George Bernard Shaw’s Warning from History

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

 

In the preface (dated 1907) to the first German edition of The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw issued a warning about trends that he saw in German character and culture.  What struck me upon reading them was not just their insight into the Second Reich (1871-1918) and their prescience about the Third Reich to come (1933-45), but their insight into certain aspects of American character and culture today.

The worst fault of the “typical modern German,” Shaw wrote in 1907, “is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  Being convinced that duty, industry, education, loyalty, patriotism and respectability are good things (and I am magnanimous enough to admit that they are not altogether bad things when taken in strict moderation at the right time and in the right place), he indulges in them on all occasions shamelessly and excessivelyHe commits hideous crimes when crime is presented to him as part of his duty; his craze for work is more ruinous than the craze for drink …”

Yes, a craze for doing one’s duty in the name of a state-defined and state-glorifying patriotism can be taken too far, as events were to show.  Shaw went on to say that he struggled himself with the “mania” of wanting to be seen as “loyal and patriotic, to be respectable and well-spoken of.”  But the typical German abandoned himself to this mania, or so Shaw argued.

The result, Shaw warned, “may end in starvation, crushing taxation, suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions, in snobbery, jobbery, idolatry, and an omnipresent tyranny in which his doctor and his schoolmaster, his lawyer and his priest, coerce him worse than any official or drill sergeant: no matter: it is respectable, says the German, therefore it must be good, and cannot be carried too far; and everybody who rebels against it must be a rascal.”

That is a remarkable line: the suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions.  It’s exactly how the Nazis couched their radical and murderous tyranny – as an experiment in greater freedom (for the Aryan elite, naturally, not for “inferiors”).  And most “respectable” Germans went along with this; they saluted the Leader smartly and obeyed.  Or they dared not outwardly to disobey, which had the same effect.

It’s easy to slough off Shaw’s words as a period piece, words that applied to certain Germans at a certain point in history.  But there’s more here than that.  Shaw is warning us that unthinking allegiance to state-defined duty, loyalty, patriotism, all in the name of “respectability” as defined and judged by supposedly sober superiors, is open to exploitation as well as perversion by authoritarian interests.

Subsequent German history proved Shaw to be right.  Tragically so.

But what about the typical modern American?  Are we immune from this exaltation of the self in the service of state interests?  An exaltation that takes its meaning from toil and conformity?  Are we as unwilling as most Germans were to challenge authority before it becomes corrupt and authoritarian?

Consider these words of Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tomdispatch.com about the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. and around the world, as our government hunts the dissident Edward Snowden:

“It’s eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows.  There, an increasingly ‘totalistic’ if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.”

Yes, the echoes are eerie.  Part of the answer is to listen to Shaw.  Better to act as a “rascal” in pursuit of a more equitable and ethical society than to crave respectability as defined by the state.  The rascal challenges state authority.  The dutiful man?  As Shaw argues, the latter may commit hideous crimes simply because some authority figure told him to do so.

In these days of increasing governmental authority and state intrusion into individual privacy, it may well be wise for us to tap our inner rascals.

W.J. Astore

The Death of Serious Discourse in America

Come, Let Us Reason Together (Isaiah 1:18)
Come, Let Us Reason Together (Isaiah 1:18)

A good friend of mine wrote to me the other day about an increasingly rare privilege he enjoyed, courtesy of a visitor from Europe.  In my friend’s words,

Yesterday we had a friend visit from Europe. We sat from about 7 PM to midnight just talking about anything from personal or work problems to politics and the time just flew by… The contrast with the limited ability of the well-educated Americans we have met here to really discourse was astounding. Free discourse and examination of competing ideas is fundamental to democracy yet most Americans today consider it either “impolite” or “bad manners” to reveal themselves in even random conversations. Most Americans have decided to live in a black or white world, not the grey that is the reality.

Imagine that!  My friend’s European guest demonstrated both the ability to reason, distinguishing facts from theories and conjecture, as well as tolerance, the ability to entertain other points of view, even when they disagree with your own.

Remember when Americans enjoyed the cut and fray of conversation, the pleasure of minds working hard to shed light on difficult matters?  Just as our bodies prosper from demanding physical chores, so too do our minds.

Sadly, discourse in the USA today, such as it is, is mostly polarized.  It’s I’m right and you’re wrong, and the way I prove it is to outshout you.  This is one reason why otherwise thoughtful people tend to avoid protracted or revealing conversations.  What’s the point, when all the other person wants to do is to cow you, condemn you, or convert you?

That said, Americans are slowly losing the ability to converse, for lots of different reasons.  Young people are educated indoctrinated to get a job, with “success” measured by their pay and benefits.  They place little value on becoming educated, informed, critical thinkers.  They’re constantly distracted by various electronic devices and video games, and constantly bombarded with trivial information masquerading as meaningful news.

Immersion in the trivial stifles creative discourse and is an ever-present threat, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn warned us 35 years ago:

People also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn

A large part of leading a meaningful life is healthy communal discourse.  But our society no longer sees discourse — the true exchange of ideas — as valuable.  You can’t put a dollar figure on it, you can’t sell advertising for it, you can’t assign a metric to it, so just abandon it.

Writing skills are also degenerating.  My students have difficulty sustaining an argument in print.  They have difficulty in conversing intelligently on a range of subjects.  They can’t distinguish facts from propaganda, or they prefer to deny facts that disagree with their received opinions.  And they are tainted by me-first American exceptionalism.

And it’s only gotten worse since 9/11.  As my friend noted, “On top of the social attitudes of feeling that conversation on serious topics is outré, the post 9/11 suppression of free speech has had a devastating effect on private discussion of national politics.”

In these times of conformity and confusion and complicity with power, we need thoughtful and contrarian discourse more than ever.

Come, let us reason together.  And let’s not be afraid of heated discussion.  A controlled burn can stop the most raging wildfire in the mind.  We all need to burn more brightly to shed the light that is the essence of an active mind and a thriving democracy.

W.J. Astore