The Temptations of Power

In 1977, the French essayist, Jean-François Revel, published a tract with the title The Totalitarian Temptation. In it, he condemned the western intelligentsia’s faiblesse, which was at the same time dishonest, posturing, stupid, and evil, for Stalinist-style dictatorships.

One might have thought—I certainly thought—that with the downfall of the Soviet Union, the totalitarian temptation had been exorcised once and for all. This, of course, was a very superficial view. Instead of disappearing, the temptation balkanised, so to speak, and was also repatriated. Totalitarianism had been shown almost as conclusively as anything in the sphere of human affairs to be inherently absurd, intellectually nugatory, and catastrophic in practice. This fact was not sufficient, however, to destroy its attractions—at least for those who desire a complete solution to all of life’s little problems such as how to live and what to live for. A solution in the mind is worth a thousand disasters in the world.

Naturally, it takes a certain level of education to feel the temptations of totalitarianism: they do not occur to the illiterate, for example, but only to the intelligentsia. The latter has increased in size almost exponentially with the expansion of tertiary education, or at least with attendance at institutions of tertiary instruction. In retrospect, it is not surprising that totalitarianism should continue to exert its siren-song in previously liberal societies, particularly when the young, always tempted by radical ideas, face genuine if intractable problems, seemingly worse than those of the previous generation.

One must not exaggerate, of course. We do not yet live under a Soviet-type tyranny in which every university thesis, on no matter how arcane a subject, was obliged by hook or by crook to quote Lenin. It is still possible, though not at all easy, to live as a scholar in our societies outside the university system. But it does not require the tyranny of the complete police state to obtain a high degree of intellectual conformity, as we can now observe at our leisure. Young university academics of my acquaintance in several countries tell me that they are now afraid to speak their mind, not because they would fear for their lives, but fear for their promotion. This is not the same, or as terrible, as fearing for their lives, but it is nonetheless very far from the Millian ideal of freedom of thought and speech.

By claiming that silence is violence, Black Lives Matter has made hand-wringing (to avoid its anathema) the mark, and almost the whole, of virtue.

There is much worse. It is not merely that they must keep their mouth shut and not say what they think, bad enough as this must be for those who have chosen the life of the mind; it is that they must positively subscribe to things that they believe to be bad or false. And this is a mark of totalitarianism. They must subscribe to doctrines they believe absurd, for example by describing in job applications their future efforts to promote diversity, so-called. By making the expression of untruth the condition of employment, probity is destroyed in advance. Those who lack it are easier to control.

Increasingly, social movements do not allow any neutrality with regard to the causes that they promote. Non-adherence is no different from enmity and derogation is evil: if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. In vain might you argue that your interest is elsewhere, in the taxonomy of grasshoppers, for example, or in the biochemistry of acorns, or in the bibliography of Alexander Pope: there is one subject that trumps all others in importance, and on it only one opinion is permissible. You must pass a test of loyalty.

The latest of these movements is, of course, Black Lives Matter, and its success in cowing so large a part of the intelligentsia is in a way admirable, a model of political organization for the future, though one much to be feared. By claiming that silence is violence, it has made hand-wringing (to avoid its anathema) the mark, and almost the whole, of virtue. It has successfully reversed Martin Luther King’s goal, such that the colour of a man’s skin is once again more important than the content of his character, and it has made respectable that most Stalino-Maoist of notions, that people should be promoted and rewarded according to their social (in this case, racial) origins. And anyone who disagrees is an Enemy of the People, the word People being here used in a severely technical sense, to mean the arbiters of the allocation of rewards.

The obvious incompatibility of all this with freedom should not blind us to its popularity with the now very large number of people who have been educated, or trained, in the various branches of resentment studies. Totalitarianism offers career prospects to those of apparatchik disposition and abilities, while appealing to the resentment of at least a portion of the population and its joy in the humiliation of those who were previously more fortunately placed than themselves.

