Easily Duped?

(This post might best be regarded as a companion piece to the post on Totalitarianism that recently appeared.)

During the early years of the twentieth century Communism was exported around the world as part of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to initiate a world-wide revolution and guarantee that their way of life would be adopted (one way or another) by all countries. As a political and economic program it had many attractions — especially for the disenfranchised and, surprisingly, for intellectuals as well.

In this country many intellectuals and artists who taught at universities, wrote poetry or novels, or acted on the stage or screen were duped into thinking that Communism was the answer to the world’s problems. After all, it resembles Christianity in many ways  — while Christianity had become inoperative for a great many people. It proposes a society in which the greedy capitalist pig is ground under foot; no one goes without; everyone is equal and free and all participate in their own futures. Or at least that was what thinkers like Karl Marx and Lenin promised. The reality was that millions of lives were sacrificed for the cause, even innocent lives, at the hands of the Cheka established by Lenin who acted with no restraints whatever. The lives of the innocent were said to be, with no regrets, “an example.” However, the messages coming out of Russia suggested to the unwary that Marx’s dream was being realized: the people were being set free and were in the process of determining their own futures. And the reason the blissful message was coming across the ocean and around the world was because the Bolsheviks had discovered the power of propaganda.

One of the intellectuals to be taken in by the blatant falsehoods coming out of Russia was Lionel Trilling, the brilliant essayist and teacher at Columbia University. He flirted with Communism, as did so many of his liberal colleagues (including George Orwell and my advisor at Northwestern as it happens) and eventually after he became aware of the huge gap between theory and practice in Russia he wrote a novel that reflected his own experience. In that novel, The Middle of The journey, one of the main characters is a powerful figure in the Communist party in America who has seen the light and wants to disengage himself from the Party and the atrocities that have been committed in its name. But he fears for his life, because such is the reality of the Bolshevik mentality: you are either with us or you are against us.

We struggle to understand how so many brilliant minds could have been easily duped into thinking that a political program would deliver on its promises and create heaven on earth. As suggested above, it was because of the fact that the Bolsheviks controlled the media in Russia and they didn’t allow journalists from other countries into theirs without a guarantee that they would control what was said and/or written. The only newspaper to refuse those conditions was the London Times. The rest of the world accepted the lies because they wanted to believe them. Moreover, it gave them hope. They could not accept the fact that what was told them was carefully selected and colored to present the best possible picture.

In his study of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes gives us an insight into just how effective this propaganda machine was (one which the Nazis later copied almost exactly):

“Communist propaganda strove, and to a surprising extent succeeded, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contrast to it, in which the Soviet citizens were required to believe or pretend to believe. To this end the Communist Party asserted a monopoly over every source of information and opinion and, in time, severed all contacts of its subjects with the outside world. The effort was undertaken on such a vast scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that the imaginary universe it projected eclipsed for many Soviet citizens the living reality, inflicting on them something akin to intellectual schizophrenia.”

Now, this was how propaganda worked within Russia. It was not this successful when transported to other countries. But for those, like Trilling, who cared about their fellow human beings who were starving on long lines waiting for a cup of soup, especially during the depressions that were not uncommon within numerous capitalist countries, what they heard about Communism sounded like the answer to their prayers. Karl Marx was, after all, an ethicist more than an economist. His message in Capital, for example, was about the exploitation of the workers by greedy, selfish owners who cared only about profits. The intellectuals in this country and In Spain and England, especially, saw this going on around them. There was enough truth in the messages they were allowed to read and hear from Russia to cause many of them to join the Party that promised to deliver the franchise to the chronically  disenfranchised. Or at least, they would have a piece of the pie they were themselves making.

We now live in different times, but there are powerful political forces in this country, and others as well, who would silence a free press, dismiss unpleasant truths as “false news,”  and control the information we receive, colored and flavored to their taste. There are those who would silence opposing points of view. There are those who lie as a matter of course in order to convince the faithful that they have all the answers. There are those who have convinced themselves and a coterie of followers that the end justifies the means, any means. Thus is a free press more important now than ever before, as is an alert and even a suspicious citizenry.

While we are not in Russia during the 20s and 30s, we are in a country where the freedom we prize and which so much defines us is under threat by some who would make us prisoners of their minds — not unlike Lenin and, later, Stalin. We must avoid exaggeration and paranoia, but we would be well advised to be on our guard.

