Water Man Spouts

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Princes and Powers

"Contemporary conservatives have become extremely contentious, confrontational, and aggressive in nearly every area of politics and governing. Today they have a tough-guy (and, in a few instances, a tough-gal) attitude, an arrogant and antagonistic style, along with a narrow outlook intolerant of those who challenge their extreme thinking. … Even more troubling, the right-wing presidency of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney has taken positions that are in open defiance of international treaties or blatant violations of domestic laws, while pushing the limits of presidential power beyond the parameters of the Constitution." --Conservatives Without Conscience; John Dean; Viking; 2006; page xi.
One of the things that I enjoy about the Democratic Underground is that often, other participants will suggest interesting books. This morning, in a discussion about the concern that the Bush administration may be moving the nation away from Constitutional rule, and in the direction of dictatorship, a friend mentioned the importance of John Dean’s most recent book. In it, Mr. Dean discusses the increasing role of authoritarian conservatism in our culture, including in our government.
It is unlikely that those who have rigid, authoritarian personalities to be tolerant of a democratic society. We often find that while those with authoritarian personalities profess to admire humankind, they do not have much respect for individuals. Authoritarian governments are unlikely to place value on concepts like those expressed in the Constitution, particularly in the Bill of Rights, because of the individual worth that is expressed therein. For this reason, in his 2004 book "Worse Than Watergate," Dean notes that the neoconservatives "view civil liberties with suspicion," and "despise libertarians, and dismiss any arguments based on constitutional grounds." (page 104)
Dean’s most recent book reminded me of some of the works of Erich Fromm. I was first introduced to Fromm in the foreword of A.S. Neill’s classic book on education, "Summerhill." (Hart; 1960) That book addresses the concepts of individual worth, in terms of "freedom," in the educational system. I was lucky enough to have a good teacher who suggested I would enjoy the book.
"Overt authority is exercised directly and explicitly. The person in authority frankly tells the one who is subject to him, ‘You must do this. If you do not, certain sanctions will be applied against you.’ Anonymous authority tends to hide that force is being used. Anonymous authority pretends that there is no authority, that all is done with the consent of the individual. While the teacher of the past said to Johnny, ‘You must do this. If you don’t, I’ll punish you’; today’s teacher says, ‘I’m sure you’ll like to do this.’ Here, the sanction for disobedience is not corporal punishment, but the suffering face of the parent, or what is worse, conveying the feeling of not being ‘adjusted,’ of not acting as the crowd acts. Overt authority used physical force; anonymous authority employs psychic manipulation." – Summerhill; foreword by Erich Fromm; page x.
Fromm continues in the foreword to describe modern western society as needing adults who "cooperate smoothly; men who want to consume more and more. Our system must create men whose tastes are standardized, men who can be easily influenced, men whose needs can be anticipated. Our system needs men who feel free and independent but who are nevertheless willing to do what is expected of them, men who will fit into the social machine without friction, who can be guided without force, who can be led without leaders, and who can be directed without any aim except the one to ‘make good’." He adds that this person’s "consent is obtained, as it were, behind his back, or behind his consciousness." (page xi)
That theme of rigid, anti-democratic rule requiring an unconscious population is, by no coincidence, the central concept I discussed in my recent essay on Malcolm X (see: Make It Plain). The difference between a conscious individual and an unconscious group is strangely summed up in the old saying from Stalin, that a single death is a tragedy, while a million deaths is a statistic. It would not be surprising to hear those very words to come dripping from the lips of Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. These are examples of authoritarian "leaders" who speak in glowing terms of the nation-state, but who place no value on individual rights.
(3)"I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a productive force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this deterioration. Unknowing prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can only find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society." – Why Socialism; Albert Einstein; Monthly Review, volume 1,I; 1949; pages 9-15.
Politicians have long known that in order to get people to willingly give up their humanity, and their ability to think and act as individuals, it was important to use the fear of an enemy. This leads the group to hate the "enemy," while losing awareness of their own low level of being. More, it leads to the willingness to follow the rigid authority of the "leader." On page 59 of "The Sane Society," (Fawcett; 1955) Erich Fromm notes, "Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism are the most drastic manifestations of this blend of state and clan worship, both principles embodied in the figure of a ‘Fuerhrer’." On pages 208 through 211, Fromm discusses "Authoritarian Idolatry," a concept that is, of course, exactly what John Dean addresses half a century later. It requires a large number of alienated, unstable people to follow the authoritarian leader.
Where Einstein described the idea that I learned as a child – "think for yourself, and act for your community" – the authoritarian idolatry requires that one not think for themselves, while acting for the leader’s definition of "community." It has been hard for me to think of President Bush’s ranting about "the war on terrorism" being defined by his aggression in Iraq as anything other than a symptom of this type of social psychosis. It seems that whereas a majority of Americans accepted the claims about WMD that lead to the war initially, that more and more people are conscious of the fact that these were lies. And as that awareness grows, we see the administration attempt to inject fear and hatred into the public debate.
"Only a large-scale popular movement toward decentralization and self-help can arrest the present tendency toward statism." – Brave New World; Aldous Huxley; Vanguard; 1952; page 11.
Erich Fromm quotes liberally from Einstein, Huxley, and Albert Schweitzer in Chapter 7, "Various Answers," in which he attempts to provide the reader with ideas for healing the sick society. The ideas expressed in his book, and in those he quotes from, are not unlike those ideas that John dean and others speak of today.
"A new public opinion must be created privately an unobtrusively," Schweitzer noted (The Philosophy of Civilization; Macmillan). "The existing one is maintained by the press, by propaganda, by organization, and by financial and other influences which are at its disposal. This unnatural way of spreading ideas must be opposed by the natural one, which goes from man to man and relies solely on the truth of our thoughts and the hearer’s receptiveness for new truth. Unarmed and following the human spirit’s primitive and natural fighting method, it must attack the other, which faces it, as Goliath faced David, in the mighty armour of the age."
In that sense, I believe that those who participate in discussions on DU, and who exercise those muscles defined in the Bill of Rights, have discovered what it means to be an American.


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