Huxley Revisited

British author and philosopher Aldous Huxley blew my mind with what seemed like his incredible prescience in Brave New World (1932). In my post last December, thinking about our recent politics and social tone, I commented: “For a novel written 88 years ago, it’s surprisingly prescient and relevant.”

The novel impressed me so much I bought the series of essays Huxley published almost 30 years later, Brave New World Revisited (1959). So far, I’ve only read the first five (so many distractions these days), but the apparent prescience continues to astound and astonish me.

I qualify that with “apparent” because it’s actually as old as humanity.

Once I finish his essays I will likely revisit this (I’m really quite taken with it), but two essays I read last night, after two days of the historical second Impeachment proceedings, and after (despite January 6th) continuing utter lying bullshit on the part of Republicans, had me getting up from my chair and having to walk off my amazement and despair.

I said, way back in 2016, I saw eerie parallels to pre-WWII Germany, and that sense has only grown in the past five years. (Frankly, I don’t know why every intelligent person isn’t terrified. I sure am. The events of the last few months, especially, should frighten all right-thinking people.)

To be very clear, when I refer to right-thinking people, I mostly mean sane, sober, rational, and literate. I mean people free from what Huxley refers to as “herd-poisoning” (what a great term).

Further, any “standards” I ever mention here come from humanity’s 2000+ year history of normative literature, art, philosophy, and thought. I think it is arguably true our species becomes more moral through history (in slow and fitful steps), but we are ever prone to demagogues.

There is excellent reason that the best epithet for P45 is “Twitler” — the parallels really ought to make your skin crawl and the hairs on the back of your neck raise.

§

But don’t take my word for it. Let me share some of Huxley’s words.

Starting with chapter IV, Propaganda in a Democratic Society

Huxley begins quoting Thomas Jefferson:

The doctrines of Europe,” Jefferson wrote, “were that men in numerous associations cannot be restrained within the limit of order and justice, except by forces physical and moral wielded over them by authorities independent of their will… we (the founders of the new American democracy) believe that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice, and that he could be restrained from wrong, and protected in right, by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice and held to their duties by dependence on his own will.” To post-Freudian ears, this kind of language seems touchingly quaint and ingenuous. Human beings are a good deal less rational and innately just than the optimists of the eighteenth century supposed.

Indeed, and recent years have well-illustrated the weakness of that thinking. Democracy has been called the “least worst” form of government, and I think that’s probably true. The balance between personal freedom and sovereignty versus the security and service provided by the state is a tricky one. The term “herding cats” applies more to humans than cats.

As Huxley goes on to point out, many modern inhumane atrocities have been done by supposedly rational evolved humans. (And what could be more atrocious — less American — than beating someone to death with an American flag pole?)

The power to respond to reason and truth exists in all of us. But so, unfortunately, does the tendency to respond to unreason and falsehood — particularly in those cases where the falsehood evokes some enjoyable emotion, or where the appeal to unreason strikes some answering chord in the primitive, subhuman depths of our being.

That bit, written back in 1959, in light of January 6, 2021, rather dropped my jaw. He perfectly describes that mob.

Huxley points out there are two kinds of propaganda: “rational propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed, and non-rational propaganda that is not consonant with anybody’s enlightened self-interest, but is dictated by, and appeals to, passion.”

Compare, for instance, anti-smoking, “buckle up,” “don’t text and drive,” or “don’t drink and drive” propaganda as examples of the first case. And anything Twitler ever said as the second.

In the second essay (chapter V, which I’ll get to) Huxley gets more into one of the keys that made Hitler so successful: the power of mass communication and media. One can’t help but think of Twitler and his use of Twitter.

Mass communication, in a word, is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force and, like any other force, it can be used either well or ill. Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensable to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator’s armory.

He goes on to point out how mass communication has shifted from myriad small newspapers and radio stations to conglomerate giants owned by Big Money. This obviously undercuts the power of media for democracy, but, he says, it’s still better than the state-controlled media seen in totalitarian societies.

Huxley, of course, had no notion of the internet or how that would change the equation. It has put a certain amount of power back in the hands of people, but in our chaotic society that has been a two-edged sword. It’s allowed fringe groups consisting of insane people to have a lot more social power than they deserve.

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Hoe! Lee! Cow! (Bold emphasis mine.) That was one of the bits I had to walk off.

How many times have I ranted here about the empty fantasy bullshit people gorge on? The idiotic video games. The infantile underpants movies (superhero movies). The soap-opera bullshit about stars and famous people. The multiverse and other science fantasies. All the meaningless ephemera people besot themselves with.

Huxley is so much a man after my own heart. He gets it. (And why don’t so many of you? Open your eyes!)

One last quote from this chapter:

Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

I had to walk that one off, too.

I mean,… wow. Just,… wow.

§ §

I’m reminded (yet again) of what Leon Wieseltier said, back in 2014, when he was on The Colbert Report (see this post):

A democratic society, an open society, places an extraordinary intellectual responsibility on ordinary men and women, because we are governed by what we think, we are governed by our opinions. So the content of our opinions, and the quality of our opinions, and the quality of the formation of our opinions, basically determines the character of our society.

And, indeed, the character of our society is pretty shitty these days.

Later in the interview Wieseltier says:

And that means that in a democratic society, in an open society, a thoughtless citizen of a democracy is a delinquent citizen of a democracy.

We’ve certainly seen the effect of that delinquency.

I’ve been seeing some newsfeed articles about what the Netflix Top Ten says about our cultural tastes (they are, generally speaking, in the toilet).

