Fiction Becomes a Governing Principle
Plato noted in the Phaedrus that persuasion emerges from opinion and not from truth. That this is extremely dangerous requires no explanation. But one would like to know how we arrived at this point, at the place where opinion, often false opinion, has become something of a governing principle. I would like to use, as a starting point, what Hannah Arendt says about propaganda and authoritarianism in her Origins of Totalitarianism (I have been referring to her much recently only because I decided to reread the work in light of the recent election – the following post is largely thanks to some of her insights that I have tried to apply in light of our current crisis).
As Hannah Arendt noted, it was not the fact of their massive lies that made Stalin and Hitler impressive. It was rather the massive collective mobilization of the masses not to simply accept but to back up those lies. What convinces the masses are not facts, but rather consistency, and a consistently told lie over time will take on the force of fact, even sacred history (e.g., Clinton is guilty of something, anything, and deserves prison). Authoritarian propaganda escapes from reality into fiction, and the embrace of this fiction by the masses becomes “a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live but cannot exist” (and the world that lives is divers, faces environmental stress, has women in need of access to abortion, is full of people who need access to basic health care, and has a slew of global challenges that require a cautious and intelligent approach). As Arendt notes, “The revolt of the masses against ‘realism’, ‘common sense’, and all ‘the plausibilities of the world’ (Burke) was the result of their atomization”, along with their loss of communal relationships that would allow them otherwise to make sense of the world – nothing has perhaps accomplished this atomization better in the modern era than media fragmentation and the individual ability to create one’s own media environment, hence one’s own world. Common sense has become a thing for dispute, an anarchic information environment ensues, and arbitrariness takes over.
Propaganda seeks to establish not just a view or an ideology, but a world. In the process of that world’s creation, authoritarianism seeks to cut the masses off from the real world at large. Media outlets have been particularly clever at this, particularly FOX that, for example, rarely showed an Obama news conference during his presidency and gave the president elect’s podium more air time than his opponent or the President himself. Arendt points out that “Nazi propaganda was ingenuous enough to transform anti-Semitism into a principle of self-definition”, as could be said for many aspects of “conservative” identity at this late date, and all manner of outrageous opinions on any number of issues: from climate change and the environment, to taxes and welfare. However authoritarian regimes will lie to the point where the masses will believe everything and nothing, where truth will become so degraded that even once something is found out not to be true the masses will either continue in their belief or take refuge in cynicism and apathy that will serve the purposes of the regime. “Instead of deserting the leader who lied to them they would protest that they knew all the time that the statement was a lie and would admire the leader for their superior tactical cleverness”; and this is indeed true, if we look at some of the defenses that the president elect’s surrogates and minions have made, even some of his supporters in on camera interviews.
The underlying assumption in such an atmosphere is that politics is a game of cheating and the first rule is that the leader is always right – hence the president elect and his family are in the midst of leveraging the presidency regardless of appearances and larger national interests: thus the phone call to Taiwan, or family members sitting in with foreign leaders, such as Japanese prime minister Abe (to market a line of clothing and accessories in Japan). The problem here is that the gullibility and cynicism of supporters increases among the masses the credibility of the lie (as we see, for example, with climate denial). Lies come of two sorts, as Hannah Arendt pointed out: deeper ideological lies that make up the unsupportable truth of the party, and tactical daily lies that change from one to the next (often for the sole sake, in this case, of publicity and dominating yet another news cycle). They surround themselves with a system in which the lies take on an air of scientific proof, grounded on nothing but puffery and exaggeration. The whole aim of this is to make sure soon that no one can distinguish truth from fiction after a while. It is the leader who assures the party of the ultimate triumph of his lies in opposition to reality and the truth, sometimes through the sheer force of his mendacity and confidence in telling of the lie.
These fictions serve much larger purposes though than simply trying to toy with policy. Part of accepting these fictions comes from the desire to belong, to be a part and parcel of the party that is “in-the-know” as opposed to those (e.g., liberals and progressives and anyone else) who are “just clueless”, creating an odd form of self-esteem, respect, and perhaps even the illusion of stability that they can govern the world according to that fiction. This could sum up the GOP’s recent history, Hannah Arendt stated “In a totally fictitious world, failures need not be recorded, admitted, and remembered.” Or they are revised. Hence Nixon becomes a great elder statesman, George W. Bush becomes the liberator (rather than destroyer) of Iraq, and the president elect a successful businessman, never mind his bankruptcies and cheating or bullying of vendors for services rendered. The infallibility of the leader becomes a central part of the structure of the regime and party, and in fact potentially becomes the basis for its structure.
