Friday, October 16, 2009

AUTHORITARIANISM AND AMERICAN POLITICS

Over on Salon Glenn Greenwald interviews the two authors of a new book with that title.

It’s a topic close to my heart because I think it’s a key dynamic in one of the most fundamental trends in the country these days.

Nicely, the authors note that first and foremost, an ‘authoritarian’ is not primarily defined by his/her “fealty to authority”.

This is a good point. There can be all sorts of reasons for such “fealty”, and it may not exactly be for the purposes of a personal need to rely on authority. There is, for example, a ‘tactical’ type of fealty whereby one simply and simplistically sticks to a particular ‘line’ because the success of one’s group of its agenda is more important than the truth, accuracy, or efficacy of any particular point or assertion made by the group in order to further its purposes.

So, for example, Edmund White in a Salon interview refers (nicely and in the same general timeframe as Greenwald’s piece) to a “Stalinist” requirement informally but very palpably imposed upon gay writers of the ‘70s and ‘80s: the gay advocacy did not want to see any writing that put ‘gays’ in a bad light by showing immaturity or addiction or unripeness or pretty much any unpleasant, repugnant personality characteristics at all. White is right as a writer to take issue with that; to hew to such a ‘line’ quickly undermines the integrity of serious writing, which is to give some view of how things actually are in people and with life. There are no ‘perfect’ individuals in this broken, smokey, befogged world and to write in such a way as to suggest that there are is treason to the integrity of the writer’s calling.

And it also quickly shades into propaganda. And for the purposes of genuine knowledge, and certainly for the purposes of an informed Citizenry able to exercise its responsibility as The People, it is a lethal trahison indeed. Either readers – who also must be Citizens and human beings – will accept such simplistic characterizations, or else they will begin to mistrust the writing as independent-minded Russian readers read government and Party pieces in Pravda and Izvestia back in the bad old days.

And of course, such cartoonish portrayals can as easily be deployed against folks as well as for them: to demonize a group of individuals or a set of ideas as well as to put them in a good and shining light.

The political competence of the Citizenry, and quite probably the moral and human competence as well, is eroded by a tendency to accept the ‘cartoonish’ as a useful mode of viewing reality and other folks and ideas.

Instead, the authors here see the fundamental characteristic of ‘authoritarians’ as being “a cognitive style”: a way of thinking about anything that is deeply flawed and leads to grossly inaccurate and distorted ‘knowledge’ which then supports a profoundly unjustified arrogance (‘confidence’ is too nice a word for it) and lack of humility and lack of serious and careful deliberation. (And can you say ‘Iraq War’?)

Quoting himself from an earlier piece about an earlier writer on the authoritarian mind-set, Greenwald describes the authoritarian type: “driving through life under the influence of impaired thinking … exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness … and to top it all off a ferocious dogmatism that make it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence and logic”.

Now, recall that I have distinguished the ‘tactical’ authoritarian from the – let me call it – the ‘cognitive’ authoritarian. The former simply hews to the line even if s/he knows it’s inaccurate, simply for the purpose of the group’s or advocacy’s political success.

Although, I don’t think anybody can really sustain such a ‘tactical’ commitment for long without doing seriously damaging and degrading their cognitive abilities and even their moral integrity: in order to keep supporting what you know to be inaccurate places significant strains on a person, and before too long, I would say, you have to start pulling wires out of yourself here and there to lessen the jangling interior alarms and the nagging sense of dissonance between what you are doing and what you know to be true … perhaps why so many politicians and public intellectuals seem to be more or less ‘unreal’.

And that’s where the “self-blindness” comes in, which cripples any possibility of an individual being able to follow the ancient wisdom to “Know Thyself” (the Greeks) or to ever achieve the ability to “Be Yourself in the Present” (Eastern thought).

And of course, if you can’t know yourself, then you’re not going to really be able to know anybody else, which undermines the ability for genuine empathy and respect – for fellow Citizens, for other human beings, and for ‘strangers’ and ‘others’ whose folkways and mindsets are different from your own.

