Wednesday, February 7, 2018

It's Not Even Past #9 - The Best Lack All Conviction... (Raw Material that needs shaping)

It's always difficult in these radical times to not append any label upon yourself. It's always when societies begin to unwind that people become radicalized. Things are not any worse than they were fifty years ago, in many ways they are better. From a certain point of view, it's always true that nothing in this world is ever good. But some societies, broken by war and newly rebuilt, develop a new appreciation for the dysfunctional, hobbling societies that still manage to live on to the next day. 

But when we get used to the lives we live, we focus ever more on those things about it that don't work and instead of realizing that life can be a terribly tragic thing that little by little we can make better, we become obsessed by pulling the tree out from the roots, and in doing so, eventually make that sturdy thing that is a functional society as fragile as we can, until someone with grand promises can burn the whole thing down in a great bonfire of the vanities. 

And in such moments, it's very easy to commit to a project of a transcendent possibility that changes the fundamental rules of human progress without realizing that with every progression comes a regression. Two steps forward, one point nine-nine steps back, and the true progress is left to be reaped by future generations. The same 'isms' always present themselves, old ideas with new cosmetics, and it becomes increasingly difficult to not surrender a large part of your individuality to a supposedly greater cause. The intelligent among you become less interesting, less unique, less possible, than you could be. The most functional among you become cogs in a great machine, instead of becoming great artists and teachers and scientists, you become financial planners and lawyers and ad-men. The slightly more rebellious among you who were a little less 'with the program' become 'committed', you may become artists and teachers and scientists, but rather than learn and discover, you become socially committed in manners that subordinate your individuality to larger movements - you embrace religion whole-heartedly, whether you buy wholeheartedly into the monotheistic religions or even pagan religions, or into the allegedly 'new' religions of libertarianism, anarchism, communism, intersectionalism, postmodernism, and all their various incarnations, it is religion, and it is a tumor. We all have these tumors within us, but some, like liberalism and feminism can be much more benign, but even these, when infected by these other isms, can grossly metastasize into something that attacks the whole societal body. 

When I was ever so slightly younger, I was truly furious about all this. It felt like we were going off a cliff, and I was doing my small part to yell at, and unfortunately in retrospect, to bully others to try to keep the country from going off it. Much good it obviously did. Now, we've gone off, and the anger that once was mine has transferred to the souls of others. In the wake of this revolutionary era when the societal changes are truly dizzying, I have to leave the anger to others. Nothing is served by being angry. All that remains for me now is a certain sadness that people are chasing societal possibilities that cannot ever be. 

And as I do this podcast more, what I realize is that the point of it is as best one can precisely not to editorialize on politics, but simply to try and record cultural movements as they are, and as best one can, to try to understand why people come to the conclusions they do, and while not to view it through the now-ideologized term, empathy, at least view them with sympathy. One famous musician put it like this: be aristocrats in art, but democrats in life, and as best one can, don't judge people too harshly for coming to a different point of view than yours. It's not just that it's uncharitable, it's also boring. Inveighing against the excesses of ideological movements is not just incredibly tiresome for the listener, it's also tiresome for the talker. What I've come to realize as I've just barely matured is that it's much, much more intellectually satisfying to trace people's thoughts to their roots and do one's best to understand why people believe what they believe. Whether or not I agree or disagree is, in some sense at least, immaterial to any subject at hand, and the more I do this podast, I realize that the by keeping the editorial voice to a minimum about politics, the more extremely I can editorialize when it comes to works of art, which I think is i a hundred times more interesting than politics on its most exciting day. We live in an age when everything is interpreted through the distorting lens of ideology, so rather, as so many people today do, than making political movements the lens through which we judge art, let's make art the lens through which we judge politics and the world.

But at the same time, 'as best one can' doesn't mean that you leave your opinions behind. What we think is what we think, and I suppose that part of the reason I do this podcast is because it goes without saying that I just so happen to believe that I see the world at least a little bit more clearly than most people do. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm more perceptive, and certainly there are all manner of ways in which the vast majority of people are much more intelligent than I am. But when it comes to seeing the things of the world in the context of the other things of the world, I do think I do a reasonably good job of it. I've gotten plenty wrong over the years, but unlike most people, I keep a very long tab of where I've been wrong and do what I can to scrupulously admit it. When I think of how bad I predicted things would get in the next year, I feel a little humiliated, like I'm histrionic boy who cries wolf at the sight of a puppy chihuahua. But history never stops, and even if the world shakes to nowhere near the extent I worried it would so far, who can deny that it's shaking very hard?

