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The Irony of American History 
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Post The Irony of American History
Bacevich tells us that in his book that he is virtually "channeling" the American social critic and theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Bacevich also spearheaded the effort to release writings of Neibuhr on foreign policy under the title The Irony of Americn History. He wrote the introduction to the book, in which he calls it "the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy."

I had some misgivings about a book whose subject is, as Neibuhr writes, "the position of our nation in the present world situation, as interpreted from the standpoint of the Christian faith." However, though Neibuhr does speak of the importance in our history of a Christian "worldview," there is virtually no theologizing in the book, and I think that most readers would be surprised to see how a leftist leaning and his Christian worldview combine. This is light years away from the kind of public religious discourse we've been exposed to in the last couple of decades. Neibuhr excoriates the religious basis of American exceptionalism, the notion that the U.S. was destined by God to be a second Israel, establishing a bastion of purity and righteousness in contrast to the corruption of Europe. These messianic roots spelled trouble from the start, though it took three centuries for these elements to produce the illusion that America had the mandate to manage history by asserting its way of life in the world, for the sake of the world.

The book takes a Christian perspective in its insistence on the limitations of human beings to be as in control as we often like to think we are. In this case, we are prone to thinking we can control history, but even the greatest world powers are "caught in a web of history in which many desires, hopes, wills, and ambitions, other than their own, are operative."

There is not space to explain the central thesis: how Amercian history is characterized by irony. Neibuhr presents an almost literary or dramatic model of history, contrasting the ironic with the comic, pathetic, and tragic. It is impressively sophisticated and offers a coherent and powerful means of viewing our past and present.

The book is clear in its style, though not contemporary in its diction and formality.



Wed Dec 17, 2008 9:20 am
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Thanks DWill. Niebuhr is a leading American representative of the scholarly tradition of reformed protestantism, in dialogue with the high intellect of German Christian thought represented by such titans as Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer and Brunner - the big Bs. These are sophisticated philosophical thinkers, a world away from the ignorant fundamentalism that characterises much Christianity. They aim to articulate a prophetic messianic vision for human life, centred on the person of Jesus Christ. The problem of what is true prophecy and what is false prophecy is a live issue, as is the dialogue with modern thought. The way Christianity has become a propaganda tool seems to have bruised Bacevich into a deep skepticism about its merits, but he sees that Niebuhr, drinking from the well of the Bible, articulates a clear-eyed prophetic voice. Re-engaging with this mid-century intellectual ferment is a good way to analyse debates around American identity.

I've just dug through my old book collection and found my copy of Niebuhr's Faith and History, published in 1949. Niebuhr wiki is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr
A Time Magazine review at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/artic ... 80,00.html says

Quote:
the "unanticipated disaster" of modern times, says Niebuhr, was that man, forgetting that his power for evil was as great as his power for good, began to identify his own creative activity with the will of God.

The remedy, according to Niebuhr: let mankind return to the Christian concept that history is a drama "of God's contest with all men, who are all inclined to defy God because they all tend to make their own life into the center of history's meaning . . .'
...
But, he says, such teachers as Martin Luther are in error, when they "exclude the possibility of redemption and a new life in man's social existence, and confine redemption to individual life." The structures of society cannot be perfected, but they can be improved. And this the Christian must try to do as part of his responsibility for his neighbor.
...
Niebuhr finds still further possibility of Christian redemption on an international level. The most powerful groups within nations and the most powerful nations in the world can, he thinks, behave enough like individuals to earn themselves rebirth. This can happen when their power and pride are challenged by new social forces.



Wed Dec 17, 2008 4:00 pm
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The remedy, according to Niebuhr: let mankind return to the Christian concept that history is a drama "of God's contest with all men, who are all inclined to defy God because they all tend to make their own life into the center of history's meaning . . .'

