Me First (A Repost)

A recent study of “Millennials” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education is disquieting at best. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and was conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic. It happens that the generation that was supposed to be “we” oriented turns out to be even more “me” oriented than the generation that produced them.
The study shows that, contrary to popular misconceptions, those born since 1982 are increasingly self-absorbed and unconcerned about others or the environment. They are focused on money, image, and fame rather than such things as community involvement or acceptance by others. Countering the popular image of today’s youth as engaged, high-achieving, confident, and concerned about their world, Ms Twenge rejoins,

“I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.”

The article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle because educators are being alerted that the students in their classrooms may not be the least bit interested in what they are being taught. This will come as no surprise to the men and women in front of those classes who have become increasingly aware that it’s all about entertainment and dumbing down the curriculum to disengaged students. I saw it happening before my eyes in my 41 years of college teaching. I simply could not ask the students in 1990 to read the same material I routinely required in 1970, or even to write coherent sentences. Toward the end of my tenure I was involved in a required Freshman course. The assigned reading included Huxley’s Brave New World and the students, many of whom bought “cheaters,” not only had difficulty reading the simple text, but a great many of them resented having to read the book in the first place; on their course evaluations at the end of the semester a number of them asked openly what on earth the book had to do with them — as though that was the only thing that mattered. That was about fifteen years ago. It seems it isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse.
We should not be surprised if the young people growing up today are self-absorbed, however. After all, theirs is the world of “self-esteem” in which they have been told since day #1 that they are great and can do no wrong. God forbid their elders should judge them. Indeed, the young have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter and everything they want should be handed to them with little or no effort on their part. In a word, they are the product of our child-care and education system — what Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, has called the “helping professions” — that claim to know children better than their own parents do and which demand little and rewards greatly. The chickens are coming home to roost.
But this study has important implications for more than just the teachers around the country who must figure a way to get through to increasingly disinterested and self-absorbed young people. It has ramifications for society in general. As Ms Twenge says,

“Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems in the nation and the world, are generally good things.”
But this is not happening. These young people are “more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems. It doesn’t bode well for society.”

We are told repeatedly that we should be patient with the young because they are under so much “pressure.” But the notion that self-absorbed young people who are unaware of the world around them could be under any more pressure than young people in previous generations is absurd: it’s precisely awareness of the problems around us that creates stress and pressure, and these young people appear to be totally unaware and, worse yet, unconcerned — by and large. Clearly, there are exceptions, thank goodness.
At a time when we need people who can see beyond the stunted world of self to others and the larger world, it is unsettling to learn that the trend is in the opposite direction. I have written a book about this and touched on it in previous blogs; the Chronicle report simply adds fuel to the fires of indignation that leads me to a deeper concern for the earth and the creatures living on it. What the world needs now is not more self-absorbed narcissists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and the people and things around them. Let’s hope enough of them sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference. As I noted above: there are exceptions.

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.

On Not Reading Macaulay

I must confess I have read little of the historian/essayist/poet Thomas Babington Macaulay. But apparently very few historians read him either even though he is reputed to be one of the best historians ever to have set pen to paper (as was done in the old days). Indeed, the breed of new historians, about whom I have written in the past, regard the old historians as part of the problem with the world today: yesterday’s news, not important enough to waste time on. Many of them prefer the New History that makes few demands on their time or effort (how symptomatic of our times, eh?). They would prefer to do such things as psychoanalyze Hitler and determine that his hatred of the Jews, if not his reasons for declaring war on the rest of the civilized world, was the result of the failure of a Jewish doctor to save his mother who was dying of cancer. Or they would like to rewrite history “from the bottom up,” focusing on the little people whom past historians have ignored because of a lack of documentation to create accurate pictures. Lack of documentation is not a problem for these “historians.” They just make stuff up!

In any event, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (yes, her again: she is brilliant) the tireless defender of the Old History and a great admirer of Macaulay notes not only that historians don’t read him anymore, she notes that the problem goes even deeper:

“a commentator [on Macaulay in 1959] thought it safe to predict that Macaulay would indeed be read half a century hence, ‘if there are readers left.’ It is not clear whether the ominous proviso referred to a nuclear catastrophe or simply to the death of the written word as a result of television or a debased mass culture. What was not anticipated was that professional historians would turn against Macaulay, making him seem . . . unreadable and unmemorable. . .”

