Monday, February 19, 2007

By Their Fruits

It somehow figures that I would have to stumble across this gem in the bowels of J.M. Coetzee's outstanding review of Norman Mailer's new book, but I find it strangely analogous to the current breed of lapdog demagoguery.

Of the aspects of Hitler's Vienna period on which the historically minded novelist might build, I mention three. First, despite at times being hungry and even desperate, Hitler disdained manual labor. Second, he hated Vienna. Third, in this phase of his life he can legitimately be called an artist and intellectual, albeit an undistinguished one.

Hitler disdained manual labor because he thought it incompatible with his status—a tenuous status, considering his defective education and the fact that his parents were born peasants— as a member of the lower middle class. His hostility to socialism grew out of a well-founded anxiety about being sucked into a lumpen(ragged) proletariat of workless rural migrants streaming to the capital from all quarters of the empire.

He disliked Vienna because in Vienna for the first time he was made to realize that, as an ethnic German, he belonged to a minority—albeit a powerful one—in a multiethnic state. On the streets he had to rub shoulders with, and even compete with, people who spoke unintelligible languages, dressed differently, smelled strange: Slovenians, Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Jews. A xenophobia that was at first suspicious and defensive, a provincial youth's mistrust of foreigners, hardened to become intolerant, aggressive, and finally genocidal.

Hitler may not have been much of an artist (he always had trouble with the human figure—a telling weakness), but there is no denying that, at least in his early years, he was an intellectual of sorts. He read incessantly (though only what he liked), he was interested in ideas (though only in ideas that fitted his preconceptions) and believed in their power, he involved himself in the arts (though his tastes were unshakably provincial and prematurely conservative).


All in all, the adventures of Adolf Hitler in the realm of ideas provide a cautionary tale against letting an impressionable young person loose to pursue his or her education in a state of total freedom. For seven years Hitler lived in a great European city in a time of ferment from which emerged some of the most exciting, most revolutionary thought of the new century. With an unerring eye he picked out not the best but the worst of the ideas around him. Because he was never a student, with lectures to attend and reading lists to follow and fellow students to argue with and assignments to complete and examinations to sit, the half-baked ideas he made his own were never properly challenged. The people he associated with were as ill-educated, volatile, and undisciplined as himself. No one in his circle had the intellectual command to put his chosen authorities in their place as what they were: disreputable and even comical mountebanks. [emphasis mine]

Normally a society can tolerate, even look benignly upon, a layer of autodidacts and cranks on the fringes of its intellectual institutions. What is singular about the career of Hitler is that through a confluence of events in which luck played some part, he was able not only to spread his nonsensical philosophy among his German countrymen but to put it into practice across Europe, with consequences known to all.

Sound like anyone you know? Cherry-picked affirmations, hopelessly cobbled together to be squinted at by the intellectually (and physically) lazy, the sort of people who can swim in a fountain of all sorts of wondrous ideas to explore and compare, and merely come up with the shiniest penny, the cheapest form of philosophizing. That these cluttered bozos run the country, even from the shadows and armpits of its infrastructure and institutions, would cause alarm in any other civilized country, but cannot muster much more than a nod of scant recognition here.

I assume it will take some sort of catalyzing event to grant the remaining sentient beings the will and organization to once and for all rid ourselves of the likes of Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D'Souza, people who make one wish that Gutenberg had thought better about his invention. Not being able to imagine the specifics of such an event does not mitigate its importance, the vitality of casting sloppy thinkers and shitty writers such as those two, and the rest of the wingnut welfare industry (and that's precisely what it is) into the pit of permanent unemployment.

When useless assholes like Billy Kristol and Rich Lowry -- as well as their "centrist" enablers like Bobo Brooks and Civility Broder -- are cleaning my gutters and washing my cars, then the universe will be set aright. Till then, they're not much better in terms of intellectual probity than the inbred paper-hanger who combed Vienna's back benches in search of dark self-actualization, instead of seeing what was laid right out before him for exactly what it was.


Marius said...

Right on. Yet I can't help but feel that the similarity is just that -- a similarity. Of course there will always be such autodidact, deeply incoherent self-styled thinkamators in pretty much any free society. And America (or the West, for that matter) will get more than their fair share of specimens like Hitler le jeune. But the thing to note is that these demagogues only become lethal when, as a Marxist would say, the objective conditions are in place to enable them to (1) find a large enough audience, and (2) turn that audience into a political constituency and a vehicle for access to power and office. And I think it is here that the really scary similarities should be noted. As to point (1), the fascist right in America is now benefitting from the emergence of cheap vehicles for message circulation -- the Internet and cheap printing, and a thoroughly unholy media-political complex: TV stations, "think" tanks, rich sponsors willing to pay for this shit, and political operatives able to channel their propaganda. I would add to this the consolidation, in America, of a right-wing, militaristic sub-section of the "chattering classes": the gung-ho pundits. With regard to (2), there is, first, a certain backlash against the excesses of 1990s liberalism: the penchant for cultural relativism, a virulent discourse aimed at the white male establishment, and simply the increased secularization of public life. Second, there was the wave of anger that followed 9/11 and the collective desire to find culprits -- some culprits.

It seems to me that only when conditions (1) and (2) obtain do you really have to start worrying about the impact of disaffected fascist populists. I'm not saying contemporary America is headed in the same direction as Germany in the 1930s -- the differences are still too wide. But it makes for a certainly disturbing dynamic to see the confluence of mass-media, made-to-order ideological discourse, rich billionaires like Anschutz and Prince, and Unca Karl's little apparatchiks. These guys ain't fucking around, that's for sure. And that's why it takes extra vigilance to make sure they don't take the country down the dark path.