We may not exactly live in Huxley’s Brave New World, but, in terms of our besotted distracted vastly ignorant populace, we aren’t that far. Sadly, it isn’t a government that’s done it so much as a slippery slope we gleefully sledded down.

§ §

In chapter V, Propaganda Under a Dictatorship, Huxley explores what made Hitler (and our modern day Twitler) so effective. (Brave New World was penned just before WWII, these essays quite some time after.)

Firstly, Hitler understood the masses. He didn’t think highly of them, but he understood how they operated:

The first principle from which he started was a value judgment: the masses are utterly contemptible. They are incapable of abstract thinking and uninterested in any fact outside the circle of their immediate experience.

Hitler (and Twitler) appealed to the “members of the lower middle classes who had been ruined by the inflation of 1923, and then ruined all over again by the depression of 1929.” They were a fertile field for a demagogue.

Here’s another bit I had to walk off:

To make them more masslike, more homogeneously subhuman, he assembled them, by the thousands and the tens of thousands, in vast halls and arenas, where individuals could lose their personal identity, even their elementary humanity, and be merged with the crowd.

Ever seen footage of a Twitler rally? The only thing missing is the nazi salute. (And, of course, any nazi sympathizers are clearly strong supporters of the head nazi.)

[No, I will not capitalize that word. I don’t like even using it. I’ve long thought the damn nazis should be consigned to the dusty books of our misbegotten history and forgotten as historical aberrations.]

In a word, a man in a crowd behaves as though he had swallowed a large dose of some powerful intoxicant. He is a victim of what I have called “herd-poisoning.” Like alcohol, herd-poisoning is an active, extraverted drug. The crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from responsibility, intelligence and morality into a kind of frantic, animal mindlessness.

Video clips from January 6 demonstrated this very clearly.

With regard to Twitler in particular, but Republican tactics in general:

Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down, or, if they become too much of a nuisance, liquidated. The morally squeamish intellectual may be shocked by this kind of thing. But the masses are always convinced that “right is on the side of the active aggressor.”

How familiar does all this sound?

§ §

Is there a fix to this mess? In reality, probably not, we’ll muddle through in mediocrity as we usually do. Unless things get even more out of hand, and our values, which have eroded like a sand castle at high tide, completely collapse.

We hopefully have avoided the precipice this time, but it was close. A murderous mob invaded the Capitol with desecration, destruction, and death, on their minds and in their hearts. And the damn Republicans apparently are fine with this.

As Huxley points out:

Unlike the masses, intellectuals have a taste for rationality and an interest in facts. Their critical habit of mind makes them resistant to the kind of propaganda that works so well on the majority.

So the fix, obviously, and as I’ve long said, is to pull your besotted head out of that ephemeral trivial at least once in a while and exercise your flabby out-of-shape brains.

Stay intellectual, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “Huxley Revisited

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I was moved to get back to Huxley’s essays because his name came up with regard to Michael Pollan and his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

    Huxley also got involved in the mind-expanding potential of psychedelic drugs.

    Here’s an interesting fact: The term “psychedelic” comes from the serious research into such drugs during the 1950s, shortly after LSD was discovered. Psilocybin (mushrooms) was also part of that research.

    It was in the 1960s that the hippies and, especially, Timothy Leary, put the stink on such research. Thankfully, enough decades have passed that we’re taking it seriously again.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    If I sound angry it’s because I am. Blame it on the Republicans and their behavior. As one of the trial managers said, “This can’t be the future of America.”

    If it is, it won’t be American anymore.

  • paultorek

    Re: ” I don’t know why every intelligent person isn’t terrified.” I want to shout to basically all Americans, plus a good chunk of the world: Stop acting normal! The situation is not normal, and has been completely off the rails since the pandemic took off. Trump by himself, sadly, has mostly been kind of continuous with recent strains of Republicanism, although he has definitely taken it to dramatic new lows. But the Trump X Pandemic interaction has been a real killer – literally. And then January 6th put normalcy into a far distant land.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The way we’ve normalized all this insanity is one of the things that’s driving me to distraction (and anger). The media has played too large a role in that, which is why I like Keith Olbermann’s YouTube channel so much. He’s just as angry and disconcerted (and terrified) about all this as everyone else should be.

      The media keeps trying to be fair and balanced with a situation with no fairness or balance. I have a lot of bones to pick about media coverage the last five years.

      We really should be seeing January 6 in the same light we saw 9/11. We should absolutely, no foolin’, be losin’ our shit over this.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’m reading Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life (2020) by Laura Thompson.

    It’s an interesting enough read given my renewed interest in Christie, but I was especially struck by a bit early in the book:

    Thompson first writes, “In the years after the war Agatha had a respectful terror of social change and, in some ways, she was as much of a realist about life as her old lady detective, Miss Marple, who always expects the worst and is usually right to do so. But Agatha was also a woman of deep faith, in God and human nature.” This is a section about how Torquay, Agatha Christie’s beloved birth place and long-time home, had changed since her time.

    Thompson later writes: “But she would have doubted Miss Marple’s other creed — that ‘the new world was the same as the old’, that ‘human beings were the same as they had always been’ — when she saw the holidaymakers and their urgency for sensation,[…] She had begun to doubt the future in one of her last books, Passenger to Frankfurt, which she wrote in her late seventies:”

    What a world it was nowadays . . . Everything used the whole time to arouse emotion. Discipline? Restraint? None of these things counted for anything any more. Nothing mattered but to feel. What sort of world . . . could that make?

    Passenger to Frankfurt was published in 1970 when Christie had turned 80, so here’s another observer who has been seeing the same cultural descent into feelings and experience over intelligence and structure.

    To quote the recently late Artie Johnson, “Veeerrrryyyy interesting!”

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