Thursday 20 November 2003

Preaching to the converted

A couple of Blogarian colleagues, whose powers of perception are otherwise acute, have mistakenly suggested a pharmacological cause for my recent lull in activity. In the comments on Language Hat’s pointer to Cor Kwant’s gingko site, msg wrote:

Ginkgo supplements for cognitive enhancement: daily use seems to be counter-productive, some kind of mineral depletion probably.
Every three days or so seems to be about it, for my metabolism.

To which Language Hat replied:

Aha, that explains why you haven’t been posting lately, Jonathon!

In the same spirit, this morning Burningbird left a comment on my MegaMemory™ post:

Jonathon, did you forget to blog?

Although I’ve certainly been preoccupied, I’m sure it’s not the MegaMemory™ pills that have had such a drastic effect on my output. One reason is that I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking a lot—as we introverts do—and writing a lot too, then finding myself reluctant to publish what I’ve written. Mainly, I suspect, because of Dave Rogers’ entry about his increasing reluctance to “speak up”. I tried unsuccessfully to summarize Dave’s insights so I trust he won’t mind my quoting his entire post:

I find I have less to say about things these days. Often I feel the familiar urge to say something, but now I’m as likely to keep quiet as I am to speak up. This bothers me a little, because I’ve always felt it was important to speak up when you felt strongly about something. Now I’m not so sure about that.

Sometimes the urge to speak up is the result of habituated thinking, a conditioned response. Someone writes something that triggers an emotional response, certain automatic behaviors kick in, and before I know it I’m writing some kind of negative response. I can’t think of a case where it did any particular good. I get to feel a bit of an adrenaline rush from the experience, and maybe a couple of people agree with me and I get a little validation; but most of the time, the target of my ire and indignation is unaffected. There is no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It’s all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded and generate a little titillation for the folks who like to watch. I also can’t recall a case when, finding myself on the receiving end, I’ve altered my point of view; especially if it was something I cared enough about to have an opinion that was likely to provoke that kind of response.

I suppose this is a kind of self-censorship, but I think it’s a good thing. One person’s self-censorship is another person’s self-discipline perhaps. Just as I’ve learned to pay attention to what’s going on inside my own mind when I’m behind the wheel, becoming a calmer and safer driver in the process, I’m learning to pay attention not just to what I write, but why I want to write it.

I’ve been working for a long time on a couple of related entries: about George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier stunt and the Private Jessica Lynch debacle. Obviously I’m convinced that I have something interesting to say about these subjects—despite the fact that both topics have been covered exhaustively by mainstream journalists and webloggers alike. What has held me back is a strong aversion to preaching to the converted, an aversion based on Lisette Model’s philosophy of photography (quoted in the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus):

Photography is not about preaching a truth, rather it’s about discovering a truth.

The camera is an instrument of detection… when I point my camera at something I am asking a question and the photograph is sometimes an answer… In other words, I am not trying to prove anything. I am the one who is getting the lesson.

Model’s theory of photography translates easily to any form of endeavor, not just to aesthetic practice but also to how one approaches relationships or work or everyday life: with an attitude of curiosity, not certainty.

I suspect it might still be possible for me to write about George W. Bush and Pvt. Lynch but I’d need to eliminate the snarky tone that runs through what I’ve written so far. (I hasten to mention that, although I have a visceral hostility towards Bush and everything he represents, I feel only sympathy for Pvt. Lynch, who is a casualty many times over.)

All this was running through my mind when I read Jeff Ward’s post about Walter Benjamin’s May 1940 letter to Theodor Adorno, in which Benjamin outlined his hopes for starting work on a new project, despite his desperate need to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.

Within a few months Benjamin was dead. I cried when I read the letter, so full of ideas that were never completed. I thought about these fragments, and hoped that I might someday connect them. I get up each day and work, and hope that the Bush nazis will be deposed and my work will continue without interruption. There is a problem with projecting yourself onto tragic figures. It makes you no fun at parties at all.

Jeff’s final paragraph provoked in me a mixture of sadness, anger, and empathy. Sadness for Benjamin whose peerless criticism I’ve always admired, anger at the Bush cabal for their vicious assault on almost everything I value, and empathy with a kindred spirit who simply wants the nightmare to end so he can work without interruption.

