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.

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Other Cultures

I have been rereading Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and came across the following description which made me think. It comes early in the story about a middle-aged man, Oki Toshio, who has been sitting by the window reflecting on his first love from whom he separated 20 years since:

“He looked out of the small French window of his study. At the base of the hill behind the house a high mound of earth, dug out during the war in making an air raid shelter, was already hidden by weeds so modest one barely noticed them. Among the weeds bloomed a mass of flowers the color of lapis lazuli. The flowers too were extremely small, but they were a bright, strong blue. Except for the sweet daphne, these flowers bloomed earlier than any in their garden. And they stayed in bloom a long time. Whatever they were, they could hardly be familiar harbingers of spring, but they were so close to the window that he often thought he would like to take one in his hand and study it. He had never yet gone to pick one, but that only seemed to increase his love for these tiny lapis-blue flowers.”

This passage, like so many in this novel, reflect the main theme of beauty and sadness. The description of the beautiful flowers almost hides the reference to the air-raid shelter that harkens back to the Second World War and makes the reader recall the terrible effects of the fire bombings that destroyed an estimated 40% of the population of the 64 major cities in Japan toward the end of the war, coupled by the dropping of the Atom Bombs that killed another 129,000 men, women, and children. The end of the war was followed by a seven year allied occupation by 300,000 men that brought about the Westernization of Japan, with its sports, music, movies, clothing, fast-food restaurants, and love of money. The older Japanese, like Kawabata himself, struggled with the loss of pride coupled with transmogrification of their culture from the old ways to the faster, more frenetic new ways. His novels are filled with references to this struggle within himself and in the hearts of his countrymen.

But what struck me powerfully was the fact that we can read passages like this in a novel written by  a man in another culture and “relate” to it, because we share a common humanity. We have lost  sight of this fact in our preoccupation with  the differences in cultures stressed by anthropologists and social scientists like Margaret Mead who started the movement toward cultural relativism that lead us, wrongly I insist, to the conclusion that we are not in a position to judge what folks do in other cultures. From the undeniable truth that we can never fully understand what people in other cultures feel and think we draw the unwarranted conclusion that we can not sympathize with them at all. But this flies in the face of the human sympathy that the moral sense theorists in the eighteenth century brought to our attention that allows each of us to sympathize with other human beings, all other human beings. In stressing difference we have lost sight of our fundamental similarities.

We can read passages like that above, read poetry, hear the music, watch their dances, view their art, and we can feel many of the same things those people feel — not all, but many to be sure. We are not all that different. And, as a result, when we read about Suttee in India, or the stoning of adulteresses in the Middle East, or clitoridectomies forced upon young women in Africa, or the denial of fundamental rights to women around the world, we can judge these things to be wrong because we do know better. Values are relative to cultures to a point, but that point is reached when a violation of fundamental human rights are in question. We know this because we feel it deeply and because our reasoning capacity tells us that if it were us we would not stand for it.

In a word, there its such a thing as “human nature” and it is something we share with the world at large and which, even though many of those in power and those who posses great wealth seem to have denied, defines all of us as human. But why is this discussion significant? Or even of interest? I can do no better than end with a quote by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered, Hannah Arendt, who tells this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and all together they are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.”

The Family and Civil Society

At the very core of what used to be called “civil society” sits the family. This is where the young are taught such things as civil discourse, self-discipline, responsibility, and the restraint that eventually becomes what we call “character.” There are those who insist that the family so described is no more. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist who spent forty years writing Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (once regarded as a “must” read and now simply becoming musty on the forgotten shelves of university libraries) predicted the dissolution of the family and eventually of civil society. This would result, Schumpeter insisted, from the success of capitalism — not the failure, as Marx would have it. This is because capitalism breeds a culture of calculation focused upon self-interest and short-term thinking. But above all else, it breeds a temper opposite to the temper that insists upon self-sacrifice for the needs and goods of those we love and a genuine concern for our children and their children.

At the heart of capitalism, insists Schumpeter, is the process of “rationalization,” as he calls it, the mind-set of folks raised to think that material goods are the measure of success and the source of all human happiness. Rationalization leads young people to calculate, for example, whether to not to get married — given the fact that children and the responsibilities of the family would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the things that they think will make them happy. The would-be parents

“. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.”

