But for Maizlish, the biggest takeaway from the debate over the Compromise of 1850 as it relates to present circumstances is the danger of extreme polarization. “When representatives fall into making absolutist statements, there is very little room for compromise or progress,” he says. “That happened then and it is clearly happening now. And when representatives are fearful of challenging their constituents to think in terms of a larger good, and instead pander to their constituents’ narrow prejudices in exchange for votes rather than assuming the burden of national leadership for themselves, disaster is at hand. Moderates need to lead and compromise, but they need to ensure they’re compromising on the right matters, not just ensuring some weak ‘peace for their time’ that they win by caving to dangerous radicals, like those pro-slavery congressmen who refused to make necessary reforms.”
“One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” ― Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany
Cass Sunstein has an interesting review in the NYRB entitled It Can Happen Here. It’s a good, short read. The title of the piece, so you’re aware, is oddly chosen because Sunstein thinks “full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here [in the U.S].” So why name it that? I’m not sure.
Anyway, Sunstein’s review looks at 3 books that attempt to account for how Hitler and the Nazis came to power in the pre-WWII German liberal democratic republic.
These books, for the most part, tell the story from the view of the average working class German. It was ultimately the German people’s collective action and inaction that allowed Hitler and the Nazis to take and keep power. But the change (the fall into fascism), as we’re told, wasn’t a sudden thing—at least not in the awareness of the average German. The descent into tyranny was gradual. By the time most German people realized it, it was too late to do anything about it. Sunstein quotes a philologist who captures a set of common sentiments that many Germans seem to have had when reflecting back on that time:
…a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
So it was an incremental descent into tyranny aided, as one writer put it, by the “‘Automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.” For me, it’s easy to see how this might happen in a democracy.
To be clear, if an election is an indicator of whom and what political party a nation supports (and it is), then Hitler didn’t have popular (majority) support amongst the German voters. The other parties combined, all more left leaning, garnered the majority of support. The problem was the left leaning opposition parities were divided and that gave Hitler’s Nazi party a united front in the German Reichstag (parliament) and the keys to power. Hitler and his fascist right-wing party came to power in 1933 and basically seized dictatorial powers that same year. The speed of things, confusion, mass lies, propaganda, and fear were all on Hitler’s side. An important set of things to keep in mind when thinking about how this might happen in our own time.
Certainly most Germans could see the fracturing of their democratic society (and its values) when Hitler seized full dictatorial control of the government so quickly. Some German’s actually welcomed the fascist authoritarianism. As Sunstein’s review points out, there were working class Germans who said (years after the fall of Nazi Germany) that the Nazi years were the “best years of their life.” So there were some Germans, knowing full well what had happened, who still admired Hitler and the life he gave them. When asked about the horrors the Nazi regime had carried out, like the murder of 6 million Jews, many of these Nazi working class supporters just dismissed that as Fake News. Of course reading this made me feel all the more pleased that Nazi Germany had been utterly destroyed.
I didn’t read the books involved in this review, so I can’t properly critique the gradualist theory. My theory is that initially a lot of Germans who hadn’t supported Hitler grew to support Hitler. Even if they weren’t initially comfortable with Hitler and how he’d seized power and his divisive, hateful rhetoric, they chose to make moral compromises, over and over, because of a booming economy (mostly via a massive stimulus in government spending on the military) and a perceived order and stability that initially, at least, were all very agreeable. Many other Germans, even among the political opposition, sold out politically and morally. They decided it was best to go along. A German Republican at the time of Hitler’s rise told a man who’d voiced a deep opposition to the Nazis, that he needed to learn to “Howl with the wolves.” An apt imagine when you think about it. A pack of wolves, indeed, had taken over the country.
The problem, of course, was the Germans had made a deal with the devil, and the deal quickly became far more costlier than anticipated. Word was slowly spreading about the imprisoning (and murdering) of political enemies and the growing number of Gestapo raids and missing people (Jews AND fellow Germans) and their families and the suppression of individual rights. And so now the deal couldn’t be broken without a lot of death and destruction. The devil would get his due. The wolves would feast on the lambs.