Needless to say, Jeff’s characterization of the Bush clique as “nazis” provoked a response:

If there is one universal talent amoung human beings it is the talent (if you can call it that) for fooling ourselves, for believing what we want to believe. It’s not limited to only one side of the political fence. Those who refuse to look at Bush’s faults are as guilty as those who compare Bush to Hitler. Our current president, like those who came before him, is neither a saint nor a monster. He’s just an imperfect human, with his own natural biases, trying to do the world’s hardest job in the world’s biggest fish-bowl.

The great thing about America is that we are free to say whatever we think, no matter how ridiculous it is. We should criticize our leaders - when the criticism stops, then I will be worried - but the only useful criticism is that which originates in the here and now.

Well, actually, no. This is not an accusation made by the kind of idiot leftist who flings epithets like “Nazi” and “Fascist” at anyone slightly to the right of Stalin. The comparison with Hitler and the Nazis is apt, as Jeff Ward persuasively argues in a subsequent post. Your current president—admittedly neither a saint nor a monster—is however a corrupt, hypocritical imposter. And the most useful criticism is not that which “originates in the here and now” but rather that which draws on the experience of the past to better illuminate the “here and now”.

For those who doubt the similarities between the Bush administration and the totalitarian forces that came to power during the Thirties in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, I can only say “Come back after you’ve read Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 30s from cover to cover. Then we can talk some more.” A few weeks ago I sent a copy to a friend. This morning he emailed me, saying: “I’m on the penultimate chapter, “Nippon in China” — and I keep noticing echoes all around me.”

In the introduction, Brendon states the main theme of his book: the manipulation of perception and the distortion of reality.

Propaganda became part of the air people breathed during the 1930s. All the major occurrences of the day were the subject of organised deception which ranged from the big, amplified lie to a delicate economy with the truth. Moreover, many public spectacles were specifically mounted and choreographed with propagandist intent. King George V’s Silver Jubilee celebrations and his son’s coronation were a democratic riposte to Hitler’s barbaric pageants at Nuremberg. Stalin’s purge trials dramatised a new kind of tyranny. Mussolini’s aerial circuses advertised the virility of Fascism. The unveiling of countless war memorials in France not only marked the nation’s immense sacrifice but stressed its incapacity to face another blood-letting. Hollywood created celluloid myths to banish the Depression and affirm the New Deal. The machinations behind the scenes were at least as important as the performances acted out on the stage.

Of course, to lie is human and deceit has always been the element in which politicians, more than most people, live—their salamander’s fire. “Lord, lord,” said Falstaff, “how this world is given to lying!” Similarly the manufacture of illusion has invariably been part of the business of government. Rulers as remote as Rameses II, Augustus Caesar and Louis XIV have exemplified Montesquieu’s dictum that the splendour surrounding monarchs forms part of their might. Yet the Depression years witnessed the dissemination of falsehood on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Never had science and art so combined to promote earthly powers. Goebbels and others developed novel techniques of thought control. New media such as radio and talking pictures were mobilised to sway the masses. Leaders used aircraft to grab the limelight and they emblazoned their messages on the sky. Dictators imposed their version of the truth by means of dogma and terror. They created new cults and persecuted unbelievers. Russia and Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan, had their own reality. Facts were moulded like plasticine into the approved shape, whether Communist, Aryan, Fascist or imperial.

The defining characteristic of Bush and his administration is the gap between their words and their actions. Yet, despite the fact that Bush’s entire political agenda is built upon a foundation of manipulation and deceit, he manages to evade the consequences of his actions—as Ray Davis explains in his entry titled Causal Fallacy:

To a more extreme extent than we’ve ever known before (the bloated Republican puppets of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties being more openly pulled by the strings of their puppet-masters), the United States is under the power of the consequence-free. Bush went AWOL, and speaks as a patriot; he failed in business, and remains rich; he snorted and drank and raised those who snort and drink, and pushes life imprisonment for dabblers; he lost an election, and became President; he dragged the FBI off his Saudi business associates and some of them attacked our country and Bush hid and bin Laden still hides, and Bush was praised for his bungling; he squanders our national treasury and destroys our tax base and increases government spending on anything that might profit his domestic business associates, and I still don’t see the so-called fiscally responsible turning against him. He keeps inviting disaster, and retribution keeps passing harmlessly through him and onto the nation.

To which I would add that Bush is the allegedly devout Christian who, far from driving the money-changers from the temple, has instead encouraged their rapacity whilst facilitating the relentless destruction of the natural environment that is, for Christians of his fundamentalist ilk, God’s own creation.

