books book reviews

Still More Political Books

reviewed by T. Nelson

score+5

The Demon in Democracy:
Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies

by Ryszard Legutko
Encounter Books, 2017, 182 pages (translated by Teresa Adelson and the author)

Eastern Europeans must feel like they've been cheated: they finally escape from Communist tyranny only to discover liberal democracies are becoming less democratic and more tyrannical, both in the EU and in America. Legutko has a profound insight: liberalism and communism are two of a kind.

Both, he says, are utopian and millenarian (in the sense of a future of ideal peace and happiness); and both are historicist, believing that their success is ordained by history. Because of these things, both must engage in social engineering to root out and neutralize dissent from competing institutions such as religion, the family, and private associations. The enemies of society, which both label as superstition, tradition, intolerance, xenophobia, bigotry, and racism, must be sought out and eradicated.

In other words, Liberal democracy has become, like communism, an ideology that tolerates no dissent. Eastern Europeans often recount how they would watch the skies hoping that the Americans would come and liberate them. But the glorious freedom that they had hoped for turned out to be merely a less-advanced version of the Communism they had come to despise.

The American Founding Fathers recognized this possibility and designed our republican system to prevent it. Unfortunately, Legutko suggests, liberal democracy automatically self-destructs:

In the final outcome the state in liberal democracy ceased to be an institution pursuing the common good, but became a hostage of groups that treated it solely as an instrument of change securing their interests.

The state . . . largely lost its general republican character and turned into a conglomerate of social, economic, cultural, and other policy programs enacted and imposed through democratic procedures.

While Communist governments imposed social controls by force, he says in liberal democracies the citizens imposed social controls on themselves.

Much of the book re-states the same idea in different ways. It's pure political philosophy: there is no description of what the average person suffered from or how their lives did or didn't change. Legutko has one thing to say, and his goal is to nail it down.

The chapter on ideology, where Legutko skilfully compares his experience under communism with modern democracy, breaks from this mold and is stuffed to the gills with brilliant insights. ’Scuse me while I quote this guy:

It was impossible to conduct any serious debate about the real issues, because the language served to conceal rather than to reveal. Whoever used those key words automatically gave his consent to this function of the language and agreed to take the role of participant in a linguistic-political ritual and thereby to declare his loyalty. [p. 127]

If you substitute ‘white supremacism’ or ‘homophobia’ for ‘reactionary attitude’ in this next paragraph he could just as easily be talking about life in modern-day America:

The person accused of a reactionary attitude under communism could not effectively defend himself because once the accusation was made it disallowed any objection. . . . Any such argument was a confirmation of his belonging to the reactionary camp, which was clearly reprehensible if not downright criminal. The only option that the defendant had was to admit his own guilt and submit a self-criticism as self-downgrading as possible. [p.129]

Indeed, both liberal democracies and communist states rely on propaganda and on what Mao called the Continuous Revolution:

Every directive, Council document, resolution, or report of the European Parliament must be accompanied by boastful rhetoric proclaiming it to be another irresistible proof of the coming victory of the European project. . . . The communist politicians resorted to the same device: they also categorically brushed away any suggestion that the system had an inherent weakness, and kept busy convincing the citizens that a constant struggle with the permanent crisis only confirmed the system's superiority. [p.64]

Some in the West debate whether the corruption of democracy and the seemingly inexorable growth of the state are causally related, or whether it's merely the inability of the Left to devise an alternative, or whether it is an indication of a long-term Gramscian plan. They are not alone in questioning democracy's future: libertarians have long been skeptical of their long-term sustainability. Even Tocqueville had his doubts.

Whether by intent or from ignorance, it is irrefutable that all paths on the left ultimately lead back to Marxism. In this short book Legutko gives us a fresh viewpoint and an important insight that those who live here must not ignore.

sep 17, 2017

score+4

Dangerous

by Milo Yiannopoulos
Dangerous Books, 2017, 285 pages

Moved to here

score+3

The Death of Expertise:
The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

by Tom Nichols
Oxford, 2017, 252 pages

Tom Nichols works at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. Well, I have a little story (and what other size could there be?) about Rhode Island.

Once while traveling across Louisiana I made a joke about Rhode Island. I forget which of my limited repertoire of R.I. jokes it was; maybe it was the one about “Welcome to Rhode Island” and “Leaving Rhode Island” being on the same pole. But I just got a blank look: he'd never heard of the place. An island somewhere in the Atlantic, maybe?

Then there's the rage directed at big pharma and big oil, two essential industries that are populated, in my experience, by sophisticated, honest, knowledgeable professionals. Yet many people claim to believe that everything they say and do is a lie.

