Category Archives: Books

Sin is hard to Give up

 

In the novel the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is tormented by his actions in helping Jim escape from his rightful owner. He even considered doing the “right thing” and telling Miss Watson what he had done and deliver Jim back to her. He thought Jim might be better off as a slave near his family.

 

Huck gave up on that idea because no doubt Miss Watson would not accept anything from him because of Jim’s rascality and ungratefulness. After all, the slave should have been grateful, Huck thought, for having such a good master as Miss Watson. Miss Watson would likely sell Jim down the river again because “everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger.” After all,  Huck was also scared that everyone would find out that Huck had disgraced himself by helping Jim escape.  This is what he thought about that”

 

“And then think of me! It would get around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get  his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame.”

 

But that was only the half of it.  After all he committed a sin. As Huck said,

 

“Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I wasn’t so much to blame, but something inside of me kept saying,  “There was the Sunday school, you couldn’t ‘a’ gone to it; and if you’d ‘a’ done it they’d ‘a’ learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about the nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

Huck even tried prayer. On his knees filled with repentance for what he’d done. But he couldn’t do it:

“But the words wouldn’t come out. Why wouldn’t they come? warn’t no use to run and hide it from Him. Nor from me neither. I knew very well why they wouldn’t’ come. It was because my heart warn’t right’ it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie.”

 

Helping Jim, Huck believed was a sin that would lead him to hell, yet he did anyway. Huck was greatly relieved when he realized this because he knew he had done a very bad thing.  As Huck said,

 

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had felt so good in all my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight of, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened and so how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And I went on thinking over our trip down the river and and I see Jim before me all the time; in the day and in the night time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along  dark, talking’ singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind

 

No matter what ideology he had been brought up with, Huck was able to break out of it. He just couldn’t be a supporter of slavery no matter how sinful he thought that made  him. His natural goodness burst through the chains of ideology. He was prepared to go to hell if necessary.

 

Friendship or Hell?

 

I have come to the conclusion that Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite novel. It is the classic of classics. Why is that?  What makes it so great? I think it so great because explores, as no one else has done as well, the issue of freedom. Above all it explores the freedom to think for oneself. So many people extoll the virtues of freedom particularly in the US and Canada. But I find they mostly have a very shallow notion of what freedom is all about. Not so with Twain. He knew what ultimate freedom is all about.

The novel Huckleberry Finn challenges all authority. None are sacred. Particularly the sacred is not sacred. Freedom from authority is the real freedom.

Huck Finn’s journey with Jim down the Mississippi River was a journey towards knowledge. It was an education. Huck has to learn, and even more important, he has to unlearn. As Nafisi said, he was on a trip in which Huck is “countering the lessons of Sunday school.”

The novel challenges the morality of slavery, but it actually goes much farther than that. The trip to the dangerous south asks a more fundamental question: What can you do when your moral code lets you down?  That is what Huck wrestles with throughout the novel.

The central question Huck must deal with is how can he help his friend Jim by finding freedom when he “knows” that is wrong. In fact, Huck “knows” that is a sin to help a slave to freedom. That is what he learned in Sunday School and from Aunt Sally, Miss Watson, and the Widow Douglas.  But he must unlearn that. As Huck says, “I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way.” When Huck is fighting with his conscience he comes across slave hunters and resolves to deliver Jim to them, because it is the right thing to do, but as hard as he tries to do the right thing he cannot give up his friend. He thinks he is not man enough to do what he “should” do.

When Huck has difficult decisions to make he always has “a long think.” That is a good practice. He thinks slowly and critically. But he thinks. As he says to himself, and of course, us, “The more I studied about this the more my conscience was grinding me, and the more wicked and lowdown and ornery I got to feeling.”  If he had gone to Sunday School as he should have, he would have learned that “people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.” He even tries to pray but his “heart  wasn’t right.” Again he decides to do the “right thing” and give up Jim by writing to Miss Watson. As soon as he rights the letter he feels much better. His conscience is finally clear. He feels “good  and all washed clean of sin for the first time I even felt in my life and I knowed I could pray now.” But even then he continues to think and that is his undoing. He think too much and decides he will go against everything he has ever been taught. It is extremely difficult to do.

