Tag Archives: authoritarian states

Watershed Moments: Trump, Hope Hicks and the Problem of Truth

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A watershed moment in the Trump administration occurred a few days ago. Longtime advisor and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks admitted telling “white lies” to protect the President to a Congressional committee. Shortly after she either voluntarily resigned or was forced to resign by an infuriated President. I have read accounts that indicate both. I lean to the latter, but I cannot say that without absolute certainty.

Over 1800 years ago the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

When it came out last year I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book  On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work.

Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the 2016 election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false. Sadly, that has not changed, in his first year in office, as of the anniversary of Mr. Trump’s inauguration he had told over 2000 verifiable lies and distortions, that’s a rate of about six a day.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods during the election campaign came so fast that they were overwhelming, and they still are today. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing.

Such propaganda campaigns are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.”

To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state.

The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

Marcus Aurelius was right. The truth is not harmful but those who persist in self deception and ignorance can not escape harm. Hope Hicks placed her faith in Donald Trump, even being willing and able to lie for him, now she is firmly in the eye of the Muller investigation and will forever have her reputation tarnished by her work and support for President Trump. Sadly, there will be more.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under culture, ethics, History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

A Steady Diet of Falsifications and Distortions: The World of “Alternative Truth” and “Fake News”

hannah-arendt

Hannah Arendt 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The day after President Trump’s inauguration Presidential spokesperson Kellyanne Conway who defended a number of outright lies posited by then Press Secretary Sean Spicer in his first press conference as alternative truth. The statement was astounding and was met with much criticism and ridicule, but it reflected a key tenant of the administration  that facts as they are, are unimportant, that truth itself is malleable.

In the year since the inauguration the nation has been subjected to a propaganda campaign by the administration, the right wing media led by Fox News, certain members of Congress, and a host of flacks including prominent pastors. This campaign, often led by the President’s early morning Twitter storms labels any opposing news or facts as “fake news” while often demonizing and sometimes threatening those making the reports or conducting investigations of the administration.

In the past year we have entered a world that our founders never expected to happen but warned us about. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, that the fiercest enemies of the republic were those men who begin “by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” 

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 who served as a correspondent in Berlin from 1934 to 1941 wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich about the corrosive power of repeated lies by the leaders of the Third Reich and its propaganda organs on people who in every other way were completely ordinary.

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.”

I have had similar experiences sitting and talking with people are much like the Germans that Shirer was speaking and I shake my head.

I often wonder how did we got to this point as I watch and read the President’s tweets, speeches, interviews, and the comments of members of the administration and his allies.  I am perplexed about how we did got to the point that a presidential spokesperson, as well as once respectable Republican members of Congress, and former administrations  can defend outright lies and refer to them as alternative facts. 

I think that this incessant barrage of propaganda and demonization by the administration and their media supporters is designed designed to bypass the intellect and appeal to the raw passions of followers who have ceased to think critically. 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,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

Abandon Facts and Abandon Freedom: Contending Against Alternative Truth, Facts, and History

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century on Tuesday and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work. Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods came so fast that they were overwhelming. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing. They are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.” To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state. The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under culture, ethics, History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

Groundhog Day and Nazi Comparisons

groundhog-day-driving

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was Groundhog day and Punxsutawney Phil has promised us another six weeks of winter. Since is was sixty degrees today with partly cloudy skies and light winds, I say let it continue. But that’s not really really what I’m writing about today, though historically it seems that we are in an era that seems like the movie Groundhog Day, except we aren’t repeating yesterday every day, but we are seeing history unfold in a similar way to an era that we would rather consign to to musty history books about the Third Reich.

Today, two friends shared an article of a blogger condemning those who are comparing the actions of President Trump to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He started his article “I’m no expert but…” and then went on to minimize what people are saying about Trump, comparing them to others on the right and left who have made comparisons of their political opponents with Hitler. I agree that there are people, plenty of them on the right and left who have compared their political opponents to Hitler, and if Donald Trump was a normal president I would say that such comparisons would be unfounded, but in my humble opinion, they are not.

