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Commentary

What is Totalitarianism? Part I

If the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? Maintaining a free society requires knowing these warning signs.

“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Benito Mussolini

Public anxiety over loss of civil rights and civil liberties in the United States has become increasingly common. According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans say it is very important that the rights and freedoms of all people are respected, but only 41 percent believe that describes the country very well or somewhat well. Concerns about “authoritarianism” and lack of respect for democracy are openly expressed.

But if the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? The trouble with diagnosing our condition is that most people are unaware of what totalitarianism actually is. Even among the most politically astute, there is little consideration for the possibility that a state in the process of becoming totalitarian might lack the most brutal and outward signs of oppressive regimes portrayed in popular culture.

Because of our rather simplistic frame of reference (picture black and white images of National Socialist Germany or the Soviet Union) we recognize a country as either being in the advanced stages of totalitarianism or not at all. But just because a state maintains the trappings of democracy, for instance, that does not preclude it from being totalitarian.

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Commentary

Pragmatism vs. Ideology in Lincoln (2012)

An intellectual debate between opposing philosophical approaches plays out in Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic.

Director Steven Spielberg’s biopic of President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment during the closing months of the American Civil War was a critical success, with strong performances by Daniel Day Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of resolute and idealistic Thaddeus Stevens was the perfect foil to Lincoln’s more pragmatic and folksy personality.

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) was a U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, who served from 1849 to 1853, and again from 1859 to his death in 1868. Stevens was a staunch abolitionist and leader of the Radical faction of the Republican Party, who sought total legal and social equality for African Americans, including redistribution of Southern lands to freed slaves.

President Lincoln and Congressman Stevens had the same goal. Both wanted the Thirteenth Amendment passed, which would forever outlaw slavery in the United States. That required a two-thirds majority vote, and Lincoln wanted the amendment passed in the House of Representatives before the Confederacy surrendered, which was not a matter of if but when. In order to get the necessary votes, Lincoln needed bipartisan support from conservative Democrats as well as Republicans. Stevens, however, refused to compromise and moderate his tone.

In one scene of dialog from Lincoln, Lincoln and Stevens meet in a smoke-filled kitchen to hash out their differences. Lincoln needs to get Stevens on his side, but Stevens seems uninterested in compromise. This conversation is a perfect contrast between ideology and pragmatism. Pragmatists are willing to meet their opponents halfway, while ideologues will only accept a total and complete triumph of their ideas.

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Mysterious America Reviews

The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody on Kindle

In the early 2000s, I stumbled on a book that radically changed the way I thought about ghost stories and the paranormal. That book was The Last Laugh (1999) by Raymond Moody, Jr. Today, it is only available in digital format on Amazon Kindle. After all these years, I still recommend it to my readers interested in having a more well-rounded perspective on this subject. You might be surprised at what you discover about yourself and what it means to be human.

Raymond Moody, Jr. is the doctor who first publicized the phenomenon of near-death experiences in his groundbreaking book, Life After Life (1975). Much to his chagrin, his work re-invigorated the New Age movement and he was thrust into the limelight as someone who had “proven” the existence of life after death.

This misconception, he reveals in The Last Laugh, came as a result of his publisher’s deletion of a crucial final chapter in Life After Life in which he argues that these personal experiences, though incredibly meaningful and sometimes life changing, actually do not prove the existence of life after death. They just “moved the goalpost.”

The Last Laugh was meant not only to be a post-script to Life After Life, but to also serve as that final missing piece. The premise of The Last Laugh is simple but deeply insightful. Throughout recent history, there have been three main players in the discussion of the paranormal: parapsychologists, professional skeptics, and Christian fundamentalists.

Not only have these three perspectives not advanced our knowledge very much on the issue, but Moody contends that neither actually wants to resolve the debate, because in resolving the controversy they would eliminate their reason for being in the spotlight and also lose a source of fun and entertainment in the process.

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Commentary

On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

Friedrich Nietzsche

In the essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche critiques the traditional concept of truth (as an objective descriptor). He explains the moral origins of truth, how language manufactures the illusion of truth, and shows the aesthetic connection between truth and illusion. In the end, Nietzsche argues all concepts are metaphors which do not correspond to reality.

