Today I am traveling back home after a wonderful visit with friends and family in Huntington, West Virginia. The visit was nice, I got a chance to do some serious reflection, especially as I walked about the city and along the Ohio River waterfront, visited the Museum of Art, and walked the entirety of its wonderful Ritter Park.
I did some writing but spent more time in reading and reflection than anything. I kept up on some of the headlines but didn’t let myself get beaten down by the negativity and cynicism of our time.
Last night I read the short but poignant little but by the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart entitled Why Don’t We Learn from History. The book was written in not long before his death in 1970 and it is good quite good. It deals with a number of issues, including the conflict between history and propaganda, or when faith, especially religious faith as treated as historic or scientific fact; especially when propaganda or faith is preached as if it were history, if it were truth. But he also contrasted democracy and totalitarianism.
Liddell-Hart was a realist, especially about democracy and totalitarianism. While he admitted the inefficiencies of democracy, he realized that it was far less dangerous than the “stupidity” of totalitarianism. In fact it was important for him to note just how this inefficient system was for freedom. He wrote:
What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.
There was was much to ponder in his book and I will probably write some more of my thoughts on it, but since I am going to be traveling I will quote what he said about self-made despotic rulers and how they come to power. When I read it I was struck by just how much Liddell-Hart in his description of a despot describes Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump through the his campaign and especially his remarks on immigration hours after returning from a brief meeting with Mexican President Pena Nieto.
We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.
He wrote about how they behave in power as well, but for now I will close and let you my readers ponder his statement before I follow up with Liddell-Hart’s observations from history on how despots act once they achieve power.