Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Yesterday I wrote about presidential spokesperson Kellyanne Conway who defended a number of outright lies posited by Press Secretary Sean Spicer as alternative truth. The statement was astounding and was met with much criticism and ridicule, but it reflects an attitude that of cynicism that has swept our nation that facts as they are, are unimportant, that truth itself is malleable.
In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
The world that most of us grew up with is changing before our eyes and it is happening around the world and it is hard to say what is going to happen. I started re-reading Hannah Arendt’s book last night. It was one of my texts as an undergraduate when studying Hitler’s Germany. The book deals with both Naziism and Stalinism which makes it in some sense like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. While the latter focuses more on how Hitler and Stalin used their power on their own people as well as the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, and others who happened to find themselves swallowed up by the two totalitarian states; Arendt’s book more at the underlying social conditions. In a time when populist politicians around the world are speaking in the the language of authoritarians, and promising to deliver their people from various political, racial, and religious enemies, it is important to remember where such talk almost always ends, totalitarian states.
But the fact is based on numerous polls in this country and around the world going back two decades show a rise in people of all ages and ideologies who are willing to accept authoritarian government and to abandon democracy. Well before President Trump ever announced his run for the presidency in 2015 the stage was set for an authoritarian leader to arise in the United States just as many are doing in Europe. Whether President Trump actually ends up ruling as an authoritarian is not yet clear, but the signs keep pointing that he may be heading in that direction, and that his followers will have no problem with it. His inaugural address was marked by his distain for both political parties and the political establishment and linking himself with the people. It was loaded with populism and nationalism, as are the messages of Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and others in Europe.
William Shirer wrote of how Adolf Hitler convinced many Germans to follow him. His message was basic populism in which certain groups were responsible for their problems and he promised to fix it. Yes Hitler was anti-semitic and especially blamed the Jews, but most Germans, many who were raised in a culture of anti-Semitism, just ignored that part and followed him because anti-Semitism was normal for them. Shier wrote:
“To all the millions of discontented Hitler in a whirlwind campaign offered what seemed to them, in their misery, some measure of hope. He would make Germany strong again, refuse to pay reparations, repudiate the Versailles Treaty, stamp out corruption, bring the money barons to heel (especially if they were Jews) and see to it that every German had a job and bread.”
So how did we get here? How did we get to the point that a presidential spokesperson can defend lies and refer to them as alternative facts?
I won’t answer that today in fact I want to think about it more, and do more research, but much is based on the constant repetition of simple propaganda messages that are designed to bypass the intellect and appeal to raw passion. I have written about this trend for several years using different historical examples but today I am just going to leave you with one other thing that Arendt wrote:
“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.”
I will discuss that passage in depth at another time but I think it is good just to let it sink in.
Have a good day,