I’m not sure about you, but my daily dose of news can be quite depressing. I find myself more and more reaching for the TV mute button. Generally speaking, political scandal and sensationalism are what sells, or attracts viewers, and so our media outlets just keep up a steady barrage. And we can’t get away from it either. Our morning shows give us the bad news over coffee; our 24 hour news channels keep our blood pressure elevated throughout the day; and then, for our commute home, the array of vitriolic talk radio programs stoke our road rage. All this negativity has become a major kill joy. So the question becomes, for any discerning mind wanting to stay informed but avoid stroking out, choking someone out, or dying from alcohol poisoning, how might we manage this?
I recently read about a guy named Erik Hagerman, who decided he was done with politics and all the bad news. He decided, literally, to cut himself off from pretty much all the news, starting the day after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The crassness and depravity were just too much for him to bare. So for over a year now, Hagerman has been successful at staying joyously uninformed about what’s going on in the world. And, yes, he feels great! But he’s also officially clueless. So you understand, Hagerman lives by himself and has no children, so he’s got tight control over what he takes in, a situation, if you’re thinking about a similar project, to bare in mind. But then, we must ask, I think, if Hagerman’s way, a total black out of bad, unwelcome, or disturbing information, is really a good idea to follow?
I too have sometimes wished I could live as if the outside world didn’t matter, but alas that option isn’t realistic or very smart. Consider this: Hagerman bought 45 acres of land on the site of a former Ohio strip mine that’s been reclaimed by mother nature. He wants to restore this land and sees his efforts as “penance for the moral cost of his [news] Blockade.” His mission is to care for this land, restore it, and then leave the nature preserve for future generations to enjoy. Great! I love the idea. How green of him. But let’s consider the potential costs to Hagerman by not staying informed, and not being able to connect the dots. So Hagerman is working away on his land and not paying attention to the news or the political climate of his nation or county, and then suddenly he discovers, via construction vehicles, that a petrochemical plant has been approved next door to his land. His life’s work is suddenly looking pretty grim, ruined actually. While Hagerman was burying his head in the sand, his neighbors were rallying local votes and paying off politicians for the approved purchase of their land so they could get rich. Hagerman is now a victim, in large part, by his own making. Responsible citizens must be active, least they be unexpectedly victimized by forces (other people pushing their agenda or interests) working to impose their will at our cost. That is just how the world works, and is exactly what can happen when you don’t stay informed, be an active citizen, and, critically, vote at election time. Voting may not save you, but by not voting, and not understanding the issues when you vote, you’re surrendering without any fight at all.
But let’s back up for a moment. The reason our news outlets have so much disturbing news is because, well, there actually is plenty of disturbing news folks. With that said, there is obviously the spin that various media outlets put on the news—politically speaking. That’s the source of much anger and discomfort, I realize. But it’s not true that all media outlets put the same amount of spin on their news coverage or commentary. There actually are news outlets, journalists, and editors who try hard to preserve their intellectual and journalist integrity. You just have to pay attention and be open-minded enough to see that. But here’s a hint: If you think your favored news outlet, especially your preferred TV news outlet, is the best, most accurate one out there and all the others are bias, you’re probably living in a bubble, which makes for a good chance that you’re misinformed on a variety of issues. The question you need to ask yourself is: Do I care about seeking the truth and solving problems, making a better future for me and my family, while also reasonably protecting my interests, or am I just going to be a cheerleader for the politics (and tribalism) I uncritically prefer, regardless of the ruin it may inflict on me, my family, or my country? So many, it seems, prefer the bubble, the tribal identity and loyalty. And that’s one big reason why our current politics is so dysfunctional. We each, remember, have played some part in why this is happening.