 Politically, I suppose it goes without saying that I'm not of the Right, I'm certainly not of the Left - and I'm reminded more of that every day, but I'm not really a person of the center either. I'm a centrist in the sense that I find ideologies in general to be loathesome things that destroy people's independence of mind, but ideologies are poison because they warp people's individuality, not the people themselves. By pointing trollish and angry fingers at individual people rather than the intellectual forces that warp them, and I still won't sugarcoat that word, I've become the intolerance of which I'm so intolerant. As best we can, we have to understand each other, especially when we disagree. The only alternative to greater sympathy is greater hostility, which can only end in violence. 

But yet again, greater sympathy for some; or if you insist on that unfortunate word of this era: greater empathy for some, requires greater hatred of others. If the heart guides the head through this world, then there is no check on the passions they inspire, and they can inspire anything at all. The only 'ism' to which I will ever subscribe is liberalism, because liberalism is the politics of freedom, the freedom to be a free individual who can both pursue what he values and help others to do the same; ergo, the freedom from being dictated to by any other ism. If that means making alliances with other isms, I have no problem with that, and I will do my very best to never judge too harshly those who subscribe elsewhere, even if I will never do the same. As a liberal, I will do my best to realize that your beliefs are your own affair. I will judge a little more harshly, however, if people use those 'isms' in the name of curtailing freedom. What I try to be, and what I wish more people did, is not to be a mushy centrist that takes the middle tack between any two extremes, no matter how weird or dumb, but a relentlessly critical and analytical liberal that both mercilessly critiques ideas for what is lacking in them, and also happily acknowledges those places where these new and old ideas get things very right. 

So here we are in 2018. Change has moved so quickly that none of us have stopped feeling whiplash since two years ago; but change has been a fact of our lives since the moment we were born. My mini-generation, the supposed X-ennials, were born into the Cold War. The Soviet Union ended just as we reached sentience, and a few years later, the world decamped to the internet. My father's parents had something at least resembling an arranged marriage and grew up reading by candlelight, when I was a kid in the 80's, they barely ever drove over thirty miles an hour and couldn't figure out a microwave or a VCR. Imagine what they would make of an i-Phone or Facebook or Occulus Rift. 

Can anybody argue, though, that in the last three-and-a-half years or so, the pace of change has redoubled yet again? Already in February of 2015, a good friend of mine and I both saw this change as it was happening and said that the world was about to undergo something earthshakingly different, and certainly nothing has happened since then to convince me otherwise. We both agreed that a new air began in September 2014 with the assassination of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This isn't the episode to get into the specifics of police violence or its racial disparities, the point of mentioning the Michael Brown affair in this podcast is the social media involved in its spread: youtube, twitter, facebook. Not Fox News, not Talk Radio, not even the Drudge Report, could keep up with the Hands Up Don't Shoot message spreading through the 'resistance internet' like wildfire. Critical mass had been reached, and for good or bad, a counterweight to the top-down right wing media which dominated America for a generation had been created - a grassroots, bottom up, system of political resistance messaging that didn't seem to need anyone to control the message, if anything, its narrative was self controlling, because each commentator to gain notoriety did so by spreading a message more extreme than any which someone had suggested before. It is resistance fever. Everything since that moment, in retrospect, feels a bit foreordained. 

Eric Hoffer, one of the great American thinkers and aphorists, of course, has a few choice quote for this moment in history. 
The militant man of words prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement: 1) by discrediting the prevailing creeds and institutions and detatching from them the allegiance of the people; 2) by indirectly creating a hunger for faith in the hearts of those who cannot live without it, so that when the new faith is preached it [inspires] an eager response among the disillusioned masses; 30 by furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith; 4) by undermining the convictions of the "better people" - those who can get along without faith--so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it. They see no sense in in dying for convictions and principles, and yield to the new order without a fight.
Thus, when the irreverent intellectual has done his work: "The best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity./Surely some revelation is at hand,/Surely the second coming is at hand.
The stage is now set for fanatics. 
I'm sure almost all of you recognize the stanza from Yeats's poem 'The Second Coming.'