It is now many years that power rather than liberty has been the cynosure of all teaching of political philosophy in universities, the latter being regarded as a mere veil or smokescreen for the maldistribution of the former. The only question worth asking is Lenin’s, Who, Whom?—in other words, who does what to whom. All else is but persiflage: and thus, the stage is set for social conflict that can be adjudicated only by a class of all-powerful philosopher-kings.

Reader Discussion

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on September 03, 2020 at 08:32:15 am

Dr. D's pith, per usual, provides the insights essential to identifying and destroying the sociopathic parasites which have been allowed to grow so unchecked for so long that they now threaten to consume the national host on which they feed. The social syndrome, itself, that of sociopathic parasites, cooperating host and the march toward totalitarianism, is so historically-repetitive that the propensity would seem genetically-coded, built into the human psyche and inherently a part of group psychology and the behavior of man in political society. Thus, like unavoidable viral pandemics, if the repetitive process of hordes of sociopaths-cum- group parasites tending toward totalitarianism is inevitable then the key to survival is to build early warning systems into the fabric of society and to inculcate into the mind of the individual citizen the capacity for prompt detection of the parasite, the skills of self defense against it and ready willingness to trigger rapid response.

Just as K-16 is the heart of the darkness, so it is the source of the light of civilizational salvation. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and we have long wasted and now lost three generations of American minds. We must declare a "War on Educational Malediction" and, with a mindset of zero tolerance for the parasitic enemy, wage that war so as to systematically rip out to the root the systemic rot of recently-ingrained attitudes and recently-written rules of mind-warping.

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on September 03, 2020 at 11:06:37 am

No offense intended, but your recommendation sounds like someone in Berlin in 1937 telling people that they had to build early Nazi warning systems into the fabric of German society and wage a war on Nazi malediction. But it was too late for that then. Only real war was capable at that point of rooting them out.

In this case, we need the fiscal equivalent of war. The federal government must, simply and completely, cease all funding of all kinds (grants, loans, loan guarantees) for universities, except for students pursing STEM subjects and maintaining a respectable GPA, and research grants to real scientists and engineers. Everything else must be paid for by the students or the universities from their endowments.

While I am not sanguine this can happen politically, as federal education funding is just so much pork for Congress to dole out, if it were to happen, it would be like chemo or radiation therapy acting on a tumor, shrinking it, killing it. No banks would loan money to college students pursuing impecunious studies without parental guarantees, and few parents I think would spend their money for Junior to pursue post-colonial gender studies. University trustees would suddenly find they had to pay for the armies of diversity bureaucrats and ______-Studies faculty out of their own pockets, and I am certain they would not do so, thereby shrinking and killing those tumors. The natural immune systems of higher ed would kick in under this condition and remove the threat far more effectively and completely than any legislation mandating viewpoint diversity.

As with real chemo & radiation, some healthy tissue would unfortunately be killed also. Legitimate history, literature and art faculty would probably be caught up in the treatment. But I am convinced that a solid core of those departments would survive because they would be able to attract just enough parental and university financial support. In any case, it's a risk we have to take.

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on September 03, 2020 at 14:01:08 pm

Yes, indeed, your metaphor is appropriate. We are talking about a cancer which has metastasized from whatever its point(s) of origin into so many places that the treatment will have to be all-encompassing.

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on February 10, 2021 at 11:22:00 am

While such a course of action is truly a delightful thing to contemplate, I suspect the struggle sessions it would produce (at least in its initial stages) would be considerable. Worth the bearing of the burden in the end, though. Including the risk you mention, though personally, I am old and detached enough to be eternally thankful that I am at least, well entrenched within those necessary arts.