And then Huck considers the reality of Jim. He continues to think through the day after he wrote the letter to Miss Watson. In a remarkable statement that shows the power of genuine connection compared to the disrupted connection of a corrupt ideology, Huck says this:

“I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moon time, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow sometimes I couldn’t seem to strike no place to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was; when I come back out of the fog; and when come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I truck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in then the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look  and see that paper [the letter he wrote to Miss Watson but had not yet sent, that would return Jim to slavery].

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then I’ll go to hell—and tore it up.”

 

I think Twain is saying if you look at the real person, rather than the person you expect to see through the lens of your religion, or politics, or ideology then you can see the real person. Notice too how Huck and Jim have become “we.”  They are connected by a deep sense of fellow feeling. That is what real morality, and real art, and real religion are all about. They are not about ideology or dogma.

Has there ever been a greater friendship in all of literature than this? Has there ever been a greater friendship in the whole world than this?  Huck was prepared to do what he believed was wrong because that is what he was taught, and that is what everybody did, in order to save his friend, even though it meant going to hell?

That is what ultimate freedom is all about!

 

Smothery Civilization

 

Mark Twain in the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does not endorse what Huck calls “sivilization.” Huck cannot stand “sivilization” because it smothers the life out of him. It causes him at the beginning of the novel and again at the end to “light out for the territories.”

 

At the beginning of the novel he says:

“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me: but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular, and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. “

 

New clothes confine him too much too. He can’t stand them either .  As Huck said, about the widow: “She put me in them new clothes again and I couldn’t do nothing but sweat, and sweat, and felt all cramped up.” Later Huck said, “I didn’t want to go back to the widow’s anymore and be so cramped up and civilized as they called it.”

 

When Tom tells Huck that is how everybody lives Huck defiantly says, “I ain’t everybody and I can’t STAND it.” Then he philosophizes like a true rebel: “being rich ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. It’s just worry and worry and sweat and sweat, and a-wishing you was dead all the time.” He doesn’t to be rich and live in those smothery houses. Tom would rather live on a raft where life was “free and easy.”

 

One of the themes of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the fact that Huck and Jim are both on a voyage of discovery searching for freedom. Jim’s search is more obvious. He is enslaved and separated from his family and desperately wants to get to them. Eventually, after much hesitation and doubt, each of them makes a burst for freedom.

 

Too many Americans, according to Huck, have traded their freedom for respectability, and this is what he does not want to do. He doesn’t want to conform. He sees that as smothering death.  For Huck life of respectability smothers him so much that he “was a wishing you was dead all the time.”

 

That is why both of them loved the raft and were fearful of houses and civilization.  As Huck said,

“We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

 

Huck Finn needs freedom like the rest of us need air. He can’t breathe without freedom.

 

At the end of the novel, after Jim is knows he was freed by Miss Watson in her will, that it was time for Huck to get away from ‘sivilization.’  As he said,

But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

 

That is what the book is all about—taking a burst for freedom before one gets sivilized, before one is tamed. That is what Tom Sawyer was unable to do. Only Huck could do it. Americans constantly claim to be free when they seem tied slavishly to conventions that smother them. They need a better declaration of independence.

 

As Azar Nafisi said, “We must make a new declaration of independence, a spiritual rather than a political one this time.”

 

 

Conscience and heart

 

In a notebook Twain wrote in 1895 where  he described his Huck Finn as “a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat.”  Now conscience is a bit of an unusual word in this context.  Twain really meant “conventional morality” or “norms” by the word “conscience.” Twain was really speaking against conventional morality. Conventional morality or “conscience” was corrupt, for it allowed for the exploitation of slaves and discrimination against African Americans as being moral.

 

Huck thought he was immoral when he revolted against the conventional morality of his day that allowed a person to be declared worthless solely based on the colour of his or her skin.  The is a morality against which we must revolt. Nothing else will do. That is what Huck learned. The heart knew better than the “conscience.” Twain, like Nietzsche, wanted to turn morality upside down. This was the conventional morality or “conscience” that he  wanted to subvert in favour of a new morality.

