An Unfortunate Passage
While waiting for Snow Leopard to finish installing itself on my computer, I idly paged through my old paperback copy of Hannah Arendt’s Origin of Totalitarianism. I had highlighted a passage, which I apparently had somehow guessed would become highly relevant 45 years later:
“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
One is supposed to sympathize with the just plain folk who shout down their representatives at townhall meetings and dream out loud about murdering the goddam liberals before they get a chance to pull the plug on grandma or herd the white Christians into concentration camps. Human actions and ideas have their explanations, after all. There’s a reason for all the paranoia and cultural despair; and, anyhow, it’s political error to scorn so large a portion of the electorate. As of 11:30 P.M. September 1, however, I don’t feel sympathy for the shock troops of the Great American Idiocracy. It’s not that I expect that the mob will prevail exactly. This is not Germany in the 30s: the reactionary program of establishing a white trash republic on these shores once and for all is demographically implausible. Unfortunately, there may be enough of ‘em out there to make the country ungovernable and bring about a paralysis that guarantees a miserable future for everybody. That’s what keeps me awake at night.