Tag Archives: hannah arendt

Infallibility, Narcissism, and Paranoia

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again  just a short thought to ponder. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error.”

This statement is undeniably true. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, the Ayatollahs, and Pol Pot are just some examples. More troubling is that such personalities are not absent today, Vladimir Putin, Marianne LePen, and our own President display this tendency, and their most devoted followers embrace it as well.

In the case of President Trump, presidential power means never having to say your sorry, or made a mistake. Failures are blamed on others, Congressional leaders, former President’s Obama and Bush, journalists, and even advisors who have outlasted their usefulness, case in point, Michael Flynn.

The inability to admit error is dangerous, but it also points to other potentially severe psychological issues. It is one of the characteristics of a paranoid personality, as well as a narcissistic personality. Richard Hofstadter wrote:

“The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Likewise, even if those characteristics do not reach the point of becoming an actual psychological disorder, they can be severe enough to impair sound judgment as a leader, and lead to potentially terrible decisions. History shows us this all too often. These kinds of leaders see the world as a threatening place, full of enemies, real and imagined. The destruction of their enemies is of the first importance to such leaders, even when it is detrimental to the nations that they lead.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Fragile and Unpredictable: Auschwitz and Human Behavior in the Crisis

Auschwitz Staff at Play 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Laurence Rees noted something that is important about how human beings act in crisis. After interviewing many of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders who were at Auschwitz and other parts of the Nazi death machine he wrote this:

“…human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.”

I think that it is a comment worth reflection. One of the things that Rees explored was how people who in one situation can be the best of neighbors, the most conscientious and ethical of businessmen, the most dedicated civil servants can seemingly become something totally different when placed in situations that test who they are.

Selecting those to Die 

This is one of the scary things about human nature itself, while there were many people who were sadistic and enjoyed the evil that they did, there were many more who could not decide to be good or evil, instead they went with the flow and took the path of least resistance. Hannah Arendt wrote of Adolf Eichmann, who was the instrument of destruction for much the Jewish population of Europe:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

In times of great change, in times of crisis, in times of uncertainty demagogues manipulate people through fear, particularly fear of the other, both the other within their society, and those far away. When they do this they dehumanize people who seem different from us, be it in their race, color, religion, politics, gender, or sexual identity. When they succeed in doing this, it is the ordinary people who turn the other way, or collaborate in the persecution of the victims.

We are in a precarious situation and it would not take much for our nation to slide into a totalitarian dictatorship, and if the circumstance were right, if the crisis large enough, most people would probably surrender their freedom for the supposed security offered by a dictator. As Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

That is why we must not only understand history, but at the same time we must be determined to recognize how it informs us today, and how we can prevent such things from ever happening again.

That’s all for today,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Slipping into Totalitarianism?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I did my taxes yesterday as across the nation tens of thousands of people protested President Trump’s refusal to release any of his tax returns as he prepares to make wide ranging changes to the U.S. Federal Tax Code which according to most analysts would benefit him. In response the President derided them on Twitter. Likewise, in response to lawsuits about his encouragement of violence at his campaign rallies, Trump stated that since he won the election that he is immune from any actions that any court might find him responsible. Even so many people seem not to care. Despite the fact that the administration lives in a “fact free” world where the President and his advisors can make up things with impunity and accuse anyone who disagrees with promoting “fake news” he is allowed by those who have the power to remove him to get away with it. But this is the normal path to power for any totalitarian.

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah 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.”

Those are not the words of a man interested in maintaining our Republic, its Constitution, or its laws; they are the words of an autocrat and a would be dictator. Sadly, despite the resistance of many people, I don’t think that anything will stop him from gaining that power. Our society is too atomized to come together in any meaningful way to stop him, and he and his closest supporters understand that fact. Despite his frequent mistakes, foul ups, and failures, he is given a pass by his supporters, as well as some in the media who think that firing a few missiles makes one presidential. His anemic approval rating doesn’t seem to concern him probably because his opposition, liberals and conservatives are so divided and distrustful of each other that they cannot come together to oppose him.

