Friday, January 9, 2009

2009.01.10 - Spengler is Interesting

I've been reading Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, the Knopf 1962 abridged version. It is fascinating! And it is engaging and challenging, and I see why it isn't popular. To begin with, Oswald has a pan-historical approach that requires of the reader a bona fide and very broad education, one that is largely lacking today now that universities have become primarily purveyors of specialized skill sets and departmentally delimited unquestionable truths. Without that education there is no way of evaluating his ideas. And the second thing is that he has complex ideas of what 'society' and 'civilization' mean, as well what it means to be a person. I am surprised to see that some of his ideas regarding person-hood are very similar to those of CG Jung, someone else who is relatively unpopular in our culture and who also demands of the reader a broad and unspecialized education. And it has become clear I will need to go out and buy Decline of the West, preferably from a used book store, because it is going to demand research to evaluate.

And that thought got me thinking about reading. From a sociology course, I 'learned,' anecdotally, that the father of modern Sociology, Emile Durkheim, stopped reading anything so as to keep his own thinking uncontaminated by the ideas of others. And I love what Socrates supposedly said of the written word. In Phaedrus, Plato relates Socrates’ record of a conversation between the Egyptian god Amon and Thoth, the inventor of letters:
This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be bearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Socrates continues:
I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence, and the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always give one unvarying answer(From Phaedrus, cited in Mass Communication in Canada, 3rd edition, by Lorimer and McNulty, Oxford University Press, p. 20.)
Social critic John Ralston Saul frequently castigates our leaders for their unwillingness (inability?) to read. There is no more dangerous a leader than one ignorant of his/her ignorance, and Saul sees the unread as being largely ignorant, especially of history.  And he rightly fears that that ignorance will be the unravelling of our society. And I concur with his opinion that being well read does not include the reading of mainstream newspapers and/or magazines. If anything, this kind of reading promotes false-knowledge by propagating (dis)information by the manipulative listing of specialized and/or circumscribed and/or cherry-picked events either real or imagined. Journals of events do not impart either understanding or knowledge, let alone the wisdom to apply them when choosing a course of action.

Noam Chomsky describes this superlatively. He has a great deal to say about the bias of the media, in particular, the bias the media has in masking the true aggressive nature of American foreign policy and its role in keeping business in business. His focus is on American foreign policy and the manner of its reporting in the American press, and the degree to which the "educated" individuals of the society are indoctrinated to see the peaceful nature of American foreign policy, despite the blatant contradictory evidence of Vietnam, Panama, Guatemala, the Middle East, and of the US's role in other Latin and South American coups and bloodshed. Its applicability is obvious to far more than US foreign policy, such as the myth of free markets in a corporate world. From a 1986 interview:
     ...When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, they got away with it. They didn't kill many people, but it was wrong because aggression is wrong. We all understand that. But we can't allow that understanding to be expressed when it relates to the violent action of our state, obviously. If this were a totalitarian state, the Ministry of Truth would simply have said, "It's right for us to go into Vietnam, period. Don't argue with it." People would have known that's the propaganda system talking and they could have thought what they wanted. They could have seen that we were attacking Vietnam just like we can see that the Russians are attacking Afghanistan.
     You couldn't permit that understanding of reality in this country; it's too dangerous. People are much more free, they can express themselves, they can do things. Therefore, it was necessary to try to control thought, to try to make it appear as if the only issue was a tactical one: can we get away with it? There's no issue of right or wrong. That worked partially, but not entirely. Among the educated part of the population it worked almost totally.
     There are good studies of this that show, with only the most marginal statistical error, that among the more educated parts of the population the government propaganda system was accepted unquestioningly. On the other hand, after a long period of popular spontaneous opposition, dissent and organization, the general population got out of control. As recently as 1982, according to the latest polls I've seen [this interview took place in Oct. '86] over 70% of the population still was saying that the war was, quoting the wording of the Gallup poll, "fundamentally wrong and immoral," not "a mistake." That is, the overwhelming majority of the population is neither hawks nor doves, but opposed to aggression. On the other hand, the educated part of the population, they're in line. For them, it's just the tactical question of hawk vs. dove.
     This is, incidentally, not untypical. Propaganda very often works better for the educated than it does for the uneducated. This is true on many issues. There are a lot of reasons for this, one being that the educated receive more of the propaganda because they read more. Another thing is that they are the agents of propaganda. After all, their job is that of commissars; they're supposed to be agents of the propaganda system so they believe it. It's very hard to say something unless you believe it. Other reasons are that, by and large, they are just part of the privileged elite so they share their interests and perceptions, whereas the general population is more marginalized. It, by and large, doesn't participate in the democratic system, which is overwhelmingly an elite game. People learn from their own lives to be sceptical, and in fact most of them are. There's a lot of scepticism and dissent and so on. (Chomsky, Noam. Chronicles of Dissent: Interviewed by David Barsamian. Vancouver, BC: New Star Books, 1992, p.48-9.)
Greed has always been more stupefying than sex. But only in a nearly completely stupefied society would greed be extolled as a virtue by our economic and political elite. And only in a society with an efficient machine of propaganda would that societally self-destructive belief come to be accepted or embraced by increasing numbers of the remnants of the middle class who assiduously read the business sections of the papers and the dummies books in their striving to make real the dream of a wealthy future that will be found in stocks and bonds and the purchase of third world goods. Our political and economic leaders can't have read even the most basic of fairy tales, in particular Midas, the Golden Goose, etc., and those involving dragons. All these stories warn against the effects of greed, they being killing everything and starving to death for the love of gold (Midas); destroying the source of wealth in greed driven impatience (Golden Goose); and the razing of community's whose wealth is hoarded in piles kept by dragons. Real world examples of each are clear-cut logging, the quarterly financial report and the recent banking and corporate bailouts.

Alas! I need to stop writing, now, before this entry gets completely out of control. When I'd started it I had thought I would cite a few passages from Spengler because he is challenging, and to show how anaemic is our education. Unfortunately that gave my fingers the energy needed to focus on reading and ignorance. I will re-visit Spengler soon. After I meander into STV (Single Transferable Vote), an issue which is raising itself into our media's eyes here in BC.

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