It is this tendency to calculate that disturbs Schumpeter, not only in the planning of the family in the first place, but later on as parents insist that both must work in order to achieve the level of prosperity they believe is necessary to be happy. This “must” is a felt necessity in a self-absorbed culture that places a premium on material goods and possessions as a key to happiness. It has replaced the urge to make the family unit as strong and safe as possible. The result is a more open and mobile, often broken, family and one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.

Schumpeter wrote before the Second World War but his concerns have been echoed by more recent students of culture, such people as Hannah Arendt in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and more recently Gertrude Himmelfarb — all of whom despaired for the weakening or disappearance altogether of the family unit they saw at the center of civil society which they sought to preserve. Arendt, for example, saw a failure of nerve on the part of both parents and teachers that has led to the rejection of the notion of “authority” especially

“the authority of adults, implicitly denying their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and [which] refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

Himmelfarb notes the erection of a commodified culture created by capitalism in which we find we are “too present-minded and self-centered to tolerate the kinds of constraints imposed on parents in the interest of the family — or for that matter, the constraints on children, who are no less present-minded and self-centered.” She goes on to note:

” Nineteenth and-early-twentieth-century accounts of working-class life are replete with stories of children laboring part-time and contributing their meager earnings not only willingly but proudly to the family. Today children commonly receive allowances from their parents to be spent for their personal satisfaction.”

I can attest to this myself as I received no allowance but, rather, worked after school while in high school in the early 1950s and earned $13.00 a week, bringing $10.00 home to help with the costs of running the home and keeping the remaining $3.00 for my needs during the week. This was the era of the 1950s family that is so often derided by theorists today who see the movement toward more open family groups as a good thing, greater freedom and less restriction and sacrifice — rejecting the notion that discipline and self-sacrifice might be the sorts of things that build character and make families stronger. These same folks regard the parents as incapable of raising their children properly and would rather see them raised by “experts” trained in psychology or social work, persons attached to assorted state agencies.

In any event, one cannot focus exclusively on the weakening of family ties for the disappearance of civil societies, since the Church has also traditionally been an important part of character building, teaching those virtues that helped young people grow into responsible and other-oriented adults. And, for the most part, the Church no longer addresses these issues as they are caught up in the business of turning a profit, filling the pews, and assuring their congregations that they are loved regardless of how they behave.

But it is interesting to ponder the explanation these thinkers point to when they express concern for the successes of capitalism and its decided reorientation of values in creating a calculating, self-interested, commodified culture that measures success and happiness in terms of annual income (which, by the way, helps to explain why children, and their parents in many cases, hold teachers in such low esteem). Have we really come to an age in which, as Schumpeter insists, the average parents calculate the pros and cons of raising a family in terms such as these:

“Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

The Lesser of Evils

Hannah Arendt tells us that the lesser of two evils is still evil. She’s right. And the rumor is going around (especially among those who incline toward a third party candidate in the presidential race) that Hillary is evil even though the lesser of evils. This is a libel and should be rejected as such.

In fact, this woman is extremely well prepared to take the highest office in this land. Not only was she a Senator and the Secretary of State, but she was also married to a two-term president and knows how the ugly game of politics is played. And there’s the rub! She is a politician in a day when politicians are all painted with the same tar brush. But in doing this we ignore folks like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who have shown that it is possible to swim in the putrid waters of Washington politics and not get dirty. Moreover, the former editor of the Wall Street Journal (that “most conservative” of newspapers) stated in print that while doing research on Hillary Clinton for an article she was writing she discovered that Hillary is one of the most honest people in Washington. Now, that may be condemning with faint praise, but it is praise indeed — coming from that source.

Additionally, as noted in a recent blog by my favorite blogger who was comparing Hillary’s agenda with that of Donald Trump, she was

Unable to find anything more than the above regarding Trump’s platform on mental health, I did the unthinkable and went to his campaign website in search of. Remember Hillary’s 38-point platform? Trump has a 7-point platform. No, mental health is not one of the seven. So, I cannot make a comparison between his platform and Hillary’s. Suffice it to say that Ms. Clinton has a comprehensive platform and a plan to improve mental health care, while her opponent has nothing beyond mockery and scorn.