I am a historian, as one of my colleagues told me yesterday, a “historian masquerading as a chaplain, and that’s not a bad thing.” My chief area of study in my undergraduate days was in German history, particularly the period of the end of Imperial Germany, the German civil war, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi era. The same was true with my second master’s degree in Military History, and much of my church history studies in seminary. I have written on a number of aspects of the subject, it is included in the Military Ethics class that I teach, and I would dare say that I am an expert in the subject and that I do not make comparisons to the Nazi era, or its leaders, to American political leaders lightly.

In fact, until the rise of Donald Trump, I have never had cause to compare the words, methods, or actions of any American President or serious presidential candidate to the Nazis. Any such comparisons, even to Richard Nixon, would be to unfounded hyperbole and ludicrous. I do know that there are people on the political left and right who have compared their political opponents to the Nazis or even Adolf Hitler himself, and as a serious historian I find their accusations to demean the historical importance of the period, especially in view of the great evil of the Nazis, especially in regard to the Holocaust.

Likewise when I see someone write a lengthy blog about these comparisons and begin it with “I’m not an expert but…” I am offended because it demeans the work of serious people, real experts, and equates them with ignorance. The man cited many of the differences between Germany of 1933 and the United States of 2016. There are differences, significant differences, but they do not disqualify comparisons between the periods, or between Herr Hitler and Mr. Trump. Those comparisons are in matters of substance, psychology, language, sociological, and political trends.

In 2001 the United States, which had just gone a divisive election which was decided in the Supreme Court was attacked. The shock to the country was immense, the attack was followed by prolonged wars and a massive economic crisis followed by the election of a President who was African American, an event which brought out some of the worst and most open racism I have ever seen in my life. In 1918, Germany lost a war, had its system of government fall, and was enveloped in a civil war punctuated with being saddled with the full blame for the war that they lost, and were ruled not by the Kaiser, not by conservatives, or nationalists, but by Socialists, something that many could not abide. As such, the Socialists were saddled with the blame for a war started by nationalists, and the myth of the Stab in the Back was used to explain the defeat of the German armies.

stab in the back

The Stab in the Back

In both situations, the politics of the countries became exceptionally divisive, and over time the political center began to dissolve. In both instances, populist movements of the right and left stamped out the center, compromise was off the table. In both 1933 and 2016, the politician who took power represented a minority of the electorate, and neither had ever held any elected office. They were both demagogues who found convenient internal racial and religious scapegoats, and foreign powers to blame for the woes of the country. Neither Trump, nor Hitler was ever given a chance of gaining power, until they achieved it.

Both took advantage of the struggles of people who had not done well during the economic downturns, played on longstanding prejudices, exploited the weakness of the major political parties, coopted the fears of religious people who felt that they were not being considered. They were also supported by people of means, who were quite well off and willing to take their chances with a leader who could deliver people who would otherwise reject them. The similarities, while not exact go on and on.

But even more, when it comes down to the person of President Trump, honestly he cannot be compared to Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler was much more subtle and much more clever, although both were narcissists, both had no real friends and treated people as commodities, both demonstrated a need to be loved, and fear of rejection, as well as a compulsive need to demean, degrade, and bully any opponents, but Trump is but a cheap copy of Hitler.