Anyway, let's continue:
The tragic figures in the history of a mass movement are often the intellectual precursors who live long enough to see the downfall of the old order by the action of the masses. The impression that mass movements, and revolutions in particular, are born of the resolve of the masses to overthrow a corrupt and oppressive tyranny and win for themselves freedom of action, speech and conscience has its origin in the din of words let loose by the intellectual originators of the movement in their skirmishes with the prevailing order. The fact that mass movements as they arise often manifest less individual freedom than the order they supplant, is usually ascribed to the trickery of a power-hungry clique that kidnaps the movement at a critical stage and cheats the masses of the freedom about to dawn. Actually, the only people cheated in the process are the intellectual precursors. They rise against the established order, deride its irrationality and incompetence, denounce its illegitimacy and oppressiveness, and call for freedom of self-expression and self-realization. They take it for granted that the masses who respond to their call and range themselves behind them crave the same things. However, the freedom the masses crave is not freedom of self-expression and self-realization, but freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. They want freedom from "the fearful burden of free choice," freedom from the arduous responsibility of realizing their intellectual selves and shouldering the blame for the blemished product. They do not want freedom of conscience but faith -- blind, authoritarian faith. They sweep away the old order not to create a society of ree and independent men, but to establish uniformity, individual anonymity and a new structure of perfect unity. It is not the wickedness of the old regime they rise against but its weakness; not its oppression but its failure to hammer them together into one solid, mighty whole. The persuasiveness of the intellectual demagogue consists not so much in convicting people of the vileness of the established order as in demonstrating its helpless incompetence. The immediate result of a mass movement usually corresponds to what the people want. They are not cheated in the process. The reason for the tragic fate which almost always overtakes the intellectual midwives of the mass movement is that, no matter how much they preach and glorify the united effort, they remain essentially individualists. They believe in the possibility of individual happiness and the validity of individual opinion and initiative. But once a movement gets rolling, power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual. And the reason they prevail is not so much that their disregard of the individual gives them a capacity for ruthlessness, but that their attitude is in full accord with the rulin passion of the masses.
(Talk about how this quote is right and wrong, how there are uses for mass movements, but once they go too far, they either subsume the whole or the progress they promote disappears into nothingness)

