accept our way of life? Of course not. What it means is that we should all condemn the action and our hearts should go out to the young man who was stoned to death as the natural expression of sympathy for another human who was wronged apparently by what appear to be extremists — and we should hope that by making the action known through the social media the world community would condemn the action so that this sort of thing does not happen again.