It is interesting that the President’s first wife, who by the way supported his run for president, said that Trump kept copies of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. During his campaign he frequently praised dictators and even quoted Mussolini in a tweet. His repeated use of the term “America First” is a throwback to an American movement that supported Hitler and his aggression in Europe up until Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States a few days later. If you look at the structure of his speeches during the campaign, they are laden with phrases used by the German dictator, and their structure is similar, albeit without Hitler’s mesmerizing prose. I have seen him speak in person, and watched the anger that he incites in his followers. I watched his inauguration speech several times, and read it again and again and I was struck by the similarity in tenor to many of Hitler’s speeches. If I was not so well acquainted with Hitler’s speeches, and his books, I would never dare to make the comparisons, it would not only be unwise, but also terribly wrong to make such a comparison based on a personal or ideological dislike, based on raw emotion and ignorance of the subject.

women-cheering-hitler

1-rtx211ir

He has surrounded himself with advisors who openly support fascist methods, and use propaganda techniques which mimic Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. Like Hitler, once in power President Trump has used his office to demonize his opponents and rule by executive decree, effectively marginalizing the legislature and to defy and eviscerate the courts. In one important difference since Trump took power of a superpower, he did not have to wait years like Hitler in order to build up a military to threaten his neighbors and defy international institutions.

I could go on and on, but if there was any other historical comparison that I could use instead of the Nazi comparison, I would. But let me qualify that statement. Trump is not Hitler and he has not at least yet, acted on his most radical statements concerning deportations of millions of people, discrimination based on race or religion, banning all opposition, and curtailing freedom of speech, although he and his advisors constantly threaten the press and anyone who voices the slightest opposition to them, including simply pointing out their repeated lies. Nor has he embarked on any new wars, though his words and the words of Steve Bannon, his closest advisor, threaten war with China, Iran, Mexico, and are destroying the bonds that we have with our longest and closest allies.  On the National Security Council the President has sidelined his military chiefs and replaced them with the ideologue Bannon. The sad thing about the last part was this was exactly how Hitler treated his military chiefs. They were called in to carry out orders, not to give sane advice, and he undercut them whenever he needed. In both cases many of their followers tolerated no criticism of their leader, often resorting to threats of violence or actual physical violence to suppress their opponents. In both cases their leaders not only tolerated such behavior, but encouraged it.

Hitler is dead, his Reich defeated, but his ideas are still around and can be seen in the current right-wing nationalist movements masquerading as populists in Europe and the United States. What happened in Germany in the 1930s  can happen again. Thus it is better to sound an early warning using facts and reason to hopefully ensure that it doesn’t happen. Such warnings should not be taken for granted, too many people and political leaders, not only in Germany, but around the world, took Hitler for granted believing that he could be controlled and that his radical ideas were hyperbole and would never be acted on. They were wrong. As a result the world, and Germany itself paid a massive price in human life for ignoring the danger until it was too late.

Again I don’t make such comparisons lightly, and in a relatively short article like this I cannot go into the detail with all the citations, though I have the material at hand to do so, I haven’t the time to write a book about it, though I’m sure that I could. I have three books that I am currently working on, all dealing with the American Civil War, one of which is getting to the point that I am trying hard to complete it and get it to a publisher in the next month or two, so I really don’t want to start another book. But I think that this weekend I will provide my readers a list of references on the Third Reich as well as totalitarianism, that if read critically, and thoughtfully, would be of great help to understanding our own time.

If you want you can look at some of my articles on this site dealing with mass movements, and totalitarianism, especially those that are based on the writings of Eric Hoffer or Hannah Arendt. They are helpful to understanding the political, ideological, and emotional aspects of how people like Hitler and Trump gain power, and why people are willing to through out reason, logic, ethics, and even faith, to support them.

So anyway, until the weekend, have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I did watch the movie Groundhog Day last night. It is one of my traditions.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under ethics, History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary

Where the Distinction Between Fact and Fiction, True and False, No Longer Exists

hannah-arendt

Hannah Arendt 

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,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under ethics, History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

The World of Alternative Facts and the Danger to the Republic

kellyanne-conway

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We have entered a world that our founders never expected to happen but warned us about. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, that the fiercest enemies of the republic were those men who begin “by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

I think that we have entered that era in our history.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s embarrassing attack on those who disagreed with the President’s claim that the inauguration of President Trump had the highest attendance in history when every analysis of the crowds revealed to be far smaller than the last few inaugurations was defended by President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway. Conway turned absolutely Orwellian to defend that and a number of other claims that were patently false. She called them Alternative Facts.

