Totalitarian Threats?

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

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

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

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

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots [again, think: “New History”], must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination with the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective, and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. . . .

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

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

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

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, this tendency is strengthened so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong.”

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


Universal Suffrage?

One of the very thorny problems the English (and later the Americans) worried about in the nineteenth century was the question of suffrage: who should vote? The question centered around the issue of whether only those who know best should vote or whether everyone should vote. The concern expressed was whether those who are “ignorant” — i.e., uneducated or the “luckless poor” in the words of Thomas Carlyle — should be allowed to make political decisions that affect the entire nation.

George Eliot dealt with the question in her novel Felix Holt: Radical and it seemed clear from that novel (if good novels can be said to make any single position “clear”) that Eliot was in favor of extending the vote to all men regardless of whether or not they owned property. Interestingly, however, Eliot, despite her liberal leanings, did not think women should be given the vote. In fact, she said on this topic:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

Eliot’s point is worth pondering, because it touches on a point I made in an earlier post when I noted that the dawning of the Enlightenment and the increasing emphasis on human rights moved the individual from the periphery of the political arena to dead center. The new thinking, from that time on, was that the state exists for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Whereas the state had been regarded as the necessary ingredient in humanizing citizens, educating them and making clear their duties to other citizens — helping to nurture “civic virtue” — this was no longer the case.

Eliot, like Lord Acton before her, is articulating the contrary position: the state, if not all of civilization, would benefit if women, in this case, remained in the home taking care of the children, providing love, and helping them attain maturity and good character. The needs of the whole take precedence over the interests of the parts — — the assumption being that individuals benefit most when they are other-directed (rather than self-involved). Women, in her view (and the view of many, including many women, in her day), provided the moral fiber that held civilization together. If they were to engage in the hurly-burly of business and politics they would be eliminating that moral fiber and civilization would suffer as a result. While it may sound like heresy in our more advanced day and age, it is worth pondering.

But in the main, the question whether or not all men should vote was itself a knotty problem and one that divided such thinkers as John Stuart Mill, on the one hand, and Thomas Carlyle, on the other. Mill was the liberal’s liberal and was active in trying to convince the English that all citizens should vote, regardless of sex or property ownership. Carlyle, on the other hand, despite his deep empathy for the “luckless poor,” fought mightily against the tide that would usher in universal suffrage. He did not think those without adequate education and a vested interest in the decisions of Parliament should be allowed to vote for membership in that august body. Indeed, he took a deeply paternalistic attitude toward the poor and uneducated and was convinced that they needed wise people to govern them and care for them. As he noted in his essay on Chartism:

“The Working Class cannot any longer go on without government; without being actually guided and governed; England cannot subsist in peace till, by some means or other, some guidance and government for them is found.”

Bear in mind that Carlyle was very much aware of what had happened in France during the “reign of terror” and was also aware that the working poor in England were being totally ignored by Parliament; they felt frustrated and were leaning increasingly toward violence. But still, this strikes the modern reader as reactionary nonsense, even though it is also well worth pondering.

In some sense the issue today is, as they say, academic. Universal suffrage has arrived with all its problems — as Americans recently discovered in the election of 2016. But the question worth considering is whether those who are ignorant of politics and have no interest in anything outside of themselves should be allowed to vote — or, indeed, whether they should be allowed to govern!

So the central issue remains: the question of the priority of the individual over the state, rights over responsibilities: whether or not this is a good thing. The radical change in our thinking on this subject has had deep effects on the political landscape and indeed on civilization itself; we have become convinced that the individual is foremost and the state is a mere handmaid that exists to serve the needs and wants of the individual. The ancients, as I have noted in prior posts, would disagree heartily, as would Thomas Carlyle. But the question is whether they are wrong or whether they might have been correct.

Religion and the Church

Of considerable interest is the struggle within the Church of Rome during the nineteenth century regarding the notion of the Infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith. The issue was of major importance in the First Vatican Council in 1868 when Pope Pius IX introduced the notion for adoption and it was met with considerable opposition by a number of influential Bishops — led, interestingly enough, by Lord Acton who was not a Bishop and had no vote but who was very active behind the scenes seeking to strengthen the opposition. He was convinced that the doctrine was in direct opposition to the New Testament which is the fundamental text of the Christian religion. Acton eventually failed in what became a heated political battle. Several Bishops who opposed the doctrine were excommunicated by the Pope and the only reason Acton, a devout Catholic, was not, presumably, was because he was a powerful man with powerful friends back in England.