 

Azar Nafisi summed up this purpose this way:

“From its first to its last page, Huck Finn shows us that everything that is accepted as the normal, respectable, is in essence not normal or respectable. It is s book in which “educated” people are the most ignorant, stealing is “borrowing,” people with “upbringings” are scoundrels, goodness is heartless, respectability  stands for cruelty, and danger lurks, most especially at home. It is a book in being “white” is not a badge of honor and you will go to hell if you do the right thing…Within the confines of this upside-down world, the only way for Huck and Jim to survive is to be dead.”

 

When such a conventional morality is confronted we ought to rebel against it. That is why Twain in his novel calls for a revaluation of values. They must be subverted, because the conventional morals are corrupt.

Original Sin

 

 

 

Mark Twain was not ignorant of what others have called the original sin of America—i.e. the catastrophic slaying of indigenous people and the slavery of African Americans. This is a sin so dark it is not clear how America can ever atone for it.

 

In 1881 Twain gave a dazzling speech to the New England Society of Philadelphia who were celebrating the anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing on Plymouth Rock. He challenged the good people of the society to avoid smugness at that history.  He began his speech by asking the audience what they wanted to celebrate. As Nafisi said,

 

Speaking to the descendants of the Mayflower he begins by asking his audience what they would wish to celebrate

“those ancestors of yours of 1620—the Mayflower tribe,” whom he describes as a “hard Lot” who “took care of themselves but they abolished everybody else’s ancestors.” Twain differentiates himself from his hosts, telling them, “I am a border ruffian from the state of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. I have the morals of Missouri and the culture of Connecticut , and that’s the combination that makes the perfect man…

 

Twain says his ancestors are precisely those people their ancestors abolished. As Nafisi said,

 

“Identifying with those “abolished” ancestors, he assumes the identity of America’s persecuted underdogs, and says his first American ancestor was “an early Indian.” Your ancestors skinned him alive, and I am an orphan. Not one drop of my blood flows in that Indian’s veins today. I stand here, lone and forlorn, without an ancestor”.

 

What a fascinating idea that his ancestors were the native American indigenous people who were slaughtered by Americans.

 

Twain also laments how “your tribe,” the Americans, chased the Quakers out of the country “for their religions sake.”  He added, They broke forever the chain of political slavery and gave the vote to every man in this wide land, excluding none!—none except those who  did not belong to the orthodox church.  Next Twain invokes others who were used and abused by their ancestors: the witches and finally the most persecuted and marginalized of all, the black slave. “The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite Mongrel. I am not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week.” Twain identified with the spat upon and beat upon.  As a result, Twain was able to create what Nafisi called “an epic of the first American rogue.”

 

Here we learn what Twain revolted from—the exploitation of others. And this was, I would suggest the classic theme of this magnificent novel that makes it one of the glories of literature anywhere.

 

Sadly, Americans have not taken Twain’s case to heart. As Nafisi said, “After Twain, it becomes difficult to talk about America without acknowledging those absent ancestors, conveniently airbrushed out of the preferred mythology of America’s glorious origins.” Unlike Twain, too many Americans are not able to take an impartial view of their own history. In fact, as has been seen in the last few years, the American conservatives are actively trying to scrub out the truth of American history. They can’t bear to look at it. These Americans, unlike the best Americans, are not able to look at the truth. And as Nietzsche said “the measure of a person’s worth is how much truth he can stand.” These modern Americans reveal they have little worth because they can’t stand the truth.

 

Unlike so many other Americans who blamed England for all the sins of America, Twain wanted Americans to see their own sins. This theme was then picked up by other great American writers.

Of course Huck and Jim, the heroes of the novel,  embodied the mongrels and ruffians that Twain celebrated. .

 

 

Nigger

 

There is a bad word that recurs in the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It recurs 219 times. That is difficult to read.  Many people don’t like that.  I don’t like that. Some people want the book to be banned as a result. But I know there is a reason. It is a terrible word that represents more than 400 years of racial subjugation. It is deeply offensive to African Americans. It should be equally offensive to white Americans (and Canadians). Amazingly, it is still used sometimes. More often than it. Thank goodness for that.

Many people have wanted to ban the book because of that word. But the words is important. It was the way people talked in those days. And sometimes still do. Twain knew that. He wanted us to squirm when we heard that word. Many of us do exactly that. I know I did.

