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.

Who Is He?

Can you guess who this man is?

“[He] treats all politics as warfare. . . . Such a manner of thinking made him constitutionally incapable of compromise, except for tactical purposes. Once [he] and his followers came to power, this attitude automatically permeated their regime. [He] was also unable to tolerate dissent. Given that he viewed any group or individual who was not a member of his party as ipso facto an enemy, and hence a threat, it followed that such a person had to be silenced or suppressed. [He] was quite incapable of tolerating criticism; he simply did not hear it. He belonged to that category of men of whom the French writer a century earlier had said that they knew everything except what one tells them. One either agreed with him or fought him. Here lay the seeds of the whole totalitarian mentality.

“[His] absolute conviction of being in the right and his absence of moral qualms attracted [those] who yearned for certainty in an uncertain world. . . . .[He] had a streak of cruelty. . . . One either agreed with him or fought him; and disagreement always aroused in [him] destructive passions.”

 

If you guessed Vladimir Lenin who was largely responsible for an estimated 28,000 executions per month during the Red Terror in 1917-1922, you were right. If you guessed someone else closer to home you were mistaken, though your mistake is understandable!

(This passage was found in Richard Pipes’ A Concise History of the Russian Revolution.)

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.”

Words

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

It’s interesting, to say the least, how folks bandy words about, making them mean what they want them to mean — not unlike Humpty Dumpty who pays them extra when they work overtime.

Take the word conservative, for example, which ought to include such things as environmentalists who are regarded by many so-called conservatives as liberal “tree-huggers.” Environmentalists are dedicated to conserving our world. But those conservative critics are really dollar conservatives who care only about the bottom line, the profits that are frequently the result of attacks on the environment. There are also intellectual conservatives who are dedicated to preserving those ideas that have helped to create a better world. I number myself among such types. And then there are those liberals usually identified as democrats who advocate human freedom and number among themselves the bleeding heart liberals who react in a programmed manner to all types of human pain and misery — real and supposed. They leave their minds on the shelf and lead with their gut. Endorsing political correctness, they also head the attack against the Canon in the universities and all books written by “dead, white European males.” The pain and misery resulting from this attack, in the form of uninformed and confused students with shrunken minds, is ignored in the name of “social justice” — which can be loosely translated as “what I want to be the case.”

Oddly, it is quite possible for someone to embrace a number of these positions simultaneously and without inconsistency. One can be, for example, a democratic socialist who seeks greater social equality through democratic means.

Socialism, according to Karl Marx, is the economic system that arises upon the death of capitalism, an economic system that feeds on the rotting carcasses of exploited workers — speaking of human pain and misery. Karl Marx was convinced that the state would commandeer the means of production and socialism would result. But eventually the workers would themselves own the means of production and all would share equally — an economic system, called Communism.  Many an intellectual in the early part of the last century embraced the ideals of Communism until, like George Orwell, they discovered that so many of those who said they were promoting Communism were actually fostering totalitarianism and were responsible for the death of millions of their fellow humans — all in the name of “equality,” and “justice.” It is worthy of note that Communism, as embraced by Marx, resembles in important ways the Christianity preached in the Gospels.

And speaking of Christians, there are those who claim to be Christians and who are quite happy with their own prejudices and even preach hatred against all of those they regard as different from themselves. These should be called nominal Christians, as they are Christian in name only. The real Christians, who are rare, are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing and try hard to love their fellow humans, as was preached by the original (and some might say the only) true Christian. There are some who seek to do the right thing, as our beloved blogger Jill Dennison tells us each week, pointing out those who truly deserve our respect and admiration. And, I dare say, many of those people are not even nominal Christians! So it goes.

In any event, words do have relatively fixed meanings, as our dictionaries attest. But, in the spirit of Humpty Dumpty, many of us think that meaning, like truth itself, is something we make up and which dances to the tunes we play. This leads us, as we are becoming increasingly aware, toward a relativism of the meanest sort, a relativism in which hate comes to mean the same thing as love and truth is a fabrication of those in power whose private agenda centers around themselves and their ugly urges toward more and more power. It pays us to beware and to tread carefully, to make sure we know whereof we speak and insist that those claims that we are told are true have the force of evidence and argument to support them. And we should make sure folks say what they mean even though they seldom seem to mean what they say. Otherwise our minds will become prisoners of those who delight in making others a means toward their own ends.

