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.

Two Cultures

Writing in 1998 the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb predicted the victory of Donald Trump eighteen years later. Well, not exactly. But her analysis in One Nation, Two Cultures  does provide an explanation for the surprising results of the recent presidential election. The “two cultures” of which she speaks are the dominant culture and a dissident culture. The former consists of roughly 60% of the population, including the “elite” (her word) who help shape and mold opinion, college professors, journalists, certain bloggers I know of, together with the vast majority in this country of those who lean toward a more liberal take on such things as science, sex, marriage, religion, and morality — which they regard as relative.  The latter consists of a polyglot group clustered around what might be called “moral issues,” issues such as abortion, the Bible, sex in the schools, prayer in the schools, the sanctity of marriage, and the like — not to mention patriotic values, which they regard as closely related to religious values, issues such as respect for the flag, support of the military, and pride in our country. Also, they are uniformly critical of the public school system which, they feel, has too long been controlled by the dominant culture. In Himmelfarb’s words:

“[It is]not only fundamentalists who feel disenfranchised; so too, does a much larger and more varied sector of the population, including many people who are not notably religious but who have strong religious concerns.

“Like the dominant culture, the dissident culture exhibits a wide spectrum of belief and behavior, ranging from a rigid adherence to traditional values only occasionally violated in practice, to a more lenient set of values more often violated. But even the laxer representatives of this dissident culture tend to subscribe to a more “austere” moral code, and to do so more conscientiously than their counterparts in the dominant culture. They do not think of sexual morality as a “personal matter” that can be “boxed off,” as is now said, from the rest of their lives. Nor do they think of religion as a “private affair” that should not encroach upon the “public square.” Nor are they apt to engage in such circumlocutions as “Who am I to say….?” or “Personally… but….”

“At one end of the spectrum of this dissident culture, paralleling the “elites” of the dominant culture, is the religious right, a hard core of determined and articulate activists. Although this group receives most of the public attention, it is only a small part of this culture, for beyond it is a much larger and more varied group of evangelicals, as well as traditionalists another churches — mainline Protestants, conservative Catholics, Mormons, and some Orthodox Jews. There is also a growing number of people who have no particular religious affiliation or disposition — but who have storing moral convictions that put them at odds with the dominant culture.”

The two cultures are neither monolithic nor static, she is careful to point out. There are folks who identify with values in both camps. And people change from one culture to another from time to time.

Yet “In general there is a common set of mind, a confluence of values and beliefs, that locates most people, most of the time, for most purposes, within one or the other culture.”

Of interest is the fact that a large portion of the dissident culture, who generally regard themselves not only as “God-fearing” but also as true “patriots” are very much involved in public, and especially political, affairs. 68 percent of the dissidents strongly believe that “our system of government is the best possible system,” as compared with 53 percent of the whole. And while many of those in the dominant culture are disenchanted with politics, prefer a Third Party candidate in major elections,  or are even too busy to vote, the vast majority of the members of the dissident culture are actively involved in politics. A great many of them have both wealth and position — which explains their presence in the Electoral College and their subsequent unwillingness to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton despite the fact that she had won the popular election by nearly three million votes. Those in this group are involved and they are well positioned to exert political pressure beyond their numbers.

This all helps to explain how a man like Donald Trump won the presidency. He tapped into the deep well of resentment and frustration that characterize the dissident culture and gave them a voice and credibility. It is no wonder that the dissidents refuse to listen to criticism from the dominant culture, especially the media, since their Man is here to deliver them to the promised land where many, if not all, of their hopes and dreams will be realized. After generations of seeing the dominant culture hold sway over this country they now see themselves with a tight hold on the reins of power. And their commitment to this man runs as deep as their resentment of the dominant culture — so much so that if and when Donald Trump is impeached there will be a very loud hue and cry indeed. The culture war which Himmelfarb regarded in her books as a mere metaphor for the rift between the two cultures, will become an actual war with casualties.




The Fourth Estate

It is appalling that those now in power seek to undermine all confidence in the media in order, we must suppose, to then be able to inform us themselves about those things they think we need to know. This type of control over what we are privy to, coupled with the recent attempt to suggest that there are “alternatives” to the facts which determine the truth, are disquieting to say the least. A free people, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, require adequate information and the education necessary to separate facts from alternative facts.

And as a nation, we are slipping behind other developed countries in our commitment to an educated citizenry — which is essential to a democracy. But, despite this, we must be armed against any attempt to quiet criticism and stifle open debate which are the lifeblood of that type of government. Jefferson was, before all else, the defender of a free people in a free democracy, that freedom being predicated on a free press and a citizenry capable of reading and willing and able to discuss openly the issues of the day.