In any event, Dostoevsky, himself a deeply religious man, was vehemently opposed to the doctrine of Infallibility as well — as he was opposed to the Church of Rome in general which he was convinced was established as a Church on Earth that stood in direct opposition to the fundamental Christian doctrine as set forth in the Gospels. Of special interest to Dostoevsky — who mentions this in both The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, two of his five major novels — was the passage in St. Matthew 4: 8-11 recounting the three temptations of Christ (repeated almost Verbatim in Luke 4 1-13), but especially the third temptation:

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THELORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As Dostoevsky read the three temptations of Christ, which he regarded as divinely inspired (they couldn’t possibly have been invented by humans; they are far too wise) this was a direct admonition from Christ to reject things of this earth and live a life of sacrifice and love. But the Roman Church, according to Dostoevsky, sought earthly power in direct opposition to the words of Christ. In fact, he puts his own convictions in the mouth of his character Shatov in Demons:

“. . .Rome proclaimed a Christ who had succumbed to the third temptation of the devil and, having announced to the whole world that Christ cannot stand on earth without an earthly kingdom, Catholicism thereby proclaimed the Antichrist, thus ruining the whole Western world. “

Lest the reader think that a great author such as Dostoevsky would never put his own words in the mouth of one of his characters, we have the words of the man himself in the pages of his 1877 Diary:

“Roman Catholicism, which has long ago sold Christ for earthly rule; which has compelled mankind to turn away from itself, and which was thus the prime cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, — that Catholicism has naturally generated socialism.”

Years before the Vatican Council  the Catholic poet Dante had been critical of what he called “The Donation of Constantine” in which the recognition of the Christian Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine lead directly to the earthly power of the Church (and divisiveness within the Church, according to Edward  Gibbon) and the corruption which he pillories in his Inferno — filled as it is with Bishops and Popes, who have succumbed to temptation.

In any event, the issue for both of these thinkers was the embracing on the part of the Church of earthly power. For Dostoevsky this was in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ and an acceptance of the lures of the devil himself. For Dante it was the beginning of a long and terrible period of struggle within the church between the promises of Heaven and the lures of earthly treasure.

What is of interest here is the radical difference, in the minds of these three deeply religious thinkers, Acton, Dante, and Dostoevsky, between the teachings of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Roman Church. We know, as a matter of fact, that when William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English 1526, thereby making the sacred text available to all who could read, the Church sought to confiscate and burn copies of the book.  They saw it as a direct threat to their power and authority in matters of religion, which was already being questioned by Luther who had posted his 95 theses in 1517.

The point is that this struggle allows us to see clearly the rift between religion, properly understood, and religion as embodied in earthly institutions that led to such things as purges, excommunications, and Inquisitions — not to mention the forced denial by Galileo of his mathematical discoveries. And we should also bear in mind the many atrocities committed by Protestant Churches in their attempt to establish themselves as power-brokers in the game of earthly power.

Many who have turned against what they regard as “religion” really have a quarrel with the institutions that have been founded and supported by human beings in the name of what they take to be the true meaning of religion. The two are not the same as these men saw so clearly. They wrote and spoke against this false identification because they saw that what human beings do for the best of reasons, at times, turns out to be antithetical to the very principles and fundamental beliefs of the causes they espouse. We could do worse than to take a page from their book — or their books — and keep this difference in mind.

Is Change In The Offing?

Years ago I wrote the following blog (with minor recent additions) which no one read and which I now realize was a bit pessimistic. Perhaps that was just how I felt at the time — or I was using hyperbole to get a response. In any event, with the recent vote on the ACA by the Republicans in the House and the talk about voting the bums out of office I thought it might be timely to revisit the theme. Are people finally going to get off their collective butts and vote the bums out and try to elect people who will be responsive to their own needs? That’s the million dollar question at this point. How much does it take to make people realize that the real problems are ones that are being ignored altogether — problems like climate change and overpopulation? The answer is,  of course, it will happen when people wake up and realize that these problems are not theoretical: they will directly impact their lives in a very serious  way. In the meantime I wonder if my cynicism was out of order.

Generally speaking, radical change, if it occurs at all, comes from the top down. It is rare that those at the bottom of the food chain are able to effect meaningful change. There are exceptions, of course, as in the case of revolutions. But after their revolution the French would probably point out that the rascals who take over often exhibit the same qualities as the rascals who have been chased out. Lord Acton was right: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It doesn’t seem to matter who holds the reins of power, they tend to choke those at the other end.

