Both Feet!

I have posted before about the protest that is going on in the NFL (especially) by a number of players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem. It is a hot topic, indeed a large pond of hot mud, since there is a great deal of pointing of fingers and angry cries of “foul” but very little seems to be happening. The problem is the focus of attention is directed to the protests themselves and not to the problems that have brought on the protests — namely, the civil unrest, especially in large cities and most especially in poor neighborhoods where there have been numerous clashes between police officers and citizens who see the police presence as a threat.

This issue, as I say, is very muddy indeed and a number of the players — not only in football but in other professional sports as well — are actually working with those in the ghettos to help resolve the tensions that exist there between the citizens and the police who patrol the streets. What is needed is dialogue, of course, between the two sides so that an understanding can be reached between two groups of folks who simply see the world differently.

But of recent note is the insistence of our Fearless Leader to jump into the mud feet-first, throwing mud in every direction and generally making a mess of things. He sees things in black and white terms, as so many of us do. And he insists that the NFL Commissioner simply demand that the players stand or fire them. I kid you not! Simple solutions to complex problems: that’s in the man’s DNA. It’s the sort of thing that will appeal to a great many Americans who are offended by the protests and refuse to see beyond them to the real problems the athletes seek to draw attention to. But it is not going to help matters one bit.

This country was founded on protest. Those who ignore that are really not in a position to call the protests “un-American,” or “un-patriotic.” They are the very heart and soul of America. But the protests themselves should not be the focus of attention, as I have noted. We need to ask ourselves why certain individuals, many of them after deep soul-searching and at the risk of hatred and derision at the hands of those in the stands, would choose to disrespect the flag of their country. Is it possible that there is something amiss? Something that should be addressed? To be sure, there is.

We do love simple solutions and we find those who suggest simple solutions to complex problems reassuring. I give you Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh. It helps us avoid the exhausting effort of trying to figure things out for ourselves. Donald Trump is not the first to suggest a simple solution to a complex problem and he will most certainly not be the last. But the issue is there and it will not go away until people start to talk seriously with one another, to make a concerted effort to understand the other’s point of view. And shouting “Fire the bums! is taking this in precisely the opposite direction. To mix metaphors a bit, it is throwing gasoline on the fire. Or, to stick with my original metaphor:  jumping in with both feet simply makes the mud pile deeper and more smelly.


With the vast improvement in the transmission of pictures and words quickly to more and more people, the always present threat of demagoguery increases. We have seen a number of such (whose names will not be mentioned), but all learned their  techniques, directly or indirectly, from Adolph Hitler. And in order to understand the man’s success no one has studied Hitler more closely than Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was forced to leave Germany in her childhood and later became a teacher and writer of international fame. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a large book that established her reputation firmly as one who had a penetrating insight into some of the most important events of the past which she was convinced should enable us to better understand the present and anticipate probable future events. In a lengthy footnote in that book she reflects on the success of the depressingly ordinary Adolph Hitler “who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune.” Indeed, anyone who has seen films of Hitler before a crowd, even if he is not fluent in German, finds himself swept up in the emotional theater and inclined to agree with whatever the little man is saying. What is it that makes this possible? As Arendt notes:

“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, the tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and the ‘conviction . . .that everything is balderdash’ could best be avoided by adhering to one of many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency.’ The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates.”

There are a number of features of this comment that invite our attention. Clearly, Arendt has studied her subject closely and asked key questions about how it is that such a person as Adolph Hitler could hold vast numbers of people spellbound and convince them that black is white. To begin with, as she says, he grabs one of the many opinions floating out there and presents it with absolute conviction as the only possible truth, bringing order out of chaos. Repetition, conviction, and consistency, with the assurance that people will believe what you say if they hear it said often and without doubt or hesitation. This is key. Please note that it doesn’t matter in the least whether the opinion is true or false. What matters his whether or not the speaker says it with conviction. Hitler never doubted himself; he never second-guessed. He simply asserted what he wanted people to believe, knowing they would believe what he said if he said it often enough and without any hint of uncertainty.

