Another Gem!

The delight one takes in reading exceptional literature (dare I say “great” literature?) is in finding the occasional gem. They are always there and that is what makes them exceptional. In the case of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, to which I have referred before, they are there in abundance.

The novel was written soon after the Second World War at a time when many an American intellectual was flirting with Communism, which appeared to be the way to deliver the poor and downtrodden from under the foot of the greedy capitalist power-brokers. In the novel the leader of a small group of intellectuals from New York has had a sudden change of heart and has deserted the Communist Party to the dismay and even anger of his small group of devoted fellow-travelers.

The news has come out of Russia of the atrocities that have been committed for years in the name of Communism, the millions of dead and the promise of millions more — all in the name of a “better way of life for all.” The leader of the local group, Gifford Maxim,  has risked his life to leave the Party to which he has devoted the majority of his adult life. He has had an epiphany of sorts as he has come to realize that the end does not justify the means when the means involve the death of so many of his fellow humans. He is no longer a member of a small community of like-minded zealots, “My community with men is that we are children of God.”

By way of reaching this conclusion, he has this to say to his former friends and devotees:

“And never has there been so much talk of liberty while the chains are being forged. Democracy and freedom. And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow-man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become. How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?”

In light of recent events in this country, when our feckless Leader loudly threatened to “totally destroy” an entire nation of people whose ideology differs from our own, a time when the air still rings with similar threats from the leader of the “other side” who refers to Our Fearless Leader as a “dotard” and labels him as “deranged”  —  neither of these men seeming to realize that countless human lives are at stake if these threats are carried out — it is a timely reminder that the hidden political agenda is to acquire and maintain power, to “impose” one ideology on everyone. There are no winners in this power game; there are only losers.

As Maxim reminds us, ours is the community of the “children of God.” We are all human with our many foibles, and the particular ideology we follow seems not to matter one bit. There are always those who will lord it over others, those who will take while insisting that they have the right to do so, those who simply want more of what they already have. It matters not whether we call it “Communism” or “Capitalism,” in any case, it is about power, and about who is to wield it and for how long.

Trilling is usually labelled a “Conservative,” though he regarded himself as a moderate; in any event, it is a simple matter to dismiss these sentiments as those of someone who thinks differently. We tend to do that sort of thing. But this would be a mistake, the very same mistake Gifford Maxim has made in following an ideology blindly, ignoring the atrocities for years out of the conviction that his is the only legitimate way to see the world. As Trilling himself has said, in another context entirely,

“Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties and of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.”

Committing oneself blindly to an ideology, any ideology, is a denial of our fundamental humanity. Labelling the opposition instead of listening to what they have to say leads to frustration, ignorance, and eventually to violence. Whether or not we are in sympathy with what the author of this novel has to say — and he has a great deal to say — it is well worth hearing. And to my ear it rings true. We all seem to be quick to condemn those who disagree with us and to see our way of thinking as the only way while, in fact, there are many ways to think and to see — and ours may not be the best way.

In any event, the end certainly does not justify the means when it involves the death of so many others who disagree with us, many of whom are totally unaware that they do so.

Advertisements

Mass Movements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prescient Philosopher

In this interesting article about the predictions of the philosopher Richard Rorty we hear the plea that liberal intellectuals stop their other-worldly theorizing and wake up to the world around them. It was true in 1998 and it is certainly true in 2016.  His observations suggest that there is much work to be done to bring this nation together.

The victory of Donald Trump caught countless progressives and establishment conservatives by surprise. Since Election Day, there’s been no shortage of ink spent trying to sort out the underlying factors behind his startling rise to the Oval Office. But for late philosopher Richard Rorty, the writing was on the wall.
In 1998, Rorty, who most recently taught at Stanford University, argued in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America that “old industrialized democracies” are heading toward a period “in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.”
He said the left had embraced identity politics at the expense of economic justice. Resentment would fester among the working class as they realized that the powers that be were not fighting to stop wages from shrinking or jobs from being sent overseas.
He suggested that many would turn to a “strongman” to flip the script on the smug, overpaid and deceitful who had long neglected their suffering. The author said the progress made on behalf of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and women would then run the risk of being rolled back.
One reason Rorty perceived something many other left-leaning academics missed might have to do with his chosen philosophical tradition: pragmatism, which emphasizes practical consequences. He died in 2007, so we will never know for sure what he would have thought about Trump’s highly unconventional campaign.
A few days after Trump’s surprise victory, Queen’s University law professor Lisa Kerr and others posted a particularly prescient passage from Achieving Our Country on Twitter. The three paragraphs swiftly caught fire on social media and were shared thousands of times. The New Yorker cited the passage in a profile of President Obama, and the New York Times analyzed the words in-depth.
Here is the slightly condensed version of the passage that Kerr posted online:

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Amid the renewed attention, online searches for Achieving Our Country skyrocketed and there was a run on the book at Harvard University Press, which is reprinting the book and plans to make it available online as soon as possible.
Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, recalled having big arguments with Rorty before the book was published because he thought it was “too old-style liberal.”
“He thought some of the liberals from the 1930s were really fabulous. He was trying to revive the left with this book. He was trying to kick them in the rear end so they would stop doing stuff that was easy and lazy however trendy it looked,” Waters said in an interview with Yahoo News.
According to Waters, Rorty was a clear-thinking provocateur who refused to play it safe and retained the ability to see larger trends, the big picture. He said a lot of scholars in academia think of themselves as left-wingers but don’t actually do anything.

