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.

Prescient Philosopher

In this interesting article about the predictions of the philosopher Richard Rorty we hear the plea that liberal intellectuals stop their other-worldly theorizing and wake up to the world around them. It was true in 1998 and it is certainly true in 2016.  His observations suggest that there is much work to be done to bring this nation together.

The victory of Donald Trump caught countless progressives and establishment conservatives by surprise. Since Election Day, there’s been no shortage of ink spent trying to sort out the underlying factors behind his startling rise to the Oval Office. But for late philosopher Richard Rorty, the writing was on the wall.
In 1998, Rorty, who most recently taught at Stanford University, argued in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America that “old industrialized democracies” are heading toward a period “in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.”
He said the left had embraced identity politics at the expense of economic justice. Resentment would fester among the working class as they realized that the powers that be were not fighting to stop wages from shrinking or jobs from being sent overseas.
He suggested that many would turn to a “strongman” to flip the script on the smug, overpaid and deceitful who had long neglected their suffering. The author said the progress made on behalf of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and women would then run the risk of being rolled back.
One reason Rorty perceived something many other left-leaning academics missed might have to do with his chosen philosophical tradition: pragmatism, which emphasizes practical consequences. He died in 2007, so we will never know for sure what he would have thought about Trump’s highly unconventional campaign.
A few days after Trump’s surprise victory, Queen’s University law professor Lisa Kerr and others posted a particularly prescient passage from Achieving Our Country on Twitter. The three paragraphs swiftly caught fire on social media and were shared thousands of times. The New Yorker cited the passage in a profile of President Obama, and the New York Times analyzed the words in-depth.
Here is the slightly condensed version of the passage that Kerr posted online:

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Amid the renewed attention, online searches for Achieving Our Country skyrocketed and there was a run on the book at Harvard University Press, which is reprinting the book and plans to make it available online as soon as possible.
Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, recalled having big arguments with Rorty before the book was published because he thought it was “too old-style liberal.”
“He thought some of the liberals from the 1930s were really fabulous. He was trying to revive the left with this book. He was trying to kick them in the rear end so they would stop doing stuff that was easy and lazy however trendy it looked,” Waters said in an interview with Yahoo News.
According to Waters, Rorty was a clear-thinking provocateur who refused to play it safe and retained the ability to see larger trends, the big picture. He said a lot of scholars in academia think of themselves as left-wingers but don’t actually do anything.

“Rorty was trying to get people to think. That’s the philosopher’s job,” he continued. “He was trying to get people to prepare for being more responsive to the political situation in America.”. . . .
“The reason we love poets and philosophers is that they almost have some sixth sense. They pick up vibes that the rest of the world is not sensitive to or refuses to see,” he said. “He was being Cassandra: ‘If you people don’t wake up, things are going to get a lot worse. The enemy is going to win. Can I make that any more clear to you?’”
The crux of Rorty’s thesis in Achieving Our Country is that the sins of the United States past do not need to define its future. He criticized the American left of retreating into theory at the expense of taking an active role in civic life.
Rorty lamented that many of his fellow liberals had come to view American patriotism as an endorsement of past atrocities, such as slavery or violence against Native Americans. He encouraged his peers to re-embrace the patriotism of the old left and work toward a more hopeful future, much like Walt Whitman and John Dewey had before.
In the relevant passage, Rorty goes on to suggest that after his “imagined strongman” comes to power he will quickly make peace with the “international super-rich” and invoke memories of past military victories to encourage military adventures for short-term prosperity. But, Rorty continued, the strongman will ultimately be a disaster for the world and people will wonder why there had been so little resistance to his ascent.
“[Rorty] was a big-picture guy,” Waters said. “He was inspired by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and William James and was concerned about the soul of America and what’s happening in America. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes him the most different from other people. He dared to think about the country and what’s good for the country.”

The question I would ask is whether Trump will turn out to be the “strongman” those folks were hoping for or whether they will soon realize that he doesn’t care a tinker’s dam about them and is all about himself? Then what??

Are We There Yet?

As Hannah Arendt uses the term, “totalitarianism” is any form of government in which those in power seek to gain “total domination” of the minds and actions of the citizens by any means — violent or otherwise.  In this sense, Huxley’s Brave New World is a totalitarian state in which a benign dictator, convinced that he is doing the right thing, makes sure his people think they are free while all the time he guarantees their continued mental captivity in a world of pleasure and endless diversions. If this sounds a bit familiar, it may well be, though in these United States it is not clear whether there is a single person or a group that is in complete control. But it is certainly the case that we are provided with endless diversions and a mind-boggling array of entertainment to keep us convinced we are free while all the time we are buying what the media are selling, electing officials who are cleverly marketed like toothpaste, and embracing the platitudes we hear repeatedly. Seriously, how many people in this “free” nation really use their minds?