When the moment is ripe, only the fanatic can hatch a genuine mass movement. Without him the disaffection engendered by militant men of words remains undirected and can vent itself only in pointless and easily suppressed disorders. Without him the initiated reforms, even when drastic, leave the old way of life unchanged, and any change in government usually amounts to no more than a transfer of power from one set of men of action to another. Without him there can perhaps be no new beginning. 
When the old order begins to fall apart, many of the vociferous men of words, who prayed so long for the day, are in a funk. The first glimpse the face of anarchy frightens them out of their wits. They forget all they said about the "poor simple folk" and run for help to strong men of action -- princes, generals, administrators, bankers, landowners -- who know how to deal with the rabble and how to stem the tide of chaos. 
Not so the fanatic. Chaos is his element. When the old order begins to crack, he wades in with all his might and recklessness to blow the whole hated present to high heaven. He glories in the sight of a world coming to a sudden end. To hell with reforms! All that already exists is rubbish, and there is no sense in reforming rubbish. He justifies his will to anarchy with the plausible assertion that there can be no new beginning so long as the old clutters the landscape. He shoves aside the frightened men of words, if they are still around, though he continues to extol their doctrines and mouth their slogans. He alone knows the innermost craving of the masses in action: the craving for communion, for the mustering of the host, for the dissolution of cursed individuality in the majesty and grandeur of a mighty whole. Posterity is king; and woe to those, inside and outside the movement, who hug and hang on to the present. 
(Talk about moments when we came close in American history, relate it to world history)
Whence come the fanatics? Mostly from the ranks of the noncreative men of words. The most significant division between men of words is between those who can find fulfillment in creative work and those who cannot. The creative man of words, no matter how bitterly he may criticize and deride the existing order, is actually attached to the present. His passion is to reform and not to destroy. When the mass movement remains wholly in his keeping, he turns it into a mild air. The reforms he initiates are of the surface, and life goes on without a sudden break. But such a development is possible only when the anarchic action of the masses does not come into play, either because the old order abdicates without a struggle or because the man of words allies himself with strong men of action the moment chaos threatens to break loose. When the struggle with the old order is bitter and chaotic and victory can be won only by utmost unity and self-sacrifice, the creative man of words is usually shoved aside and management of affairs falls into the hands of the noncreative men of words -- the eternal misfits and the fanatical contemners of the present. 
The man who wants to write a great book, paint a great picture, create an architectural masterpiece, become a great scientist, and knows that never in all eternity will he be able to realize this, his innermost desire, can find no peace in a stable social order -- old or new. He sees his life as irrevocably spoiled and the world perpetually out of joint. He feels at home only in a state of chaos. Even when he submits to or imposes an iron discipline, he is but submitting to or shaping the indispensable instrument for attaining a state of eternal flux, eternal becoming. Only when engaged in change does he have a sense of freedom and the feeling that he is growing and developing. It is because he can never be reconciled with his self that he fears finality and a fixed order of things. Marat, Robespierre, Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler are examples of fanatics arising from the ranks of noncreative men of words. Peter Viereck points out that most of the Nazi bigwigs had artistic and literary ambitions which they could not realize. Hitler tried painting and architecture; Goebbels, drama, the novel and poetry; Rosenberg, architecture and philosophy; von Schirach, poetry; Funk, music; Streicher, painting. "Almost all were failures, not only by the vulgar criterion of success but by their own artistic criteria." Their artistic and literary ambitions "were originally far deeper than political ambitions: and were integral parts of their personalities." 
The creative man of words is ill at ease with the atmosphere of an active movement. He feels that its whirl and passion sap his creative energies. So long as he is conscious of the creative flow within him, he will not find fulfillment in leading millions and in winning victories. The result is that, once the movement starts rolling, he either retires voluntarily or is pushed aside. Moreover, since the genuine man of words can never wholeheartedly and for long suppress his critical faculty, he is inevitably cast in the role of the heretic. THus unless the creative man of words stifles the newborn movement by allying himself with practical men of action or unless he dies at the right moment, he is likely to end up either a shunned recluse or in exile or facing a firing squad. 
(Talk about the constant mania in the arts for social change)
The danger of the fanatic to the development of a movement is that he cannot settle down. Once victory has been won and the new order begins to crystallize, the fanatic becomes an element of strain and disruption. The taste for strong feeling drives him on to search for mysteries yet to be revealed and secret doors yet to be opened. He keeps groping for extremes. Thus on the morrow of victory most mass movements find themselves in the grip of dissension. The ardor which yesterday found an outlet in a life-and-death struggle with external enemies now vents itself in violent disputes and clash of factions. Hatred has become a habit. With no more outside enemies to destroy, the fanatics make enemies of one another. Hitler -- himself a fanatic -- could diagnose with precision the state of mind of the fanatics who plotted against him within the ranks of the National Socialist party. In his order to the newly appointed chief of the SA after the purge of Röhm in 1934 he speaks of those who will not settle down: "... without realizing it, [they] have found in nihilism their ultimate confession of faith ... their unrest and disquietude can find satisfaction only in some conspiratorial activity of the mind, in perpetually plotting the disintegration of whatever the set-up of the moment happens to be." As was often the case with Hitler, his accusations against antagonists (inside and outside the Reich) were a self-revelation. He, too, particularly in his last days, found in nihilism his "ultimate philosophy and valediction." 
If allowed to have their way, the fanatics may split a movement into schism and heresies which threaten its existence. Even when the fanatics do not breed dissension, they can still wreck the movement by driving it to attempt the impossible. Only the entrance of a practical man of action can save the achievements of the movement. 

The exception:

There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill and Nehru. They did not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world. The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind. 


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