Here, I'll introduce you to another really cool site: the London Review of Books. That's where you can find a good article on one of the guys you touch in passing in your previous post: Mark Thatcher. Enjoy.

Heywood J. said...

Thanks for the link. Great article, more detailed than the BBC one I excerpted. Funny how Mark and Maggie come off as more than a bit similar to our own domineering mum/doofus son dynastic combo here in the States.

I think the last LRB article I caught was the Mearsheimer and Walt article on the Israeli lobby, very extensive and (naturally) controversial piece. I don't know why I don't check that site out more often; the writing is excellent and topical.

As for the post subject, some things are a constant -- the attempts by shadowy rich pricks to control the flow and content of information, and the willingness of countless grubby little shits to do their bidding, gladly. There are always Anschutzes and Melloncamp Scaifes who seem to think they can -- and should -- take it with them.

Maybe it's the law of averages, given the technology-driven decentralization of information, that the level of opinion and rhetoric just seems increasingly inane and mediocre. I have a hard time believing that people such as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza would have had any platform for their nonsense fifty years ago, aside from the John Birch lecture circuit or something.

9/11 certainly galvanized the ability of these anger pimps to pump their desired market, but even as that market starts to wane, they are still given plenty of media outlets to spout their idiocy practically uncontested, whereas not even rough counterparts on the left are given such opportunities.

More than the politicos themselves, though, I think my metaphorical aim in utilizing Coetzee's excellent synopsis of Hitler's intellectual stunting is more at these twee little print thugs who operate in their own little feedback loop, poisoning the overall discourse a little at a time, and snickering about it all the way back to their little gated communities. Talk about your little Eichmanns.

In the end, though, your original comment may be right -- this is probably not so much a case of history starting to repeat itself, so much as one of its peculiar rhymes. Still, the machinery for enabling such dangerous demagoguery obviously is and has been in place for some time, and perhaps we should consider ourselves fortunate that their most compelling personality in the last decade has been a gibbering moron. When they land their own Slick Willie, then we're fucked.

john lenin said...

More than the politicos themselves, though, I think my metaphorical aim in utilizing Coetzee's excellent synopsis of Hitler's intellectual stunting is more at these twee little print thugs who operate in their own little feedback loop, poisoning the overall discourse a little at a time, and snickering about it all the way back to their little gated communities.

It's funny, because to whatever extent I can be said to be intelligent, it's almost entirely due to the power of autodidactism, so when you said "Sound like anyone you know?", I thought for a moment: Shit, I hope I'm not like that! I try to comfort myself at least with the knowledge that I've changed my mind enough times and been exposed to enough contrary views to hopefully offset the worst tendencies to tell myself what I want to hear.

But that brings up my main point: other than Karl Rove, almost all the other members of this administration were formally educated, as far as I know, and even the pundits too: D'Souza at Dartmouth, Lowry at (sorry to say) U.Va., and I think Coulter went to something besides clown college. And let's not forget George "gonna buttfuck Osama" Dubya himself, at freaking Harvard and Yale.

What is it that enables these people to go through the steps while still keeping the same concrete intact in their skulls?

Heywood J. said...

I know what you're saying, Lenin, and I got that same little "oh shit" twinge as well. I am certainly in the autodidact category as well; I am only now returning to the modest rigors of post-secondary education, primarily to put the veneer of employability on my resume.

But like yourself, I've tried to enter into such endeavors with a willingness to learn, and to be convinced. That seems to be the difference. Coetzee's account of Hitler's attempt at intellectuality seems to point at someone who merely needed academic confirmation of his bitterness and provincialism.

With the wingnut welfare ideologues, I can give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their motivation is primarily financial; their readers, on the other hand, I have no fucking clue, and after a while you find yourself fearing the worst about many, if not most, of them. I don't even think it's a matter of whether they're dumb or smart; they just steep indefinitely in their anger, goaded further into bitterness and electoral cycles of pure recrimination, at the minimum.

I believe Coulter got her law degree at the University of Michigan, so yeah, not exactly a lost semester at Rush Limbaugh Cow College of Southeastern Missouruh. These people are accredited, they've just gone to where the money is. Although D'Souza really does appear to be a deficient thinker as well as a sloppy polemicist, so it's all the more surprising that he's a Dartmouth alumnus and holds a chair at Stanford.

Marius said...

Hey, there's nothing wrong with being an autodidact. On the contrary, it's very commendable. It shows a willingness to improve oneself even in the face of moral adversity. And it has the upside that, outside the fetters of established learning, you can pursue independent insights without being forced into the occasional straitjacket of mainstream, accepted ideas.

Herein lies the danger, though: as a self-taught individual, one occasionally runs the danger of venturing down intellectual cul-de-sacs or some other unpromising avenue. This danger could be avoided if one's instruction is done under the supervision of some more experienced mentors. By itself, this weren't a big deal, anyway. After all, true learning inevitably involved becoming occasionally entangled in knotty problems and making false starts. It's when such mistakes are made against a background of deep personal issues (like a Napoleon complex or something) and a society in dissolution (as Germany was after the first continental war) that an autodidact with a dangerous idea becomes a threat not to be taken lightly.

For me, the true outrage here is that people like D'Souza and Coulter went to some of the best universities in the world, and they were allowed to graduate -- or at least weren't taught better. That's a collective failure on their teachers part.