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Reflections on the 2020 Election (Part 5)
The unfortunate legacy of the 2020 election and the way it was carrried out is the partisan divide that remains as bitter and uncompromising as I've ever seen it, even though a lot of folks declare themselves positioned somewhere between the angry rhetoric of the far right and the sanctimonious ignorance of the far left.
Many on the left seem to find it easier to participate in the empty ritual of “virtue" signalling, rather than spend time and effort sifting through information from a variety of sources, think deeply about matters of sound public policy, and then decide for themselves what is truly virtuous. And many on the right tend to share inflammatory memes that are tiresome, tedious, and sometimes true. Add to this the continual stoking of group identity discontent and you have the dangerous stuff of which civil wars are made.
[Personal note: I have it on pretty good authority that civil war can be a rather nasty way to sort out political differences, except perhaps, for the policy-makers and planners who promote and profit from the exercise while making sure people other than themselves are the ones trying to survive on the battlefield. According to letters from one of my great grandfathers who in 1862 was a member of the 44th regiment (company B) of New York's Volunteer Infantry, the battle at Antietam on September 17, 1862, was not a pleasant day's outing. Older family members recalled he didn't talk about it much in later years.]
The nation's old melting pot theory, formalized in Latin as “e pluribus unum” by Adams, Jefferson et al. and expanded on based on the early observations of Crèvecoeur, Tocqueville and others, is now not only no longer fashionable, but often disparaged by political opportunists who discovered they can profit politically by dividing people along ethnic, racial and national origin lines, often inventing and exaggerating distinctions where none had consciously existed before. Carried to the extreme, it has become formalized as group identity politics or critical race theory (a subset of critical theory) and is reflected in all areas and levels of government, school curricula, media, entertainment and public planning. It has been routinely exploited as a means to reinforce government control over peoples' lives.
About thirty years ago eminent mid-century American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. had a lot to say on the subject in his The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. In it he begins with an overview of what many other writers have said on the topic.
Emerson - “in this asylum of all nations, the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles... Cossacks, and all the European tribes – of the Africans, and of the Polynesians, will construct a new race... as vigorous as the new Europe...” and some years later, Israel Zangwill in his play The Melting-Pot has David say “Here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages... and your fifty blood hatreds... a fig for your feuds and vendettas...” These fine sentiments have been alternatively embraced or rejected ever since, depending on the political expediencies of the time.
Schlesinger himself came from a mixed ethnic background. His mother, Elizabeth Bancroft, came from an old New England family, mostly Unitarian, and was related to the American historian George Bancroft. His paternal grandfather was a Prussian Jew who became a Protestant and ultimately married an Austrian Catholic. Curiously, he was born Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, but later his name was changed to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr., as a nod, I would suspect, to his father who was also an academic and historian.
Considering his own mixed background, it's not surprising that he would write “The pressure for the new cult of ethnicity came less from the minorities en masse than from their often self-appointed spokesmen... (and also) spokesmen with a vested interest in ethnic identification turned against the ideal of assimilation... (and again)... In 1974, after testimony from ethnic spokesmen denouncing the melting pot as a conspiracy to homogenize America, Congress passed the “Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act” – a statute that, by applying the ethnic ideology to all Americans, compromised the historic right of Americans to decide their ethnic identities for themselves.” Reflecting on these developments and the experiences of Europe's Jews during the Third Reich, I think it was Schlesinger who made the acerbic observation – “ identity politics is what you get when fascism learns decent table manners and how to dress well.”
For those who don't understand Schlesinger's point, consider that in Germany during the 1930s, Nazi (fascist) policy required that Jews wear a yellow (or blue) star of David sewn prominently on their outer clothing whenever in public. Failure to display this sign of compliance could result in unpleasant consequences. And were he alive today (he died in 2007) I suspect Schlesinger would be aghast at how Germany's fascist ethnic policies of the '30s and '40s have been revived and are gradually becoming more firmly institutionalized in the United States today, largely as the result of political pressure from the left.
As far as “... learning... how to dress well”, Hugo Boss, the German fashion house, to this day patronized by fashionistas everywhere, had the contract to make uniforms for the SS and other government agencies. Hitler himself designed the look of the first VW Beetle in 1932 and gave it to Jakob Werlin of Daimler-Benz. It finally appeared as the KdF-Wagen in 1938 and Hitler is supposed to have retained an equity stake in the company. IG Farben the giant chemical conglomerate, once famous for its Zyklon-B gas, existed until not that long ago and was finally broken up into companies with more innocuous-sounding names. And so on and so forth.
Writing in the 1940s, towards the end of World War II, Friedrich Hayek also had a great deal to say about the world-wide trend toward national socialism that he feared would not end with defeat of the Third Reich. The Road to Serfdom (1944) was published before the end of World War II, in a drab little volume whose appearance was explained in the copyright page notice “wartime printing using the best material available”. Also on the copyright page was the dedication “To the Socialists of All Parties”. The book caught the attention of the reading public some years later during the beginning of the Cold War, and as a result many people (especially those who hadn't read it), assumed it was simply an attack on Marxism or Soviet-style communism.
