The High Cost of Ignorance

Keith SewellUncategorized3 Comments

I’ve just finished reading Kurt Andersen’s new book (‘Fantasyland’ subtitle ‘How America Went Haywire, a 500-Year History’). The book was superb, and full of copy/paste worthy quotes by the author, but instead I’m pasting here one that he borrowed from Hannah Arendt:

“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism have been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true….Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

This was written over 60 years ago, and in reference to the rise of Nazism and Hitler. If it doesn’t send a shiver down your spine then check to see if you’ve still got a pulse. I’m not sure how our present flirtation with fantasy based fascism will play out, but I’d offer two very clear lessons from history:

1. It starts off pretty well. [During the period of increasing brutalization, dismantling of physical and ethical safeguards and subversion of press freedom unemployment plummets, the financial markets boom; and yes, the trains do run on time.]

2. It ends really badly; especially for the masses who were duped into enabling it. [Most of Nazism’s grass roots supporters ended up as Wehrmacht cannon fodder, while a high percentage of those who had knowingly engineered the horror were able to slip away to prepared bolt holes in Latin America and the Caribbean.]

3 Comments on “The High Cost of Ignorance”

  1. Bert Bigelow

    I have the shivers, but I am hopeful…with the current pushback and Trump’s abysmal approval results in polls, that this November, Congress will be rescued from the troglodytes.
    And in two more years, we will rid our nation of this orange-haired monstrosity.
    And sanity will return.

  2. Allan Havinling

    I listened to the program “Fresh Air” earlier today, which seems to have a particular relevance to this conversation:
    https://www.npr.org/2018/01/22/579670528/how-democracies-die-authors-say-trump-is-a-symptom-of-deeper-problems

    The authors are two historians who have made a study of how democracies devolve into authoritarian systems. They identify two “norms of democracy”, the extinction of which foreshadows decline of democracy itself. The first is what they call “mutual toleration”, meaning that as much as Democrats and Republicans disagree, each acknowledges that the other can govern legitimately if they win. The authors say this started to break down with the Newt Gingrich revolution in the 1990’s although I can remember lack of toleration before that. In any case, there is no doubt that it is worse today than at any other time in my memory. Republicans say Democrats are communists who want to transform American society, winning elections through fraud. Democrats say Republicans care only for the 1%, and win elections through chicanery.

    The authors say a lot more, like how a demagogue like Trump managed to breeze past all the usual “gatekeepers” that our society had in place to prevent somebody like him from ascending, and I recommend reading the transcript at the link given above.

  3. Keith Sewell

    Bert,

    I wish I could share your optimism. What happens in the midterms will indeed be crucial, but I think that at best – if the Dems do take back Congress – it will be a temporary respite. A little upward blip on an otherwise downward curve. The Dems have no idea, or at least their leadership has no idea, of the main policy changes that they would need to push for in order to reverse the underlying rot. The problem is well defined, and the needed changes are at least implied, in Kurt Andersen’s book. But, as it’s not happy sappy upbeat reading, it won’t get much traction. Oprah won’t promote it.

    Allan,

    I think that ‘a symptom of deeper problems’ is putting it mildly. And it sounds like we should both get and read ‘How Democracies Die’ ASAP. Another pretty insightful treatment, for the philosophical underpinnings that are available for misuse by demagogs and their promoters, is Popper’s old 2 book set ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’.

    I found the most resonant passage in your linked interview to be:

    “In each instance, there’s a kind of Faustian bargain that’s being struck where the statesmen think that they’re going to tap into this popular appeal of the demagogue and think that they can control them. I mean, this is this incredible miscalculation. And this miscalculation happens over and over. And in each instance, the establishment statesmen are not able to control the demagogue.”

    I wish that this could be read RIGHT NOW by every high level Republican. If they could come to their senses immediately then they might still be able to stop Trump. Admittedly, at the cost of tearing their party apart; but if they could become aware of the real stakes, and rise to being real statesmen, then they might be willing to make that sacrifice. But I guess I’m just dreaming. If Kurt Andersen is right then we’re already way too far down the rabbit hole.

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