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.

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Sign Of The Apocalypse?

One of the more insidious movements in this country is that toward the rewriting of history– eliminating unpleasant facts from the history books. This movement is perhaps a part of the New History movement about which I have blogged in the past — the attempt to reduce history to a form of literature, giving special attention to minor historical figures that have been ignored in the past (probably with good reason!)

In any event, one does wonder why this sort of censorship is not only allowed, but encouraged — even by the Texas State Board of Education which has decided to erase any mention of Hillary Clinton from the history textbooks in order to “streamline” history. As a recent Yahoo news story tells us:

The Texas State Board of Education voted Friday to remove mentions of Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from the state’s mandatory history curriculum . . .  The Dallas Morning News reported.

The changes are part of an effort to selectively ”streamline” information in history classes for some 5.4 million schoolchildren.

The board also voted to keep in the curriculum a reference to the “heroism” of the defenders of the Alamo, which had been recommended for elimination, as well as Moses’ influence on the writing of the nation’s founding documents, multiple references to “Judeo-Christian” values and a requirement that students explain how the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in the Middle East.

Ignoring, if we can, the multiple absurdities these no-minds have decided to make public policy, let’s simply consider the elimination for any reference to Hillary Clinton. Whether or not one is a fan of Mrs. Clinton, she is an important part of American history — not only as a recent presidential candidate who outdrew her opponent by 3 million votes, but also as a former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. And, of course, she was married to a sitting president throughout his eight years in office. One wonders what the hell is going on between the ears of those in Texas who voted for this move. But, then, it is Texas — the state that wanted to secede from the Union in 2017 because they were not pleased with the way the Federal Government was behaving. And it is a state in which, according to a recent study, three-fifths of the high school biology teachers think evolution is a fiction and that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. These same teachers deny that DNA has anything to do with heredity. Biology teachers, not students.

As far as the other determinations by the Board, we must suppose they were smoking something potent and their collective brains were just a tad cloudy. No?

In any event, one continues to wonder where this country will end up as it drifts slowly but inexorably toward the deep morass of stupidity and self-satisfaction.

 

On Not Reading Macaulay

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

New History?

I have been exploring two themes recently in my posts. On the one hand, I am concerned about the current state of civilization, that is, the delicate fiber that holds together diverse peoples out of respect for law, tradition, and for one another. On the other hand, I have explored many of the problems in higher education that seem to somehow have had an adverse effect on the world outside the ivory towers that once protected those inside from prying eyes. I have been especially concerned about the movement called “postmodernism” that has taken over in our universities and which rests on the central tenet that there is no such thing as truth, only “texts.”

A major movement within the academy since the late 1960s has been “New History,” one of the bastard offspring of postmodernism. It is based on the notion that history is simply another form of literature and historians are no longer to be held to the standards and rigor that ruled the discipline for generations, demands for evidence and the desire to approximate the truth about the past as much as possible. Footnotes and reliable references are no longer required. Again, since there is no such thing as truth, there cannot possibly be any accurate depiction of the past. The new historian, therefore, is free to wing it, make things up and tell it like he or she would like it to have been. New history is more about the historians than it is about history itself.

One of the most prominent historians to have defended Old History against the onslaught of the New Historians is Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in past posts. She has done a remarkable job of seeking to defend truth against the attacks of the subjectivists and relativists, but one has the sense that she is spitting against the wind — and she knows it. In any event, she has written a number of books attempting to show the absurdity of rejecting standards of evidence and attempts to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible and one of those books, The New History and The Old addresses the topic directly. In that book, a collection of her papers, she recounts the following anecdote about a Conference she attended in 1969 when New History was aborning and was regarded by most historians as merely a passing fad, a novelty soon to be dismissed. As Himmelfarb tells us:

“. . .what the history profession needed was a “little anarchy.” This . . . was the great merit of the new history — its variety, openness, and pluralism. . . . .there is no meeting ground between [different ways of approaching history] and there need not be. All that was necessary was the tolerance to permit “different people doing different kinds of things in different ways.”

What we have here is the wheels of an academic discipline falling off. The notion that two or three or four historians are free to reconstruct events in accordance with any loose principles whatever, drawing on psychology, anthropology, science, or any other unrelated discipline and every one of those views is somehow legitimate and is to be respected by historians across the boards is on its face absurd. Tolerance is here carried out to the extreme of denial that there is anything we ought to agree about, anything beyond different ways of doing things. Anything goes. We are intolerant if we do not make room for the absurd and the outrageous. There is no truth available, only opinion.

Traditionally, the various academic disciplines each had its own distinctive manner of approaching problems that require reasonable solutions. There has always been disagreement about the best way to approach those problems and one never really expected any two thinkers in diverse academic disciplines to agree with one another about which is the better way. Hell, it was seldom the case that two academics within the same discipline agreed about much of anything! But that disagreement was the key to keeping lines of communication open and encouraging the exchange of diverse opinions and theories which were designed to eventually lead us all closer to the truth about the human condition. Dialogue requires open minds and a conviction that there is a goal to be achieved in the end, no matter how long it takes. Difference of opinion was a good thing because it made us careful about the way we conducted research and put together evidence and arguments. Difference was a means to an end, not the end in itself; but it was required in order to eventually reach some agreement about what is true and what is not. With New History, as Himmelfarb notes,

“Two historians working on the same subject are apt to produce books so disparate that they might be dealing with different events centuries and continents apart.”

What has occurred, not only in history but in all of the humanistic disciplines and the social sciences as well, is that they are all dangerously close to becoming as like one another as possible in their unanimous rejection of the notion that there is a truth worth pursuing, rejecting in one way or another the conviction that if one applied the techniques of the various disciplines one could at least hope to reach some degree of accord about what is and what is not the case. In a word, it used to be held that there is an answer to every question, but that answer must be sought by each thinker in accordance with the rules laid down within the discipline he or she has chosen to pursue, different ways to achieve a common goal, as it were. The current relativism, the rejection of the notion that there is any truth, blurs the distinctions among the various disciplines and tells us that it really doesn’t matter what anyone says about much of anything because there is no point in reasonable pursuit of truth since there is no such thing as reason or truth anyway. There is no point in searching for a common meeting ground on which we could all stand in search for something beyond personal opinion. The most persuasive or colorful writer or speaker wins.

Needless to say, this relativism has found its way into the world outside of the academy and we now find ourselves surrounded by such things as “alternative facts” and the notion that truth is a matter of who shouts loudest and is able to shut down opposing points of view. Might makes truth.