In a word, Hillary stands for important principles — dealing with the economy, education, the environment, health, national security, and social equality, including gay rights — while her opponent can only stand by and call her nasty names. He has no platform on which to stand and his perspective is warped by his hatred and fear of those who differ from himself. But the important point is that, despite her lack of popularity, Hillary Clinton is well prepared for the office of president whereas her opponent(s) — all of them — are not.

This should be kept in mind in November though one will almost certainly not see it written in large letters in the newspapers across this great land of ours, because Hillary is dull compared with Donald Trump who is a circus clown primed to entertain and confuse us all into taking him seriously (and sell newspapers and air time!). The media have always preferred clowns, because that’s what folks seem to want. But for those of us who can see beyond the printed page or the sound-bite on television, it is clear who is and who is not best prepared to be our next president. Dull perhaps, but also very bright and fully aware of what lies ahead for the next president. By no means the lesser of evils.

Want and Need

Because of a very interesting comment on one of my recent posts, my attention was drawn back to a distinction I have noted before but one which we as a culture have lost sight of totally. I refer, of course, to the distinction between “want” and “need.” Now, it might be said that distinctions are of interest only to philosophers — and others of their peculiar type — but in fact they help us to be clear about what it is we are saying. In this case, the distinction goes to the heart of some rather alarming mistakes we are making as a culture. I refer to the mistakes we have made both as parents and teachers.

John Dewey (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

John Dewey
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In education, the movement to “progressive,” child-oriented education under John Dewey and the faculties of  Columbia University Teacher’s College and the University of Chicago Laboratory School that followed after him led directly to the present deterioration of our educational system and also to poor parenting. Dewey thought at the time, in the early thirties, that the schools were too focused on what was being taught and had lost sight of who were being taught — namely, the children. To an extent this was true, but his followers got the bit in their teeth and, contrary to Dewey’s intention, ran with the notion that education should be totally focused on the child and the substance of what was taught really didn’t matter. It took a while and it was not without its critics, but “progressive education” and what we might call “progressive parenting” were born. The most profound comment I have ever read about this mistake was made by the philosopher Hannah Arendt in an article she wrote in 1969. At that time she said:

“. . .progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

The focus here, not only in education but also in parenting since the 1950s at least, is on the fundamental difference between what children want and what they need. In addition, Arendt draws attention to the fact that parents and teachers are, whether they like it or not, authority figures. And we ought to act like it. But we do not. We ask the children what they want to do or learn and take our cue from them. Thus we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of making those choices for them, despite the fact that we must realize that those children really have no idea what they need and in many cases don’t even know what they want. Like it or not, it is the parents and the teachers who must make the decisions for those too young to be expected to make them themselves.

In any event, gradually teachers and parents ceased to play the role of authority figures and turned the raising and teaching of their children over the what Christopher Lasch called “the helping professions,” the behavioral psychologists and social workers who claimed to know what was best for the children and founded that knowledge on the answers the children gave to the question “what do you want to do (learn)?” By asking the children, or students, what they wanted to do or learn we gradually lost sight of the question of what they needed to know and in doing so (as Arendt so astutely pointed out) absolved ourselves of the responsibility of raising or teaching the children what they need to know and do in order to work their way through the maze that is the modern world. In a word, we took the path of least resistance and in doing so abandoned the children to their whims and fancies. Not a good way to do things.

In the end, the focus on what children and students need got lost in the tizzy to give them what they wanted and thus was born the age of entitlement. And this is the world we live in at present while we struggle to figure out what went wrong. Our kids, especially the so-called “millennialists,” are confused and bewildered and ultimately without direction or purpose. And it is their parents’ and teachers’ fault that these young people are now  a part of the confused generation, wondering what went wrong and which direction will lead them to success, properly understood as well-being and happiness. That road begins and ends with the answer to the question: what do these young people need? And while adults may struggle with the answer to this question, we have a better take on it than do those who are too young to have learned where the blind alleys and dead ends are.

Peer Pressure

One of my favorite comics is “For Better or For Worse,” which I read daily. It involves a dentist, his working wife, and their two kids. In a recent series Elizabeth, one of the children, wants her ears pierced. She is quite young and her mother does not approve, admonishing her to wait until she’s a bit older. But the child goes to school each day where her friends brag about their own pierced ears and tease her about her lack of piercings. The pressure on the child is immense and, like most children in her situation, she feels like an outsider and is hurt by her classmates and their taunting.

