• “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice”- Bonhoeffer and Bernanos More Relevant Now Than Ever

    “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice”- Bonhoeffer and Bernanos More Relevant Now Than Ever

    The last thing I would want to be accused of is underestimating the malice of Donald Trump and many of his benighted supporters. There’s plenty of it there. No doubt it is often the case that misinformation and propaganda play into the hands of an already inherent set of prejudices.

     For those anxious to make sense of the present era, when an ideologically exotic and extreme political party led by a buffoonish authoritarian with a base of infantilized, broadly ignorant supporters attain access to critical levers of power, there are voices from the past that are remarkably prescient, and astonishingly on the money.

    The German Lutheran minister and opponent of Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the French Catholic novelist and essayist George Bernanos are perhaps the most useful. For the most part I’ll simply allow their words to speak for themselves here.

    We can all agree: it’s complicated out there. A complicated world. One that even a well-meaning citizen may find requires too much day-to-day ingestion of information, and digging for knowledge to sustain with a limited amount of time.

    This state of affairs is much too easily exploitable by those who would flourish on the abuse of the insufficiently enlightened.

     For that reason, we live in a time that is nearly unprecedented, given the concepts of truth and factuality are themselves under assault, and expertise and competence demonized. This is far in excess of any traditional anti-intellectualism.

    Orwellian doublespeak now is the coin of the realm, “Reform” is used to describe its opposite, in other words, the destruction of say Social Security and Medicare.

    “Freedom” is routinely hijacked in order to describe subservience to corporate interests and private wealth in the absence of basic government protections of actual freedoms.

    Perhaps the best way to think of stupidity for present purposes is the loss or absence of a capacity for critical thinking. This encompasses those who subscribe to nonsense because either ideology or propaganda, or a combination of the two has overwhelmed reason, as well as those who are simply intellectually dull.

    It is fairly easy to understand the ideologues themselves, and the naked vested interests acting as their enablers and cohorts. We know for instance that the greed of petroleum interests sufficiently explains their distaste for, and motivation to deny the facts of climate science. If there is truly a climate crisis that endangers us all, only the irresponsible would resist the necessary measures required to address it. So the obvious choice is to simply deny that the crisis exists at all.

    We know that the prevailing ideology of the American right idolizes business and entrepreneurship out of all proportion for a healthy, decent society. We know it opposes government investment in the middle class, and the reduction of wealth disparity, while supporting every sort of anti-consumer policy in the interest of keeping more of the nation’s resources in the hands of those with embedded wealth and power. And the needy are regularly demonized as deserving of their fate because of their alleged inherent flaws, and quite ironically, alleged greed.

     And we know of course that racism, and America’s currently grotesque anti-immigrant nativism fit neatly with the bidding of these invidious special interests and ideological absolutists.

    But what many these days seek to understand I think is: How do these transparently cynical, manipulative, prevaricating and frankly bad people achieve such power? What kind of people would actually cheer them on? How does one best cope with such stupidity, however it is defined?

    Bonhoeffer and Bernanos have much to contribute I believe.

     

    Excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s On Stupidity, included in Letters and Papers from Prison:

     

    ‘Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings  at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.’

    ‘If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who lives in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.’

    ‘Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.’

    I/n conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupidest person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

    ‘But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from peoples’ stupidity. than from their inner independence and wisdom.’

     

    Excerpts from Under the Sun of Satan by George Bernanos:

     

    …the wrath of the Stupid has always saddened me; but today I might also say it terrifies…. The Stupid asked nothing better than not to have to understand anything, and they even used to get together and try not to understand, because the last thing of which a man is capable is to be malicious and stupid all by himself…. Without understanding, they formed spontaneously into herds, not according to any particular affinities…but in obedience to the petty function, which swallowed up the whole of their small lives, allotted them by birth or chance.

    The middle classes have almost a monopoly in the fabrication of true stupidity, since the upper classes specialize in a brand of entirely useless foolishness, a luxury foolishness; whereas the lower only achieve rough, and sometimes admirable, attempts at the purely bestial.

    Your profound mistake is to fancy that stupidity is harmless, or even that there are harmless forms of stupidity…once you get it going, it smashes everything.

    …of one thing I must first convince you: that you will never defeat the Stupid by shot nor steel nor poison gas. For they invented neither shot nor steel nor poison gas, but they know how to use everything which preserves them from the only effort of which they are quite incapable, that of thinking for themselves. They would far rather kill than have to think, unfortunately. And you go on supplying the machinery!

     

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  • Stefan Zweig, Grand Budapest Hotel, And The Writing on the Wall

    The World of Yesterday

    Stefan Zweig is not a household name, but not an obscure one either, though until the Zweig-inspired Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, his was a seldom remarked and sparsely praised literary-historical presence.

    The Vienna-born novelist, biographer, poet, essayist, story writer and memoirist was the most translated author of his time, and in the wake of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, his works and his legacy were all but expunged from history in his native tongue. Arguably his most lasting and influential work was his reminiscence of a time and place, the Central Europe, and in particular the Vienna of his youth and young adulthood during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, The World of Yesterday.

    Zweig presents a world that appears to reside in a kind of suspension from history, a golden era in many ways, well past the disruptive and destructive European wars of the Nineteenth Century and before the devastating ones to come in the Twentieth. It was a Vienna, according to Zweig, where intellect and artistic achievement were highly and widely prized, there was broad acceptance of nationalities and ethnicities, indeed tolerance in general, social progress was valued and manifest, Austrians the beneficiaries of what we now would identify as a generous safety net that provided every Austrian with relative, and much welcomed security.