I have commented on the death of old ways of doing history in previous posts so I shall not go there again. But the broader point is worth some serious reflection. The notion that we would lose our desire to read because of “television or a debased culture” is prescient — written as it was in 1987. It would be hard to argue against the fact that we now live in a digital age that has replaced the reading of books with television, iPads, wifi, and video games.

A critic recently noted the spike in interest of late in Orwell’s 1984 (are people actually reading it?) in light of the recent ascendency of a man into high office who looks more and more each day like a dictator and less and less like the leader of a democracy whose citizens are the ones he works for. The critic noted that Huxley’s Brave New World was more appropriate because while Orwell warned against the burning of books, Huxley warned against the loss of any desire to read in the first place. Huxley looks increasingly like he saw things everyone else was missing.

The point of all this is that we lose so much in turning our backs not only on great minds like Macaulay’s but on all of those who have brought us to this place in time, a time when we have come to realize the ills of former days, the lack of respect for persons world-wide; the persecutions of those who differ from us (though there are those who would prefer to keep the persecutions alive); the wholesale exploitation of other countries in the name of profit; the need for a more cosmopolitan and less nationalistic outlook on the world around us of which we are a part — also seeming of late to have lost much of its appeal. For all our problems and challenges, in many ways we have made moral progress and much of that progress is due to the great thinkers, not only in the West but in the East as well, who have informed our thinking and created the categories by means of which we seek to make sense of the world we share in common and which seems so confounding at times. In any event, before we turn our backs on those great minds altogether we should at least make sure we have read them. It is very sad indeed that we seem to have become determined to ignore our past and especially those who created out of that past a deeper and more interesting world, people like Thomas Babington Macaulay.

 

Individuality

As you may have gathered, I have become a devoté of the writer Barbara Kingsolver. It’s my friend Dana Yost’s fault: he got me started and now I want to read everything she wrote. She writes beautifully and has a great deal to say that is important and worth serious thought. That’s what I do: I find an author I like and I read everything they wrote. Kingsolver belongs among the first rank of American writers in my view and the novel I finished reading not long ago raises a most interesting question. It has to do with what it means to achieve true individuality while at the same time belonging to a group.

In the novel, Pigs In Heaven, we follow a young woman introduced in Kingsolver’s previous novel as she struggles to deal with the fact that a young Indian girl she has adopted illegally and she has grown to love is now claimed by the Cherokee tribe to which they insist she rightfully belongs. As it happens, the woman is herself part Cherokee, but that fact remains in the background as the tale unfolds. During the telling of that tale, the young woman’s mother, Alice, goes to the Cherokee Nation to visit with a cousin and intervene on behalf of her daughter; while there she gradually reclaims her own sense of belonging to a people that, while poor, are held together by age-old traditions, painful memories, and, most importantly, love and respect for one another.

The question that this novel raises is whether it is possible for a person to become true to themselves while at the same time pledging loyalty to a group that may make moral demands on them. In a word, can one remain free while at the same time doing what others demand of them? The Nation has traditions and ways of doing things that Alice and her daughter are unfamiliar with — being raised in Mississippi and Kentucky, far away from the Nation itself. Kingsolver paints a beautiful picture of how Alice gradually finds herself drawn into this strange group of people while attending a “stomp dance” in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere (where alcohol is not permitted, as it happens). As the night  gradually turns to dawn and she finds herself dancing along with the entire nation, “For the first time she can remember, Alice feels completely included.” And yet she remains the same person she was before.