But as Arendt points out, it matters also that this opinion must be asserted in a group where there is confusion about what matters and what is true. They seek release from the bewildering array of opinions on every side: they want something firm to grab onto in a world filled with conflicting opinions. In Hitler’s day when the mass media were just aborning, the situation was less chaotic than it is in our day when we are overwhelmed with numberless opinions on every subject. We are bombarded on every side by claims and those who presume to be experts about things we may know little about. We all have opinions, but we also are easily persuaded by one who seems to be certain of the truth, even if that truth runs counter to what we ourselves believe. And even if it is blatantly false. The appeal is always emotional, not intellectual., This is not philosophy; it is rhetoric. The demagogue knows how to “work on” the emotions of his or her listener. And as Arendt points out, when the audience evidences ” a characteristic lack of discerning judgment,” as it does in our day especially, the job is made so much easier.

So we should not be amazed that folks like Rush Limbaugh and, in his day, Paul Harvey are immensely popular: they make complex issues simple by  stating “with unbending consistency” and without wavering an opinion (any opinion) that floats in the air and assert it with smug confidence. Their listeners seem to be sitting at the feet of wisdom itself. How could we not have seen that before? It seems so clear now. The demagogue doesn’t know any more than we do. He simply appears to do so and he does so with swagger and with firmness that seem to make disagreement impossible. So we buy what he is selling, whatever that might happen to be. And we feel a sense of relief in doing so, because by agreeing with the demagogue we are ourselves now also wise. Where we had doubts before, we now have certainty — even if we are “demonstrably wrong.”

The European Purse

[An earlier version of this blog was supposed to be saved in draft form and went out by mistake previously: my bad!  It may or may not be worth reading again. I leave that up to you!]

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld,” Jerry has been convinced by Elaine that he should put all his stuff in a European carry-all that Peterman sells. After he does so his friends all accuse him of carrying a purse, to which he responds repeatedly: “It’s not a purse, it’s European!” Fun stuff. But it’s also what logicians call a “false dichotomy,” as though the object couldn’t be both a purse and come from Europe.

Not a big thing in this case, but it’s one of those fallacies we commit on a fairly regular basis and it can have painful repercussions — as when one says in an angry voice “America, love it or leave it,” as though one can not both love America and leave it. Or one can love America and stay, which seems to be ruled out by the angry remark. The implication is that one cannot love one’s country and criticize it at the same time. This is absurd. Many people think uncritical acceptance of the status quo is the heart and soul of patriotism, but in fact it is jingoism, which is an altogether different thing. The true patriot loves his or her country and also sees the mistakes it makes and wants to try to eradicate those mistakes, or correct them somehow. The jingoist is blind to faults and follows blindly wherever his leaders take him. You can usually spot the latter by the flag waving in his front yard or the decal pasted to his car window.

Another common example of this mistake, as I mentioned in a recent blog, is the notion that we either save jobs or we save the environment, we cannot do both. Of course we can: we can both create and save jobs and save the environment at the same time by investing in clean energy.

Time for a brief lesson in logic. The above mistake derives from our ignorance of what a dichotomy, or a disjunction, happens to be. Disjunctions take the form of either/or and they can be exclusive or inclusive. The mistake we often make comes from confusing the two, thinking that an inclusive disjunction is exclusive, that we must have either toast or tea when we can have both; we either save the environment or we save jobs when we can do both.  Very few disjunctions are exclusive — even the disjunction between life and death (either you’re alive or you’re dead) can be confusing when a patient lies deep in a coma and the families are discussing whether or not to “pull the plug.”

There are almost always grey areas when people shout either/or. But it’s how demagogues like Rush Limbaugh make a living: they ignore the shades of grey; they reduce complex issues to simple black and white making their listeners think things are much simpler than they are (and the speaker much smarter than he is). Paul Harvey used to do the same thing. To many, it’s a breath of fresh air, leading them out of the confusing maze of complex issues where there appear to be no obvious paths into the light of day where they can see clearly what was confused before. But that leads us into a false sense of security and it glosses over many a tough problem by deluding us into thinking an issue is clear-cut when it is not. We need to be wary of the false dichotomy: the purse can be both a purse and European, Jerry!