    The world had advanced, as Zweig himself believed, the worst inclinations of human nature and politics if not surpassed, largely, and perhaps permanently set aside, managed, or out of favor. History had reached a moment, rested upon a plateau that an American observer might describe as Jeffersonian, where there was sufficient time and sufficient leisure for, and more importantly, pervasive interest in devoting oneself to higher pursuits, learning, beauty, art, ideas. The prevailing sense was that it would always be so. Austria, Europe surely, and even the world beyond would continue on this path of steady improvement. Obviously it did not, catastrophically so.

    Grand Budapest Hotel, like other of Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) has no recognizable counterpart or even familial resemblance to any movie that I can think of, at least not in American film, and certainly not in Hollywood. That he would draw inspiration from The World of Yesterday, which, though it conveys Zweig’s optimistic and congenial nature, also is permeated, naturally, with an abiding feeling of loss, and create such a wickedly funny and clever, and flamboyantly vivid movie, for me at least, affirms again an awe-inspiring knack for creative legerdemain.

    Indeed, the story takes place in a fictional hotel, in a fictional country, peopled with wholly invented characters, and yet, sometimes down to the smallest detail, perfectly recalls a specific time and place. Anderson has said he likewise took inspiration from several of Zweig’s novels, but whatever he put into the pot and stirred, the result is a dazzle of rococo visual style, absurdist plotting and slapstick presentation, all of which still manages to compellingly evoke the Central Europe of the early Twentieth Century.

    Old enough now no longer to be classified still as a wunderkind, like any highly idiosyncratic artist, audiences tend to find Anderson’s work either refreshing, sui generis, touching, thoughtful and invigorating, or else unbearably annoying, gratingly pretentious, gratuitously juvenile and utterly detestable. I will say having read numerous interviews with Anderson, and listened to several discussions, Anderson at the very least isn’t what one might call a literary tourist, and in fact strikes one rather as a literary person as most of us would conceive of one, and remains as far as he possibly could be, from the Hollywood sensibility raiding literary works for the purpose of transforming them into ghastly products, or with good, but misguided intentions, clumsily bringing highly regarded books to the screen.

    What can’t be forgotten, and isn’t by Anderson, is that this world so colorfully recreated in the movie, and lovingly recalled by Zweig, is doomed. In the movie there are both signs and real events to convey that everything is about to change, and in a not very pleasant way. Zweig’s recounting of what transpired is of course detailed and quite specific.

    This is where the import of the book insinuates itself uncomfortably, yet presciently in my view, into the present. Anderson has said nothing in anything I have read or heard that could remotely be construed as revealing any intent for the film to be cautionary, nor is any such quality evident in the film itself. That said, and especially discernible during repeated viewings, there nevertheless is an elegiac undercurrent if not overt aspect in the film.

    Zweig’s own world and the world itself at the time he was completing The World of Yesterday were in such a shambles, it was difficult to know if there would even be a future, much less speculate what it might look like. Yet to the extent all books are written as much for the future as for the present, only a dolt would fail to see the universal warnings in what he recalls.

    Zweig was a traveller and letter-writer, and he had friends spread across Europe. During a visit to Italy in the 1920’s, he witnessed the Blackshirts in the streets of the Italian towns and villages as fascism in Italy was coming to power. In Salzburg, near the border with Germany, where he took up residence after the first of the world wars he became aware of the Brownshirts who regularly crossed the border into Austria to propagandize and organize Austrian sympathizers.

    As sunny as Zweig seems to be temperamentally, his memoir is permeated, quite naturally by despair and disbelief at what has happened to him, and happened to the world. He describes a sense among the Viennese of the time, and among Europeans even more generally, that life will always continue as it is today, always will be more or less, as it is at present. What seemed preposterous then, and for that fact seems even more powerful and tragic now, is the idea that a civilization can indeed collapse, even the most seemingly stable one, even one transformed and demonstrably enlightened.

    What’s more chilling, and even more pertinent to the present I would suggest, is Zweig’s descriptions of his fellow Austrians, the Viennese especially as they encounter the signs, the augurs, the indications of the materialization of the darkness to come, with an almost resolute denial, and later, a blithe fatalism, the two mixing together to render a strange sort of intoxication. Zweig regards it all, when it becomes entirely too concrete, as akin to a waking dream, life taking place around you, but in your dream-state helpless to act yourself.

    To reduce The World of Yesterday to the cautionary would be to unforgivably trivialize it. Zweig had lost everything, his home, his lifetime collections of books, manuscripts and musical scores, witnessed his books banned and burned, friends and family brutalized, the civilized world of yesterday delivered to barbarism. Having fled to England, and eventually all the way to Brazil, the day after completing The World of Yesterday he, together with his wife committed suicide.

    Our own present is unlikely to be mistaken by anyone for an idyllic era. No one really talks about underestimating the forces of reaction or regression, the allure of philistinism, the power of nationalism and xenophobia, fanaticism and the ideologically extreme. I sometimes have that sense of living in a waking dream myself, when I observe the political world unfolding everyday around me, wondering if I am the only one to notice.

    That I see those signs in the present of something dark to come, signs visible, even in plain sight, and the all but the same infuriating complacency surrounding me, it may only be my own neurosis, or my own political imagination unacceptably out of kilter.

    In any case, extrapolate from Zweig, and even from The Grand Budapest Hotel, what you will.

     

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