“Rorty was trying to get people to think. That’s the philosopher’s job,” he continued. “He was trying to get people to prepare for being more responsive to the political situation in America.”. . . .
“The reason we love poets and philosophers is that they almost have some sixth sense. They pick up vibes that the rest of the world is not sensitive to or refuses to see,” he said. “He was being Cassandra: ‘If you people don’t wake up, things are going to get a lot worse. The enemy is going to win. Can I make that any more clear to you?’”
The crux of Rorty’s thesis in Achieving Our Country is that the sins of the United States past do not need to define its future. He criticized the American left of retreating into theory at the expense of taking an active role in civic life.
Rorty lamented that many of his fellow liberals had come to view American patriotism as an endorsement of past atrocities, such as slavery or violence against Native Americans. He encouraged his peers to re-embrace the patriotism of the old left and work toward a more hopeful future, much like Walt Whitman and John Dewey had before.
In the relevant passage, Rorty goes on to suggest that after his “imagined strongman” comes to power he will quickly make peace with the “international super-rich” and invoke memories of past military victories to encourage military adventures for short-term prosperity. But, Rorty continued, the strongman will ultimately be a disaster for the world and people will wonder why there had been so little resistance to his ascent.
“[Rorty] was a big-picture guy,” Waters said. “He was inspired by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and William James and was concerned about the soul of America and what’s happening in America. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes him the most different from other people. He dared to think about the country and what’s good for the country.”

The question I would ask is whether Trump will turn out to be the “strongman” those folks were hoping for or whether they will soon realize that he doesn’t care a tinker’s dam about them and is all about himself? Then what??

Defending The Eggheads

In 1952 the right-wing novelist and essayist Louis Bromfield wrote the following barb regarding the intellectual, who was increasingly referred to as an “egghead.”

Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protegé of a professor. Fundamentally superficial. Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. Supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men. Essentially confused in thought and immersed in a mixture of sentimentality and violent evangelism. A doctrinaire supporter of Middle-European socialism as opposed to Greco-French-American ideas of democracy and liberalism. Subject to the old-fashioned philosophical morality of Nietzsche which frequently leads him into jail or disgrace. A self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot. An anemic bleeding heart.”

To add to the mix, president Eisenhower later added “by the way, I heard a definition of an intellectual that I thought was very interesting: a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” And so, led by the likes of Joe McCarthy, the war against those who use their minds and choose their words carefully began. And despite McCarthy’s dwindling popularity, the cry was swiftly taken up by hordes of more practical and down-to-earth folks who have always had a distrust of poets, artists, dreamers, and those reputed to live in ivory towers.

But we might note that Eisenhower’s definition might well include Bromfield who uses way too many words and doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.   After all, it’s not at all clear how those dry intellectuals can at the same time be “over-emotional and feminine” (whatever that might mean). Further, socialism cannot easily be set in opposition to democracy since they are not of a kind: one is an economic system and the other a political one. There are highly successful countries that blend in interesting ways both socialism and democracy. Moreover, Bromfield might even fit his own description of an egghead, since he is “supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men.” But, we leave these enticing thoughts because there are larger issues here.

To begin with, Bromfield does make a couple of good points. For one, intellectuals do tend to look at every side of complex issues and it often renders them ineffectual. Accurate or not, the common image of the intellectual is the philosopher Thales who reportedly fell into a hole while gazing at the stars! However, we might recall that Plato’s notion that philosophers should be kings was dismissed out of hand by that other egghead, Aristotle, who preferred a person of “practical wisdom,” which meant a person with good common sense. Neither, however, would have approved of a political leader who rushes blindly into action before he or she has fully accessed the consequences of that action — like, say, engaging in war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thus, if the alternative to the egghead is the “real world” person of a practical mien who jumps at conclusions and rushes headlong into disaster, then one would think the intellectual approach is to be preferred. Or, perhaps, there is a third option: careful deliberation followed by determination to follow the agreed-upon course of action. Indeed, this is the sort of thing James Madison envisioned when he wrote the Constitution. (Now, there’s an egghead if there ever was one!!) This was supposed to be the strength of a Democracy. We were to be a nation that took its time to do things right, examining both sides of complex issues and reaching a consensus when possible.  We were supposed to deliberate and use our minds; in order to make sure we could do that, an educated citizenry was the keystone. Both Madison and his close friend (and another egghead) Thomas Jefferson agreed about that.

But the anti-intellectual ethos that permeates this culture today has lent its considerable weight to the attack on the public schools and the notion that education will lead this country into a brighter tomorrow has been lost in the concern over more practical matters: like job training and the economy. To be sure, Bromfield is right that intellectuals can be a pain in the ass. But one would hope that in this complex world of ours we would willingly take time to listen to a person who knows what he or she is talking about rather than mindlessly follow the person who shoots off his mouth and rushes blindly into situations filled with hidden dangers.