My good friend Dana Yost made an excellent suggestion recently about how to change the mess that is college football, where corruption is rampant and greed is the name of the game. He suggested that the NCAA be scrapped and that limits be placed on coaches’ salaries — at least in the public colleges and universities. This would be an excellent start, but unfortunately this won’t happen. And it won’t happen because the only people who can effect real change in this situation are those in power and they don’t want to cut off their noses to spite their faces. There’s far too much money involved. Or the change could be mandated by government. But that won’t happen either, because elected officials owe their place on the public dole to the wealthy power-brokers who will resist change. The NCAA has considerable political clout. And in this case politicians are smart enough (barely) to know you don’t mess with sports in this country. It’s tantamount to messing with religion.

Solutions are sometimes so easy to see, not only in the case of collegiate football, but also in the case of the mess in our public schools, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that radical change is in order — elimination of the education bureaucracy that has a choke-hold on the system, and eliminating the ridiculous “methods” courses required of education majors, among other steps .But that won’t happen, either. The problem, again, is that those in power are not about to give it up. And only those in power can mandate change. It must come, once again, from the top down. The idea that real change can be effected in the schools by reducing teachers’ salaries is positively stupid. Teachers are already underpaid, and that’s a big part of the problem. But while it is obvious that change in the schools is needed, it won’t happen, either. The education establishment (the “blob” as it has been called) would have to be eliminated, or greatly reduced, and the only people in a position to do that are the members of the education establishment themselves. One might as well ask the local school superintendent to reduce the number of administrators in his school, or state university boards to reduce their own numbers instead of cutting academic programs. It isn’t going to happen if left up to the people in charge: it diminishes their control. Or, again, we could appeal to the politicians to make change. But the education establishment is powerful enough to exert considerable influence in political circles and politicians are smart enough (barely) to know which hand feeds them.

So, in the end, one must peck away at the fringes and hope that a sufficient number of people become disgusted enough to exert influence on those in power to counter the effects of those with big money who hold the reins. But, short of a revolution, it will take a huge effort to effect any of these changes, if it happens at all. And to make matters worse, there is no guarantee that change, if it comes, will be for the better. Often it is not — as the French will attest, and as we ourselves learned in the 1960s when we saw radical change initiated by the counterculture destroy civility in this country and, some would say, brought about the rise to the top of people like Donald Trump.


I ask again: has the time come when the sleeping giant, which is the American public,  finally wakes up and demands change?  Change in the case of the current administration can only be change for the better. Time will tell.



A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.

Tyranny of the Majority

One of the more captivating notions to come out of de Tocqueville’s truly remarkable book Democracy In America was the notion of the tyranny of the majority. Coincidentally, John Stuart Mill arrived at pretty much the same notion at about the same time and the two men became close friends and mutual admirers. The exceptional Lord Acton — whose name (are you ready for this because it will be on the Mid-Term?) was John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton — agreed with de Tocqueville and Mill about the tyranny of the majority, though he thought they were both all wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of Democracy. More about that below.

de Tocqueville convinced the French government to fund his trip to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to examine our prison system. Instead he examined our system of democracy because he was convinced this was the direction that all Western nations were headed and he wanted to be in a position to shout warnings if necessary and to help the process along if possible. But after visiting a number of New England town meetings he came away with a distrust of the majority rule — and with good reason. He said, among other things:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not changes their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

This is, surely, one of the most eloquent statements ever set down regarding the weaknesses of majority rule — which can indeed become tyrannical just as much as a single powerful King, perhaps even more so. But de Tocqueville didn’t stop there; he made an attempt to explain the psychology behind the tyranny of majority opinion:

“. . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. . . .I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and free discussion as in America.”

We do not often find ourselves in decision-making groups where the majority votes on large issues. Not as a rule, certainly. But we can recall the discussion and vote in our Congress not long ago over the question of the invasion of Iraq in which the wave of emotion swept the floor and the yeas had their day and the nays were derided as “unpatriotic” if not “cowards” or “treasonous.” We might call it “peer pressure” these days, but the force of the will of the majority can be powerful indeed; it is not always enlightened or even reasonable, and the voice of dissent is often silenced and refused a hearing when the majority is in full voice.

I mentioned Lord Acton above, and he tended to agree with de Tocqueville and Mill about what Acton called the “despotism of democracy.” In fact, he noted that:

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.”