So instead of the Hagerman way, or the passive acceptance of your own bubble, I suggest you adopt a deeply critical mindset about news and information in general. You probably think you’re doing that now, but for the most part you’re probably not thinking critically, you’re just rearranging your prejudices. We rarely take the time to step back from the words, the salesmanship, and truly examine the ideas thrown at us; to ask ourselves important questions and follow, honestly, the twisting path of its implications. Remember, that just about all communication is an argument of some type. Whether it’s a TV commercial or a talk show or a politician, all of them are trying to get you to buy something. Just like, hopefully, you wouldn’t squander your money on things you don’t need, don’t uncritically accept—or buy—what anyone or any organization, business, or political party is pushing. They know your weak points and they exploit them. They know most of you don’t have time to research the issues, and they’re counting on you being impulsive, a party loyalist, a tribalist hearing the whistle, and not necessarily knowing what your long term interests truly are. We’ve all heard the saying that “we need to have the courage of our convictions,” and this is indeed an important virtue. But I would argue that it’s equally important, if not more so, that we have the courage to question our convictions. This is a much rarer virtue from my experience. It takes a higher courage, which, unfortunately, seems in really short supply right now.
So first, my suggestion is that you don’t tune out from it all, but that you adopt the attitude that every organization, every politician or news station, to some degree, is always trying to sell you something. So, like a good consumer, you stay tuned in to the market, but with a critical distance from all the attempts to incite you, to provoke you to buy. Some of the goods are clearly junk or nickel plated nonsense. It’s easy to recognize, if you’re paying attention to the sales job and you know your own mind. But some of it is more pernicious and hard for us to discern, because it’s packaged to appeal to our emotions more so than our good sense or intelligence. Good salesmen know that capturing your emotions will often shut down that critical, often skeptical, debate going on in your head. Do your best to check your emotions and see their arguments and heated rhetoric for the simple sell job it is. Your job is to always ask yourself if what you’re hearing—being asked to buy, believe, or vote for—is truly the best thing, the higher thing….if, of course, that’s what you’re truly about in this life. That’s a question only you know the answer to.
Second, try hard to understand what your true interests are. I know most people think they know what their interests are, but my experience has confirmed over and over this is simply not true. Simply put, unless you can connect the dots you don’t know where they lead. And if you don’t know where they lead you’re just as likely to be supporting something that actually hurts you rather than helps you and your family. Try to connect the dots and do the best you can to see if the path those connections are making best serves you, your family, your community, and your nation. How many of us have discovered AFTER digging into the details of something, we’d long thought was benefiting us, our family, or our society, had actually been screwing us all along! That lesson applies not just to money and services, but to ideas and politics.
Stay engaged, know what’s happening, be deeply critical of information, be honest with yourself, and know what your true interests are. This is a duty you owe yourself, an obligation you owe your family, and your nation.
The John F. Kennedy presidential library has a digitized copy of JFK’s 1935 Harvard University application form. It’s easy to read JFK’s application essay as a quickly done, fill in the space, drill. JFK’s chances of getting accepted were pretty good regardless, I’m sure. This twitter worthy essay would be laughed at by just about any admissions committee today, but, to be fair, there wasn’t much space provided on the application for for JFK to elaborate. Here is what JFK wrote:
The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.
April 23, 1935
John F. Kennedy
The only sentence, of the 5 total, that addresses the benefits of a Harvard academic education is the 2nd. JFK thinks Harvard can provide him “a better background” and “a better liberal education” than any other institution. It’s a sentence that provides a pleasant reminder of how important a Liberals Arts education once was (and to some degree still is) regarded by America’s wealthy elite families. I would argue that a Liberal Arts education is still the highest and best form of education personally, socially, and politically speaking, we can promote for the maintenance of a free society. (Watch this interesting TED talk on this subject.)
The rest of JFK’s paragraph is really about the importance of being a “Harvard man.” The “something definite” that Harvard had to offer JFK was that “enviable distinction” of being a graduate of an elite school. An education is, of course, more than just something you get in a classroom, it’s also a process of acquiring social skills and making important and influential connections.