Accordingly, I thought it timely to return to some of the things that Jefferson said in this regard as we seem to be living in a period in which those in power would disarm us and render us ignorant of what it is they do and propose to do. A leader who brings his own audience with him to press conferences in order to hear their applause and who plans to expand the space in which the press corps meets to discuss the issues of the day in order, presumably, to allow room for his supporters and make it extremely difficult to hear those who object to what is being said, is a leader who would declare war on the exchange of free ideas and opinions and the open debate of decisions that will affect us all. This is not to be endured. It is antithetical to the fundamental principles on which this democracy were founded and they signal the death knell of this democracy if they are allowed to go unnoticed and unopposed.

Accordingly, I attach herewith some of the comments by Jefferson that speak to our present concerns:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have their propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

“. . . truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate — errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

” . . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

It is true, of course, that once he became President Jefferson was less enamored of the press, but this is to be expected. No one likes to be criticized and as President Jefferson made some terrible blunders — reducing the army and navy at a time when Britain was once again rattling its saber, for example. But he was large enough in the end to realize that his personal objections to what the press had to say about him were less important than the freedom of that press to write what they regarded as pertinent truths. No one in the public eye can expect to have his or her every move applauded unless they stack the decks and silence opposition. But that is not to be tolerated in a free government where the Constitution guarantees the right of the media to tell the truth and deny “alternative facts.” We as citizens have a right to know just as the press has a right to express itself without censorship. Thus, we must hope that these rights are protected in the next four years during which time they will be severely tested and attempts will no doubt be made to deny their legitimacy.

Media Matters

I begin with a most interesting comment posted by “Media Matters” in which we are told about some large matters of unfairness with respect to the coverage the various political candidates get from the media:

The New York Times reported on March 15 that part of the reason Trump “wins primary after primary with one of the smallest campaign budgets” is that he “dominates” earned media — which includes “news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media” — giving him a “mammoth advantage” over other candidates. According to The Times’ report, Trump far outpaces other presidential candidates in free media coverage, noting that in February “he earned as much media as [Ted] Cruz and [Hillary] Clinton combined” . . .
Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign. Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer, says that Mr. Trump “has no weakness in any of the media segments” — in other words, he is strong in every type of earned media, from television to Twitter.

Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.

I now turn to a comment I made earlier this year with respect to the “Fairness Doctrine” which has become a matter of mere historical interest, though one might wish it were still infect.  I noted at that time that the free exchange of ideas was guaranteed by the F.C.C. in 1949 as a result of what was then referred to as the “Fairness Doctrine” which guaranteed that both sides of controversial issues must be made public. This doctrine was rejected in 1987 by the F.C.C. under the leadership of Mark Fowler who had been a member of then President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and who argued that the doctrine violated the first amendment. As a result, the door was opened to the media to indoctrinate rather than inform — present a single point of view repeatedly and ignore opposing views; this gave rise to such abortions as Murdoch’s Fox News.

Clearly, Donald Trump is being covered in the media to a far greater extent than any of his opponents.  As suggested, this does go a long way toward explaining the hold he seems to have on American voters. Even those who hate the man find themselves drawn to stories about his latest outrageous behavior — not unlike the way we are all drawn to a train wreck. It’s morbid curiosity, I suppose. In any event, the Trumpet is getting free media coverage while others (such as Sanders) are lucky to get a brief mention. As a result, it would appear, he is kicking butt on the Republican stage. This claim of a causal relation here is strengthened by the consideration that those in the media hesitate to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on any of  the main issues. Nor do his opponents. Thus he sails along unchallenged, filling the air with empty platitudes and bromides that will not cure any of our ills whatever. This may change in the general election. We shall see. But even then the media will determine what we see and hear

And this is the heart of the matter. I have mentioned in previous posts (as have others) that the “news” has become mere entertainment. What this means is that the media are going to broadcast those matters that matter to people: they want to sell air time or please their sponsors. The formula is not “fairness” it’s “give them what they want,” and a citizenry brought up on violent entertainment and video games wants something that gets their attention and holds it for a moment or two — one can scarcely hope for more than that these days.

So when the chickens at last come home to roost, we can blame the citizenry for the success of no-minds like Trump. But we had better reserve some of our criticism for the media which are determined to give us what we want while, at the same time, they manufacture our desires according to the dictates of their sponsors.

2012 in review

Happy 2013 to one and all. The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog and I post it here at their suggestion.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 16 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.