Ideological Opinion: The Enemy of Knowledge

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Salman Rushdie one wrote: “The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

We seem to be at another crossroads in Western civilization, a crossroads where the classic liberalism that was the basis for democratic societies is being stampeded by zealots of various persuasions who guided by the supposed infallibility of their ideological belief systems, deliberately and without remorse seek to destroy the institutions that are the guardians of liberty.

We have seen the results of such movements in history before and each time they succeed in gaining power they have brought disaster to nations, and sometimes the world.

Proponents of ideological purity assume that their ideological bias is equivalent to sacred truth, be it a religious or secular truth. The promoters of such systems promote something more than their opinion, as Hannah Arendt noted: “For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.”  As such, ideology is not based on knowledge, but is distinct from it and the enemy of knowledge for it binds the mind in a straitjacket in which all thought must be submitted to the truth of the ideology. As Arendt noted such ideologies must be handled with caution as theypretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”  An ideology protects the believer from having to think for himself, it allows the insecure to grasp at the protection that it allegedly provides, and allows the believer to deny reality, and to by definition declare everything that contradicts the ideology to be heretical, and opponents to be aligned with the devil himself, allowing the believer to hate the opponent. As Eric Hoffer noted, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” 

My favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing.

It takes no courage to be an ideologue, and once a person surrenders to an ideology as his or her reason for existence, they sacrifice the ability to reason, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to acquire knowledge. That is the danger of the blind ideologies that are consuming our world today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

padre Steve+

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“The Power of a Small Elite…” The Collapse of the Third Republic and its Lessons for Americans Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s Word,

As most of my readers know I am a historian who specializes in both the American Civil War as well as the years between the First World War and the end of the Second World War. On of my favorite authors whose works specialize in the latter is the late William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Berlin Diary, The Nightmare Years, and maybe most importantly for Americans and Western Europeans today, The Collapse of he Third Republic: an Inquiry into the Fall of France 1940. 

The Collapse of the Third Repubic is a massive work, and Shirer was one of the first to gain access to the records of the Third Republic and to interview its political and military leaders in the years after the Second World War. For me, the most interesting part of this work is how many parallels there are between the French Third Republic in the 1920s and 1930s as there are in contemporary American life, culture, and politics. Those comparisons are too many to discuss in a short article like this, but there was  one point that struck me as particularly important was the attitude of wealthy to the existence of the Republic itself. The Hobbesian attitude of the wealthy conservative classes in the Third  Republic was not terribly different than many in the United States today, men and women who value their wealth and privilege above the very country that they call home and which helps to subsidize their existence.

Shirer wrote about the wealthy French citizens who had been saved by the sacrifice of four out of every ten French men in the First World War, the physical destruction of much of the country, and the debt incurred by nation during the which often benefited the people and the  businesses which profited during, who in turn abandoned the Republic during its hour of need. Shirer wrote:

“The power of a small elite which possessed most of the wealth was greater than the power of the republican government elected by the people, presumably to run the country in the interest of all the citizens. This group was determined to preserve its privileged position and thus its money. In effect, since the triumph of the Republic over President MacMahon there had been a virtual alliance between the possessor class and the Republic, which it manipulated through its control of the Press, the financing of political parties, and the handling of its vast funds to influence the fiscal policies of government.”

While the attitude and actions of the wealthy French business leaders became apparent in the 1870s and 1880s, it appeared full bloom after the First World War.  Shirer wrote:

“And more and more, as the last years of the Third Republic ticked off, the wealthy found it difficult to put the interest of the nation above that of their class. Faced with specific obligations to the country if the state were not to flounder in a financial morass, they shrank from meeting them. The Republic might go under but their valuables would be preserved. In the meantime they would not help keep it afloat by paying a fair share of the taxes. The tax burden was for others to shoulder. If that were understood by the politicians, the Republic could continue. If not… were there not other forms of government possible which promised more security for entrenched wealth? The thoughts of some of the biggest entrepreneurs began to turn to the Fascist “experiment” in Italy and to the growing success of the Nazi Party in Germany.”

