Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Totalitarianism And The Great Masses Fully Roused! (Part I of Hopefully Many Parts)

Great novels keep you thinking. Reading "Bend Sinister"(And while I"m on this tack I might as well include Nabokov's "Invitation to a Beheading," George Orwell's "1984" (much as Nabokov would have disliked being named alongside him) Franz Kafka's "The Trial" and Albert Camus' "The Stranger" to the list of novels that have got me to thinking, especially regarding the leitmotif (word of the day 05/31/11) of this post, but thinking of several things -- aside from Nabokov's being perhaps the great writer of our time.

The first was I've been meaning to read Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" for far too long, and it was high time I got that started. So I've got that started and it has been quite a treat, from the standpoint of keeping me thinking.

The second was that, easy as it is to say otherwise, we've got just as much potential for totalitarianism here in the good ol' USA as any country that's ever existed, and possibly more potential for it considering our great size in terms of population and the falseness of the proposition that democracy inherently breeds free thinking, or embraces it.

I've read Eric Larson's latest book, "In the Garden of Beasts" (concerned primarily with the first U.S. ambassador to Hitler's Germany, and the change in Germany's social complexion in the year's time between Hitler as merely Chancellor to his final ascension to Fuhrer and total control.) So thirdly, in conjunction with the facts of "Bend Sinister" and "Origins," is this: it never ceases to astound me how easily freedom is willfully handed over to a regime (and bureaucratic machinations subordinate to it) that desires anything but the freedom and welfare of its citizens. Hitler and the Nazis' rise provide perfect historical testimony to this fact, and damned if this is something we can sweep under the rug -- isolate to a "crazy" place and time -- and be done with it. You'd have to be crazy to do that. You can't fail to recognize that what happened in Germany was not uniquely German; it was disturbingly human.

Certainly democracy, of whatever you wish to term our current form of government in contemporary America, allows for the possibility of freedom -- but it also invites the opportunity for the contrary, a systematized manacling by those who urge oppression. Its machinations are usually subtle. That is to say, forces such as "The Silent Majority" of President Nixon's famous citation, which is a powerful, capable force. The Silent Majority that tacitly (or not so tacitly) backs the Machiavellian ends of an unscrupulous administration (think justification of Iran Contra, for one notable example), provided it means ends that a statesman can justify. These must somehow be linked to the American way, a certain pursuit. 

It is true there is a large swathe of apolitical denizens in America today. And it's possible to consider this group harmless, consider it to be an aggregate of those whom it would be hard to muster to aspirations above the most basic. But it's precisely these individuals disaffected by the political mechanisms of an entrenched government and its corresponding party system who are, historically speaking, most easily aroused to react forcefully against it. Which actually makes a great deal of sense, purely from a psychological standpoint. As you begin to feel more and more the outsider, holding no advantage, you likewise begin to -- often -- resent the group you see as responsible for your marginalization. For instance, think of how children most often hate bullies and, even if not bullies, the most popular children -- begrudging their privilege. The fact is, though, this isn't in this case without merit. Now, conversely, isn't it true that many times the most popular children, bullies, will turn children against the very lowest on the totem pole, the very weakest of the weak, which helps the popular children or child / bully consolidate power (no one wants to be the lowest on the totem pole, and expend energies mostly on distancing themselves from that person / people). You can see this working on a macro scale, as well. There wouldn't be need for scapegoats in the hugely repressive governments, totalitarian governments especially, were it not for this psychological precondition. Or at least scapegoats are a useful means of deflection. And deflection is a common means of controlling opinion in contemporary America, if not globally.

Herbert Marcuse termed it, in an eponymous essay published in 1965, "Repressive Tolerance," which is to say when tolerance for freedom of speech goes "too far" (quotes around too far quoting the questionable idea of what exactly constitutes too far). I'm inclined to agree with Marcuse. When a line of discussion of a certain heightened vitriol gets to the point where its promulgators are actively speaking of repression, you've got to call attention to, and probably vitiate, this fact. The problem I see with squelching a repressive line of thought is, how do you do so without making martyrs of the people you're silencing? If conservative commentator Glenn Beck, at the height of his popularity, had been silenced by the government for being too provocative, I feel safe in saying it would have compelled a war, or if not that then some kind of violent retaliation by a fringe, fanatical right-wing political group, at least. But I suppose this effect is something to be returned to.

I further agree with Marcuse with respect to a politically inundated society being counterproductive to the free thinking of its members. He puts it more precisely, and in terms of how we are taught to think, when he explains, ". . . learning to know the facts, the whole truth, and to comprehend it is radical criticism throughout, intellectual subversion." Those things which foster control discourage knowledge of the whole truth, and how to find it. You find the whole truth by reading and reacting to / interacting with everything. John Stuart Mill's call to understand the other side's argument as well as your own (which has led me to read a great deal by Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, William F. Buckley, and Ray Kroc -- hell, even odious talking heads like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity). Well-roundness, exposure, more holistic education, should make those scapegoats (entities in need of oppression) the masses are trained to dislike in, say, a fascist society, less terrifying and thus less in need of repression. So that my favorite mantra, put forth by Simone de Beauvoir in her seminal work "The Ethics of Ambiguity," offers a kind of axiomatic thesis to Marcuse's essay, viz., "A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied." In other words, a right-wing Christian stating a gay man's freedom to be gay impinges on his/her freedom -- viz., (s)he wishes the gay man be denied his freedoms so as not to be exposed to nor have his/her family be exposed to the "gay lifestyle." This is the standpoint from which repressive tolerance can most properly and reasonably be understood. But still I cannot see how repressive speech would be undermined or stifled without granting martyrdom and probably impelling a violent reaction, perpetrated by those who cannot see the incongruity of imposing their "freedoms" on minorities and so forth. I understand that Marcuse would say children are the focal point from which this battle is won or lost, but how do you achieve that without enraging families who have been told/taught to believe seditious forces are attempting to brainwash their children, that it's done in the schools through re-education. Ironically the real dogmas perpetuated by larger factions of America seem to exist elsewhere. In, yes, my own personal object of bias, the church of modern American Christianity, that right-wing conflation of church with state variety (other places, too, but that's a big one). Is it crazy to say Christianity in these general terms I classify it, as one example of dogma, would be free of the scrutiny it now is subject to were it open to the rights of others to believe / worship / et al as they so choose? And is it not the fundamental opposition to this, to the rights of individuals to live as they choose, free of proselytism, that engenders a real cause for such antipathy?

How about, as long as I'm asking questions, if everyone believed the same thing as this very specific brand of Christianity I describe would that therefore make it true, finally, at long last? What about trees in the forest? At least people'd be able to sleep easier with the question of the righteousness of their beliefs taken off the table and ruled as beyond contest. That'd keep things simple, certainly.

Now, what was my point again? (Digression will be a big theme of blog posts from here on out, if it wasn't before.) Ah yes, this will be an ongoing series. Investigations in philosophy of the state and man, especially as such discussions prove relevant to whatever the hell is going on in our own country, in this day and age. I see a lot of good in opening up a dialogue. I see a lot of good, likewise, in not rambling on and onward in one single post forever.

(If it isn't apparent this is a post I've been building on and expanding for too long. I hope most of what I've written to this point flows well enough and plays off the preceding points I've made in a clear enough way, a way that by itself indicates the purposefulness of things being framed as they have been. If I have failed at this, I'm truly sorry but I hope it was a fruitful read, anyway. I don't want to waste anyone's time, especially by rambling.) 

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