If the word were excised from the book, as many have suggested, it would emasculate the book. It would not be telling us the truth about America in the 1870s. It would whitewash America much like Tom Sawyer had to whitewash the fence. It must stay in. Nothing else will do. To insist on its removal on pain of banishment of the book, as some people have done, is to refuse to look at the reality of 19 century America, and that is a reality that must be confronted. Not evaded. Twain did exactly that in the noble character of Jim.

Some liberals have wanted to eliminate the word to placate African Americans. Many of them have called for that. I prefer the approach of Toni Morrison who said, Twain’s use of the word, “the narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones,” was “a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem., band-aid the solution.” Children should not be protected from this word they should face it. That may be hard, but it is important. They should think about what the word signifies about white society of the day. And what the effects of that society are still felt today.

Azar Nafisi said it well in her wonderful book Reading Lolita in Tehran ,

“Education’s goal is to impart knowledge, and knowledge is not only heretical but unpredictable and often uncomfortable.  One has to pause and imagine what it would mean to censor all that is uncomfortable from our textbooks. How if we cannot face the past as it was, can you ever hope to teach history.”

 

As the American literary critic Leslie Fiedler showed, we have to be willing to walk into a dark cave and carry a torch to the back and see the truth. Then we must come out and speak the truth we have found. Nothing short of that is good enough. That is the kind of courage we must have. The book challenges our courage.

Twain used this word deliberately. As Nafisi said, “He wanted to shock us, make us uncomfortable, to arouse us from our indolent acquiescence.” That is what modern American conservatives don’t like. They want the bad parts of history to be removed. Such indolence is the begging of oppression.

Twain understood as perhaps few others ever did, the extent to which racial bias was hidden and deeply embedded in American society.  That was deeply pernicious, yet it was the basis for justifying slavery. It was the basis later for Jim Crow laws.

Nafisi made a very important point:

“Each time the word (nigger) is used, it is simultaneously questioned, subverted, destabilized and discredited—in the same manner that terms like “respectable” or “white” are transformed and undermined. When Huck tells Aunt Sally that no one but a nigger was killed and she expresses her joy at no one’s being killed, this, as the saying goes, speaks volumes—not about the inhumanity of slaves but about the blindness of a good-hearted, God- fearing woman.”

 

Twain punctured the self-satisfaction of people who considered themselves respectable and encourage slavery and discrimination. He also wanted to puncture the self-satisfaction of those who used the word “nigger”.

 

As a result, for the same reason Twain used the word I will use the word.  I don’t want to sugar coat the reality by saying something like “the N-word.” I don’t say this to offend or hurt African American people. I say to offend white Americans and Canadians. They should be offended by the truth. Not because they are responsible for what happened. But they are responsible for what they do about it. For what they think about it. And for how that reality changes them now in the here and now.

 

Huck Finn : The Rebel

 

 

As readers of my blog may remember I am engaged in two quests. One is to pursue the religious quest in the modern age. The other, is to re-read at least one book each year.  Well reading this book does both!

 

I am often asked what is the best novel ever written? I answer that question in different ways at different times. That is entirely appropriate to a person who is meandering, uncertainly, I hope, towards the truth. In my opinion this book is certainly one of the best novels ever written, perhaps the very best. I think is my favourite novel of all time!

The book was published first in England in 1884 and America in 1885. In many ways it is the story of America.

Please note in this review I won’t worry about ‘giving things away”. Even if one hasn’t read the book it has been around long enough that everyone knows what the book is about and more or less what happens. So if you don’t like that, read the book first. It is much better than this paltry review.

Many years after I read and immensely enjoyed the novel, I read a book by Azar Nafisi called The Republic of the Imagination. It is a book about a number of American novels, including this one. That book significantly deepened my understanding of this great novel.  Nafisi was a teacher of English literature in Tehran, Iran, before moving to the United States and becoming an American professor of literature.

That seems almost inconceivable.  In Iran she taught a class of mainly young women, many who had asked her to form a book club which she led. One of her students was Farah who was dying but wanted the last year of her life to be devoted to the pursuit of a classic. This book—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

 

Many people consider this book a book for children, particularly young boys. Why is it that so many great American novels are considered books for children?

Nafisi said about young Iranian women reading this novel:

 

“The original Huck was our guide, our inspiration, the thorn in our side who reminded us to be true to ourselves and who, goaded us when we became too complacent, too conventional in our preoccupations,  whenever we seemed too comfortable with our lot. He gave us vital chaos as the kind of American we wanted to be.  He reminded us—best American heroes are wary of being overcivilized, and that they carve out their own path and look to their heart for what is right and just.”