Advertisements

My Truth

One of my favorite bloggers, and one who makes frequent insightful and thought-provoking comments on my blogs as well, recently included this statement in a response she made to a blog post:

“That’s my truth, and the beauty of it is, it remains my truth though no one else may accept it.”

This claim is worth pondering. In fact, acceptance by others is the heart and soul of truth. “Truth” is a word that applies to claims. Some of these claims are private as in “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” This claim cannot be corroborated by anyone else: it is private. It is “my truth.” But it is also somewhat uninteresting, except to close friends and, perhaps, one’s psychiatrist — or bartender. And, strictly speaking, it is not a “truth” at all. Truth claims are public and require corroboration in order to be called “true.” And some of those claims, such as the claim that 2+3=5 and  “the earth travels around the sun in an elliptical orbit” are absolutely true. They are true for me and they are true for you. They have always been true (even though not always accepted as such) and they always will be. Denial of those truths would engender a contradiction, which is one of the three laws of thought that govern all human thinking.

Acceptance, or what I have called “corroboration” is the heart of the matter. Truth claims must be tested and verified by others in order to be true. To make the claim that “my truth” is mine and mine alone is, on its face, pointless. That is, a claim that no one else can accept is not a truth claim at all. It is an intuition or private conviction that we may hold dear but which we do not expect anyone else to share with us. Indeed, we may not even care whether anyone else agrees with us! None the less, such things can be convictions that we hold dear and which help us survive in this insane world of ours. But, strictly speaking, those are not “truths.” They are very personal and they sustain us in times of struggle. They sit comfortably alongside matters of faith.

So what? You might well ask. The reason these sorts of distinctions are important, pedantic though they may seem at first blush, is because there are those “out there” in our shared world who deny truth in order to redefine it as consisting of claims they want us to accept as true, whether they are or not. We confront such claims on a daily basis these days. We quite correctly call them “lies.” The denial that there is objective truth leads invariably to a type of subjectivism which when institutionalized by those in power can lead directly to indoctrination. That way lies totalitarianism.

One of the first things both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin did when they came into power — and, indeed, on their way to power —  was to redefine truth as consisting of those claims they insisted were true even though they could not be corroborated by others. They were true by fiat and repetition. Such claims as “The Jews are an inferior race,” for example. This cannot be corroborated because it is blatantly false. We are all members of the same race, uncomfortable though that thought might have been for Adolph Hitler. It is only by de-humanizing certain types that they could be eradicated, and that was the “final solution.” And while Hitler was making the Jews scapegoats for all of Germany’s ills, Stalin was rewriting history. Truth was cast aside in order to realize twisted dreams.

Thus, in the end, how we define “truth” is important. And it is Important to insist that truth is something we must all agree upon, something shared, something we all accept because it can be corroborated by anyone else at any time. It is not “my truth.” It is “our truth.”

Hitherto Unknown

I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book The Moral Imagination, which is a collection of essays about famous people and their take on life. One of the entries is about John Buchan, whom I must confess I had never heard about. He died in 1940 and Himmelfarb describes him as having been a “novelist, biographer, historian, member of Parliament, governor-general of Canada, . . . one of the last articulate representatives of the Old England. . . .the paradigm (the parody some would have it) of a species of English gentlemen now nearly extinct.”

Buchan is also a bit of a cynic and I find myself drawn to many of his witticisms and observations about the people he sees around him — mostly found in his novels apparently. As I say, I had never heard of this man, which is a bit embarrassing since he is quite remarkable. In any event, he has this to say about civilization, a civilization which he regards as “a very thin crust” over the barbarism that lurks always just beneath the surface:

“A civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge. The free people have been challenged by the serfs. The gutters have exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world. The beggar-on-horseback rides roughshod over the helpless and the cavalier. A combination of multitudes who have lost their nerve and a junta of arrogant demagogues has shattered the community of nations. . . .There is in it all, too, an ugly pathological savor, as if a mature society were being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

Remarkable prose. And telling insights. If we were to alter the word “serfs” in the second sentence above and replace it with “mindless minions” Buchan could be describing what has just happened in this country, now under the thumb of a “beggar-on-horseback” if there ever was one.  But Buchan’s gaze extends beyond the  borders of any particular nation to the world as such. And it would appear that he saw  what has come about in this country and other “developed”  (and undeveloped) nations as well: mature societies “being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

What concerned Buchan primarily was the boiling cauldron beneath the surface of civilization in the form of a black heart, the dark subconscious mind, within so many of the humans he saw around him — even before Hitler and Stalin had taken center stage. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard:

“Once the subconscious, lawless instincts of men were liberated and broke through the barrier erected by civilization, ‘there will be a weakening of the power or reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty; and there will be a failure of nerve.’ It was not the reason of state, even of a hostile state, that alarmed him but the force of unreason itself.”