Yesterday, the people of Turkey voted to change their constitution to give President Erdrogen and his party nearly unlimited power, paving the way to a one party dictatorship. Even a few years ago most experts said that such an outcome was impossible. No one should assume that the American experiment of a democratic constitutional republic cannot be destroyed. All it takes is a significant part of the populace that is willing to give up its rights for promises of security and prosperity, which is also willing to grant the government extraordinary powers for it to happen. As Timothy Snyder wrote: “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.” So with each new crisis, domestic and foreign, many engineered by the Trump administration itself and its media enablers unsettles us, further divides us, and frightens us, know that we are sliding more steadily into a totalitarian world with very passing day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Preciousness of Trust and Integrity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today, like so many days lately I’m just going to share a few short thoughts about the importance of truth and the importance of trust and integrity in public life.

My first class in seminary was an ethics class, of all things called Moral Problems. The course went into depth on various aspects of morality in public and private life. One of our texts was Sisella Bok’s book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. When I took the class I had no idea just how much it would influence me throughout seminary and in professional life. Bok wrote:

“The role that one assigns to truthfulness will always remain central in considering what kind of person one wants to be—how one wishes to treat, not only other people, but oneself.” 

It is essential to our wellbeing as individuals, in our relationships, and in public life. When I look at the words and actions of the Trump administration, as well as past administrations of both political parties I do get concerned when falsehood is openly promoted and called truth. Mistakes are one thing, but deliberate lies by leaders, and public institution, government or otherwise destroy public trust. As Bok noted: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.” 

That is why when in a democracy there are scandals involving deliberate lies and cover ups that have or are being perpetrated by government officials, business, military, or religious leaders, they are so destructive in terms of the trust of the public. Of course the leaders of totalitarian regimes have no need for truth as their propaganda is paraded as truth, even when it denies reality, even before they take complete power. Hannah Arendt wrote that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

To keep that from happening we as individuals must assign the highest importance to truthfulness even above expediency and the desire to win. It is to borrow the words of Sir Patrick Steward playing Captain Jean Luc Picard in Stat Trek the Next Generation, “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

And with that I will close for the day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Lying and the Loss of Moral Authority

Friends of Padre Steve’s world,

The careless abandon with which the Trump administration, not to mention others of various political or ideological persuasions treat truth is having a corrosive effect on our society. The danger is that the moral corrosion will seep into every institution and every individual before anyone really figures out what is going on, and thereby depriving us of the ability to differentiate between truth and falsehood, right and wrong; in effect to deprive us of the means by which we take our moral bearings. Hannah Arendt described this phenomena well:

“the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”

We have to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood is essential to our humanity and to the functioning of a political system that is based on individuals who act rationally. That is one of the brilliant aspects of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is that the founders, being products of the Enlightenment understood human nature far better than many of us do today. They certainly were not perfect and they were often contradictory in the application of their ideals to the world that they lived in, but they believed that humanity should progress, and that government should be a part of that progress.

Within that was the understanding that the ideal government should be about the virtue of governing truthfully. Thomas Jefferson probably said it best: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” This is certainly something that has not been practiced much in our history, and the foibles of people in power, be they in government, business, or religion, demonstrate that honesty, to quote Billy Joel, “is such a lonely word.”

However, our founders and many others before us understood the poisonous effects of continual lies on the body politic. They understood that government based on lies cannot survive, nor can societies where people erase the line between truth and falsehood. One only has to study the disastrous history of totalitarian regimes, where truth is suppressed, and lies so rampant that they can are believed. William Shirer wrote of his years reporting in Nazi Germany:

“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…”  

I am disturbed by the blatant use of lies, half-truths, distortions, “alternative facts” and “alternative truths” by the Trump administration. Likewise I am disturbed by the actions of some Trump opponents who deliberately spread lies to further their opposition. Stooping to the methods of your opponent is never a good means of a movement to achieve its end, for if it does succeed in overcoming or overthrowing the regime that it opposes, it will end the end be no better. Likewise, it will have squandered its integrity, and lost the trust of people, and with it, its moral authority.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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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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