Where totalitarianism comes from

The book I am reading now has three quotes at the beginning: one by Jean
Casson, a Toulouse resistance leader and poet; one by Robert F. Kennedy; and one by Hannah Arendt.  The book is about the adventures of Virginia Hall, who set up local networks of resistance to the Nazis all over France.  It is called, A Woman of No Importance.  Here is the quote from Arendt.  It is from her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Hannah Arendt knows a great deal about totalitarianism, but I wonder how much she knows about social media.  That is the question I would like to puzzle about today.

Bertram Gross, in his book Friendly Fascism, suggests that when fascism comes to the United States, it will not look like jackbooted thugs as it did in Weimar Germany.  No, he says, it will look like Disneyland. [1]

When I think about it, I think about it as Facebook Fascism.  I have friends who “share”—that’s what they call it—scurrilous condemnations of this, that, or the other thing,  If you were to ask them whether these condemnations are based on fact, they would way one or the other of two things.  Let’s look at them.

The first is, “Who cares?”  The answer, most likely, is “No one to whom I am forwarding this post.”  So in this post, you are passing along (sharing) allegations that something actually happened.  You don’t know whether they happened.  You were “told” by the person who shared the post with you.  And in further sharing it, you are almost certainly doing some things that matter to you.  You are reaffirming your social/ideological solidarity with the person who sent it to you.  You are very likely striking a blow against the person (or a kind of person or possibly even a whole political party made up of such persons) who is alleged to have done this awful thing.   Because they are bad, taking action against them (by forwarding the post) is “good” by definition.

These two outcomes of your passing the post along are presumptive, of course, rather than confirmed, but we judge pretty accurately in matters like this.  You get confirmatory notes back from the network you shared with, for instance, or you read an article about how bad the people are whom you have been vilifying.  Well…not vilifying, I guess, if they were already villains.

Against those two certain and immediate benefits, you weigh the likelihood that the event or condition you described is actually true.  First, there is a lot of hard work involved in confirming the actuality of an event.  Think of it as a series of filters.  The most forgiving filter will tell you that it is outrageous and has no basis in fact.  The next finer filter will tell you that allegations have been made and these allegations are being “considered” by some people.  The next one down, or the one after that, will look at eyewitness accounts or source documents or—more likely—video footage and ask you to make your own judgment.

How many times a day could you afford to do that?  And for what?

The good part of doing all that work was once that you would not be passing along lies.  But apart from the work of finding out for yourself, there is the additional question of whether lies are…oh…untruthful.

You have to stay with this part of the argument.  If you relax your vigilance, it could sound just silly. [2]  Is an allegation that can be shown to be “false” just a part of someone else’s truth?  Is the world we live in filled with alternate and contradictory accounts?  Of course.  Is it possible that they are all true?  Of course it is.  I am going to make a different argument about facts later; here we are just considering accounts.

Accounts hang together is a lot of ways.  There are the values on which they are based, the presuppositions those values require, the logical support they gain from the network of other views that make up the whole way of looking at the world.  You could even say that there are alternative sources of “factual verification” if the proponents get to define all the terms and choose all the standards of verification.

This is a hard place to be for a society.  Coffee conversation at the local diner has gotten a lot more sophisticated than it was when I was a kid. [3]  What is right and what is wrong were eroded by the much more subtle notion of situational ethics.  What is demonstrably true or false was eroded by the failure of the experts to articulate and defend a single notion of what “truth” is as well as the later, postmodern, argument that what we have been calling truth is just the version put forward by the most powerful.

All of these developments have merits of their own, but if Arendt is right, society really needs common commitments to “what really happened” and whether an allegation is “true or false.”  The conversation at the coffee shop requires those commitments and if they are taken for granted, so much the better for society.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is known for saying, “You are entitled to your own views, but not to your own facts.”  Bold words from Sen. Moynihan.  And I would agree with him if the “facts” in question were to be determined by commonly agreed upon measurements and if the valuational elements of these assertions were carefully screened out.

Hitler made great use of the “stabbed in the back” argument.  Germany was making great progress in winning World War I, but they we were stabbed the back by powerful people at home—a cabal of internationalist Jews, no doubt.  Consider for a moment how you would go about “refuting” that story if you had no access to commonly accepted standards of evidence.

Donald Trump, not to equate the two men but to point out the similarity of the two allegations, is making great use of the “We was robbed” theory of the 2020 election.  The means by which this theft took place has necessarily varied: Trump votes were not counted, voting machines malfunctioned, vote counters cheated, and so on.  The fact, the bald assertion, continues to flourish even as each specific supporting argument is challenged.

These “Big Lies” cannot be disproved without a commonly agreed to standard of evidence.  There is no such standard and there will never be.  I would be happy to take on the job of arguing that the 2020 election was fraudulent if I could set the standard for proof (not a single ballot was incorrectly cast or counted) and the standard for evidence (I can get an election official to swear to the accuracy of his testimony).

Besides, in this era of the privatization of “truth,” we find that “I know a lot of people who feel the same way I do” will hold up most of the time.  We live in information silos and we consume silage.  That’s why there are silos.

If the people most prone to welcome totalitarian rule are those who are no longer protected by commonly held standards of actuality and evidence, they we are waiting only for a populist force strong enough to assert their truth and punish skeptics.

[1]  The more you know about Disneyland, the more chilling that is.

[2]  Or I could sound just silly, which I really don’t want, so I urge you to stay vigilant.

[3]  This is largely hypothetical.  There was not a diner in my little town where people went for coffee and conversation.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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