For the most part, the world has come to expect from the liberally educated class a certain set of elevated behaviors and leadership qualities. Someone has to model both excellence and pathetic failure in the social realm, and like it or not the elites are typically those cast in those roles. The sneer of “Elitism” may be thrown, sure, but the truth is most of us long to be part of some type of elite, even if we act like it doesn’t matter to us. The whole point of being educated, really, is about quality. The quality of your own mind and soul and about recognizing quality in the things you see, hear, and taste. This type of quality education was the “something definite to offer” JFK was looking for from being a “Harvard man.”
Recently Professor’s Amy Wax and Larry Alexander wrote an op-ed about Bourgeois culture and how, in their view, the measure of American social decline mirrors our societies falling away from Bourgeois cultural norms. Their piece has generated a small controversy that has highlighted some the problems within some of our universities.
Now if you’re asking what is “Bourgeois” (pronouced: boo r-zhwah), it’s a French word, which means, being French, it has no validity, is weak, and will flee at the first sign of a fight—which is your belief if you’re an American right winger. If you’re a left winger you pronounce the word correctly with your best French ascent and then apt your best attitude of distain for everything it stands for.
But putting humor aside, Bourgeois is the French word for middle-class culture, its norms and its values. Whatever you may feel about it, the striving to join the ranks of the Bourgeois has been in a large part of what the American dream has been all about. So along with French toast, French fries, and dear God thank you, French wine, most Americans have enjoyed tasting it!
Here’s how Wax and Alexander describe Bourgeois cultural norms in their op-ed:
That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
On it’s face, I find it very hard to disagree with them. This seems valid in a straightforward and obvious way and I think it’s confirmed by the experience of most adults. Now there is more to Bourgeois culture than this, but the above is the basic social script as Wax and Alexander see it. As academics, Wax and Alexander did some research, made some observations, developed some ideas, and then presented their opinion. The main point of Wax’s and Alexander’s piece is that not all cultural orientations (unlike Bourgeois) are as good at building the solidarity and the economic dynamism that viable democracies need to thrive.
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.
The above quote was quoted by critics as insensitive and somehow proof of Wax’s and Alexander’s violation of saying and thinking something you’re not allowed (by their standard) of saying or thinking. I am perplexed at their reasoning, but so be it. Whether you agree or disagree with everything they said (above) or the way they said it, Wax and Alexander diagnosed the problem and concluded that a re-embrace of Bourgeois norms would significantly reduce our societies pathologies. That’s their opinion! And so they conclude:
But restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood — to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.
As I said, Wax and Alexander are academics. So doing research and presenting their findings, analysis, and opinions are part of what they do and it’s exactly what college professors should do. This generates debate and discussion; the forge of free societies. It challenges ways of thinking, and sometimes challenges our belief that new ways of thinking and acting are somehow better than old. Simply put, sometimes they’re not.
Again, while I may take issue with some minor points Wax and Alexander made, I find it hard to disagree with much of what they said. I’m open, however, to counter arguments and fair criticisms and would enjoy hearing them respectfully argued. Wax and Alexander have taken a lot of heat from some quarters on the left over their piece. Some of the criticisms have been downright hostile, and plenty from fellow academics and university student groups. If you believe Wax and Alexander are wrong, that’s fine. Make a reasoned and respectful argument as to why you think their wrong. But don’t assume bad faith or resort to character assassination and make demands from institutions.
Sadly what we’re seeing is a culture or university subculture where it’s not just about parrying the argument and having a rational debate, but about destroying the writer(s) or professors personally. Some of this, no doubt, can be blamed on the promotion of identity politics within the universities. This has aided in the rise of a grievance centered culture on campus. We have many on both sides of the political spectrum, to be sure, who have no problem engaging in some form of intimidation when confronted with ideas they find offensive. But right now we have a real problem with this at some of our universities in this country, the very places we shouldn’t be having a problem with debating ideas…even one’s we strongly disagree with.
For the sake of academic freedom and the flourishing of our democratic culture, I hope universities will strongly push back against this strain of intellectual and social intolerance and affirm their place as institutions of free thinking, debate, learning, and tolerance.