Thank you, Robert, for finding this information. You are right about these men being sophisticated philosophical thinkers. Though I'm not a Christian, my attitude is that the thought of the Greek "high pagans," the Jews, and the Christians forms our worldview today, inescapably, and that it represents a valuable inheritance. It is so highly unlikely that all of this was an impediment to human progress. Christian concepts have validity outside of their theological context, demonstrating universality. I like, for example, Neibuhr's statement to the effect that original sin is the one Christian dogma that has been verified empirically. I also think that there may be something of real use and even necessity in the concept of a judge over everything.



Wed Dec 17, 2008 9:47 pm
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Hi DWill, some further points in response.
DWill wrote:
the thought of the Greek "high pagans," the Jews, and the Christians forms our worldview today, inescapably, and ...represents a valuable inheritance.
Yet our 'worldview' today is also informed by non-Western traditions as well as other Western inheritance such as from Egypt.
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It is so highly unlikely that all of this was an impediment to human progress.
The linear model of progress as continual improvement contrasts to both the Judeo-Christian model of fall and redemption and the Osirian model of cyclic return. My worry is that we are on a linear path to extinction, and we need to take account of some non-linear ideas in order to secure ongoing human life on this planet.
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Christian concepts have validity outside of their theological context, demonstrating universality. I like, for example, Neibuhr's statement to the effect that original sin is the one Christian dogma that has been verified empirically.
I disagree here. 'Original sin' is an idea from Saint Augustine, to the effect that our father's semen transmits sin by magic, and that Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, was the only human being without sin, by virtue of his immaculate conception without semen. This farcical idea is so far from the truth that it has to be junked completely. It is incompatible with Saint Paul's comment in Romans 1:3 that Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh, and more importantly, with the Sermon on the Mount which indicates that humanity can be one with the creator in original blessing, an idea picked up by Matthew Fox in his book of that title. Original sin is an importation of Manichean dualism of good and evil cosmic powers into Christianity, and clashes with the Christian idea that the creation is fundamentally good, while evil is a perversion of an original good nature. I see where Niebuhr is coming from in his empirical comment, but calling sin 'original' suggests we are on a path to damnation and lack resources for salvation.
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I also think that there may be something of real use and even necessity in the concept of a judge over everything.
I agree, but see the judge as evolutionary adaptivity rather than a supernatural God entity. If we adapt to our planet we will be okay with the 'judge over everything' but if we don't then we will go extinct.
Robert



Wed Dec 17, 2008 11:11 pm
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Robert Tulip wrote:
The linear model of progress as continual improvement contrasts to both the Judeo-Christian model of fall and redemption and the Osirian model of cyclic return. My worry is that we are on a linear path to extinction, and we need to take account of some non-linear ideas in order to secure ongoing human life on this planet.

I had thought that the Graeco-Judeo-Christian influence was key to our concept of linear progress, probably because that influence is key to the development of science--which determined our view of progress. Regarding extinction, I think I'm more concerned for the diversity of life around us than for us! We are well able to survive, somehow, even with the world a much "diminished thing."
Quote:
I disagree here. 'Original sin' is an idea from Saint Augustine, to the effect that our father's semen transmits sin by magic, and that Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, was the only human being without sin, by virtue of his immaculate conception without semen.

Yes, that's repulsive, and it's why I specified "out of their theological context." It seems obvious on its face that the Garden of Eden story was created to embody the truth that humans by their nature are prone to grandiose notions of wisdom and power.
Will



Thu Dec 18, 2008 8:28 am
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I am now reading Niebuhr's Faith and History, and it is fascinating how he provides a theoretical framework that Bacevich partly builds on and partly ignores. John Carroll, an Australian academic, has written on the contrast between the religious and the scientific in terms of linearity in a way I find helpful. My worry about modern linear thinking is mainly that piling CO2 into the air - 'cause that's what we've always done - is like loading a bomb until it reaches critical explosion mass. It is hard for me to take a concept of sin out of a theological context, so it is important if we wish to use this concept to revise the theology. Robert



Thu Dec 18, 2008 8:02 pm
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I really do see a ready applicability of the concept of sin to our lives, divorced from theology. This is not just a Christian concept, either, I think.