It is by no means to be under-estimated how powerful all of this is. What is remarkable to me is that, for all the casting about for the causes of Black Tuesday, I have yet to see the far right media come in for any culpability (instead we hear a lot about the white working class or those without college degrees, forgetting the stew in which they have marinated for the past 40-20 years). And yet even twenty years ago I recall James Mitchener, the famous author, in an interview, sounding the alarm about hate radio (no, it is not just television). That was in the early 1990s. One of the great disasters of the late 20th century, I believe in hindsight, will be the elimination of the fairness doctrine that governed our media airwaves for years. We now see its fruition. Authoritarians start their careers by using the tools of democracy to destroy it – the media environment, which is largely apathetic to research, facts, or calling out lies for fear of antagonizing usually the right, has doubtless contributed to this.
*An addendum: Shortly after this post went up it was reported by TPM and Josh Marshall via CNN that Michael G Flynn Jr. the source for the false news story about Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza restaurant in the DC area, is on the president elect’s transition team and has an active government email account and is on the transition’s, i.e., the government’s payroll. Someone like that in the government spreading false news and paid at tax payers expense is as close to a Ministry of Truth moment as our democracy has ever come. Not only is this sort of thing not true, but it takes up space and time from the real issues facing most citizens in this country – and proves my larger point.
Philistinism, Anger, and Vulgarity: The New Holy Trinity
At this late date, one wonders with some anticipation how the GOP will ever discuss traditional values again. Those of family, religion, and democracy rely on some fundamental underpinnings of that invisible and amorphous thing, morality and ethics. That these values were wholly relinquished by the Right in this campaign needs little arguing. The disturbing thing about their dislocation and removal is that, as Arendt notes, in an atmosphere in which traditional values have evaporated it becomes easier to promote and accept absurdities – including the candidacy of a professional vulgarian. “Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories carried with it a frank admission of the worst”. Perhaps boredom is at work here too – Americans, addled by celebrity (and celebrity culture), bored with respectability, have opened the door to power to a criminal, a sexual predator, have embraced the abnormal, the monstrous, and celebrate its object of idolatry as “genius”. And the mob further delighted as “respectable” members of the elite establishment (Romney, Ryan, Christie, inter multos) were forced to bow to a vulgar, stupid clown.
Also noteworthy is that the failures of the leadership on the right – whether in business, in scandals, in marriages and relationships – actually end up becoming a part of the leadership’s appeal to the masses. It is, above all, their contempt for respectability that challenges preconceived truths and notions on the part of the elite that is a further part of the strong-man’s appeal. Destruction, chaos, and ruin become supreme values – of families, of health, of the environment, of our treaty obligations, of the decorum and dignity of the presidential office. The attraction is nihilistic. Cruelty and Criminality have been elevated to major virtues simply by virtue of the fact that they assail anything smacking of a liberal values – these, in and of themselves, regardless of consequences, have been embraced to the detriment of all. Conservatism – which is no longer conservatism but just a name slapped on to every impulse that reptilian behavior can muster – has become not just anti-liberal and anti-science, but anti-humanitarian, anti-cultural and anti-individualistic. The GOP’s golden calf is now mass-Philistinism.
The elite (political, academic, media, and beyond) certainly shares some blame in the collective demeanor of those who voted in rebuke of them. Because our elites are so close to state power they are suspected of attempting to usurp and profit from it. Sometime this is indeed the case, though it is worth noting that the president elect’s supporters bestowed the office on a man who views the presidency as little more than a cash cow, rendering any possible comparison with Clinton frankly and objectively insane. One further suspects an element of social resentment and envy of the under-educated, which has become, in some respects, an explosive element, one ripe for exploitation, although voting patters, by admission, show that plenty of people of means and with college educations contributed to Black Tuesday (though most with advanced degrees voted against such a menace).
Our people have, in general, been particularly apathetic to governance and there is an almost active hostility to public life. In its place is a self-indulgent hatred that is repeated over and over in isolation, which has now managed to coalesce around a strong-man. It was in realized political action, this time, that these atomized individuals became a mass, and that mass appears to have lost interest in everything except exercising their hatred to the point where they have jeopardized their own well-being. Perhaps this is one of the keys to understanding the appeal of this: increasing isolation and lack of socialization and community. And there appears to be unconditional loyalty demanded towards the demagogue around whom they have gravitated.
I have offered above what I think is a reasonable, though admittedly abstract explanation for what has occurred. Fictions now make us ungovernable. The laying by the heel of ethics, of morality, and the embrace of Nothing, of a president who will rule by anarchy and chaos and division and exploit all of these for personal gain, lays open a deep poverty of our collective spirit. This will all lead to a very sordid and very dangerous place – and in fact, already has. But as one who was a fat kid I know how bullies like the president elect roll. And I know all it takes is five minutes alone with them, and a clenched fist, to reveal their cowardice and fear. Time to collectively give the president elect five good reasons to stop treating our republic like a sewer.