The Soviet experiment relied on a system of planning in which those put in charge of agricultural or industrial affairs were often appointed for reasons having to do with political loyalty rather than expertise, whereas the German national socialists (Hitler et al.), as mentioned earlier, allied themselves with favored industries and privately-owned businesses who had the experience and expertise necessary to manufacture and supply goods and services. The Soviet model, wherever adopted, resulted in long-term systemic shortages of food and consumer goods and severe limitations on individual liberty and freedom of thought. The collectivist ideal was anything but liberal or democratic. True ownership and enjoyment of riches vested with those in political control. (in his W.W.II memoirs Churchill comments at length about Stalin's luxurious private accomodations that were extended to him while he was hosted by Stalin during his stay at Yalta).
At any rate, Hayek clearly expresses his contempt for the German and Russian versions of socialism, that were both anti-liberal and anti-democratic: “It is rarely remembered now that socialism in its beginnings was frankly authoritarian. The French writers who laid the foundations of modern socialism had no doubt that their ideas could be put in practice only by a strong dictatorial government... freedom of thought they regarded as the root-evil of nineteenth-century (liberal) society, and the first of modern planners, Saint-Simon, even predicted that those who did not obey his proposed planning boards would be ‘treated as cattle’ ”.
In the meantime, the annual conclave of international bankers, industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats, aspiring plutocrats and others gather in Davos for their World Economic Forum/winter vacation in the Swiss alps, burning worrisome amounts of carbon in order to get there in their private or corporate jets. Planning on ways to invent rules and regulations that would mainly affect the lives of people other than themselves, one must wonder if the irony of the enterprise escapes them. The national socialist expansionists of the 1930s would feel right at home.
Eric Blair (aka George Orwell), writing at about the same time, used his art rather than scholarly analysis to make his points. Nowadays, hardly anyone remembers Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London, many have heard of Homage to Catalonia and nearly everyone knows about Animal Farm and 1984 even those who never read them.
The only son of an English civil servant who had been assigned to a post in Burma, Orwell was sent to boarding school at an early age. His childhood memories were not pleasant. By the time he graduated from Eton, which he had attended on a scholarship, his views on English class-based society were already well established. He served for a time as a policeman in Burma, did not like the experience, and returned to England where he lived above a secondhand bookstore in London, in which he also worked part time. Not long after his marriage to Eileen O'Shaughnessy, they leave for Spain to join the Loyalist forces near Barcelona. In Barcelona, Orwell joins POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), a far-left splinter group opposed to the Soviet-controlled Communist party in Spain, and almost immediately becomes a target. While recovering in Barcelona from a serious wound received while at the front (he had been shot through the neck) he and his wife narrowly escape from the Communst secret police and return safely to England.
Orwell's experiences in Spain were his personal road to reality. He understood then what many do not understand now. As a liberal democrat who identified with and respected the modern proletariat – which to him meant working people of every class, including public intellectuals like Eric Hofer and others – he utterly disdained the “planning class” or those who would presume to speak for the people, while concealing their real ambition which was to control their lives.
Animal Farm was published in 1945, during the closing days of the war and had an interesting publishing history – at first it was nearly cancelled because several English publishers were afraid to touch it for fear of offending the Russians. What was lost in the initial publishers' near meltdown (it had been rejected by several, including T.S. Eliot then an editor at Faber), is that Orwell's satire targeted all forms of authoritarianism, including the National Socialists (Nazis) who had just been defeated. Remember that after the pigs learn to walk on two legs, party slogans are revised – “four legs good, two legs better” and “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” – and in the final pages “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”. In its broadest sense the scene is a metaphor representing the final melding of corporate and government power, a scene where most of the people are on the outside looking in, a scene that happens almost annually at Davos.
While writing 1984, Orwell was living in depressing circumstances on the remote island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland. The title of his last book is known to nearly everyone, even those who know it only by reputation, and has turned both his name and the title of the book into eponyms for a dystopian nightmare. It was published in 1949 not long before he died.
Winston Smith, a citizen of Oceania, is an employee of the Ministry of Truth, the agency in charge of controlling what people are allowed to read, watch, think or say in public. In the national socialist (i.e. fascist) world that already exists in China and is starting to emerge in the United States, part of the job has already been taken on by large social media companies, self-appointed “fact checkers” and “big tech”. At any rate, much of Winston's daily routine has to do with re-writing history in a way that conforms to the narrative of Big Brother who, as we all know, is always Watching You. Signs everywhere remind people that:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGH
To which we can now add:
DISSENTING OPINION IS DOMESTIC TERRORISM
In the year 1984 the world is comprised of three superpowers – Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia – in a perpetual state of official war that always seems to happen offstage without witnesses or independent reporting to verify casualties. The threat of war is used as a way to stoke patriotic feelings and distract people from the greyness of their existence. “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and above all gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds...” and the Thought Police are aided by giant, interactive “telescreens” that both transmit and record data – what today we would probably call “smart” tv.
Fast forward again to the third decade of the 21st century and imagine a typical “Super Bowl Sunday” or major sporting event – people stuffing themselves with pizza, buffalo wings and beer while betting too much of their paychecks on one of the many online gambling sites that seem to be popping up everywhere. Orwell predicted better than he or his contemporaries could have known and his reputation only increases with each passing year.
The outcome of the election of 2020 was partly fortuitous and partly by design, and whether for good or ill depends on your political leanings. There were many factors determining the outcome, not excluding more than the usual irregularies at the polls and inflammatory rhetoric from both sides including an elderly actress's televised opinion that the corona virus was “God's gift to the left”. At any rate, the election of a candidate with diminished capacity has made it much easier for international oligarchies and civil servants to brush away the concerns of the people while planning for an Orwellian world in which the many will be compelled to comply with the dictates of the few.