Louis Menand, in a New Yorker article titled The Devil’s Disciples, quotes Hannah Arendt’s belief that “totalitarian rule… is predicated on the assumption that proving that a thing is true is less effective than acting as though it were true. The Nazis did not invite a discussion of the merits of anti-Semitism; they simply acted out its consequences”.

For Bush & Co, finding evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or establishing a plausible link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden or proving that Saddam was in a position to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists was less effective than simply acting as though all of those dubious assertions were true.

Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin’s cousin by marriage and a pupil of Martin Heidegger, established her reputation as a political theorist with her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argued that Fascism and Communism are regimes of essentially the same type, with shared origins in 19th century anti-Semitism, imperialism, and nationalism, as well as a methodology based upon the systematic deployment of terror. Menand explains that Arendt was interested in the politics of totalitarianism,

…but she was also interested in the metaphysics, in totalitarianism as a mode of being in the world. Terror, she argued, may be experienced as arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary and it is not lawless. Every despot exercises power arbitrarily; all dictators are outside the law. The distinctive feature of totalitarian societies is that everyone, including (in theory, anyway) the dictator, can be sacrificed in the name of a superhuman law, a law of nature or a law of history. “Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous,” she said. In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle. Man-made laws and political institutions are temporary shelters for vested interests, to be flattened by the winds of destiny. And the winds never cease. Hitler did not talk in terms of his own lifetime. He talked in terms of “the next thousand years.”

“In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle.” And, under Bush, everyone is subordinate to the war on terror. As he boasts of bringing “freedom” to the people of Iraq, a majority of Americans meekly succumb to his sustained attack on the freedoms he swore to uphold and protect.

Like Jeff Ward, I wake up hoping that the Bush nazis will be deposed so that my work can continue without interruption… but I have little optimism that this will happen. For all his rhetoric about liberating Iraq, it’s clear that Bush’s overriding concern is maintaining his grip on power. His exit strategy from Iraq will turn out to be no more principled than, in Joe Duemer’s words, “Nixon’s (non-existent) ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam war”. I agree with Joe that there isn’t “any realistic choice in Iraq but to stay—to stay while doing everything possible to internationalize the occupation under NATO & the UN.”

The war in Iraq was unnecessary & like the war in Vietnam was fought for domestic political purposes; the problem is that when geniuses like McNamara & Perle come to recognize their intellectual & theoretical limitations, it is already too late to avoid the debt of responsibility that genius & intellect & theory has incurred. In for a dime in for a dollar.

But that debt of responsiblility won’t be paid by Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Perle, Wolfowitz or any other members of the consequence-free elite. The debt will be paid by all of us, Americans or not, for years to come.

I apologize for doing exactly what I promised not to do: preaching to the converted. This was not the post I set out to write. Yet, as Brecht understood, “production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

I particularly apologize to Dave Rogers, for citing then ignoring what I still believe to be the best course of action when faced with the temptation to write about politics. I don’t think this post will do any particular good. I didn’t get any adrenaline rush and, even if a couple of people agree with me, I’m indifferent to whatever validation I may get. The targets of my ire and indignation will be unaffected. There will be no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It was all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded while irritating those who are convinced that people like Jeff Ward and myself are “fooling ourselves”.

But, as Jeff himself said, “I just had to get this out of my system”.

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You're not looking for validation, but what a fine job of bringing together such disparate topics and sources. It demonstrates that though you may be introverted, you're also a writer -- and a writer cannot _not_ write.

I grow more fearful every day that Bush is going to be re-elected -- not through actions of the conservatives but through actions of the liberals. And a Bush that is not constrained by worries of re-election in four years is something too fearful to contemplate.

Posted by Shelley on 20 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm not a Bush fan — far from it. I disagree with his policies, and have little respect for the man, and sometimes I weep for my country.

But Bush has neither advocated nor enabled the slaughter of 30 million people, nor arranged for the systematic murder of 6 million of them because of their religion or ethnic origin.

There are lousy politicians, there are bad leaders, there are tyrants, and there are psychopathic monsters. These distinctions are meaningful.

The comparison to Hitler is irresponsible, in my view.

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I agree with Shelley Jonathon. Further, it is not so much a question of changing people's minds as it is showing them something they have never thought of before or casting a new light on a topic for them.

There is no way of knowing how many people read any particular entry, nor the effect you may have on them. For certain some will be angry and some will nod their heads in agreement but just a surely there must be a few who think to themselves "I've never looked at things that way before", particularly when presented by as clear and thoughtful a thinker as yourself Jonathon.