The ‘cognitive’ authoritarian, then, becomes locked into a cartoonish view of life, others, the world, and him/herself. (And the ‘tactical’ authoritarian, over the long haul, winds up locked in the same cage.)

Of course, the aim of propaganda has always been to lock people into just such a cage, where they can then predictably be relied upon to follow the ‘authority’ of their government’s or their group’s pronunciamentos.

The Communists from the Left, the Fascists from the Right … those governments all wound up in putting their people in the same cage. And those governments also thereby made themselves dependent on the moral and conceptual violence of propaganda, as opposed to the moral and conceptual gleam of truth and accuracy.

So ‘cartoonish’ thinking and propaganda cannot easily be ‘baptized’ – even by ‘good’ intentions. (And did you ever encounter a propaganda that did not claim ‘good’ intentions? Did any propaganda ever describe itself as having ‘bad’ intentions?)

And their lethal toxicity to individuals and polities cannot be neutralized: poison is poison, no matter why it is introduced into a system or an organism.

Camille Paglia, in an earlier piece in Salon, asked a question that flows from all of this: “Why has the Democratic Party become so arrogantly detached from ordinary Americans?”

Now first off, let me say that as always this is not a political rant against Democrats and ‘for’ Republicans. At this point in Our history, both Parties are now grossly compromised; they have, as I have said in prior Posts, congealed into an un-diselectable nomenklatura that is now most usefully studied by applying what is known of the Soviet ‘elites’ of the 1970s: they knew it was all a wreck, a failure, and a sham, but could only think to keep their own gravy-trains going until they could die and get out of town.

Which, I say, is why so little genuine public input – no matter how accurate – seems to have any effect on the denizens of the Beltway at all anymore. Not only are those denizens ‘tactical’ authoritarians a dozen times over because they’ve been writing and accepting checks for supporting the most dubious things (from the Left and from the Right, the ‘advocacies’ and the ‘corporations’ and money interests). But also that by now many of them have devolved into ‘cognitive’ authoritarians, with only the ability to view grave and deep and large public issues as cartoons with simplistic answers.

And now, then, on top of all that, they have a visceral, animal-like sense of being under threat of losing their gravy train – and you can imagine that such a visceral realization is not going to prompt any higher conceptual or moral functioning.

So they’re locked into the old ‘Moscow’ mindset from the baaaad old days, and can only act to protect their own interests and raise a lot of confusing dust and bray out loud trumpeting noises to confuse and cloud any public efforts to get a clear picture and chart a useful course.

And of course, at that point, Moscow and its banditti had been responsible for soooo many bad ideas and failed programs that they couldn’t even admit it without creating the risk of delegitimizing and indicting themselves outright. So appearances had to be kept up at any cost and by doing ‘whatever it takes’. And so the whole structure became just a plaster sham, a bigger and more violent and more powerful sham than Mussolini was ever able to achieve with his ‘reincarnated Roman Empire’; “Upper Volta with rockets” as one wag of the era put it (‘Upper Volta’ being the name of a small and struggling Third World sovereignty of the day.)

Oy.

This, I think, explains Paglia’s description of the problem: Though they “claim to speak for the poor and dispossessed, Democrats have increasingly become the party of an upper-middle-class professional elite, top-heavy with journalists, academics, and lawyers … Weirdly, given their worship of highly individualistic, secularized self-actualization, such professionals as a whole are amazingly credulous these days about big-government solutions to every social problem. They see no danger in expanding government authority and intrusive, wasteful bureaucracy … which often made gestures rather than arguments and brimmed with emotions and sneers.”

Because when you can’t afford to do or to allow any serious thinking about the laws and policies you’ve passed, then political discourse must be reduced to the level of “emotions and sneers” because any examination that’s more competent is going to expose the whole sorry and lethal racket: the baaad ideas, the conceptual incoherence, the potential (and in many cases very probable) bad consequences and the costs, and the outrageous reality of a government that will say Yes to anything now without serious thought. (No: shrewd tactics, even when ‘successful’, cannot substitute for serious thought – although they seem to think it does in the Beltway now.)