Sadly, this has been the modus operandi of Mrs. Conway and the President’s spokespeople since the beginning of his campaign. Rather than admit to a falsehood they reinforce the lie, time after time. The behavior is extraordinary in the American experience but not in history.

I hate to bring up a Nazi example but the the tactic is that of the Nazi, the Soviet, and every other authoritarian and dictatorial propaganda machine. But being a historian who has spent much of my life researching and writing about the Nazi seizure of power I was actually taken aback by her comments and the use of the term “alternative facts.” There are no such thing. John Adams, our second President said it well: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” 

But such clarity cannot be found in what Mr. Spicer or Mrs. Conway said. They repeated a lie and then Mrs. Conway called it an “alternative fact.” It was absolutely Orwellian, not that it matters to many of the President’s diehard supporters. He told us during the campaign: “You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible,” and he was absolutely correct. Hitler told his generals when he was about to stage a propaganda coup to blame Poland for starting the war, “I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war – never believe if it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward if he told the truth…” It seems that from day one of his campaign the President has followed a similar course of action to first win the nomination of his party and then the general election. I don’t think that he can stop now that he is office. In his inaugural address the President noted: “America will start winning again, winning like never before.”  Winning at all costs seems to be everything, and nothing will stand in the way, even facts.

The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels once said:“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

Sadly, this will not be the last of these kind of statements made by Mrs. Conway or Mr. Spicer. We have entered a new era, and while many people think that the Trump administration will sink itself, and that maybe the GOP will revolt, impeach him, and make Mike Pence the President, they are deluded. That will not be allowed to happen by Trump or his supporters. The stream of alternative facts are going to become so commonplace that people will stop noticing them, they will get numb to them.

William Shirer who served as a correspondent in Berlin from 1934 to 1941 wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.”

I am sorry, but when it comes to facts and truth, that is the kind of world we on entered on January 20th. Please note I am not saying that President Trump is a Nazi, or commit Nazi style atrocities. I am simply comparing the methods, and the language of his spokespeople to the Goebbels propaganda machine, and I am also calling to mind the words of our founders on the danger of demagogues.

Honestly, I hope that our President governs wisely and gains a sense of humility as he holds in his hands such great power. I want him to succeed for all of us, but this opening weekend has given me much cause for concern and this has less to do with policy than it does the deceptive words that I see coming from those who shape his message.

I know that is a hell of a way to start the week, but this does matter.

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under ethics, History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary

Ideologues and Ideologically Empty Pragmatists: The Key to an Authoritarian State

werner-best

Dr. Werner Best

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been looking at some of the nominees to various cabinet posts in the incoming Trump administration. Trump is a known quality, since his lack of character, integrity, narcissism, and thin skin are well known I was thinking about his picks. Trump has no ideology other than his own power and ego which makes him both dangerous and unpredictable, and this is not just to those who are his current lot of “enemies,” but even people who campaigned at his side like obedient lap dogs, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie comes to mind, but I digress because believe me there will be a lot more of his supposed friends and allies who make that list.

Some of them are hopeless right wing ideologues. They too are known qualities and actually fairly easy to predict and to defend against and many so so incompetent, divisive, and intolerable, that even people who agree with them will throw them under the bus.

But there are others, like Trump himself devoid of ideology, but even more dangerous because they are much more careful. In fact they can move from administration to administration, campaign to campaign. One can see a number of them in Trump’s entourage, including people who advised his GOP primary opponents and then abandoned them when they saw a winner. They are in it for their own personal achievement and whatever power they can gain.

Such people can be found in any government, any business, any military, and any church. One of the interesting things about history is that you can see them weave their way in and out of the picture, outmaneuvering and undercutting rivals, even selling out their bosses.