I would say writing is worth it not only to get it off of your chest but also because it surely does spark in some the desire for new knowledge, whether they reveal that to you or not.

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

While I would hesitate to refer to Bush as a modern-day Hitler, I would agree that he and his adminstration are the master of the Big LIe.

I'm in the process of writing an article on their "creative" use of language, using "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" to cover up how destructive of the environment the policies really are.

His web site uses several photographs of him with Park Rangers, suggesting he's doing a great job. However, a poll of the very same group condemned his administration's policies.

Posted by Loren on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

If preaching to the converted is the same as steeling opposition against Bush, I think you should do more of it! Let's face it, we don't have the vote in the USA and there is some evidence that blogging is having an impact on the presidential election campaign.

And while you're at it, I wish you would do a bit of preaching to the converted about our own fearless leader, Mr Howard. Or is it that you perhaps worry that you might unseat him?

Posted by Marius Coomans on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Pascale, I must respectfully disagree. The comparison to Hitler is apt, although it may be rendered a bit oblique due to the historical circumstances that you point out.

The fact is, Hitler himself did not kill any of those 36 million victims you mention. He had other people do it for him.

What makes Hitler a particularly apt figure to compare with Bush is how Hitler managed to make what were previously ostensibly civilized, even Christian people carry out his twisted agenda.

Obviously, it is the manipulation of beliefs and images, but there is something more that people buy into that causes them to behave in decidedly uncivilized ways.

I believe it is the denial of fear that enables this behavior. The consequences of the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent ineffectual governments in Germany created a social climate that had to be underscored by fear, uncertainty and doubt about the future. These are conditions that most humans find intolerable. There are two responses: to acknowledge our fear and call upon what resources we have in the way of courage to face it in a manner consistent with our values. Or to deny our fear, and act out in a way that may be inconsistent with our values, but otherwise alleviates the intolerable conditions of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

There is no question that the events of 9/11 have made many Americans afraid. When Jonathon mentions that Bush hid, he's merely stating a fact. But that's not the story the administration would have you believe. We're denying our fear.

The doctrine of preemptive war does not have its basis in courage, it has its basis in fear. The curtailment of civil liberties does not have its basis in courage, but in fear. Yet we do not acknowledge our fear, instead we seek to make others afraid. This is not a strategy for success in the long term. Nevertheless, it is effective at manipulating the choices, opinions and actions of a great many people in the short term.

Could the United States of America ever be capable of the kind of evil perpetrated by Nazi Germany? I'd like to believe it's not, but I also know we're not immune to being human beings. At best, I think it's unlikely. But I believe the same cynical exploitation of human weakness that permitted Hitler to carry out his agenda is the same method employed by our present leader; and in this there is no cause for relief simply because we haven't matched the body count.

Posted by Dave Rogers on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I have a hard time swallowing your position. You state that Bush is comparable to the Nazi regime in all its decadence. Yet, how is that true? The Nazi regime brought Germany out of economic ruin - the same cannot be said for Bush. The Nazi's advocated the slaughter of millions and proceeded to do just that. Jews, Gypsies, Gays, the elderly. Please point me in the direction of Bush doing the same. His stance on gay marriage? That’s hardly advocating the slaughter of millions, though I still find it despicable.

You also make mention of the liberties and freedoms that have been trampled by the Bush regime, and while I cannot deny that we have indeed lost some freedoms they pale in comparison to what was lost during WWII. They pale in comparison to what was lost during the Red Scare, or the Cold War. You standing here, preaching to the converted masses as you so eloquently put it, is proof positive that Bush is hardly related to the Nazi regime. I don't see an outlet were anti-war protesters are being taken away and locked up for their stances, never to be seen from by their families. I don't see the ghettos and the slaughter houses being made for those that disagree.

I see the Bush administration lying, hiding behind propaganda but...what government hasn't? Point to me an administration that DIDN'T lie to us, point to me an administration that didn't cover up the fallacies and idiocies of their own actions. The fact is, while it’s covered up, the truth is STILL out there. It’s dispensed with on these web logs, its dispensed in the news (rarely), in the papers, the books, by word of mouth. The truth isn't being brutally repressed. We don't have government owned newspapers telling us that Iran is now a devote Christian nation.

Now, before you call me a "converted" person, blind to the ways of this administration, stop. I don't like Bush, if I could have voted (I was still too young) I would have voted against the idiot (but damn good manipulator). I don't like him and I don't like many of his policies. However, I did agree with the war on Iraq and right there that alienates me from the liberals. Thank god I say since half the bitter crap they've been spewing for the past few years is sickening. I also can't stand the right. So who should I side with when no side will listen to the opinions of me and my friends who are greatly growing in number?