Is it possible for someone to feel (and, indeed be) included in a group and at the same time achieve true individuality? Kingsolver suggests that belonging to something greater than oneself is the ONLY way to achieve true individuality. It is possible to love others and oneself at the same time: one finds oneself by losing oneself. Our culture’s view of the issue seems quite different. We seem to think that true individuality can only be achieved by rejecting the group we are born into and swearing allegiance to none other than ourselves. Think of the turbulent 60s when the “establishment” was rejected out of hand and love was reduced to free sex: it was all about “doing your own thing.” As the young Cherokee attorney who is pursuing the little girl in order to return her to her people says to a white man early in the novel:

“Your culture is one long advertisement for how to treat yourself to the life you think you really deserve. Whether you actually deserve it or not.”

What we have here is a profound difference between the sense of belonging that Huxley, for example, depicts in Brave New World, in which individuals lose their sense of self by becoming drawn into a group that captures not only their wills but also their minds. This does not happen in the Cherokee Nation, according to Kingsolver. Alice, and to a lesser extent her daughter, is drawn back to her Cherokee roots. It is a beautiful idea and Kingsolver is able to make a convincing case. The glue that holds the group together is nothing more, nor less, than then love and respect they have for one another. Alice, for the first time she can remember, “feels completely included.” But she is also the same woman who lately joined the group, though now she has a deeper sense of who she is and where she belongs. In achieving true individuality and a sense of freedom she has never before known she has the assurance that she is loved and accepted for who she is.

These people seem to have it right: one achieves true selfhood and true freedom not by rejecting others and seeking to stand apart, but by accepting and willingly belonging to something larger than oneself– subordinating one’s self willingly in order to discover one’s self. In a way it’s not unlike a good marriage.

 

NOTE: In an interview with Stephen L. Fisher of Emory & Henry College in 2011 Ms Kingsolver confirmed some of the ideas I have expounded here:

“. . .the most remarkable feature of human culture is its capacity to reach beyond the self to encompass the collective good; yet, here in the United States we are blazing a bold downhill path from the high ground of ‘human collective’ toward the tight little den of ‘self.'”

Well put, but as is the case with so many fine novelists, her books make the point more forcefully.

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.

More Huxley Snippits

I mentioned in a previous post in which I quoted at length from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, that he was very concerned about the loss of human freedom in a world increasingly crowded and tending toward what he calls “dictatorship.” I want to continue to quote from his book because what he has to say is so relevant today and has the ring of truth. Speaking of truth, he thinks the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false are essential elements in a good education. Imagine!

“An education for freedom (and for the love and intelligence which are at once the conditions and the results of freedom) must be among other things an education in the proper use of language.. . . .Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper use of language — education on every level from kindergarten to graduate school — are now available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. Indeed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders even in the democratic countries do not want them to be given this sort of education.”

Indeed, their parents want them to learn a trade, to be able to earn money right after graduation — which is important, to be sure, but not of first importance. Given that the distinguishing mark of the human species is the use of symbols, it is of first importance, as Huxley suggests, that our children learn to use their minds, to learn how language functions and to see how easily facts can be manipulated in order to persuade the unwary. Huxley, as I have mentioned before, understood the nature of freedom and the ease with which it can be taken away from us — without our knowing it has been lost. As he says in this regard:

“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not to be free — to be under no physical restraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel, and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel, and act. There will never be such a thing as a writ of habeas mentum; for no sheriff or jailer can bring an illegally imprisoned mind into court, and no person whose mind has been made captive by the methods outlined above [in his discussion of propaganda] would be in a position to complain of his captivity. The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible and he believes himself to be free.” [Italics added]

The result, of course, is a society like that in Huxley’s novel, a society of captives who think they are free: denizens of an ant hill, as Dostoevsky put it.  When I asked my classes to read Huxley’s novels most had no idea what he was talking about: his world was so unlike theirs. Or so they thought.

“That so many of the well-fed television watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing but not surprising. ‘Free as a bird,’ we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unfettered movement in all three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone. ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘make us your slaves, but feed us.'”

One wonders if the plethora of entertainment that surrounds us and diverts our attention from important matters could possibly be part of an attempt to dull our minds, weaken our critical faculties. Is that far-fetched? In any event, apropos of Huxley’s last comment, the interesting, albeit disturbing, question is what will happen to these Dodos when there isn’t enough bread? They will then be forced to think in order to survive, but almost certainly, as things now stand, they will be unable to do so.