The French business elites, as well as their conservative allies hated the Republic so much that they were unwilling to support it and worked to destroy it, even if that meant overthrowing it and establishing an authoritarian state. When the Germans defeated the French in 1940, many of these political and business leaders embraced the Nazis and supported the Vichy state. They were even willing to surrender true freedom and independence, becoming subservient to the Nazis in order to destroy the Republic.

I believe that the French example serves as warning for us today when we see government and business leaders working to destroy the institutions that define our republic and are there to protect its citizens. Thus, Shirer’s book is an important and timely read for Americans today.

Marshal Petain warmly greets Hitler

There is much more in the book, including justified criticism of the French left of the time, but I will finish with this today. General Weygand, who led the French armies during the final phase of the German campaign against France despised the Republic. When it fell he said. “I didn’t get the Boches, but I got the regime.” A more traitorous comment could not have been uttered by a soldier.

One of the few dissenting legislators to the dissolution of the Third Republic by Marshal Petain and Prime Mister Laval, Senator Boivin-Champeaux noted:

“It is not without sadness that we shall bid adieu to the Constitution of 1875. It made France a free country…. It died less from its imperfections than from the fault of men who were charged with guarding it and making it work.” 

Will that be said of us someday?

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“The Grave Dangers in Meeting Fanaticism with Ignorance…”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Earlier in the week I discussed the moral implications of the President’s budget and talked about President Eisenhower’s Chance for Peace Speech of 1953. As I thought about it I began to ponder other things that President Eisenhower discussed that are still with us. One of those is the constant need for some people in government, in the media, and in the pulpit to find a scapegoat for the nation’s problems, both real, and imagined.

This is nothing new so as I watch the actions of some in the Trump Administration, and in the media today behaving in such a manner, it causes me pause and think. I am concerned with the way that American Muslims, and Americans of Arabic descent, even Christians, are being treated in response to real terrorist threats that are being perpetrated by some Islamic terrorist groups. Frankly, the heavy handed treatment of American citizens of the Islamic faith, or those who happen to be from, or who descent from Arab immigrants. I believe that the climate of suspicion and fear being promoted by people in the administration, members of Congress, and the media, especially the Right Wing media is something that hearkens back to a time not that long ago when other Americans were persecuted under a flood of allegations, many untrue and unfounded, by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter on intellectual freedom to the President of the American Library Association in June of 1953. It was barely five months after he entered office, the Cold War was heating up, and anti-Communist politicians were advocating policies which were in effect anti-American. Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting hearings which were akin to witch hunts to ferret out alleged Communist infiltrators and sympathizers in government, while the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) conducted investigations of media, entertainment, and academia blacklisting hundreds of people. McCarthy labeled many Democrats as well as the incoming Eisenhower administration as traitors for allegedly being soft on Communism, or even worse actively supporting the Communists.

Throughout his Presidency, Eisenhower never tired of speaking out for freedom of thought and expression. One of his first actions was in writing his letter on intellectual freedom. In the letter he opposed the kind of thinking that would meet real dangers with ignorance. He noted:

Our librarians serve the precious liberties of our nation: freedom of inquiry, freedom of the spoken and the written word, freedom of exchange of ideas.

Upon these clear principles, democracy depends for its very life, for they are the great sources of knowledge and enlightenment. And knowledge–full, unfettered knowledge of its own heritage, of freedom’s enemies, of the whole world of men and ideas–this knowledge is a free people’s surest strength.

The converse is just as surely true. A democracy smugly disdainful of new ideas would be a sick democracy. A democracy chronically fearful of new ideas would be a dying democracy.

For all these reasons, we must in these times be intelligently alert not only to the fanatic cunning of Communist conspiracy– but also to the grave dangers in meeting fanaticism with ignorance. For, in order to fight totalitarians who exploit the ways of freedom to serve their own ends, there are some zealots who-with more wrath than wisdom–would adopt a strangely unintelligent course. They would try to defend freedom by denying freedom’s friends the opportunity of studying Communism in its entirety–its plausibilities, its falsities, its weaknesses…

In the letter also noted something that I believe that we are in danger of today as the administration and Congress debate and implement measures that seem to target people because of their race or religion. Those are methods of totalitarians past and present. We have seen the results. President Eisenhower had just led the Allied forces in Europe against a regime that employed those methods, methods which brought about the deliberate, premeditates slaughter of millions of Jews, and others deemed to be either less than human, different, or potentially dangerous. Eisenhower wrote:

“But we know that freedom cannot be served by the devices of the tyrant. As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedoms defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.”