 

Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.” That is precisely what Huck Finn does. It wakes us from our moral slumbers. And all of us fall into such slumbers. It is intellectual indolence. A common disease.

 

One of the most amazing scenes in Nafisi’s  book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsby on trial. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her female students. It is a remarkable achievement. Both learned a lot by reading closely that novel.  According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.

 

This of course is exactly what happens in a totalitarian society like Iran. The mullahs and morality police control everything in the lives of the people. The people are told what to do and what to think and even what to wear and how to wear it. This is what is now happening in Iran when the people are revolting against these restrictions, but it will be difficult. Yet the courageous women in her class did quietly revolt too. Merely reading Huck Finn was rebellious. Huck Finn was a rebel without a cause. No he was actually a rebel with a cause. A very important cause. We will get into that.

 

But how different is America?  As Nafisi said, “I wanted to write about Huck, to capture what he could teach us, at a time of reality TV and phony bombastic patriotism, about a more authentic American ideal.” It is interesting that I write this right after the 2022 midterm elections in the US. These are normally excruciatingly boring. But this year Americans were given a chance to reject the phony patriotism of the Trumpsters, and at least to some extent they seized the moment. Farah “wanted what Huck appeared to be escaping from—a comfortable and predictable home.” This is what Nafisi wanted too.

 

Huck of course became an orphan in the book. His father, Pap,  was mean and inscrutable and in his death freed Huck. So many novels about orphans who encounter a cruel and ungenerous world but then finds wealthy patron and all is then well.  But Huck was different. As Nafisi said about Huck, “But here was one little orphan who not only did not find a home, but was repulsed by its very idea, taking off whenever he was offered one.”

 

Nafisi made a bold statement about Twain: “If there was any figure in the history of American fiction who through his writing, created a literary declaration of independence, it was Mark Twain.” Huck was the classic scamp, rapscallion, and rebel. He dissented from the moral constraints imposed by society. As Nafisi said,

“Huck was a mongrel, an outcast, uneducated and unmoored, and since his creation countless Americans have recast themselves in his image.. He was suspicious of the smothery ways of conventional society, but in his ideals, his moral courage, his determination to open himself up to the lessons of nature and the vagaries of experience, he was as much a product of the Enlightenment as were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin…”

 

Twain understood how difficult it was to dissent from conventional morality.  It is never easy to turn your back on what most others are doing or saying in your society. It is much easier to paddle with the stream rather than against it. But Huck Finn found he could not do that.

That is why Huckleberry Finn is such a subversive novel.

That is why it is such a great novel.

 

 

Desire for Cruelty

 

Because of their incredibly strong desire to separate themselves from respectable society—the establishment as 1960s rebels would call it—the true believers of totalitarian movements of the 1930s and following in Europe, inculcated a desire for cruelty. They were driven by a desire for cruelty. That desire fueled their passion.

Lately I have been rewatching the mob of Trumpsters on Capitol Hill on January 6th and have noticed the same phenomenon. The similarities to the older totalitarian mobs are astonishing. As Hannah Arendt said in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism in which she described the insurrectionists of the 1930s and 1940s:

“They read not Darwin but the Marquis de Sade.  If they believed at all in universal laws, they certainly did not particularly care to conform to them. To them, violence, power, cruelty, power, were the supreme capacities of men who definitely lost their place in the universe and were much too proud to long for a power theory that would safely bring them back and reintegrate into the world. They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content, and they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy.”

 

That applied to Nazi mobs and Communist mobs. I think it also applied to modern American Trump inspired mobs.

