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.

Ideas Have Consequences

I have spent the major part of my life in schools: eight years in “grammar school,” four years in high school, and eight years in college and graduate school. Then I taught for 42 years, first in a private grammar school then in colleges and universities. One might say I have an academic bent in my thought and a bit of a preoccupation with what is going on (or not going on) in education circles these days. I have written a book and numerous blog posts and articles on education and its present ills. As I say, I come at questions from a decidedly academic perspective.

Accordingly, I hesitate to write once again about one of the major movements in our colleges and universities, because I dare say readers have become a bit tired of the themes I return to so often. But some of those themes have wider application, as I have been at pains to show. One of them is put forward by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have drawn on for several of my blog posts. She is a bright and interesting thinker and I have always managed to find ruch veins of gold in her many pages. Writing in the mid 90s of the last century, for example, she foretold on the resurgence of nationalism which we are seeing happen today. In one of her more recent books she has this disclaimer:

“Perhaps [my] book should be labelled ‘The Confessions of an Unregenerate Prig,’ because it is dedicated to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between the two, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society. We pay lip service to the adage ‘Ideas Have Consequences,’ but it is only in extremis that were take it seriously, when the ideas of a Stalin or a Hitler issue in the realities of gulags and death camps. It is the premise of this book that well short of such dire situations there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and polity.”

Indeed, a number of ideas that originated in academia have found their way into the world of everyday life, such things as Affirmative Action, Political Correctness — in the sense that certain words that offend certain people are taboo — and, most recently, the esoteric movement in our colleges called “deconstructionism.” As an academic pursuit, deconstructionism began with literary and philosophical texts in an effort to show that the text means what the interpreter wants it to mean — drawing on what he or she thinks the writer was thinking and what they know about the political and social background of the writer and the text itself. The idea is to “de-construct,” i.e., take it the text apart and put it back together in a coherent fashion. There is no correct reading of the text, only interpretations. The movement has infiltrated schools of literary criticism, philosophy, and history and has threatened to reduce all academic disciplines to social studies and unintelligible psychobabble. It is a complicated movement, but it begins and ends with the rejection of truth and reality, insisting that both are constructs, made up by readers and interpreters of “texts.”

The grand pooh-bah of deconstructionism was the French thinker Jacques Derrida. When one of the founders of deconstructionism, Paul de Man, was discovered to have been an avowed Nazi who continued to support Naziism even after the Second World War, Derrida joined a number of his fellow deconstructionists in deconstructing the world and words of De Man in an attempt to prove that he didn’t say what everyone knew he had said. They insisted that de Man “proposed not the extermination of the Jews but only their expulsion from Europe” despite the fact that this was clearly not what he had written on numerous occasions. Deconstructionists determine what was written, not ordinary readers like ourselves. We see the words but cannot possibly know what they mean until their meaning is revealed to us by the deconstructionist themselves. In general, as Himmelfarb notes:

“Still another [apologist] reminds us that although many facts about the affair have emerged, facts in themselves are meaningless. ‘It’s all a matter of interpretation, and each interpretation will probably reveal more about the interpreter than about de Man.”

This denial of “facts” and the accompanying denial of anything resembling “truth” has clearly made its way outside the hallowed halls of academe, like a science experiment gone bad, — and moved beyond the reading of literature and philosophy to the “real” world (which is itself a construct, or so it is claimed). We now have a President, for one, who is a master of desconstruction (albeit out of ignorance; I doubt that he ever heard of Derrida!), a “gaslighter” who is intent on convincing us all that black is not black and white is not white — unless he tells us otherwise. The crowd at his inauguration was the largest on record because he and his minions say so — and despite the photographic record and the testimony of those actually in attendance.

As an academic exercise deconstructionism has done little more than turn off would-be English majors who would rather read exceptional literature than read theories about those books written by so-called experts within their fields. It would therefore appear harmless, a fruitless exercise for academics that makes them feel important. But it is not harmless, as we are now becoming painfully aware. Ideas do have consequences and we are forewarned to keep on our guard: join the ranks of the “Unregenerate Prigs” who insist that there are such things as truth and reality — independent of all of us, even those who insist it is only they who are in the know.

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.