One interesting point Neibuhr makes concerns communist regimes, and what their sins are. Neibuhr, though a man of the left, never for a moment flirted with communism as it developed in the Sovient Union, unlike many others on the left. He saw it as demonic, in fact. But he scoffs at the notion that atheism produced such a brutal regime. The cause was, instead, the success of an elite group of intellecutals in foisting their own vision of history on the people. That vision held that property was the single cause of inequality among humans; abolishing private property would usher in the golden age. Ironically, the forced installation of this philosophy produced the most unequal distribution of political power yet seen.

Looking at the U.S., Neibuhr sees absolutely nothing to its advantage that it called itself a Christian country. Indeed, a mistaken notion of religion contributed to its sense that it was exceptional and had a mission to fulfill, which later led to its own attempt to manage history by spreading copies of itself over the world. In the case of the U.S., though, there was never a cabal or priesthood that could bring things to an extremity comparable to that in the Soviet Union.



Fri Dec 19, 2008 1:35 pm
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I do hope this divorce between the concept of sin and theology can be reconciled! Niebuhr provides quite a deep theoretical framework to counsel on this marriage. One comment from him that I found particularly valid is that 'an outer limit is set for human defiance of the divine will by the fact that God's power, revealed in the structure of existence, leads to the ultimate self-destruction of forms of life which make themselves into their own end by either isolation or dominion.' (Faith and History p31)

This could be an epigraph for The Limits of Power, as this self-destruction of the USA through isolated dominion is Bacevich's primary concern.

The sense of a divine power in history provides an absolute against which the concept of sin can be defined. Without such an absolute, there is no reference point against which it becomes meaningful to describe actions as sinful. The complexity, and Niebuhr fully recognises this too, includes the depth of mercy within and above wrath in our sense of the absolute. He comments that 'the New Testament faith anticipates that man's defiance of God will reach the highest proportions at the end of history', and observes that 'the Christian truth was frequently made completely unavailable to modern men by a theological obscurantism which identifies the perennially valid depth of Christian symbols with the pre-scientific form in which they were expressed.'

So, the ideas of sin and God have been hidden by the contorted forms in which they have been portrayed by Christian fundamentalism, which Niebuhr sees as a sinful historical movement, with its bibliolatry indicating a rebellion against God. Fundamentalism has given people a false view of the meaning of sin and God, resulting in the reasonable desire for what you describe as divorce. But a divorce that happened due to fraudulent information often results in the couple getting back together with greater love.

In giving a paper on faith and science last year, hearers commented to me that they thought it was great, but Christianity is so derided in the whole university world that I would be better off chopping out the Christian ideas if I want to get a hearing. Sad but unsurprising, this situation is in accord with the problem Niebuhr diagnosed 60 years ago.



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Fri Dec 19, 2008 6:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Dec 19, 2008 3:17 pm
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Robert Tulip wrote:
One comment from him that I found particularly valid is that 'an outer limit is set for human defiance of the divine will by the fact that God's power, revealed in the structure of existence, leads to the ultimate self-destruction of forms of life which make themselves into their own end by either isolation or dominion.' (FARp31)

This is a powerful religious statement that depends on little doctrine, though obviously it is theistic. However, can we have this idea about "the nature of existence" without a God? I think maybe we can.
Quote:
This could be an epigraph for The Limits of Power, as this self-destruction of the USA through isolated dominion is Bacevich's primary concern.

Nice point.
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The sense of a divine power in history provides an absolute against which the concept of sin can be defined. Without such an absolute, there is no reference point against which it becomes meaningful to describe actions as sinful.

In The Irony of American History, this idea is there as well, but not quite explicit. The sin Neibuhr talks about--and the one that concerns me--is the one you reference above, humans "making themselves their own end." The sin of grandiosity is what he sees as the central one. He is not concerned with labeling individual behaviors as sinful, nor am I. Just as there is a golden rule that economically guides us to moral behavior, there could be its reverse in grndiosity leading us to cause harm. Neither of these, though, appear to need God in order to be avaialble to us.