Nietzsche claims the human propensity for deception developed in order to preserve “the weaker individual” because he was denied other natural defenses, and it was strange a drive for truth even appeared under these circumstances. The drive for truth developed from the human need to exist within a social group. This demanded an agreed upon truth, settling conventions to be accepted among all members of the group.

Liars violate this unspoken agreement by twisting conventions to their advantage at the expense of others. So, Nietzsche says, what we hate isn’t deception itself, but the “consequences of certain sorts of deception.” Therefore, the origin of truth is moral, because it regulates certain social behavior.

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Commentary

The Problem with Ideology

The National Dictionary of 1939 defines ideology as “the science of ideas.” Since then, ideology has taken on other meanings—specifically of dogma and a rigid, doctrinaire understanding of the world. After the Second World War, both communism and fascism were labelled political ideologies, but that label can be applied to a variety of political beliefs. Ideology today constitutes a rigid set of political or social doctrines and ideas that frame a ‘black and white’ worldview.

Ideology is harmful because it reduces the complexity of human life and society to ultimates. It substitutes conscious reflection and careful consideration with axioms meant to apply to all situations. To an ideologue, for instance, ‘X’ will always supply the solution for every problem. “One simply turns to the ideological vending machine,” Daniel Bell once wrote, “and out comes the prepared formulae.”

Ideologues believe in an interpretation of history that places them at the peak of a great historical project—the sum total of enlightenment and progress. Anyone who doesn’t agree is either ignorant, simpleminded, or dangerous–a political enemy. He or she is unable to understand how anyone can see things a different way.

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Commentary

Incrementalism vs. Revolution

In any political or social philosophy, there are those who believe they can achieve their goals all at once or in a series of large jumps, and those who believe broad-based change should be (or is most rationally) achieved through incremental change. Incremental change is the more pragmatic and beneficial method, and more likely to achieve long term success. Incrementalism is also more compatible with a voluntary society. Revolutionary change inevitably requires intrusive central planning, compulsory work systems, or violence to bring everyone immediately in line with its goals.

Most goals are achieved through incremental action–one step building on another. If you wanted to build a house, you can’t simply blink it into existence complete and all at once. Yes, you need a vision for how it will look, but you also need a blueprint and a plan of action. You need to raise funds, hire carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, and purchase raw materials. A frame needs to be erected, foundations poured, etc. Each step in the process is an incremental change toward your end goal.

Fundamentally changing society or government is a much more complicated process than building a house. It’s easy to forget there are many competing factions with their own ideas for how to govern. Some are large, some small, some with vast resources, and some that wield considerable political or social clout. None of them are going to just step aside and allow you to remake the country into something that fundamentally conflicts with their own vision and goals.

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Commentary

Dewey and Husserl on the Western Crisis

In the early twentieth century, academics sensed a crisis in Western (European and American) thought. A profound skepticism and melancholy seemed to grip Western culture. People lost faith in traditional academic disciplines, like philosophy, to address social problems and provide a sense of purpose and direction. American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) had different responses to this crisis. Dewey argued that philosophy must become practical, while Husserl believed philosophy must continually find new areas for science to investigate. That way, philosophy could be saved from the intellectual trash bin.

John Dewey
John Dewey

Dewey believed the crisis in Western thought, a crisis which leads to anxiousness and pessimistic uncertainty, originated in Platonic dualism―the separation of concepts like Truth, Being, and Value from the changing physical world, and their removal from empirical study. The growing complexity of such thought led it further and further away from practical application, and the brightest minds spent their time studying algorithms and abstractions instead of applying their knowledge to the practical world.

As a pragmatist, Dewey called for a reconstruction in philosophy along pragmatic grounds, which would eventually bring abstract thought back to a realm of usefulness. We should take our beliefs in concepts like truth and value and put them to the test just as we do with other considerations. If it turns out those concepts have some practical use, we should keep them. If they don’t, we shouldn’t waste any more time or resources theorizing about them. There is no longer any scientific support, Dewey claimed, for morality standing outside the natural processes of change. Nor can science deny morality is a realm open to scientific inquiry.

If the crisis is to be solved, science and philosophy must be reunited. Dewey’s reconstruction in philosophy: “can be nothing less than the work of developing, of forming, of producing… the intellectual instrumentalities which will progressively direct inquiry into the deeply and exclusively human.” In other words, philosophy should be aimed at the natural, not the ‘supra’ natural of Plato’s forms, or the abstract spirit-driven historical method of Hegel.