At times we come across a mind that, while perhaps a bit cynical, sees clearly what the rest of us fail to admit is there, or never saw in the first place. But given the events of recent times where the force of unreason has most assuredly been released and at least two of the major players on the world stage strut their stuff and play “chicken” with nuclear weapons (neither of these men having a brain the size of a chicken’s), one must shudder to think that Buchan may have been prescient. The gutters have indeed “exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world.”

We live in hard times and many of us prefer to think about more pleasant things. But despite our determination to look the other way, when we hear the ring of truth it stuns and demands our attention.

Ideas Have Consequences

I have spent the major part of my life in schools: eight years in “grammar school,” four years in high school, and eight years in college and graduate school. Then I taught for 42 years, first in a private grammar school then in colleges and universities. One might say I have an academic bent in my thought and a bit of a preoccupation with what is going on (or not going on) in education circles these days. I have written a book and numerous blog posts and articles on education and its present ills. As I say, I come at questions from a decidedly academic perspective.

Accordingly, I hesitate to write once again about one of the major movements in our colleges and universities, because I dare say readers have become a bit tired of the themes I return to so often. But some of those themes have wider application, as I have been at pains to show. One of them is put forward by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have drawn on for several of my blog posts. She is a bright and interesting thinker and I have always managed to find ruch veins of gold in her many pages. Writing in the mid 90s of the last century, for example, she foretold on the resurgence of nationalism which we are seeing happen today. In one of her more recent books she has this disclaimer:

“Perhaps [my] book should be labelled ‘The Confessions of an Unregenerate Prig,’ because it is dedicated to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between the two, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society. We pay lip service to the adage ‘Ideas Have Consequences,’ but it is only in extremis that were take it seriously, when the ideas of a Stalin or a Hitler issue in the realities of gulags and death camps. It is the premise of this book that well short of such dire situations there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and polity.”

Indeed, a number of ideas that originated in academia have found their way into the world of everyday life, such things as Affirmative Action, Political Correctness — in the sense that certain words that offend certain people are taboo — and, most recently, the esoteric movement in our colleges called “deconstructionism.” As an academic pursuit, deconstructionism began with literary and philosophical texts in an effort to show that the text means what the interpreter wants it to mean — drawing on what he or she thinks the writer was thinking and what they know about the political and social background of the writer and the text itself. The idea is to “de-construct,” i.e., take it the text apart and put it back together in a coherent fashion. There is no correct reading of the text, only interpretations. The movement has infiltrated schools of literary criticism, philosophy, and history and has threatened to reduce all academic disciplines to social studies and unintelligible psychobabble. It is a complicated movement, but it begins and ends with the rejection of truth and reality, insisting that both are constructs, made up by readers and interpreters of “texts.”

The grand pooh-bah of deconstructionism was the French thinker Jacques Derrida. When one of the founders of deconstructionism, Paul de Man, was discovered to have been an avowed Nazi who continued to support Naziism even after the Second World War, Derrida joined a number of his fellow deconstructionists in deconstructing the world and words of De Man in an attempt to prove that he didn’t say what everyone knew he had said. They insisted that de Man “proposed not the extermination of the Jews but only their expulsion from Europe” despite the fact that this was clearly not what he had written on numerous occasions. Deconstructionists determine what was written, not ordinary readers like ourselves. We see the words but cannot possibly know what they mean until their meaning is revealed to us by the deconstructionist themselves. In general, as Himmelfarb notes:

“Still another [apologist] reminds us that although many facts about the affair have emerged, facts in themselves are meaningless. ‘It’s all a matter of interpretation, and each interpretation will probably reveal more about the interpreter than about de Man.”

This denial of “facts” and the accompanying denial of anything resembling “truth” has clearly made its way outside the hallowed halls of academe, like a science experiment gone bad, — and moved beyond the reading of literature and philosophy to the “real” world (which is itself a construct, or so it is claimed). We now have a President, for one, who is a master of desconstruction (albeit out of ignorance; I doubt that he ever heard of Derrida!), a “gaslighter” who is intent on convincing us all that black is not black and white is not white — unless he tells us otherwise. The crowd at his inauguration was the largest on record because he and his minions say so — and despite the photographic record and the testimony of those actually in attendance.