 

Fictional Parallels?

As a young man in the 1840s Fyodor Dostoevsky was intimately involved in the Petraschesky circle, a secret society of liberal utopians dreaming of a general uprising that would revolutionize Russia for the better, as they saw it. Along with several other members of the group, he was caught, tried and condemned to death by a firing squad. At the last minute — the last second by some accounts — he was spared and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. This provided him with the experience he turned into his novel The House of The Dead and also provided background for the epilogue of Crime and Punishment. It left Dostoevsky permanently scarred, a compulsive gambler, and an epileptic to boot. And it started a revolution in his thinking that apparently turned him from a young idealistic nihilist into a reactionary conservative loyal to the Czar who had saved his life — though he later insisted he remained after many years “an old ‘Nechaevist’ myself.”

In any event, in 1869, he read about the brutal beating and murder of a young student who had sworn allegiance to, and later attempted to leave, a revolutionary group led by the young Sergei Nechaev. It provided Dostoevsky with the material he was determined to turn into a brief tract attacking the nihilists and the revolutionary movement in general. After years of reflection the result was instead his major novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils, the Russian word suggests all of these possibilities); it became a substantial novel that was more didactic than many of his major works but with many literary qualities that saved it from being simply a prolonged attack on a political group the author was no longer in sympathy with.

In that novel he created the character of the young Pyotr Verkhovensky (called “Nechaev” in the early drafts of the novel) who leads a small, zealous group of nihilists in the direction of revolution. Many of the incidents described in the novel were culled from the newspapers at the time and reflect the atrocities that were being committed on the eve of the Russian revolution that was to erupt with violence in 1917. In his novel, after the murder of the young student — as recreated by Dostoevsky from the events that stirred his creative juices, — one of the young men who devotedly followed Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky reveals to the police the events surrounding several killings and the violent events that led to that horrible murder of the student. In his confession he repeats the platitudes that Verkhovensky put in his mouth and which almost certainly are echoes of the basic nihilistic notions that inspired Sergei Nechaev. To the police who questioned why so many murders, scandals, and abominations had been perpetrated, the young man replied:

“. . .all was for the systematic shaking of the foundations, for the systematic corrupting of society and all principles; in order to dishearten everyone and make a hash of everything, and society being thus loosened, ailing and limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with an infinite yearning for some guiding hands, raising the banner of rebellion, and supported by the whole network of [nihilists], which would have been active all the while, recruiting and searching for practically all the means and all the weak spots that could be seized upon.”

This brings the novel to its unsettling conclusion, but it raises some interesting questions for us in this country in the glow of the recent political triumph of a demagogue who admires the Russians and many of whose activities have disturbing parallels with the events in Dostoevsky’s novel. Not that our fearless leader can be seen to resemble Sergei Nechaev as he lacks the imagination and the intelligence and, so far as we know, is not a sadistic murderer. But he is a bully and is easily led by a stronger personality. And there is a man who lurks in the shadows of his inner circles, the avowed follower of Lenin (a Nihilist with a capital “N”), who appears to have some of the qualities that were apparent in that young man and in Dostoevsky’s character modeled after him.

This may be a stretch, but it does give us pause and requires that we pay close attention to what is going on with an administration that seems to have declared war on social programs and regulatory agencies that have evolved over the years to protect American citizens from the abuses of the wealthy and the power-brokers who would just as soon see America made great again by “shaking its foundations” and transforming it into an imitation of the Russia that its leader seems to admire, an autocratic government without checks and balances and with no concern whatever for the ordinary citizen who struggles to keep his head above the waters of discontent. Would this indeed be a country “ailing, limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with a yearning for some guiding hands”? Let’s hope not. After all, that is merely a fiction.

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.

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.