Watching the rioters on Capitol Hill on January 6th of 2021 I was struck by how much fun they were having.  It was obviously a blast for them. Literally a blast. It was probably one of the most exciting days of their lives. Running down the corridors of the Capitol in search of Mike Pence chanting that they would hang him and  Nancy Pelosi was incredibly exciting for them. They were filled with passion. Arendt mentioned in her book how the older rebels has a “yearning for violence.” Arendt had said how the revolutionaries experienced

the self-willed immersion in the suprahuman forces of destruction seemed to be a salvation from the automatic identification with pre-established functions in society and their utter banality…”

They were finally loosed from the chains of mediocrity. As Arendt said about the older rebellions,

“What proved so attractive was that terrorism had become a kind of philosophy through which to express frustration, resentment and blind hatred, a kind of political expressionism which used bombs to express oneself, which watched delightedly the publicity given to resounding deeds and was absolutely willing to pay the price of life for having succeeded in forcing the recognition of one’s existence on the normal strata of society. It was still the same spirit and the same game which made Goebbels, long before the eventual defeat of the Nazis, in case of defeat, would know how to slam the door behind them and not be forgotten for centuries.”   

 

Many have been surprised by the fact that Donald Trump could attract support from elites as well as those who had been humbled by globalization. How was that possible?

First, as Hannah  Arendt said, “The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in past forced their way into it.” Next, Arendt also said this about earlier insurrectionists: “The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.” The elite wanted to see the cruelty of the mob in action. It was the same on January 6th 2021. The lust for cruelty can be surprising powerful.

Anyone who unleashes these powerful and uncontrollable emotions must be prepared for the unholy explosion that is likely to follow. Trump was prepared for that. Some of his followers were not, for they abandoned him. It is now being determined how many others are prepared to enjoy the train wreck too.

Yearning to Belong

 

Hannah Arendt commented on how early supporters of Hitler in Germany demonstrated astonishing selflessness. She described that this way:

“The peculiar selflessness of the mass man appeared here as a yearning for anonymity, for being just a number and functioning cog, for every transformation, in brief, which would wipe out the spurious identification with specific types of predetermined functions within society. War had been experienced as that “mightiest of all mass action” which obliterated individual differences so that even suffering, which traditionally had marked off individuals through unique unexchangeable destinies could now be interpreted as “an instrument of historical progress.”

 

This desire to be part of a movement—to belong to a group—is of course of vital significance. Humans have strong desires to be part of groups.  Groups are desired to heal feelings of alienation and isolation. They are exhilarating. If you have any doubt about this go to an American football game. You will be convinced.  The feeling is that this is “us” against “them” and the excitement is palpable. These feelings are beyond reason. Cheering for your team has nothing to do with reason.  That is what the rapture must feel like.

Bakunin, the Russian anarchist expressed this feeling deeply. He said, “I do not want to be I, I want to be We.”

To us from afar this seems insane. It is insane. But it was real for those members of the movement. Will it be the same for modern authoritarians and their followers such Donald Trump’s Trumpsters? We cannot know that in advance, no matter what Arendt has told us about earlier mass movements, but it certainly must make us consider what comes next?

Absolute Loyalty

 

As Hannah Arendt said in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism totalitarian movements required and received absolute loyalty. A member might have to let himself be tried, found guilty of any crime, cooperate with the authorities, without objection—all in the name of the movement.

Of course, not everyone is able to give such loyalty. As Arendt said,

“Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.”

Notably, that was also the kind of loyalty Trump demanded of the Trumpsters, and usually got. That’s what he told James Comey who refused to give it. It did not take long and Coney was out of his job as Director of the FBI. That happened to countless others.

Arendt found it interesting who was able to give such loyalty. It was surprising. As she said,

“What is more disturbing to our peace of mind than the unconditional loyalty of members of totalitarian movements, and the popular support of totalitarian regimes, is the unquestionable attraction these movements exert on the elite, and not only on the mob elements in society. It would be rash indeed to discount, because of artistic vagaries or scholarly naiveté, the terrifying roster of distinguished men whom totalitarianism can count among its sympathizers, fellow-travelers, and inscribed party members.”

 

Again Trumpism found similar support among elite conservatives. Trump and Trumpsters expected Mike Pence to overthrow the votes of states despite the fact that courts had refused to do this, and despite the fact that there was no way this could be done and when he refused Trump immediately turned on him even though he had received 4 years of abject loyalty from Pence. And with only the vaguest of suggestions, the Trumpian mob marched to the White House with chants “Hang Mike Pence.” Later. even though his life had been endangered by Trump and his followers at his behest, Pence did not overturn the election results because he thought he could not do that, but after this devotion to the leader was stubbornly persistent

Loyalty is an astonishing thing. Absolute loyalty is incomprehensible. But it is real. It can persist long past what reason would suggest.