Then there are college professors, our intellectual leaders, like Michael Isaacson of John Jay College, who on Aug 16 2017 tweeted “Some of y'all might think it sucks being an anti-fascist teaching at John Jay College but I think it's a privilege to teach future dead cops.”

Isaacson is not alone, not by a long shot, though you'd never know it from watching the news. Is it any wonder that people despise both academia and the media?

Well, fellow deniers, have a dish of Post™ Truthies®, grab a chair, and be prepared to roll your eyes and get smug about how much more dummer your fellow Americans is getting.

Yes, it's another book from a college professor telling us that people should listen to their college professors. But this time it's from Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, who is one of the few people left with enough credibility to say so without causing a mass ophthalmological crisis.

So, what underlies the public's skepticism? Nichols says it's the Internet.

Nichols writes well, and takes great pains to avoid offending people (a skill I have yet to master). He starts out with the usual stories: the more that people advocate starting a war with Russia about Ukraine, the less likely they are to be able to find it on a map. The book is based on his article at The Federalist in which he calls the Internet “the greatest source of knowledge in human history since Gutenberg stained his fingers.” (I remember that line because I had to re-parse that sentence: wait, Gutenberg stained History's fingers?) The Internet, he says, has caused “a spreading epidemic of misinformation.”

Maybe I'm atypical: the reason I don't listen to my doctor is that my doctors read my papers; one quoted something from one of my web pages without realizing I was the author. Before I visit, I try to make sure I know more about whatever disease they're going to nail me with than they do, whether it's about oncology, migraines, or hearing loss.

These days, you have to. Some horrific percentage of deaths is due to iatrogenic causes (an accurate figure is suspiciously hard to find). Almost everyone has a medical horror story; mine is the story of a Ph.D. friend last year who had a serious seizure and nearly died because he trusted his doctor to give him the correct dose of isoniazid.

But like my friend who thought he didn't need to know about isoniazid toxicity, the biggest problem isn't that people know things that aren't true, but the conviction that they don't need to know anything at all. They rely on experts to know it for them. We get CEOs who know frak-all about the business they're running and think it doesn't matter; bosses who passive-aggressively let every damn one of their employees fail by refusing to advocate for them; and TV comics who think deceptive hate masquerading as snark is the soul of wit.

The clearest symptom of this is those morons—here I'm breaking my rule about never impugning somebody else's intelligence—whose idea of an intelligent comment is a string of F-bombs. They aren't people who think they know something but happens to be mistaken about it; they're people who have no clue what knowing something means, and don't care. The Internet is crawling with such people.

But, at least until last month when a Silicon Curtain fell across it, there was diversity of opinion on the Internet. There was dumb stuff there, but at least there was a free exchange of ideas.

Now people have an excuse. Why should people inform themselves about issues they're not permitted to talk about?

That's not to give the average person a pass—everybody should learn something, whether it's particle physics or plumbing or foreign policy theory, and some people do. The rest need to be shown how it benefits them more than watching Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse on Channel 229. In my opinion, the fact that it's the experts who got us into today's mess is a good reason to stick with the dancing horse.

In the lab, using a scientific instrument is easy: you put the sample in the slot and push ‘Start’. It's knowing when it isn't working and what to do about it that takes genuine expertise. The same is true in life. People don't really believe they know how the world works; they think knowing is not important. That, not stupidity, is the true basis of the Dunning-Kruger effect. If they get that from the Internet, it's because that's what they want.

It's always entertaining to read about how anti-intellectualism is gaining ground in America. But anti-intellectualism is not a problem in itself; it's a symptom that experts are jumping sharks like rabbits.

Nichols says the reasons are many: confirmation bias, the change at our universities to consumer orientation, and so on (Sound bite: “ When college is a business, you can't flunk the customers.” [p.94]). His solution is to move policy debates from the realm of research to the arena of politics, so everyone can discuss them.

But isn't that what caused the problem? According to Chapters 1 &2, the problem was not that they weren't discussing things, but that they were all ignorant and stupid but didn't realize it. So it seems to me that depoliticizing things should be the solution.

The book is quite inoffensive and non-political; his message is that experts need to own their advice and hold each other accountable. Experts are not puppeteers, and they can't control how leaders implement their choice. And the public should try to overcome the “toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism” that they use to defend themselves against experts.

Well, wishy-washy conclusions are the price of being a centrist. I'd recommend this book to young people, but personally I would have liked Nichols to talk more about Russian politics, since that's his area of expertise. The rest of this is stuff that, being a Blogger and all, I already knew.

sep 16, 2017; revised sep 24, 2017