And that’s as true of some of the most vaunted initiatives of the ‘advocacies’ of the Seventies and since then as it is of the deeply metastasized Congressional indenture to corporate and financial interests and Big Money.

It’s true, as I said, about both Parties now, equally sunk in cartoonish thinking and indentured by check and threat of exposure to assorted entities that have paid them off with votes or checks, or just the threat of exposing them now that they’re in this thing so deep and have been so for so long.

With all due respect to that Great City and to Obama’s political home turf, the Beltway reminds me of Chicago in the days of Al Capone, with Congress being the Board of Aldermen (male and female, of course).

But Paglia also goes on to offer a worthwhile thought as to how this happened: “dreaming in the 1960s and ‘70s had a spiritual dimension to it that is long gone in our crassly materialistic and status-driven time”.

Well, yes, sorta. We have become shallower and more distracted from the serious challenges and the serious responsibilities that The People bear in the Constitutional vision, and even from the essential competence that such a People must possess as individual Citizens. The ‘youthfulness’ today merely enshrines unripeness and lack of maturity (which is ‘youth’ by definition, neurobiologically speaking) and after decades has created large cohorts of chronological adults who still haven’t been taught to engage and deploy their highest human brainparts and potentials).

And the ‘victimist’ mentality reduces the citizenry to a bunch of helpless gazelles on the savannah, looking to be protected by a government that would like nothing better than to increase its control of a populace that sooner or later is going to discover how treacherously (if often witlessly) it has been betrayed. And further, a ‘victimist’ mentality that fractures the unity of The People, dividing citizens into the ‘pure and good’ and ‘the incorrigiblly monstrous and evil’ – with incalculably toxic consequences for the Republic.

But I can’t just leave it at that, with her thought that “the Left is an incoherent shambles” now “partly because the visionaries lost their bearings on drugs, and only the myopic apparatchiks and feather-preening bourgeois liberals are left”.

That’s true as far as it goes.

But it was inherent even in the visions of some of the Civil Rights Movement, once it became clear in the very early Sixties that the government was indeed starting to bestir itself to take action. Although the classical civil-rights leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King simply wanted to let the government clear away the obstructions so as to let ‘the Negro’ participate toward the national dream, even back then some black leaders were suggesting that the government needed to stretch forth its mighty arm and rearrange the playing field and put its thumb on the scales of Justice and Opportunity on behalf of one group over another. Which was an invitation to all sorts of mischief, as the Framers always feared and knew.

And so then ‘advocacy’ – which in the beginning was simply a true grassroots effort to end the genuine outrage of Jim Crow – started to become an Advocacy, replete with an agenda, a party-line, offices inside the Beltway, a need to make alliances that didn’t pass any smell test, and a need to adopt all sorts of ‘philosophical’ and conceptual approaches that would ‘justify’ whatever had to be done to get what you wanted.

And then suddely there were a flood of ‘advocacies’ beyond the classic ‘Negro’ Civil Rights advocacy, that arose almost immediately in the early Seventies, and some of them had read way too much Mao and Marx (and even Goebbels) for their own – or Our common – good.

And so now neither the Left nor the Right, the Democrats or the Republicans, are really interested in truth or accuracy or serious thinking at all.

Rather, the game now is just to keep everything together as it is and as it has been, and maybe hope – like Mister Micawber – that “something will turn up” to save the whole show and keep the gravy flowing in the established troughs.

Which is probably what We are doing over there in the Greater Southwest Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that Our military has been sent to establish: find or get control of some saving resource, sort of the way the 16th century Spanish Empire suddenly got its hands on the gold and silver of the New World, and so purchased a new lease on a rotting life.

The rot is deep now here.

And that is the fierce urgency of now.

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