But what is also involved, and which the creator of this comic strip is aware of, is the pressure on the mother. She feels strongly that it is not appropriate for her young daughter to pierce her ears, but she hurts when she sees her daughter crying and knows how important it is to her to be accepted by her peers. This is a situation so many mothers are put into daily in our society where acceptance by peers determines in so many cases a child’s sense of self-worth.

There are a couple of problems here, of course. To begin with, a child’s sense of self-worth should not be determined by what a group of her peers thinks or says. In addition, a mother’s sense of what is appropriate should be the last word. After all, she is older and has the perspective of years of experience; she knows what is best for her daughter — presumably. But this is the “real” world where children tease and bully one another and now, with social media, broadcast around the fact that one of their peers is not “with the program.” In a recent post I mentioned how a young girl felt that she was lost if her friends didn’t “like” her every post on social media. She knew this was wrong somehow, but there it was: her sense of self-worth was wrapped up in what a group of her friends thought and said about her on twitter or Facebook. It’s an absurd situation on its face. But it is a fact of life.

In the best of all possible worlds, the mother in the comic strip would hold the line and simply wait until her daughter got over the crisis of the moment. After all, a child’s entire life seems to be made up of a series of such crises. We fail to consider whether or not that is a bad thing: we simply assume it is. In that world, the mother would try to help her daughter learn that her self-worth was in no way dependent on what her peers think about her, but on the kind of person she is and will become. But children cannot be expected to follow such complex thinking – even if it is correct.  And that’s the core of the problem. As long as we are convinced that children must be able to comprehend the reasons why they are being led to do the right thing — and that the right thing cannot simply be forced upon them — we will continue to give in to their whims.

On a larger scale, this is what is going on in our schools as well. Curriculum is determined in so many cases by what they kids enjoy on the grounds that if they are not having fun they are not learning. This is absurd, of course, since we have all learned a great many things we didn’t enjoy learning and at times the most valuable lessons are the ones we learn reluctantly. But we live in the Sesame Street era of progressive education where we have become convinced that children should be entertained and their feelings are paramount; that they should never fail or be subjected to painful experiences. These are powerful sentiments — as are the tugs of peer pressure.So, in the end, we have to give in to the Elizabeths of the world and let them have their ears pierced, even if we know it is inappropriate.

Hannah Arendt said many years ago that this is an avoidance of responsibility on the part of parents who should do what they know is best for their children — whether they like it or not. She applied the same rule to teachers in the schools. As she notes in her extraordinary book Responsibility and Judgment,

“. . . [among other things] progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change and improve the world?”

With age comes experience and, even at times, wisdom. Children cannot be expected to have this and they must be force-fed at times. It’s what is sometimes called “tough love.” But we have become so afraid of standing firm and trusting our own instincts that we are led by our own kind of peer pressure and out of sympathy with the children let them get their ears pierced even though we know it is not the right thing to do.

Are We There Yet?

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 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 strike a responsive chord in this reader. Bear in mind that she was writing in 1948 and was primarily interested in Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler and their totalitarian governments. 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. This was before political correctness, of course, when “man” meant everyone. 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. 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.”

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. 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 and are determined to right this wrong by rewriting the history books to stress the role of those who have been excluded by a 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 has 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, 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.

Demagoguery

With the vast improvement in the transmission of pictures and words quickly to more and more people, the always present threat of demagoguery increases. We have seen a number of such (whose names will not be mentioned), but all learned their  techniques, directly or indirectly, from Adolph Hitler. And in order to understand the man’s success no one has studied Hitler more closely than Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was forced to leave Germany in her childhood and later became a teacher and writer of international fame. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a large book that established her reputation firmly as one who had a penetrating insight into some of the most important events of the past which she was convinced should enable us to better understand the present and anticipate probable future events. In a lengthy footnote in that book she reflects on the success of the depressingly ordinary Adolph Hitler “who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune.” Indeed, anyone who has seen films of Hitler before a crowd, even if he is not fluent in German, finds himself swept up in the emotional theater and inclined to agree with whatever the little man is saying. What is it that makes this possible? As Arendt notes:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, the tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and the ‘conviction . . .that everything is balderdash’ could best be avoided by adhering to one of many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency.’ The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates.”