Snippits From Huxley

Readers will agree that I have drawn on Aldous Huxley a great deal over the years. I am reposting one of my previous blogs with a brief addendum at the end which demonstrates how prescient the man was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Generation Me

A recent study of “Millennials” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education is disquieting at best. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and was conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic. It happens that the generation that was supposed to be “we” oriented turns out to be even more “me” oriented than the generation that produced them.

The study shows that, contrary to popular misconceptions, those born since 1982 are increasingly self-absorbed and unconcerned about others or the environment. They are focused on money, image, and fame rather than such things as community involvement or acceptance by others. Countering the popular image of today’s youth as engaged, high-achieving, confident, and concerned about their world, Ms Twenge rejoins, “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.”

The article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle because educators are being alerted that the students in their classrooms may not be the least bit interested in what they are being taught. This will come as no surprise to the men and women in front of those classes who have become increasingly aware that it’s all about entertainment and dumbing down the curriculum to disengaged students. I saw it happening before my eyes in my 41 years of college teaching. I simply could not ask the students in 1990 to read the same material I routinely required in 1970, or even to write coherent sentences. Toward the end of my tenure I was involved in a required Freshman course. The assigned reading included Huxley’s Brave New World and the students, many of whom bought “cheaters,” not only had difficulty reading the simple text, but a great many of them resented having to read the book in the first place; on their course evaluations at the end of the semester a number of them asked openly what on earth the book had to do with them — as though that was the only thing that mattered. That was about ten years ago. It seems it isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse.

We should not be surprised if the young people growing up today are self-absorbed, however. After all, theirs is the world of “self-esteem” in which they have been told since day #1 that they are great and can do no wrong. God forbid their elders should judge them. Indeed, the young have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter and everything they want should be handed to them with little or no effort on their part. In a word, they are the product of our child-care and education system — what Christopher Lasch has called the “helping professions” — that claims to know children better than their own parents do and which demands little and rewards greatly. The chickens are coming home to roost.

But this study has important implications for more than just the teachers around the country who must figure a way to get through to increasingly disinterested and self-absorbed young people. It has ramifications for society in general. As Ms Twenge says, “Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems in the nation and the world, are generally good things.” But this is not happening. These young people are “more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems. It doesn’t bode well for society.” We are told repeatedly that we should be patient with the young because they are under so much “pressure.” But the notion that self-absorbed young people who are unaware of the world around them could be under any more pressure than young people in previous generations is absurd: it’s precisely awareness of the problems around us that creates stress and pressure.

At a time when we need people who can see beyond the stunted world of self to others and the larger world, it is unsettling to learn that the trend is in the opposite direction. I have written a book about this and touched on it in previous blogs; the Chronicle report simply adds fuel to the fires of indignation that leads me to a deeper concern for the earth and the creatures living on it. What the world needs now is not more self-absorbed narcissists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and the people and things around them. Let’s hope enough of them sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference.

It’s All About Me

A new study of “Millennials” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education is disquieting at best. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and was conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University. It happens that the generation that was supposed to be “we” oriented turns out to be even more “me” oriented than the generation that produced them.

The study shows that, contrary to popular misconceptions, those born since 1982 are increasingly self-absorbed, unconcerned about others or their environment. They are focused on money, image, and fame rather than such things as community involvement or acceptance by others. Countering the popular image of today’s youth as engaged, high-achieving, confident, and concerned about their world, Ms Twenge rejoins, “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.”

The article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle because educators are being alerted that the kids in their classrooms may not be the least bit interested in what they are being taught. This will come as no surprise to the men and women up front who have become increasingly aware that it’s all about entertainment and dumbing down the curriculum to disengaged students. I saw it happening before my eyes in my 41 years of college teaching. I simply could not ask the students in 1990 to read the same material I routinely required in 1970. Toward the end of my tenure I was involved in a required Freshman course. The assigned reading included Huxley’s Brave New World and the students not only had difficulty reading the simple text, but a great many of them resented having to read the book in the first place; on their course evaluations at the end of the semester a number of them asked openly what on earth the book had to do with them — as though that was the only thing that mattered. That was about ten years ago. It seems it isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse.