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DWill wrote:
One interesting point Neibuhr makes concerns communist regimes, and what their sins are. Neibuhr, though a man of the left, never for a moment flirted with communism as it developed in the Soviet Union, unlike many others on the left. He saw it as demonic, in fact. But he scoffs at the notion that atheism produced such a brutal regime. The cause was, instead, the success of an elite group of intellectuals in foisting their own vision of history on the people. That vision held that property was the single cause of inequality among humans; abolishing private property would usher in the golden age. Ironically, the forced installation of this philosophy produced the most unequal distribution of political power yet seen. Looking at the U.S., Neibuhr sees absolutely nothing to its advantage that it called itself a Christian country. Indeed, a mistaken notion of religion contributed to its sense that it was exceptional and had a mission to fulfill, which later led to its own attempt to manage history by spreading copies of itself over the world. In the case of the U.S., though, there was never a cabal or priesthood that could bring things to an extremity comparable to that in the Soviet Union.
I hope Dissident Heart reads this, given the debate I have had with him about Noam Chomsky's critique of property. Solzhenitsyn's Lenin In Zurich provides a tragic explanation of how the Germans inflicted a botulistic tumour on the world by sending Lenin from Zurich in a sealed train to the Finland Station in 1916, a grenade that inflicted more collateral damage than they expected. Property is a basis for freedom, constraining the zeal of wild-eyed fanatics. However, I disagree with you on the role of atheism in Russia. Like the abolition of property, communist atheism enabled a rationalist dogma that justified the destruction of Christian heritage and diversity.



Fri Dec 19, 2008 7:18 pm
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Robert Tulip wrote:
[. However, I disagree with you on the role of atheism in Russia. Like the abolition of property, communist atheism enabled a rationalist dogma that justified the destruction of Christian heritage and diversity.

I'm just saying that Neibuhr's prioritizing of the drivers makes sense to me. It seems very unlikely that Russian intellectuals rallied first to the cause of abolishing Christianity, thinking that would constitute their revolution. The revolution was to install Marxist socialism, which needed to be hostile to relgion, but that was secondary.



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DWill wrote:
The revolution was to install Marxist socialism, which needed to be hostile to religion, but that was secondary.
The persecuted Christians of the former Soviet Union would see an irony in your kind words about their secondary place in the communist paradise, but they well knew already that secular thinkers found them an afterthought and a hindrance. Hostility to religion is part and parcel of the marxian narrative.



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Robert Tulip wrote:
Hostility to religion is part and parcel of the marxian narrative.

Yes, no doubt this hostility is an essential feature of marxism. Neibuhr's disagreement with you may be that he doesn't see hostility to religion as the sufficient cause of the creation of Soviet political philosophy, or the explanation for the evils of the system. In Russia, the intellectual class became convinced that they could end class divisions by abolishing private property. The church was a big holder of property, so naturally the church had to be dispossessed, though there were strong antipathies against religious belief as well, Lenin being an atheist, after all.



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DWill wrote:
Neibuhr's disagreement with you may be that he doesn't see hostility to religion as the sufficient cause of the creation of Soviet political philosophy, or the explanation for the evils of the system.
Truly DWill, I don't know how you got the impression I thought this. I do think hostility to religion was a necessary component of Marxism-Leninism, but I have never implied it was a sufficient cause. We can't reduce economics and politics to ideas in the way you inferred. Actually, my previous post points out that a big part of Leninism was the historical accident of his return from Switzerland during wartime, courtesy Berlin HQ, so there are obviously numerous other factors at play than cultural war. It's just that we shouldn't deprecate the role of religion in the way you suggested with your comment that it was secondary. If you read the link I provided you will see that the attack on religion was a primary agenda for Bolshevik tyranny as part of the propaganda of scientific modernisation.