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JP Merzetti
on September 03, 2020 at 13:19:40 pm

Re QET's "In this case, we need the fiscal equivalent of war." withholding and redirecting government appropriations and grants for K-16 education are just one front in the educational war for civilization. There are other federal and Red State constraints available which are not "fiscal." All of the necessary-if-belated counter-offensive measures are tantamount to political, legal and cultural warfare against the enemies of civilization. They would require as a first step that conservatives control the presidency and Congress, while continuing to repair 82 years of Democrat Party damage to the federal judiciary.

The K-16 educational war can be waged with money and power, but it is for hearts and minds and, thus, requires restoring classroom sanity first, then educational purpose, including love of country.
Way late, true. But there is no other way out.

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on September 03, 2020 at 18:17:04 pm

Your language is as forceful and candid as Dr. D's. And I agree that we must "win the argument" via hearts and minds before we can influence political or fiscal corrective measures. The alternative becomes ammo boxes when the soap box and ballot box fail.

But what I have long had trouble understanding is exactly how this came about, really. I can see how an idiot professor can indoctrinate a poorly grounded student, who then becomes another professor in turn. Other students enter media or journalism venues and begin contaminating those areas. And unfortunately we are now seeing woke "leadership" within some corporate cultures. But what happened to the boards of trustees and boards of directors and senior administrators? They were supposed to be sober, experienced, fiscally and morally responsible senior "elites" within our society, invested with the authority and power to stop this type of "viral pandemic". I guess Allan Bloom was highlighting this disease even back in the 1960's to 80's. It seems that part of the corrective action must be to identify and shame or remove some (most) of these people if we want sanity to prevail.

Boycotts of selected product lines or companies (e.g., Goodyear most recently?) or stockholder sell offs might signal to BOD's they need to change course, or else. Alumni cutting back on contributions to their favored educational institution, including sports, with letters indicating no more money will be forthcoming until excessively woke policies and related idiocy are reformed. Broadcast ratings and news media subscriptions are already falling - how can we accelerate that impact on bottom lines to hopefully obtain more neutral and objective coverage?

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on September 03, 2020 at 14:36:45 pm

There is nothing more total than the murder of your kin out of envy.
In that context totalitarianism has been around since Cain and Abel and it will be until the end of the world because it is simply the coveting of thine neighbor's [fill in the blank] writ large and collectively.
One man killing his brother out of envy is a crime.
Half of mankind killing and enslaving the other half is social justice and an inextinguishable ideology.

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on September 03, 2020 at 17:58:54 pm

Dr. Dalrymple's nonplus at the resilience of totalitarianism despite an unbroken string of catastrophic failures is understandable. Traveling the road to totalitarianism requires a certain abnegation of reason, common sense and common decency. To help understand how this abnegation persists in the setting of historical evidence of totalitarian evil, I suggest beginning the inquiry with a simple question:

What is the difference between an idealist and an ideologue?

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on September 04, 2020 at 10:50:04 am

An ideologue is an idealist who finally realizes that his *ideal* is insufficient in itself to convince others of its propriety and has further realized that the ideal may only be achieved via compulsion.

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on September 04, 2020 at 10:53:45 am

Just cuaght this from Titus Techera's intro to essay / film critique but it may be apropos:
"[Idealism] defeated returns as revenge"

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on September 04, 2020 at 11:50:16 am

An ideologue is an idealist who lacks the wisdom to find a causa sui, meaning in life beyond himself, and, thus, is without hope of redemption and, ultimately, destructive of life.

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on September 04, 2020 at 14:48:59 pm

Gabe and Paladin,

You both give perfectly valid and serviceable descriptions of the difference between an idealist and an ideologue. Here is why I think that the question has value:

1.) The current socio-political upheaval will not be decided by the hard-care 10% that are the extremes of the contending factions. The true believers will not determine the outcome, rather it is the persuadable 20% or so who are left leaning, but not as radical as the true believers.