I, too, fear that Bush will be reelected because the Democrats are waging a terrible campaign against bush. I fear what will happen when Bush will be reelected, I fear what we could possible lose. However, at no time do I fear we'll see the rise of a Nazi America. Yes, there are disturbing trends but its something that could be fixed and will be fixed. Nazi? That’s laughable.

Posted by Chris on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Pascale, you mentioned Hitler, I did not (nor did Jeff Ward). In fact, I specifically stated that I do not believe Bush is a monster. The purpose of my post was to draw attention to the parallels between certain events of the 30s and what is happening in the US today. I was simply arguing that the Bush administration uses the same sophisticated manipulation of mass media combined with (in Dave Rogers' words) "the same cynical exploitation of human weakness" that facilitated the rise to power of the totalitarian governments of the 30s.

Marius, preaching to the converted against John Howard would be the ultimate exercise in futility. With Simon Crean as its leader, the Labor Party could not win against the current conservative government even if Howard and his deputy were replaced by Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Thankfully, the Australian electorate's long-standing preference for electing a hostile Senate places us in a better situation than our American friends who -- despite all the hoo-hah about the approaching presidential election -- lack a credible and effective opposition.

Chris, like you I have an equal distaste for the left and the right. I did not support the war in Iraq because I believed that, in the absence of multilateral support, it would degenerate into a dangerous fiasco. I was right. I wish that a fraction of the resources devoured by the Iraq war had been allocated to addressing and eliminating the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. As I've always made clear, my sympathies are for the coalition military forces who have been placed in an invidious situation by the fanatical ideologues in the Bush administration. That said, as I pointed out in this entry, I can see no alternative to staying the course in Iraq -- to withdraw now would result in an even greater catastrophe. My fear is that, on his record, Bush will do whatever is expedient to secure his re-election, regardless of the impact that his actions have on the US, Iraq, and the rest of the world. Finally, when you talk about things being "fixed" in America, you remind me of the Jews who placed their faith in the "fact" that the Germans had always been a cultured and civilized people.

Posted by Jonathon on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathan, you wrote (see post above): "The comparison with Hitler and the Nazis is apt..."

I do believe that counts as a mention of Hitler, no?

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Pascale, I stand corrected. I thought I had been careful not to suggest any direct comparison between Hitler and Bush (as, contrary to my assertion, Jeff Ward also did). My apologies.

Posted by Jonathon on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've fought against an overwhelming compulsion to mention Godwin's Law (

...and obviously failed. :P

It doesn't apply to this discussion, of course, but it does give an indication of the ratio of heat to light that tends to prevail when this topic comes up. It's worth remember that "Hitler" and "Nazi" mean very specific, very horrible things to many people, often things that they or people they loved experienced directly, and that making analogies to them tends to evoke a strong response (which is why some people - and I don't mean you, Jonathan - do it).

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 21 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Pascale: While that's true, it seems to me that it's by now a less pressing problem than the "Godwin Law" mentality that makes people terrified to even mention 1930s Nazism/fascism, no matter how relevant it may be to the discussion. It's absurd: one of the two most powerful and formative political experiences of the twentieth century can't be discussed or used in serious comparisons, it can be mentioned only as Ultimate Evil. (It is, for some reason, OK for presidents to compare their enemies to Hitler, but no one else is allowed.) As I read the Brendon book I am constantly noticing parallels between the uses of propaganda and fearmongering by the Nazis (and comparable regimes in Italy and Japan) and by the Bush Administration; I think this is a valid and frightening comparison, but if I mention it in public I will get "You're saying Republicans are Nazis! You're saying Bush is Hitler!" No I'm not, and I resent having discussion stifled by this taboo.

This is obviously not directed at you; I'm venting about something that's been getting worse for years now. You'd think as the '30s receded into the past they'd become more available for dispassionate discussion, not less.

Posted by language hat on 22 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I had heard of Soros' contribution to on NPR, but when I followed this link sent by a friend, I was reminded of this post by this quote of Soros, "It conjures up memories, he said, of Nazi slogans on the walls, Der Feind Hort mit (“The enemy is listening”): “My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me,” he said in a soft Hungarian accent." Certainly someone who lived through this period is qualified to draw parallels.

Posted by Gerry on 25 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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