As an academic exercise deconstructionism has done little more than turn off would-be English majors who would rather read exceptional literature than read theories about those books written by so-called experts within their fields. It would therefore appear harmless, a fruitless exercise for academics that makes them feel important. But it is not harmless, as we are now becoming painfully aware. Ideas do have consequences and we are forewarned to keep on our guard: join the ranks of the “Unregenerate Prigs” who insist that there are such things as truth and reality — independent of all of us, even those who insist it is only they who are in the know.

Mass Movements

I have been re-reading Eric Hoffer’s excellent book The True Believer. Hoffer was the self-educated longshoreman who wrote notes to himself while at work and later turned them into a best-seller. Eventually he wrote and sold ten books and was quite a sensation for a while. I have always thought him a deep and careful thinker with remarkable scope of mind.

Hoffer wrote about the causes of mass movements and in particular about the mentality of those who follow those movements, the true believers. Joseph Conrad, that extraordinary wordsmith, also wrote about the type in his novel The Secret Agent where he provides the following sketch of these true believers:

“. . .[they exhibit] sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt.”

For Eric Hoffer they are “frustrated,” they feel a sense of hopelessness and despair, they have low self-esteem and long to have their sense of self raised by the strong, charismatic leader of a movement, any movement, who promises them escape from their despair. He was thinking of such people as Hitler and Stalin, but his thoughts have a direct bearing on what is happening in America today where we find the beginnings of a nationalist mass movement (“Make America Great Again”) led by a charismatic leader whom the true believers follow blindly. Several passages are of special interest and I find them worth quoting at length:

“. . . the acrid secretion of the frustrated mind, though composed chiefly of fear and ill will, acts yet as a marvelous slime to cement the embittered and disaffected into one compact whole. Suspicion too is an ingredient of this acrid slime, and it too can act as a unifying agent. . . .

“Mass movements make extensive use of suspicion in their machinery and domination. . . .  Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition with the enemy threatening the movement from without. This enemy — the indispensable devil of every mass movement — is omnipresent. . . .

“By elevating dogma above reason, the individual’s intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant. . . . Thus people raised in the atmosphere of a mass movement are fashioned into incomplete and dependent human beings even though they have within themselves the making of self-sufficient entities. . . . they will exhibit the peculiarities of people who crave to lose themselves and be rid of an existence that is irrevocably spoiled. . . .

“All active mass movements strive to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. . . . To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.”

The allegiance of the true believer is to the cause and its leader not to other members of the movement. It is part of the glue that holds the movement together and makes it possible for the leader to demand sacrifices of the members whenever he or she deems it necessary. According to Hoffer the leader himself exhibits:

“. . .audacity and joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature . . . unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness . . . a boundless self-confidence. . .  [ and a determination to engage in] charlatanism [since] there can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.”

Of major interest in this regard is hatred, which is one of the primary “unifying agents” that holds the mass movement together. Hatred is readily vented by the true believer who loses his individuality in the mass movement, thereby guaranteeing him anonymity. It frees the hater to “bully, lie, torture, murder, and betray without shame and remorse.” Hatred, frequently, is of foreigners who make the “ideal devil,” though it can be anyone who happens to be more successful than the true believer himself.  Mass movements must have a devil to hate; it is more important than having a strong, charismatic leader and a lofty ideal.

What we are seeing in America today has the earmarks of a mass movement aborning.  Signs are already noticeable, especially during the rallies organized to make the group cohesive, where allegiance is sworn to the leader and to his cause and the devil is named and targeted. If the present leader of the movement remains in control, and indeed gains greater control, the movement will begin to show even more fully the signs of a mass movement that Hoffer describes here. Time will tell.

 

The Tenth Circle

At the risk of disturbing Dante’s magnificent architectonic  which allows only nine circles in Hell — nine being the perfect number, since when multiplied by any other number the integers always add up to nine, and being the product of 3 X 3 (three representing the Trinity, of course) — I would suggest that if he were alive today he might want to allow for a tenth circle.

To review (there will be a short test next period), Dante places the treacherous against kith and kin, folks like Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, in the pit of hell which is not a fiery pit, but a frozen wasteland. It is frozen because it is as far away from God as is possible in Dante’s geocentric universe. Some of the sinners’ heads are barely above the ice and close enough together that each person’s head is being gnawed upon by his neighbor. Some are twisted beyond recognition in the frozen ice. Others cry and their tears freeze against their cheeks. All are beyond redemption because they love only themselves and they never repented their sins.

