Archive for October, 2016

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.  As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and in the end entirely cancelled out.”  (Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, chap 6, sect 4)

These are the words of Hitler in 1924. In 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was writing about the lessons learned after ten years of resisting Hitler. He wrote that it is impossible to deal with stupidity, the willful stupidity of a people who have surrendered to a tyrant who rules by intimidation, hatred . . .and slogans.

We know that the proto-tyrant of 1924 became the real tyrant of 1942, with the year 1933 being the pivotal year. That was the year that Hitler became Chancellor and thus began to have the power to enact the ideas he had written nine years earlier.

A people, such as the millions of trump supporters, who willfully surrender their minds and hearts to a tyrant become stupid. Sometimes that stupidity is dangerous and damaging. In Germany it led to a terrible war and a Holocaust whose immeasurable cruelty we still can’t quite grasp.

The danger right now for America is that, for the sake of his own ego, trump may be unleashing the forces that return us to the unfinished Civil War. Hitler was deliberate. trump, I believe, has simply been made stupid by his own thoughtless self-manipulations. It is as if, feeding solely off the noise of the crowds, he is simply mesmerized. His is not a studied evil, as was Hitler’s, but it is extremely dangerous nonetheless because he is unleashing the dark side of an America he can’t begin to understand.

The obvious problem, of course, is that those forces are now unleashed and will bear some sort of awful fruit whether or not trump wins the election. America is in a lose-lose situation. The Republicans, especially once they were goaded on by the Tea Party, paved the way by their recalcitrant opposition to Obama. Even they are shocked by what they have created.

The problem in the Republican Party goes back at least as far as Reagan. He, like Hitler, lived and worked on the basis of a small handful of slogans and cliches. His “trickle-down” economics, so favored by the economists who bought the thinking of Milton Friedman, turned out just as one should have expected: The rich got richer, the middle class experienced a temporary boom, which the wealthy quickly squeezed and strangled because they were now empowered to gain unlimited wealth.

Even as they preyed upon and nearly destroyed the middle class, the wealthy continued to increase their wealth and did so at an ever-increasing pace. It ought to frighten us that the wealth of the 1% grew even faster during the economic meltdown of 2007-08. If we do not act soon to curb the growing income equality gap, the damage may escalate drastically.

Thanks for favoring greed, you dear Republicans.

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I’ve left this blog unattended for too long! Frankly, I’ve been caught up in trying to figure out what it means that the American political system has produced two presidential candidates who are unpopular. At the least, it means that the United States is in a period of cultural bewilderment. And during such a time, those who represent the worst in society — people of hate and meanness and prejudice — are encouraged to yell their foolishness into the public forum. The chaos is emphasized when one of our two major political parties chooses a candidate who deliberately builds his campaign on the very hate which threatens the public order.

As I listen to the Republican candidate speak, my mind often goes to Bonhoeffer’s words on stupidity. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with stupidity, he asserts. The stupid are not those who simply lack intelligence but, far worse, those who have chosen to be mindless. Reasoning with them, we might say, is speaking a foreign language which they don’t even want to understand. And rational people cannot speak the native language of the willfully stupid because it truly makes no sense.

It is in this context that I now read Bonhoeffer’s paragraphs on “The Sense of Quality.” When we lack the courage to observe a genuine sense of boundaries, “we perish in an anarchy of human values.” We must ask immediately what boundaries Bonhoeffer has in mind. He leaves us no doubt: his uses of the words “rabble” and “nobility” say it all.

Is this some sort of snobbish elitism? Ordinarily, I would say Bonhoeffer is certainly in danger of that but now, with our chaotic and mean-spirited campaign fowling the spiritual air in America, I find myself saying Bonhoeffer is exactly right.

He writes of Germany in words that fit today’s American situation perfectly: “In other times it may have been the task of Christianity to testify to the equality of all human beings; today it is Christianity in particular that should passionately defend the respect for human boundaries and human qualities.”