There are a number of features of this comment that invite our attention. Clearly, Arendt has studied her subject closely and asked key questions about how it is that such a person as Adolph Hitler could hold vast numbers of people spellbound and convince them that black is white. To begin with, as she says, he grabs one of the many opinions floating out there and presents it with absolute conviction as the only possible truth, bringing order out of chaos. Repetition, conviction, and consistency, with the assurance that people will believe what you say if they hear it said often and without doubt or hesitation. This is key. Please note that it doesn’t matter in the least whether the opinion is true or false. What matters his whether or not the speaker says it with conviction. Hitler never doubted himself; he never second-guessed. He simply asserted what he wanted people to believe, knowing they would believe what he said if he said it often enough and without any hint of uncertainty.

But as Arendt points out, it matters also that this opinion must be asserted in a group where there is confusion about what matters and what is true. They seek release from the bewildering array of opinions on every side: they want something firm to grab onto in a world filled with conflicting opinions. In Hitler’s day when the mass media were just aborning, the situation was less chaotic than it is in our day when we are overwhelmed with numberless opinions on every subject. We are bombarded on every side by claims and those who presume to be experts about things we may know little about. We all have opinions, but we also are easily persuaded by one who seems to be certain of the truth, even if that truth runs counter to what we ourselves believe. And even if it is blatantly false. The appeal is always emotional, not intellectual., This is not philosophy; it is rhetoric. The demagogue knows how to “work on” the emotions of his or her listener. And as Arendt points out, when the audience evidences ” a characteristic lack of discerning judgment,” as it does in our day especially, the job is made so much easier.

So we should not be amazed that folks like Rush Limbaugh and, in his day, Paul Harvey are immensely popular: they make complex issues simple by  stating “with unbending consistency” and without wavering an opinion (any opinion) that floats in the air and assert it with smug confidence. Their listeners seem to be sitting at the feet of wisdom itself. How could we not have seen that before? It seems so clear now. The demagogue doesn’t know any more than we do. He simply appears to do so and he does so with swagger and with firmness that seem to make disagreement impossible. So we buy what he is selling, whatever that might happen to be. And we feel a sense of relief in doing so, because by agreeing with the demagogue we are ourselves now also wise. Where we had doubts before, we now have certainty — even if we are “demonstrably wrong.”

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

Hannah Arendt Redux

A film recently released in New York deals with the life of Hannah Arendt and has once again stirred up much of the controversy that surrounded her study of the mind of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s during his trial in Jerusalem. Readers of these blogs will recognize Arendt’s name as I have referred to her many times. She is, in my view, one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century and one I never tire of revisiting. But it is precisely the depth of her thinking that has caused her detractors so much trouble: they simply don’t understand what she writes — or they are not careful readers. And this misunderstanding has surfaced in the controversy surrounding the release of this film by German director Margarethe von Trotta.

In his discussion in the New York Times of the controversy surrounding this film, author Roger Berkowitz evidences a careful reading of Arendt’s works and a thorough understanding of her position on Eichmann. He shows himself unwilling to side with those who thought Arendt had dismissed Eichmann as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” He was anything but those things, according to Arendt. But many people found deeply disturbing the conviction that Arendt did embrace about Eichmann, namely, that he was pretty much just like the rest of us. It is easier and more comforting to think the man a crazed psychopath. But this was also, in Arendt’s view, decidedly not the case. As Berkowitz notes in his excellent article:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

Arendt had a very definite notion of what thought requires: it is a dialogue within the person himself or herself in which an honest attempt is made to see both sides of an issue and think one’s way carefully to imagined consequences of possible actions. Eichmann, like an increasing number of us, was unable to do that. He was not a “clerk” or a “robot.” Nor was he a psychopath. He was a relatively normal man who simply wasn’t able to engage his mind fully to think his way around a problem and see the implications of his actions. As a result, he became zealous, readily identifying with causes and blindly following a movement that he too quickly embraced. He could not think of Nazism without at the same time thinking of anti-Semitism. In his mind they were one and the same, and he embraced both ideas and willingly did what he was told had to be done. Evil is, in this case at least, banal.

A careful reader will note Roger Berkowitz’s oblique reference to America’s drone policy in the final sentence of the above quote, referring to those who are “willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.” Those who defend the use of these silent killers that take so many innocent civilian lives on the grounds that they are the “lesser of two evils” need to recall Arendt’s point that the lesser of evils is still evil.