2.) The perception that there is a difference between an idealist and an ideologue naturally suggests that one is preferable. The general perception is that being an idealist is preferable to being perceived as an ideologue. While being called an ideologue does not quite provoke the same aversive response as being called a racist, popular opinion favors the perception of being an idealist rather than on ideologue. This of course does not apply as thoroughly to echo-chambers where conformity of thought is imposed as a matter of fanatical course, but the people within those echo chambers are the true believers, not the 20% persuadable whose allegiances make a difference.

3.) Being an ideologue carries a relatively negative connotation due to the dismal history of ideologues who have achieved power; the sense that ideologues are less humane, willing to accept a certain amount of death and misery "for the cause;" and the sneaking suspicion that many ideologues simply have a screw missing.

4.) When you pose the question as to the differences between idealists and ideologues, you force people to provide justifications for one or the other, and thus make them susceptible to being classified as one or the other. The majority of people in the "persuadable" 20% will have an incentive to explain why they are not "ideologues," and thus distinguish themselves from the 10% of the true believers. They in effect will be encouraged to come up with their own reasons why they should not accept the dogma of the true believers. True believers do not care if they are thought of as ideologues, the persuadable people do.

5. Ideologues are the reason why socialism has led to misery and human catastrophe throughout its many twentieth century incarnations. If someone wishes to convince others that he is an idealist rather than an ideologue, he has to explain this historical observation.

6.) While there is no right answer to the question of the difference between ideologues and idealists, I would suggest the following:

An idealist has a fantasy about how the world should be.
An ideologue has a delusion as to how the world is.

An ideologue is convinced that his view of the world is correct, and thus ideologically motivated actions and decisions cannot possibly have bad outcomes. Those undesirable consequences that are observed are dismissed as intermediate footnotes, the eggs broken to make the ideological omelette. In this way the ideologue excuses his own lack of empathy, succumbing to self-delusion, and self-righteousness. He justifies making enemies of decent people, because decency requires a depth of spirit that is incompatible with being an ideologue.

An idealist, on the other hand, recognizes that reality gets a vote. The idealist may have a desired end, but realizes that life is more meaningful than a slogan, and more complex than the maintenance of grievances. An idealist may be misguided. He may be unrealistic or even silly, but he retains a measure of humanity that the ideologue has decided is of no use.

7.) A good follow-up question to the difference between an ideologue and an idealist is "what is the difference between an ideologue and a fanatic?" Ask these questions patiently and respectfully of the "persuadables" and they will make the argument against the true believers, and the associated noxious dogmas.

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on September 04, 2020 at 16:25:26 pm

As Arte Johnson might have uttered, "Very interesting."

So Thomas Jefferson was an idealist who would have appreciated the description, Woodrow Wilson an ideologue who would have been indifferent to the accusation and Barack Obama a fanatic who would have relished the characterization (by his friend Bill Ayers.)

Perhaps, then, as Hercule Poirot said, "the differences rest solely on the character of the participant."

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on September 05, 2020 at 21:21:09 pm

I would cite Solzhenitsyn for the proposition that, while the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, the capacity for evil on a large scale inheres in the heart of an ideologue. He notes that Shakespeare's evildoers (Macbeth, Iago, Richard III) committed only 8-10 murders because they were not ideologues. Perhaps, then, a fanatic is merely an ideologue on stilts.

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on September 06, 2020 at 09:56:31 am

A fanatic is a conservative who still watches the NBA!

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on September 05, 2020 at 10:38:18 am

[…] view. The temptation balkanised and was repatriated. Totalitarianism had been shown to be inherently absurd, intellectually nugatory, and catastrophic in practice. This was not sufficient to destroy its attractions, a least for those who desire a complete […]

on September 09, 2020 at 05:00:31 am

[…] Theodore Dalrymple on the temptations of power: […]

on October 05, 2020 at 03:30:16 am

[…] Articol original: The Temptations of Power […]

on October 24, 2020 at 01:49:14 am

[…] artikel verscheen onder de titel The Temptations of Power in Law & Liberty, 3 september […]

on October 24, 2020 at 02:47:49 am

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