Many of the new readers flocking to this site--especially those who were relieved to find that I was not, in fact, the author of the widely circulated email comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, and that its attribution to me was false--have asked how something like this could take place--how such a screed could become popular, and how some one would dare misattribute it. [More information on the hoax and the origins of the article can be found here. The answer, I would suggest, lies in a psychological dynamic identified by George Orwell as "Nationalism," a form of identification with a country or a cause that creates a certain style of thinking and feeling. Orwell wrote his essay "Notes on Nationalism" in the early 1940s, at the height of the last great crisis in western civilization.
He was not referring to nationalism in the narrow sense of identification with one's own ethnic group, and still less to patriotism, which he defined in a revealing contrast as "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people." Instead he meant, "the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests." As Orwell continues, his analysis gets closer and closer to home--with the difference that our "nationalists" are fighting over the future shape of the United States itself.
"A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist--that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating--but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade."
"Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties."
"As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort."
"All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage--torture, the use of hostages, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians--which does not change its moral color when it is committed by 'our' side. " [Hmmmmmm]
"The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia."
"Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should--in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918--and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied."
The Bush Administration's foreign policy was dominated by neoconservatism, surely a very important example of contemporary "nationalism" as Orwell defined it. Neoconservatives believe the United States has a sacred destiny to transform the world--which in practice amounts to eliminating any opposition to American interests--and that nothing but evil abroad and treachery at home stands in the way. Orwell also wrote that nationalists had a remarkable facility for switching sides, and some prominent neoconservatives such as David Horowitz and Melvin Olasky (the inventor of the the phrase "compassionate conservatism") began their adult lives on the extreme left. For thirty years economists, journalists and opinion leaders have sworn fealty to another kind of nationalism, free-market economics, in the name of which they denied the most basic facts about the connections between taxes, deficits, and economic growth. To be sure, nationalism has been popular on the left for the last thirty years was well, focusing in the 1960s on Cuba and China, and in the 1970s and 1980s on Palestine and leftist movements in Central America. Orwell did, however, identify two forms of nationalism that have become extraordinarily influential among western intellectuals, the first of which, indeed, dominates most university humanities departments today.
"COLOR FEELING. The old-style contemptuous attitude towards 'natives' has been much weakened in England, and various pseudo-scientific theories emphasising the superiority of the white race have been abandoned.[Note, below] Among the intelligentsia, color feeling only occurs in the transposed form, that is, as a belief in the innate superiority of the colored races. This is now increasingly common among English intellectuals, probably resulting more often from masochism and sexual frustration than from contact with the Oriental and Negro nationalist movements. Even among those who do not feel strongly on the color question, snobbery and imitation have a powerful influence. Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the colored, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it."
"PACIFISM. The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States."
"Nationalism" in the United States has now become big business, fueling vast media empires, including Clear Channel (the home of Limbaugh, Hannity and company) and Fox News. Since the election of President Obama, however, it has become almost entirely negative in character. To be sure, much of the right-wing reaction to the President shows classic nationalist traits. Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest didn't seem at all concerned when President Bush doubled the national debt in eight years, but now they rant for hours on end about the burdens Obama is imposing upon future generations. Rather than spending much time proving that Republican policies are right, however--which, to be sure, is a difficult task after the last eight years--they spend nearly all of it accusing the Administration of various sins. Racism and sexism, alas, also play an important role in this kind of nationalism. Rush Limbaugh's racist remarks and parodies have recently been documented, and some one at the Drudge Report seems to be charged with finding a new, unflattering picture of Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, or Nancy Pelosi to put up on the site every day. Another Orwell point is relevant here too:
"Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to FEEL that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world. "
Today's New York Times confirms this in a story about Republicans rallying the base against an Obama Supreme Court nominee:
May 17, 2009
Conservatives Map Strategies on Court Fight
By CHARLIE SAVAGE
WASHINGTON — If President Obama nominates Judge Diane P. Wood to the Supreme Court, conservatives plan to attack her as an “outspoken” supporter of “abortion, including partial-birth abortion.”
If he nominates Judge Sonia Sotomayor, they plan to accuse her of being “willing to expand constitutional rights beyond the text of the Constitution.”
And if he nominates Kathleen M. Sullivan, a law professor at Stanford, they plan to denounce her as a “prominent supporter of homosexual marriage.”
Preparing to oppose the confirmation of Mr. Obama’s eventual choice to succeed Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring, conservative groups are working together to stockpile ammunition. Ten memorandums summarizing their research, obtained by The New York Times, provide a window onto how they hope to frame the coming debate.
The memorandums dissect possible nominees’ records, noting statements the groups find objectionable on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, the separation of church and state and the propriety of citing foreign law in interpreting the Constitution.
While conservatives say they know they have little chance of defeating Mr. Obama’s choice because Democrats control the Senate, they say they hope to mount a fight that could help refill depleted coffers and galvanize a movement demoralized by Republican electoral defeats.
“It’s an immense opportunity to build the conservative movement and identify the troops out there,” said Richard A. Viguerie, a conservative fund-raiser. “It’s a massive teaching moment for America. We’ve got the packages written. We’re waiting right now to put a name in.”
Gary Marx, executive director of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, said donors, whom he declined to identify, had committed to contributing millions of dollars for television, radio and Internet advertisements that might reunite conservatives in a confirmation battle.
In 2003 a senior White House official told Ron Susskind, whom he characterized as a member of the "reality-based community," that "We're an empire now, and we create our own reality." This is the classic fantasy of such nationalists in power, such as the Nazis, Stalinists, and Maoists, and Susskind apparently did not have the presence of mind or the bad manners to remind his interlocutor that reality has a nasty way of imposing itself sooner or later.
Orwell's whole essay, of course, prefigures 1984, which he probably already had in his head when he wrote it. That classic work really is based upon the fantasy of the "senior White House official" come true--the Party controls reality, because it can torture anyone into not only believing, but loving, Big Brother. It deals, really, with the eternal struggle among power lust, intellectual integrity, and sensuality, which in the character of Julia becomes an ally of Winston's rationalism against Party rule. Once again we come to the eternal drama of modern human life: our never-ending struggle to allow our rational faculties to check our emotions.
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