In any event, I came across a passage or two in Arendt’s remarkable book about totalitarianism — which I have alluded to previously — that strike a responsive chord in this reader. Bear in mind that she was writing in 1948 and was primarily interested in Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler and their totalitarian governments. She was convinced that this period in history is when the “mob mentality” that later theorists latched upon came into the historical picture and “mass man” was born. This was before political correctness, of course, when “man” meant everyone. The “elite” of whom she is speaking is the educated and cultured individuals in those countries who should have known better — but who did not. There are subtle differences in the mentality of the two groups, but Arendt was convinced that they were both easily led astray.

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

And again,

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

Those who might question the notion of a historical parallel here might do well to reflect on the fact that postmodernism has literally “taken over” our college campuses. The basic tenet of deconstructionism, which lies at the heart of postmodern thought, is that truth is a fiction — or as the American philosopher Richard Rorty has said truth is nothing more than “North Atlantic bourgeois liberalism.” His famous predecessor Jacques Derrida said, unblushingly, that truth is simply a “plurality of readings” of various “texts.” A great many of these intellectuals are convinced that history is a fiction and are determined to right this wrong by rewriting the history books to stress the role of those who have been excluded by a white, male hegemony. And while the motive may be admirable, one must question the premise on which these folks operate, since this is coming from those whose job, traditionally, has been that of protectors and transmitters of civilized thought. Popular culture has simply latched on to the droppings of these intellectuals and reduced truth to subjectivity: truth is what you want to be the case: we do not discover it, we manufacture it. Say something often enough and loudly enough and it becomes true.

In the event that anyone should suggest that the rejection of objective truth is trivial, I present the following observation by Ms Arendt:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”

Bearing in mind that totalitarianism need not be violent, this appears to be the direction we are headed. Or am I wrong in thinking that the signs of totalitarianism are increasingly clear and it appears that a small group of wealthy and powerful men — supported in their ivory towers by “elite” intellectuals who would never admit their allegiance to this group while they deny objective truth and busily rewrite history — are slowly but surely gaining control of the media and by attacking the public school system, ignoring such things as global warming, approving numerous invasions of personal privacy, and picking and choosing stupid and malleable people to run for public office are increasingly able to make us think we are free when, in fact, we are simply doing their bidding? I wonder.

None Of The Above

In an interesting article in this month’s Empirical magazine, Randall Auxier, a philosophy professor at Southern Illinois University has a provocative suggestion to make about increasing voter participation in this country which, as we all know, is something of an embarrassment. In his article about the “Death and Resurrection of Democratic Institutions” he suggests that there should be a box on each ballot sheet next to the list of candidates for public office giving the voter the option to vote for “none of the above.” In this way, disenchanted voters would have the opportunity to express their displeasure about the candidates listed and in some cases the office might even become vacant. This would not only increase voter participation, it might help clean out some of the dead wood occupying space in our political offices!

Auxier, taking a page from Richard Rorty, is convinced that our democracy is on life support. It suffers from a variety of maladies, including voter apathy, but due most recently to the fear of impending terrorist attacks, not to mention the increasing wealth of a small number of individuals in the country who are in the position to determine political outcomes. I would add that the government is dysfunctional to the degree that compromise at the Federal level, which is the life-breath of any thriving democratic system, no longer appears possible.

But the most recent threat to our democratic way of life, as Auxier points out, is the so-called “war on terror,” which is not a war at all but which has instilled in the population a creeping paranoia and a willingness to turn over the reins of power to the military. This has always been the case with a great many Republicans, of course, but it now appears to be the case with our President and a growing number of Democrats in the Congress as well — as I have noted in a previous blog.

Whatever the causes might be, I think we can agree that the Republic for which we stand today is a far cry from the ideal created by the founders over two hundred years ago. To an extent that was inevitable, because it was impossible for them to predict the future — they did not see the growing power and influence of corporations, for example. But also, the disparity between what our founders hoped to create and today’s reality has been greatly enlarged by the fear we have all felt since the attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent fear-mongering on the part of the politicians (and the weapons-manufacturers who help get them elected) who have learned that a fearful population is one that is much easier to control.

Many of us can recall F.D.R’s famous comment during his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Auxier makes a strong case out for the fact that the fear we are all experiencing in what we insist on calling the “war on terror” is destructive of democracy itself. As he puts it, “We need to open borders and start trusting one another again. Terrorists are not killing democracy, unreasonable fear and its anti-democratic practices are killing democracy. Have the courage to bequeath to your children a world fit to live in, psychologically, and you will teach them that over-reactions of the late 20th century are a lesson in what not to do when threatened. We don’t mean to, but we are creating whole new generations of human beings whose ethos and expectations are closer to the police state than the democratic world our parents gave to us.”

These strike me as wise words and ones worth pondering as we seek to maintain our balance and remain calm while many around us continue to promote fear by exaggerating serious threats and making remote possibilities seem much nearer than they are. Perhaps this way we can keep our democracy on life-support a while longer.