It is something to think about any time that anyone, be they a political leader, a religious leader, an academic, a journalist, or entertainer suggests adopting the methods of totalitarians against real or imagined threats. Policies and actions born of ignorance, and implemented through arrogance which promotes suspicion, suppression and fear will destroy the United States more certainly than any external enemy. As Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” 

It is something to think about.

Have a great Day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Lenten Mendoza Line and a Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It looks like we’re about halfway through the season of Lent, my least favorite season of the liturgical year and I am doing pretty. Good. I’m going to celebrate my 57th birthday a day early and that causes me to reflect on life. Thankfully I am doing much better than I was this time last year when I was off my anti-depressants for 9 days and dealing with the deaths of two friends and a rainy Easter birthday. I was in a nasty funk, all my PTSD stuff, reflections on my own mortality and upset about the loss of friends. I never want to experience an Easter, or a birthday like that ever again.

This year I am happy. I seem to be doing life a bit above the Mendoza Line over the past year and that is good. For those that don’t know what the Mendoza Line is, it is named after Mario Mendoza who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit for a career batting average of .215 and the Mendoza Line is considered to be a .200 average which is the line below which players can pretty much be assured that they will not remain in the Major Leagues.

But anyway, as I was thinking about perspective this year with all the craziness in the world and the antics of our President which scare the Bejeezus out of me, I am reminded of the words of former pitcher Bill “Spaceman Lee” to put things in perspective. Lee noted:

“I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won’t matter if I get this guy out.” 

Anyway, that’s just a thought that oddly comforts me when I don’t well as I should in life or anything else. Let’s face it, in spite of everything we have to be able to put things in perspective and appreciate what life we have no matter how bad things get. Hopefully, we get to wait a few million years for the cosmic snowball to do its thing without the President or anyone else in the world blowing it up.

That being said I have so much to be thankful for in life, my wonderful wife, my family back in California, my three great Papillon dogs, my friends, my readers here, and getting to do what I love doing. Hopefully, this year is good for me, as well as all of you. Thanks so much for being a part of my life.

So, have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Trumpcare Train Wreck: Incompetence + Hubris = Disaster

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Mark Twain once wrote, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” That being said is amazing to watch a political party with a majority in the House and Senate, combined with their party’s President, drive the train of government over a cliff in pursuit of legislation that was at best ill-conceived and misbegotten, and at worst an abortion wrapped in a train wreck driven by haughty hubris, and guided by the unparalleled incompetence of the Trump administration and the House leadership. Despite warnings that he did not have the votes to get the bill through the House, the President pushed on, insisting on a vote that brought an end to the bill. It reminded me of Barbara Tuchman’s immortal words:

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

I watched in morbid fascination this week as the House GOP led by Paul Ryan attempted to ram through this hopelessly flawed bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, only to pull it minutes before the vote. Ryan had to run to the White House to tell the President that they didn’t have the votes as Trump’s display of intra-party brinksmanship crashed and burned in the face of House realists who recognized that the bill would doom them with their constituents and Freedom Caucus extremists who could have cared less about theirs.

The bill would have caused as many as 26 million people to lose their insurance, not reduced the deficit by much, and raised the cost of insurance for those who still were able to have it. The effort exposed both the incompetence of the GOP as well as the lie that they actually care about the people that put them in power, with the worst effects of the bill being felt in the counties and states that most heavily voted for President Trump and the GOP majority. It exposed the basic immorality of this party which regards the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake as more important as people, or the best interest of the country, in the best tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and Paul Ryan’s inspiration, Ayn Rand.

I have never seen anything like it in my life, and never want to see anything like it again. It is a a disaster for the President equal to the failure of James Buchannan to pass the Lecompton Constitution which would of admitted Kansas as a Slave State, over the desire of much of the Democratic Party of 1857 and 1858. To see this happening even as more and more facts come out about the possibility of members of the Trump administration, and campaign team being paid and influenced by Vladimir Putin’s Russia made the week even more surreal.