This devout Catholic witnessed first-hand the tyranny of the majority when in 1870 he fought unsuccessfully the attempts of Pope Pius IX to institute the doctrine of papal Infallibility. As pressure from Rome increased one after another minority Bishop succumbed to the “latent power” of majority opinion until the doctrine was approved. Earlier, in discussing the American Civil War, he analyzed the despotism of democracy noted above. Like many Englishmen, especially among the wealthy classes, his sympathies were on the side of the South. He was convinced that the Northern states were not so much interested in the emancipation of the slaves as in subjecting all of the South to the authority of the national government and reducing the population to a single, undifferentiated mass. He was convinced that a plurality of nations within a single civil state was to be preferred to a homogeneous group of people who all looked, dressed, and thought alike.

Just as majority opinion tends to silence dissent, the movement toward Nationalism, toward a single (isolated?) geographical and political unit, as Acton saw it, was a movement toward homogeneity, toward like-mindedness; he fought it in the name of pluralism. As he noted:

“A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State that labors to neutralize to absorb or to expel [different races] destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include [different races] is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

In a word, the tendency to silence dissent, to follow the “latent power” of the majority opinion to a single point of view — thereby silencing the minority, the attempt to build walls and send certain peoples away from this country, are all insidious and in direct opposition to the open and free discussion of ideas and the freedom of opinion that are the warp and woof of this nation. Without this sort of freedom there can be no real freedom whatever. And this appears to be where we are headed at the present moment. It is time to call “foul” and consider where we are headed.

The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.

Will To Power

It is possible to see Donald Trump’s craving for attention as simply one feature or aspect of what Nietzsche called the “Will to Power.” Nietzsche was convinced that life itself is nothing but a will to power, over oneself and over others as well. As he said toward the end of his troubled life:

“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on. . . “

Whether or not what Nietzsche said is true, it helps us make sense of the actions of certain people — for instance the very wealthy who never seem to have enough wealth, given that in our culture wealth is indeed power. There are, of course, other forms of power. For example, in ancient cultures the priests held the power by way of their superior control of language, They were the ones who could read and write while their minions were ignorant and held the priests to be gods. Their priestly power over language translated quickly into power over others.

As our country becomes increasingly run by the wealthy and powerful it seems prudent to attempt to understand the nature of power. Lord Acton told us that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That seems right as we look at such people as Donald Trump who has made the move easily from a reality show where he fired people with a smirk to center stage in a political battle where he can dismiss all who disagree with him with a wave of his hand and another insult. This means that he is the one in control: he has the power, which is much like an intoxicant: it causes the possessed to become blinded by its presence and in search for more. There is never enough. And those around the powerful are easily taken in by the presumption that the powerful are somehow “in the know,” and will soon bring them into his inner circle.  The powerful seem sure of themselves and they hold sway over others by virtue of their power and their position — not unlike the priests in the ancient world.

Except that Trump, and those like him, are not priests even though they preach the doctrine of self-importance and are able to convince the ignorant they have the answers to all the complex problems that have troubled the world since history began. Power is not only intoxicating to those who wield it, but also to those who are around it and want to be near it. By identifying with those in power, those who lack it entirely can transcend their pathetic lives and become a part of another world, a world in which they, too, are powerful.

How else can we explain how an entire country became transfixed by the power that was wielded by Adolph Hitler, a  power that began, interestingly enough, with his consummate skill with words. Germany after all was a country that was the source of some of the most extraordinary philosophy, art, and literature that humankind has ever created? The Nazi movement was successful because it promised those who followed the powerful that they themselves would also become powerful. Their nation would not only regain what they had lost in the First World War, it would expand its territory and the citizens would regain their lost pride and their nation would once again be great.

Trump’s followers live shallow, vapid lives and they seek to become one with a man who seems to them to be both powerful and invincible. In fact, however, his soul is atrophied and his skin is as thin as an onion’s, but his minions fail to see this because they live in the hope that this powerful man will also empower them. They are deluded, but it is not by the man himself; rather, it is by what he represents: he represents the very power that they themselves both lack and crave, but which they cannot possibly attain alone. They lack power and he promises that if they follow him they will become powerful — just like him.

Nietzsche may not have been entirely right in what he said about the will to power. But he was not altogether wrong, either.

The Power of the President

I want to develop an idea I mentioned in passing in an earlier post. It has to do with the limited power of the President and the absurd promises our presidential candidates make about what they will do when elected — given the fact that by themselves they cannot do very much at all. Witness Barack Obama’s pathetic attempts to promote some sort of gun control.