Equality is an idea that is fundamental to the grand American experiment. We dare not let it go. To sustain a culture and a political system based on equality, however, requires a great deal of mutual trust. We must trust that each person is genuinely interested in furthering the common, equal good. Right now in the US, that trust is at a very low level. When hatred and meanness are unleashed and encouraged, the fabric of society which underlies our political system is in danger of being shredded.

What does Bonhoeffer mean by the nobility? And what difference does that make here in the US, where we have no class clearly demarked “nobility”? He writes,

“Nobility arises from and exists by sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others, by the self-evident expectation of the respect one is due, and by an equally self-evident observance of the same respect for those above and those below”

That’s not what we might have expected him to say. The first marks of nobility are sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others. True nobility is not self-serving but self-sacrificing, not cowardly but courageous, and not privileged but indebted. For the opposite qualities we have a good example: the Republican candidate.

In Bonhoeffer we see the best understanding of noblesse oblige, the sense that nobility (of status or character) brings with it an obligation both to oneself and to others.

Did Bonhoeffer really believe that he ought to be self-sacrificing? He risked and lost his life serving an ungrateful, willfully stupid people, when he could have stayed safe in America for the duration of the war. He was truly noble. . .

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In the small collection of mini-essays which Bonhoeffer called “After Ten Years” (meaning after ten years of resisting Hitler), he writes one section called “The Sense of Quality.” More than some of the others whose meaning is fairly evident, this section requires some real reflection and some historical understanding of the situation in Germany from, say, the turn of the century until the rise of Hitler.

And, reading it, we need to remember that the Bonhoeffer family was quite well off both financially and culturally: They seem to us to have been minor nobility and each of the Bonhoeffer’s had a very strong sense of cultural heritage and obligation. We in modern America have many people who are rich but for the most part wealth in America does not bring with it a sense of obligation to serve the broader culture.

Because it is long and somewhat complex, in this blog entry I will simply quote the passage in full, saving for later my usual commentary of what Bonhoeffer has written. Read it carefully, reflect on it thoughtfully, and form your own understanding of it. In a few days I will comment on it myself.

The Sense of Quality

When we lack the courage once again to establish a genuine sense of boundaries between human beings and personally to fight for them, we perish in an anarchy of human values. The impudence that has its being in the contempt for all such boundaries is just as much a mark of the rabble as the inward uncertainty, haggling, and courting the favor of the insolent; making common cause with rabble is the way toward rendering oneself rabble. When one no longer knows what one owes oneself and others, where the sense for human quality and the strength to respect boundaries cease to exist, chaos is at the door. When for the sake of material comfort one tolerates impudence, one has already surrendered, there the floods of chaos have been permitted to burst the dam at the place where it was to be defended, and one becomes guilty of all that follows.
In other times it may have been the task of Christianity to testify to the equality of all human beings; today it is Christianity in particular that should passionately defend the respect for human boundaries and human qualities. The misinterpretation that it is a matter of self-interest, or the cheap allegation that it is an antisocial attitude, must be resolutely faced. They are the perennial reproaches of the rabble against order. Whoever becomes soft and unsure here does not understand what is at issue, and presumably those reproaches may well apply to him.
We are in the midst of the process that levels every rank of society. But we are also at the hour of a new sense of nobility being born that binds together a circle of human beings drawn from all existing social classes. Nobility arises from and exists by sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others, by the self-evident expectation of the respect one is due, and by an equally self-evident observance of the same respect for those above and those below. At issue all along the line is the rediscovery of experiences of quality that have been buried under so much rubble. Of an order based on quality. Quality is the strongest foe of any form of bringing everything to the level of the masses.
Socially this means abandoning the pursuit of position, breaking with the star cult, an opening out upward and downward, particularly in connection with the choice of one’s friends, delight in private life, and courage for public life. Culturally the experience of quality signals a return from the newspaper and radio to the book, from haste to leisure and stillness, from distraction to composure, from the sensational to reflection, from the idol of virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation. Quantities compete for space; qualities complement one another.

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