Watching the reactions of the House leadership and the President afterward was even more fascinating, and disturbing. It looked to me that the President is willing to destroy Paul Ryan and the House leadership, while blaming the the Democrats for not helping. Likewise there were times that it looked like Ryan was trying to undercut Trump even as the Freedom Caucus tried to undermine both Trump and Ryan. Sadly, the GOP did nothing to bring any Democrats over to their side as to vote for Trumpcare would have been a poison pill.

What will happen next is still to be determined, but the first major attempt by Trump and the GOP Congressional majority to pass what was supposed to be their signature and defining legislation demonstrated that they are incapable of governing. Say what you want about the polices of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, one cannot accuse either of incompetence when it came to passing difficult legislation and even winning Democrats to their cause.

As a person who was a Republican from 1976 until 2008 are a disgrace to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. They are incompetent ideologues and demagogues who will destroy each other if they don’t succeed in destroying the country first, and I hope that we all can keep them from doing the latter.

Have a great weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Once you start down the dark path…” Longing for Honesty from the President

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thomas Jefferson once noted “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.” It is a lesson that the President, his spokespeople, and his flacks should learn. However after observing them on the campaign trail for nearly two years, and in the nearly five months since the election I doubt if the President  or his advisors have the capacity for this. With every day there is a new revelation of untruthfulness. On Monday FBI Director James Comey basically said that the President and his spokespeople were lying about their connections to Russia, and their allegations that the Obama administration had been spying on them. To way the President respond on Twitter and to be shot down in real time was discouraging for anyone that esteems the office of the Presidency.

The web of untruths concocted by the President and his advisors is stunning. I did not think that it was possible and I really hoped that once they had won the election that a modicum of sanity would take root and grow as the President and his administration dealt with the reality of the office. But that is not happening and it seems to me that they keep adding to the fire and with every new statement, with every new botched riposte to damning allegations, with every new  tweet and twitter storm, it looks like they are covering things that might be worse than any of us had imagined just a few months ago. Sadly for the nation and for the esteem of the office of the Presidency, the untruths, the shifting of blame, the deflections, and misdirection are destroying any credibility that President Trump might have had. Abraham Lincoln said that “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”

That confidence that citizens give a new President is rapidly evaporating as the web of deceit grows on a daily basis. I wish that the President and his advisors could just admit the times when they were wrong, admit the times when the facts are not on their side rather than making up alternative facts, alternative truths, and alternative history. I long for the day when they will heed the words of Sophocles in Antigone, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” 

All of us can learn from our mistakes, even the mistake of being factually inaccurate once in a while. But when one continues to be untrue, when one compounds a lie with another lie, and another and another, it no longer is a simple mistake, it becomes the web from which escape is impossible.

For a leader, especially the President, this behavior is not only destructive to them as people, but to the esteem of the office that they hold, and detrimental to the people that they serve.

I long for honesty from this administration. I wanted this President to be successful and to be all of our President. I would hope that maybe something will happen to make him change his course and speak truth, admit error, and apologize for those that he has used his power to demean, destroy, and harm. But I fear that the President’s journey down the dark path of life has gone so far that it has consumed anything that might have been human in him. As Yoda said, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” 

So have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Perpetrators and Bystanders

Jewish Men being Rounded Up in Baden with Citizens looking on  

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer wrote: “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”  These words from his book Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 serve as a warning to members of a society where various minority groups are being labeled as enemies of the state and often less than human.

I the past couple of days I have written about the need to try to understand people who in the past have committed genocide, mass murder, starvation, and other crimes against humanity. I did this not to give any basis whatsoever to justify their actions, but so that we might not think ourselves so different that we make the mistake of believing that we are not capable of such crimes, or looking on and allowing them to happen.

It is all too easy for it to happen. All that is needed is a population that has been conditioned by propaganda, based on historical myth, untruth, a prevailing climate of fear, and in which the threat of crisis, real or imagined, can delude even good, able, and even extraordinary people to commit crimes that if they were not real, would be incomprehensible to the mind. In such times decisions have to be made, difficult decisions, the decision to stand for what is right, even if the country’s leaders, and their most vocal followers threaten violence and the use of government force against those who dissent.

Being a perpetrator is one thing, but being a bystander is worse. As Hannah Arendt noted: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

Until Tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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