Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Sail to Catch the Wind

With Jim May's permission I repost below a post he made to the private HBL. (I have reformatted it for this blog, with minor stylistic changes such as putting book titles in italics, but the content is unchanged.) The post makes an interesting point about demagoguery I had not seen before. Usually we think of demagogues manipulating the emotions of large crowds -- but who is controlling whom?

UPDATE: Welcome Two-Four readers!


Obama, the Empty Vessel

Robert Tracinski wrote:

If you were fooled by Obama's secularist rhetoric, don't feel too bad. He described the essence of his political modus operandi in his campaign book The Audacity of Hope: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

I just finished reinstalling my jaw after reading that. This is why: Consider the following quote, where I substituted "THE DEMAGOGUE" for its actual subject. I predict most, if not all list members, will recognize who is being discussed before I reveal it at the end of the quote.

No, evidently propaganda is not just the trick of "always saying the same thing" -- that would be too simple. . . Actually, propaganda changes and irradiates like swamp water in changing weather. The facts must constantly be interpreted, invented, falsified anew; overnight, friend must become foe; good, evil -- and always the force of faith must gleam through the veil of shifting truths. Without this power of faith, the propagandist cannot make people believe even the simplest truths, much less a tissue of contradictions and lies! . . .

The truth is irremediably buried beneath these deceptions and contradictions. How, then, can the speaker expect to put through a single incisive, suitable lie, when from speech to speech, from sentence to sentence, he changes even the lies? Whom does he expect to persuade that he himself believes a single one of those mutually contradictory lies? And to what purpose does he try to spread an opinion among the people, when on the very next day he is going to sacrifice that opinion?

Such questions are asked by those who do not understand propaganda, who understand propaganda as the art of instilling an opinion in the masses. Actually, it is the art of receiving an opinion from the masses....

THE DEMAGOGUE did not hammer the same simple statement into the minds of millions; on the contrary, he played with the masses and titillated them with the most contradictory assertions. It is this art of contradiction which makes him the greatest and most successful propagandist of his time. He does not dominate the minds of millions, his mind belongs to them. Like a piece of wood floating on the waves, he follows the shifting currents of public opinion. This is his true strength.

The true aim of political propaganda is not to influence, but to study the masses. The speaker is in constant communication with the masses; he hears an echo, and senses the inner vibration. In forever setting new and contradictory assertions before his audience, THE DEMAGOGUE is tapping the outwardly shapeless substance of public opinion with instruments of varying metals and varying weights. When a resonance issues from the depths of the substance, the masses have given him the pitch; he knows in what terms he must finally address them.

Rather than as a means of directing the mass mind, propaganda is a technique for riding with the masses. It is not a machine to make wind, but a sail to catch the wind.

(Emphasis mine.)

I have, until now, held that the Obama phenomenon has been about his followers signalling their readiness for a Maximum Leader, more so than about Obama himself. I did not know that he actually describes himself in terms that the quoted author, Konrad Heiden, uses to describe THE DEMAGOGUE, who is Adolf Hitler.

I am still shaking my head that Obama openly confesses to being the same sort of selfless banality as Hitler was. I do not necessarily believe that Obama will be the next Fuehrer; the antidote, as weak as it is, remains active in the culture, unlike Weimar. But it is nonetheless disturbing to see this particular pattern show up so clearly, so soon, at the level of a presidential election.

Quote source: pp137-140, Der Fuehrer by Konrad Heiden, 1944, 1st edition, Houghton-Mifflin, translated by Ralph Mannheim.


Jim May said...

A Sail to Catch the Wind... all the more reason for us to try and "change the wind", as Paul Hsieh so eloquently put it.

I've been quoting Heiden ever since I received an original 1944 edition from a friend over a decade ago. IMO it is an excellent companion to Leonard Peikoff's "Ominous Parallels", and offers valuable insight not only into Weimar Germany and the Nazis, but also the decline of Enlightenment liberalism, as seen in the contrast between Heiden's clearly Enlightenment context versus the sloppy "thinking" which passes under the name of "liberalism" today. Read him and know the stature that mainstream thinkers once held.

I often wonder how in the hell could we have lost so much and fallen so far in just two generations? He is a liberal who understands the connection between capitalism and freedom, and how the destruction of capitalism (via hyperinflation, detailed in a chapter called "The Death of Money" which is a chilling enough read at any time, let alone during an inflationary period like today) was essential to the Nazi program.

Another data point he describes is that by 1920 or so, all the old "liberal" (in the Enlightenment meaning) political parties were gone from the German political landscape. The dominant parties were Social Democrats and various religio-conservative parties. Sound familiar?

Myrhaf said...

I wonder if Heiden was influenced by the Austrian economists, as was Ludwig Erhard, Adenauer's Minister of Economics, who put Germany on the right economic track after WWII.

madmax said...

"He is a liberal who understands the connection between capitalism and freedom..."

Was Heiden a Classical Liberal? I'm curious because you call him a "liberal." What I'm trying to understand is exactly what did the old liberals stand for? Some mix of capitalism and socialism? A small welfare state? What were there good and ideas and where did they go wrong?

Anonymous said...

Ludwig von Mises made many of the same observations as did Heiden with respect to the demise of German Liberalism (Enlightenment meaning) by 1930 in his monumental book, Socialism.

I, too, am surprised at the speed with which the American Enlightenment (Liberalism) has died, a reality that this Presdential election has brought into relief.

Jim May said...

madmax: I meant "liberal" in the Enlightenment sense, which is my preferred way of stating "classical" liberal. If you read "Der Fuehrer", you'll get a great snapshot of what that really means. There are things he says and basic concepts which are clearly uncontroversial to Heiden, but when expressed today are nearly always coming from Objectivist or libertarian lips.... hardly mainstream.

Where did they go wrong? Basically, they ran out of gas, thanks to Kant; the conception of reason (not to mention the consequent ethics) they needed to close the loop on their politics was aborted in the womb by Kant, in order to stop the Enlightenment from permanently closing the door on the arbitrary (i.e. religious faith) in men's minds. One could say that we are lucky it lasted as long as it has.

But the details of how and why it happened the way it has -- i.e. ideological history -- is yet to be studied in depth by anyone I know of. I'm absolutely up for that right now if someone is willing to fund me... otherwise it waits until I can finance it myself.

Myrhaf said...

How many books would you have to read to do such a project right? You would have to read every important work in philosophy, history, econonomics and politics since the 17th century or so. You would have to show the progress of German philosophy, especially Hegelianism, in European and American universities. You would have to connect the ideas to their concrete effects in history. I think you're looking at a 20-year project.

Jim May said...

It would take 20 years to do it in academic detail, yes. But I'm not so much interested in mapping all of ideological history, so much as I am interested in the principle of ideological causality that would enable this process. Many academics and pundits already do this, but in an entirely rule of thumb fashion, and thoroughly non-objectively. This principle would bring objective rigor to this process.

Once the principle is understood, we can objectively *prove* what ideas follow from what ideas. We could prove America's origins in secular ideas, that National Socialism and environmentalism have the same roots, that current culture is not nearly so diverse as people think it is, why Christianity deserves credit as a preserver (but only a little as *originator*) of the modern concept of liberty, that conservatism and the Left are both anti-Enlightenment, but for different reasons, and why Objectivism is indeed the true heir to the Enlightenment tradition.