My regular readers know that I have spent a large amount of my life and academic study dealing wth the transition from Imperial Germany, to the Weimar Republic, and to the National Socialist or Nazi state of Adolf Hitler. The interesting thing is to see how many professional men, business leaders, bureaucrats, police officials, and military officers, many men; a good number of whom had opposed Hitler and never were Nazis until it became convenient served the Nazi State, especially in the ranks of Heinrich Himmler’s SS. One of the books that has been part of my study since college is Heinz Hohne’s The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. The book which came out in 1966 was one of the first to confront the myths about the SS which allowed many Germans after the war to use the SS as their alibi, all that was wrong with Germany could be blamed on the SS. While the SS was certainly culpable of many crimes it was just one part of the Nazi state, a state as contradictory as it was totalitarian.

In his book Hohne discusses the types of men who found their way into the SS, which included the true believers as well as the pragmatists who had no ideology. One of these men was Dr. Werner Best who had been an official in the Gestapo. A gifted intriguer he maneuvered himself between various party factions and leaders and was promoted to SS Obergruppenfuhrer. Then, later as the head of the Nazi government in Denmark went against the final solution in that county by helping the Jews of that country escape to Sweden.

Best adapted the philosophy of Ernst Junger, the writer of the classic novel of the First World War Storm of Steel who wrote: “The important part is not what we fight for but how we fight.” Best transformed Junger’s philosophy into one of the pillars of the SS leadership, the ideal of “heroic realism.” Best wrote: “The fight itself is essential and permanent; the aims of the fight are temporary and interchangeable. There can therefore be no question of success in our fight… the yardstick of the new code of morality, therefore, is not its content – not ‘what’ but ‘how’.” 

Hohne noted that the ethic “with no specific aim, opened the door door to concentration on achievement for achievement’s sake.” Himmler put it succinctly, “The word ‘impossible’ must never be heard in the SS.”  The result was that even non-Nazis were attracted to the SS and because of their abilities or connections were brought in to the organization.

This is where it really gets interesting when one thinks of today’s opportunistic yet ethically deprived pragmatists of so many professions who have jumped aboard the Trump train.

Hohne wrote: “The call to energy and efficiency, the ceaseless challenge to action and trial, launched SS men into a primitive competitive struggle in which all normally accepted rules of conduct were forgotten.” Some believed that they were still were still only responsible to themselves but because they were subject to orders became prisoners “of an ethic linked to no purpose, an ethic which, ostensibly for purposes of political necessity, could suddenly order the commission of crimes and present them as goals of human technological efficiency.”  

Hohne quoted historian Hans Buchheim who wrote in his book The Anatomy of the SS State:

“If a man is concerned not with what he is fighting for but only with how he fights, he is conditioned to heroic action in a criminal cause. Although such a heroic fighter imagines that he must rely on himself alone… he can be swept into the service of an organization claiming complete totalitarian authority – and he will perceive that this has happened not at all or too late.”

Werner Best learned late and he tried to make up for his early activities in the Nazi State, even so he was convicted as a war criminal though he escaped the death sentence. Sadly there were a lot more men like him, non-Nazis who became part of the SS and conducted some of the worst crimes in human history.

So when you hear the man who will be President in just over a week’s time threaten reporters, denigrate intelligence officials, and conduct Twitter tirades against anyone who criticizes him, and then shamelessly lies about all of it you need to be concerned regardless of your political affiliation. Many of the men and women who are selling their souls to serve in the incoming administration are completely without any moral center, ethic, or guiding ideology; and it is them that all of us should be really concerned about. This is because they are the ones who will get things done, morality or convention be damned. Authoritarians or totalitarians cannot succeed without them.

Have a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Note: I do recommend Hohne’s book from which I drew much of this article. Sadly, it is still in print but not available in a digital format. You have to purchase and read it the old fashioned way. It’s actually kind of cool to read a book that smells like a book.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under ethics, History, nazi germany, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary