Nicole Morgan, CACOR member wrote:
On November 25, 1994—Isaiah Berlin made the case when he accepted the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Toronto. His entire speech is one of these moments of peace if not pleasure, one can feel when thoughts are educated, coherent and fit a chaotic reality. It does not last but any moment of peaceful thinking is welcome.
Reading it again in 2017 gives us indeed a coherent framework to comprehend what is happening in the United States: the emergence of an authoritarian leader in a country, which is (was) prosperous, democratic enough, follows the rule of laws and is not threatened by invaders (OVNI if you want to believe some fanatics). Indeed there were many pockets of discontent which made the bread of butter of analysts and experts but none of them was of the magnitude of the economic and social problems which were shattering Germany to the core in the thirties.
So here goes the theory: many clouds of discontentment were floating in the sky. Their energy, channeled by a demagogue, has formed a vortex which destroys whatever when it touches ground… a bit like a hurricane.
More important Berlin would say (conveniently in absentia) the impetus of the vortex is a formidable ideology made of economic numerical sound bites which confers them the status of truth. In the past truth was revealed by God directly or through prophet. God being dead in the Western world, in the nineteenth century, truth was Ideas, quite a few of them, dispensed by rational philosophers.
In a way, some could argue, God was less destructive.
Men, says a rather sanguine Berlin, have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled
These horrors, he continues, were not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it. The German poet Heine, in one of his famous writings, told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.
Poor Emmanuel Kant and Karl Marx, these two idealists would have been crushed, had they known! But should we take them accountable and dream of a nicer world had they shut up? I am not sure. For in their absence I suspect that this on going vortex in the making which always hovers around an anxious humanity would have found another justification: religious, magic, positivist, clannish, or when it comes to it: anything provided it is animated by words forcefully used by an authoritative figure, if possible totally crazy. One has to understand that the appeal of the totally insane is to be absolutely sure of himself (who can be more sure of himself than Trump?)…. or herself (meet Ayn Rand if you want the female malignant red daffodil version of the malignant black narcissus)
“For Berlin, it is ideas that shape history. Sadly ! For most of them, he observes, are mad and dangerous. The work of Berlin is to rediscover the path of freedom in the maze of ideologies….For it is not because these ideologies are born of personal and limited preoccupations that they do not, as such, have a universal vocation,” . The history of ideologies, he adds, is made of this encounter between particular destinies and universal preoccupations. ”
In other words, if we follow the logic, it is unfortunate that globalization in the making has collided with a big mouthed demagogue whose limited preoccupations have obscured the field.
Could it have been avoided for after all, there is no shortage of big mouthed power mongers, especially at a time when media give them a venue to express themselves. There is little doubt that CNN and the like have created the phenomenon Trump. For then along came a presidential candidate who was a human breaking-news event. Trump provided drama and conflict every time he opened his mouth. So too did his growing band of surrogates, who were paid by either the campaign or the network, and in one case both, to defend his statements. Indeed, it often seemed disconcertingly as though Trump had built his entire campaign around nothing so much as his singular ability to fill cable news’s endless demand for engaging content. Had Trump lost the election, CNN would probably have returned to its previously scheduled struggle for survival. Instead, it has become more central to the national conversation than at any point in the network’s history since the first gulf war.
At this point Marshall McLuhan is joining the ongoing conversation adding the essential dimension of a new form of power, announcing a new era. For you see, we are not talking about words and ideologies any longer. We are talking images, sound bites and shows sustained by figures. Trump is not an ideologue. He is not using words, truth, does not invoke God or gods or demons. The art of a deal is not My Kampf. This unbalances lots of bewildered intellectuals, grasping for similarities in times past.
Let’s go back to Berlin’s definition: The history of ideologies is made of this encounter between particular destinies and universal preoccupations. What word should we use instead of ideologies?