Re Bacevich, this sidetrack is an interesting illustration of how politics mixes things in an incredibly complex way. George Bush is still dining out on the intractable belief of conservatives that secular rationalism leads to the slippery slope of communist atheism. Claiming that communists were not atheists is no solution to this problem, and is historically false.



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Although Chomsky and Bacevich are both authors participating within the American Empire Project http://www.americanempireproject.com/booklist.asp , and both share many of the same criticisms of US foreign and domestic policies...they part company in significant ways when it comes to Reinhold Niebuhr. I don't think Chomsky has published any sort of in depth analysis of Niebuhr's work, but he rarely has anything positive to say about him. Here are a few snippets:

Quote:
"Or you get respected moralists like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once called 'the theologian of the establishment'. And the reason is because he presented a framework which, essentially, justified just about anything they wanted to do. His thesis is dressed up in long words and so on (it's what you do if you're an intellectual). But what it came down to is that, 'Even if you try to do good, evil's going to come out of it; that's the paradox of grace'. -And that's wonderful for war criminals. 'We try to do good but evil necessarily comes out of it.' And it's influential. So, I don't think that people in decision-making positions are lying when they describe themselves as benevolent. -Or people working on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they're doing, they'll say: 'We're trying to preserve the peace of the world.' People who are devising military strategies that are massacring people, they'll say, 'Well, that's the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice', and so on." From, On Responsibility, War Guilt and Intellectuals


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"The fears expressed by the men of best quality in the 17th century have become a major theme of intellectual discourse, corporate practice, and the academic social sciences. They were expressed by the influential moralist and foreign affairs adviser Reinhold Niebuhr, who was revered by George Kennan, the Kennedy intellectuals, and many others. He wrote that "rationality belongs to the cool observers" while the common person follows not reason but faith. The cool observers, he explained, must recognize "the stupidity of the average man," and must provide the "necessary illusion" and the "emotionally potent oversimplifications" that will keep the naive simpletons on course. As in 1650, it remains necessary to protect the "lunatic or distracted person," the ignorant rabble, from their own "depraved and corrupt" judgments, just as one does not allow a child to cross the street without supervision.

In accordance with the prevailing conceptions, there is no infringement of democracy if a few corporations control the information system: in fact, that is the essence of democracy. The leading figure of the public relations industry, Edward Bernays, explained that "the very essence of the democratic process" is "the freedom to persuade and suggest," what he calls "the engineering of consent." If the freedom to persuade happens to be concentrated in a few hands, we must recognize that such is the nature of a free society." From, Force and Opinion


Quote:
TM: Explain the two concepts of "manufacturing consent" and "necessary illusions."

NC: Actually both of those are terms that we, my colleague Ed Herman and I, we didn't invent them. Manufacturing consent comes from Walter Lippman, the Dean of American Journalism and one of the most highly respected public intellectuals of the 20th century. The other, necessary illusions, that comes from Reinhold Niebuhr who was the guru of the Kennedy intellectuals and George Kent and others, again highly respected. Both of them said that manufacturing consent, in Lippman's case, and imposing necessary illusions is the central feature of a democratic society. The "responsible men," as they called them, the small elite that has the talent and the ability -- the major talent being to know how to serve people with real power, but they didn't say that -- but those who enter their category of skilled responsible intellectuals, they have the duty of making sure that the stupid and ignorant masses stay out of their way. They are "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" as Walter Lippman put it. They don't have the intelligence or ability to care for or run their own affairs, and we're only doing them a favor if we control them, and since we can't do it by force then we have to do it by imposing beliefs. This is a very widely held doctrine. Incidentally these are not reactionary people. There are sort of on the center to left. And I should add that Marxism/Leninism has exactly the same view. The Vanguard party of Lenin very much acts on the same doctrine. The people are just too stupid to be able to run their own affairs and we're smart enough so we'll run it for them. And they better do what we say or else. - From, On Democracy


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Now in the last- in the modern period you get a much more sophisticated development of these ideas. So, for example, Reinhold Niebuhr, who is a much-respected moralist and commentator on world affairs, he wrote that rationality belongs to the cool observers, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason but faith. And this naive faith requires that necessary illusions be developed. Emotionally potent oversimplifications have to be provided by the myth-makers to keep the ordinary person on course, because of the stupidity of the average man. That's the same view, basically.