Our Constitution borrows from the pages of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws in dividing power among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. Limiting power was a prime concern among political thinkers in the age of Enlightenment as they sought to wean themselves from the whims of various corrupt Monarchs. If one reads our Constitution one immediately realizes that Congress is the main body in the thinking of those who wrote and later adopted that document. The very first Article in the document deals with legislative powers. There are ten Sections in that Article. On the other hand, there are only four Sections in the Article dealing with the limited powers of the President. Most of them stress the need for the legislative body to “advise and consent” or the manner of election and impeachment of the president. Clearly, those men were worried that they might be creating another monarch. And this they did not want — even with George Washington ready at hand.

The ten sections under Article One describing the powers of the legislative body are detailed and extensive. They go on for pages and outline a body that not only manages the purse strings, but also has the capacity to control the excessive urge to power of any president. And if those latter restraints are insufficient there is always the Supreme Court that further limits the President who might wish to get too big for his or her britches. The document is all about limiting power because these men knew better than anyone how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton once said.  And the reason these men put so much faith in the legislative branch is because they were convinced that those elected would represent the will of the body politic. In the small country at that time they envisioned the representatives serving with little remuneration for a very short time and in that time visiting their constituents on a regular basis and merely parroting the wishes of those who voted them into office. If the representatives varied too much from the will of the voters, they would be voted out. That was a given at the time, as is clear from the Federalist Papers.

We have seen how this hasn’t worked out, of course, with no term limits on those elected to Congress and huge salaries now attached to political offices. Men and women get into office and their primary urge is to remain there as long as possible. They don’t give a hoot for the needs of their constituents, since they answer only to the wealthy persons whose money can guarantee them a long term in office. The founders never saw it coming.

This is why, in the end, when we are thinking about which political candidate might make a good president we should be thinking about which candidate could work most effectively with a Congress that holds the purse strings and which is the seat of power in this country. Personally, I think Bernie Sanders stands out above the rest of the presidential candidates, because he has the best sense of what would be good for his country and is willing to take on the powers that be. He realizes, as the rest of the candidates do not, that the real contest in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats but between the corporations that would take all the power and the people who are supposed to have it. But, the question is, can he work effectively with what has become a recalcitrant (for want of a better word) Congress tied to the wealthy by their purse strings?  I suspect not, sad to say. I suspect he is regarded as an outsider and would find himself running in place — unless by some miracle the voters manage to alter the make-up of the Congress and give him enough legislators to work with.

That, it seems to me, is the main question.

I Liked Ike

When I was a senior in college I shook hands with President Eisenhower. Honest! He came to my college to dedicate an auditorium named after Francis Scott Key and the seniors and faculty got to shake hands with that very popular President. I recall later in his presidency Eisenhower warning us to beware the miitary-industrial complex. Indeed, the man was not only president, he was prescient. The military now gets nearly $900 billion each year to spend on “defense,” and apparently is policing the world, as a recent Yahoo story suggests. It says, in part,

The U.S. military is expanding its intelligence-gathering operations across Africa, the Washington Post reports, mainly using small, unarmed planes “equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals”—part of a “shadow war” against al-Qaida and other militants.

I didn’t know we were conducting yet another war, albeit a “shadow-war.” Does this bother anyone else? Or am I the only one that thinks our nation is in the grip of crazies? The military is convinced it can do anything it wants, even to the point of killing innocent civilians in the name of the “war on terror.” I am certainly not pro-terrorism, by any means, but I ponder the Geneva Conventions to which we signed our name and I worry that the people who run my country no longer have a conscience. Eisenhower was assuredly right, the combined power of the military and the multinationals (the “industrial” element in Ike’s comment) is seemingly unfettered. The rest of us must simply stand by and watch and wonder where it will take us.

I recall bomber pilots after the Second World War telling about their nightmares following  dropping bombs in Japan — especially the two Atom bombs. They never saw the faces of their enemies; they simply pushed a button and flew away knowing that they had left behind widespread death and destruction. And that was a war of retaliation against the bombing of Pearl Harbor — which may or may not justify the firebombing and subsequent dropping of the Atom bombs on heavily populated areas of Japan. But we no longer hear of pilots unable to sleep at night; we hear about pilot-less “drones” that are flown remotely and kill indiscriminately.

Is it possible that the military simply wants to exercise its power, employ the latest technical war-toy against real people in the name of “keeping the world safe for democracy”? I shudder to think so. Lord Acton told us long ago that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As the power of the military grows, so does its love of power. And the mechanism for restraint of military power in this country is frail and imperfect. Eisenhower was right: beware!