In the tenth circle, which we can now imagine to be below the frozen wasteland, there are spaces reserved for modern-day sinners — folks like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their loyal supporters; and, of course,those among us who promote hatred and trade on the fears of frightened and ignorant people in order to increase their political power and prestige. We can also see the immensely wealthy who are blinded by their greed and can see only the huge bags of gold that are just out of reach. Even when they manage to drag their way to one of the bags, others appear just beyond and they spend all their time and energy seeking more and more. They are desperately in need of water, but there is none, because their own activities have dried up the lakes and ponds that we can see in the background, whips of dust being stirred up by brief winds that do not cool. Not that these men need the gold. It won’t do them any good in Hell. But they want it just the same. It is an uncontrolled urge and Dante was very hard on those among us who cannot control their urges.

Now, Dante allowed for the greedy and avaricious a circle much higher in his scheme, but these men are not only greedy, they are greedy at a time when there is widespread starvation and the planet is in danger of irreparable harm from the determined attempts of men such as these to line their pockets no matter the cost. And they are more than treacherous since their greed tends to the destruction not only of their country but also of our world. Thus, they must share the tenth circle with those who pile lie upon lie in order to have their way and who spread hatred and fear wherever they go. But, then, it’s not a small circle. There is plenty of room for growing numbers of folks who share the worldview of these stunted and purblind men.

Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.

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.

Natural Rights

The concept of natural rights goes back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas in the medieval period. Aquinas recognized “higher laws” than the laws of man, though these laws are superseded by Divine Laws as revealed in the scriptures. The point of this recognition was to make humans aware that the laws men put “on the books” are not the only laws, or even the laws that in a specific case ought to be obeyed. Throughout history, remarkable men have appealed to “natural law” to justify the breaking of civil laws — men like Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The thinker who did the most to popularize the notion of natural law and natural rights — which are derived from natural laws — was John Locke. His remarkable book Two Treatises of Government written in 1689 had a huge impact on the English Civil wars and the eventual ascendency of the Parliament over the King who had traditionally claimed “divine right” to rule with an iron fist. The notion of natural right, as Locke developed it, revolved around a set of moral principles that are available to human reason; these principles transcend the laws of men written in civil codes.

The notion that there is a “higher law” than the law of legislators was attractive to the British citizens living in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They embraced Locke’s Second Treatise even after the British had tossed it aside and moved on. Jefferson in fact relied heavily on Locke’s political philosophy. But even before Jefferson incorporated Locke’s notion of natural rights into the Declaration of Independence, the notion itself was being tossed around rather loosely in the colonies and used as a convenient way to ignore laws that were inconvenient. and claim the “right” to do whatever one wanted. For example, the merchants on Philadelphia in 1773 who were annoyed by English taxes on tea from India felt it perfectly acceptable to bribe custom officials and smuggle tea into their warehouses on the grounds that “every man has a natural right to exchange his property with whom he pleases and where he can take the most advantage of it.”*  I dare say today’s corporate CEOs would heartily agree.

What this means, of course, is that if a person finds a particular law inconvenient or unnecessarily constrictive, he can ignore it on the grounds that it is in conflict with “natural law.” In a word, the notion when used in this loose way simply becomes another way of doing what one wants to do regardless of the consequences. This is not the way Jefferson meant the phrase “natural rights” to be taken when he speaks about man’s “unalienable [natural] rights” in the Declaration. These are God-given rights that no human laws can supersede. They are nearly on a par with Divine Laws as those were conceived by Thomas Aquinas. They were not mere whimsy and they were certainly not arbitrary.

Because of the loose way of speaking about natural rights and natural laws the notions passed out of common usage in the nineteenth century and very little mention of them can be found until the notion was resurrected after World War II by a group of Catholic thinkers because Hitler, among others, was careful to make certain that every step he took was perfectly “legal.” Thus, the notion of natural law and natural rights once again came to the fore: there had to be moral rules and laws that superseded the laws of fallible humans, whether they be Germans under the Third Reich or the Russians under Stalin.

So when Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail in the turbulent 60s of the last century he once again appealed to natural, moral laws. When he says, for example, that  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” he is not speaking about human laws, as his frequent references to the Bible make clear. King was quite certain that there is a moral high ground and that some stand on it and others do not — despite what they might say. There are moral laws that trump human laws, and these laws are written on the heart and speak to human conscience.

* Found in John Miller’s Origins of the American Revolution.