Walter Lippman, who was the dean of American journalists, is the man who invented the phrase manufacture of consent. He described the manufacture of consent as a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. This, he said, is quite important, this is a revolution in the practice of democracy, and he thought it was a worthwhile revolution. The reason is, again, the stupidity of the average man. The common interests, he said, very largely elude public opinion entirely, and they can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality. That's Niebuhr's cool observers. You can guess who's part of them. The person who pronounces these views is always part of that group. It's the others who aren't. This is in Walter Lippman's book Public Opinion, which appeared shortly after World War I. And the timing is important.

World War I was a period in which the liberal intellectuals, John Dewey's circle primarily, were quite impressed with themselves for their success, as they described in their own words, for their success in having imposed their will upon a reluctant or indifferent majority.

Now, there was a problem in World War I. The problem was that the population was, as usual, pacifistic, and didn't see any particular reason in going out and killing Germans and getting killed; if the Europeans want to do that, that's their business. And in fact, Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election on a mandate, which was, peace without victory. That's how he got elected. And, not surprisingly, he interpreted that as meaning victory without peace. And the problem was to get this reluctant and indifferent majority, and get them to be- to create emotionally potent oversimplifications and necessary illusions, so that they would then be properly jingoistic, and support this great cause. - From, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media


Quote:
So we need something to tame the bewildered herd, and that something is this new revolution in the art of democracy: the manufacture of consent. The media, the schools, and popular culture have to be divided. For the political class and the decision makers they have to provide them some tolerable sense of reality, although they also have to instill the proper beliefs. Just remember, there is an unstated premise here. The unstated premise-and even the responsible men have to disguise this from themselves-has to do with the question of how they get into the position where they have the authority to make decisions. The way they do that, of course, is by serving people with real power. The people with real power are the ones who own the society, which is a pretty narrow group. If the specialized class can come along and say, I can serve your interests, then they'll be part of the executive group. You've got to keep that quiet. That means they have to have instilled in them the beliefs and doctrines that will serve the interests of private power. Unless they can master that skill, they're not part of the specialized class. So we have one kind of educational system directed to the responsible men, the specialized class. They have to be deeply indoctrinated in the values and interests of private power and the state-corporate nexus that represents it. If they can achieve that, then they can be part of the specialized class. The rest of the bewildered herd basically just have to be distracted. Turn their attention to something else. Keep them out of trouble. Make sure that they remain at most spectators of action, occasionally lending their weight to one or another of the real leaders, who they may select among.

This point of view has been developed by lots of other people. In fact, it's pretty conventional. For example, the leading theologian and foreign policy critic Reinhold Niebuhr, sometimes called "the theologian of the establishment," the guru of George Kennan and the Kennedy intellectuals, put it that rationality is a very narrowly restricted skill. Only a small number of people have it. Most people are guided by just emotion and impulse. Those of us who have rationality have to create "necessary illusions" and emotionally potent "oversimplifications" to keep the naive simpletons more or less on course. This became a substantial part of contemporary political science. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Harold Lasswell, the founder of the modern field of communications and one of the leading American political scientists, explained that we should not succumb to "democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests." Because they're not. We're the best judges of the public interests. Therefore, just out of ordinary morality, we have to make sure that they don't have an opportunity to act on the basis of their misjudgments. In what is nowadays called a totalitarian state, or a military state, it's easy. You just hold a bludgeon over their heads, and if they get out of line you smash them over the head. But as society has become more free and democratic, you lose that capacity. Therefore you have to turn to the techniques of propaganda. The logic is clear. Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state. That's wise and good because, again, the common interests elude the bewildered herd. They can't figure them out. - From, Selections



Sun Dec 21, 2008 12:37 pm
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