We should not be surprised if the young people growing up today are self-absorbed. After all, theirs is the world of “self-esteem” in which they have been told since day #1 that they are great and can do no wrong. God forbid we should judge them. Indeed, they have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter. In a word, they are the product of our child-care and education system that demands little and rewards greatly. The chickens are coming home to roost.

But this study has important implications for more than just the teachers around the country who must figure a way to get through to increasingly self-absorbed young people. It has ramifications for society in general. As Ms Twenge says, “Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems in the nation and the world, are generally good things.” But this is not happening. These young people are “more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems. It doesn’t bode well for society.”

Indeed not. At a time when we need people who can see beyond the stunted world of self to others and the larger world, it is unsettling to learn that the trend is in the opposite direction. I have written a book about this and touched on it in previous blogs; this report simply adds fuel to the fires of indignation that leads me to a deeper concern for the world my grandchildren will have to live in. What the world needs now is not more self-absorbed individualists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and people around them. Let’s hope enough of them sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference.

Our Brave New World

One of my favorite books of all time is Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s not so much that the book is great literature, because it isn’t. But it remains a favorite because I have never ceased to be amazed by the things that Huxley saw so clearly nearly one hundred years ago. I don’t mean that he predicted we would be able to ride in helicopters one day. I mean he saw clearly what our culture would become: hedonistic and self-obsessed.

The book predicts a day when citizens can flee from pain and anxiety by popping a pill. The citizens of BNW fill their lives with endless diversions and vapid gratifications, immediate and shallow — but certainly not fulfilling. It’s all about doing their thing, whether or not it’s worth doing. Indeed, that question is never raised.  History is bunk, of course, because the only thing that matters is the present moment and the pleasure that can be milked from that moment. The citizens of BNW have “. . .no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think.”

There are no meaningful human relationships, and communities are tied together artificially by means of community sings, free sex, and heaps of Soma. The community matters because the brave new world cannot stand individuals, that is, those who stand apart. If the individual dares to assert himself he is deported to an island where he cannot bother others who are intent on making sure they never have time to think or feel much of anything.

Aside from contraceptive pills and tranquilizers, I have always thought the first real step we took in our culture toward the brave new world was the credit card. It came on the scene in a large way in the 1950s and within ten years had pretty much become a necessity in every pocket or pocketbook. In itself it is merely a convenient way to make purchases. But its significance is worth contemplating: it means immediate gratification. We no longer have to wait for anything, we can have it now. “Has any of you been compelled to live through a long time-interval between consciousness of a desire and its fulfillment?” asks Huxley. Not any longer! It doesn’t matter if we can’t pay, we have plastic. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Anticipation greatly increases the delight from receipt of the thing long awaited. We tend to forget that.

But now we simply charge it and take it home. We don’t have to wait another minute. If the credit limit is reached, we merely switch to another company and wait until the new card fills. Credit card debt in this country is staggering — something like $20,000.00 on average. It tells us something about ourselves that we might not care to know. We are rapacious in our desire to have things and own stuff, as though our very sense of self worth is tied up with what we own. The one who dies with the most toys wins, as the saying goes.

In the end, Huxley saw clearly what was coming, and we have realized in so many ways precisely the delights that those denizens of the ant-heap in Huxley’s world reached out for and grabbed with little or no real effort. And we have become just as shallow. It is ironic that many who read Huxley’s book fail to see its implications.

I recall vividly some years ago when I directed a required Freshman college course and suggested that we read BNW. An alarming number of the 300 students couldn’t make the connection. Indeed, a number of them simply couldn’t understand the words on the page — even the page in their “cheaters.” But that’s another story. For the most part, those who could grasp the meanings of the words Huxley wrote insisted it was science fiction, certainly not something we need to take seriously. Jonathan Swift once said that satire was like a mirror in which each reader saw everyone except himself. In that sense, Huxley wrote a satire. But it is one in which we need to admit that we are very much in the frame.