We Know Best!

I’ve always been a soother rather than a fighter, seeking to calm things down, to not get involved in conflict. However, in spite of yesterday’s poetic therapy, I found myself still profoundly disturbed and upset by the way things are going in the world. Because I have seen this all before. This is my attempt to grapple with my own sense of unease…

Following the surprise results of the referendum in Britain and the elections in the US, there are plenty who have come forward and said that it wasn’t that much of a surprise, that it reflects people’s despair and lack of confidence in the establishment, that it’s a moment of revolt, a wake-up call to the out-of-touch elites and hand-wringing, ineffectual liberalists.

I can understand that. I myself have been equally frustrated by the hasty return to ‘flawed business as usual’ after the collapse of 2008, instead of any government truly grappling with the reasons for it and finding new solutions and even new political and economic systems to deal with globalisation and poverty. However, ‘dissing’ experts and giving in to the nastiest, lowest common denominator of populism is not the answer.

Elena Ceausescu receiving an honorary degree in London.
Elena Ceausescu receiving an honorary degree in London.

I lived in a society which was deeply suspicious of experts, intellectuals and elites, even while seeking to emulate them. Elena Ceausescu, the dictator’s wife, did not let only four years of primary schooling get in the way of her becoming a ‘world-renowned scientist’ (savant de renume mondial was the catchphrase you had to add whenever you talked or wrote about her). She had her doctorate in chemistry written by someone else, stole other people’s research papers and collected honorific academic titles from around the world (it was a prerequisite of any planned state visit). Meanwhile, her husband vaunted himself with being the author of numerous books on a variety of subjects (his was a universal expertise).  I often wondered why they were so eager to be labelled ‘intellectuals’ despite their obvious distaste for those who really were such, until I realised that it was an atheist version of ‘You shall have no other Gods but myself’.  It is a cynical and contemptuous manipulation, the brainwashing techniques of ‘I will provide you with all the answers you need’, preferably as simple as possible, thus apparently meeting the needs of the masses, while in fact despising them.

History is littered with such quotes, both on the left and the right.

To read too many books is harmful. (Mao Zedong)

Why do they need any foreign languages? I became Minister of Education without any of that nonsense. (Suzana Gadea, Romanian party official in the 1970s)

Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas? (Stalin)

Lenin in 1921, from ciml archive.
Lenin in 1921, from ciml archive.

To rely upon conviction, devotion, and other excellent spiritual qualities – that is not to be taken seriously in politics. (Lenin)

There are no morals in politics, only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel. (Lenin)

A lie told often enough becomes the truth. (disputed source, it appears Goebbels, Hitler, Stalin and others were all prone to using a version of this)

There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted. It’s “the man in the street” we are talking to. Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth is unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology. (Goebbels)

Joseph Goebbels
Joseph Goebbels

Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will. (Goebbels)

Learning carries within itself certain dangers because out of  necessity one has to learn from one’s enemies. (Trotsky)

How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think. (Hitler)

Universal education is the most corroding and disintegrating poison that liberalism ever invented for its own destruction. (Hitler)

It is not truth that matters, but victory. (Hitler)

Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice. (Hitler)

Yes, in moments of anger and crisis, it is far less reassuring to be full of questions and doubts, to take longer to come to a decision, to consult others instead of being the charismatic leader who always knows best. We are all in thrall of the lone ranger CEO who comes in, shoots from the hip, relies on gut instinct and gives a clear sense of direction. We fear ‘governance by committee and panels of experts’ (and, boy, have I sat on many pointless and silly committee meetings, am I fed up with endless government enquiries!).

The demagogue, from Gazeta de Spania.
The demagogue, from Gazeta de Spania.

Yet I fear even more the person who always knows best, who has an opinion about everything, who is unwilling to listen to others. Especially when they hold the future of a country in their hands. Like this:

The foetus is the property of the entire society. Anyone not having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity. (Nicolae Ceausescu)

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. (Bertrand Russell)

I’ll end this long bout of hand-wringing with a song written by a Romanian rock band, Sarmalele Reci: ‘The Country Wants You Dumb’. The name of the band itself is ironic: it translates as Cold Sarmale – a kind of cabbage-wrapped meatballs which we traditionally eat for Christmas and other major celebrations – but always hot. I apologise for the video quality. It’s an old recording, from 20 years ago, which has been recently found. Sadly, the verses seem to be more relevant than ever (my translation):

What’s the point of learning too much in life?

Your brain might explode.

What’s the point in reading about dead leaders?

All they ask of you today is to be a zero…

Don’t try to achieve anything in life:

There’s no career with a future out there.

And don’t you dare

Try to change a thing

After 2000 years of somnolence.



29 thoughts on “We Know Best!”

  1. What a powerful post, Marina Sofia. Thank you for sharing your insight and your experience with us. As I read it, I kept thinking of how how much of a frightening role arrogance plays in all of this. Along with all of your other well-made points, that one strikes me the most. And, since we’re talking music…. here are some Billy Joel lyrics that I think are relevant:

    Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they’re for.
    I won’t be righteous again. I’m not that sure any more.

    From Shades of Grey

  2. Wonderful post, Marina. I think we are all in a state of despair, but at least we’ve learned that there have always been – and I dare say, there’ll always be – people in power taking advantage of said power. I wish I could get an honorary something every time I travel since my name is also Elena (not true, I think you only deserve anything if you work hard for it) 😉

    1. Do you know that the popularity of the name Elena declined dramatically during the 1980s in Romania (it was a very common girl’s name before then), because of the association with the beloved leader’s wife? I think she was even more hated than him – which probably also has something to do with misogyny, but also something to do with her ruthless, capricious character.
      But it’s a lovely name, so don’t worry about it!

      1. In my case it’s a family name, and I don’t think it has any negative connotations in Spain. Other names associated with Franco’s fascist dictatorship do though. Thanks for the compliment, I’ve always wanted a more ‘girly’ name until my grandma passed away, and then I was glad to having been named after her.

  3. Margot’s quote seems entirely apt, as does the title of the song. Life is sketched in myriad shades of grey rather than the black and white that demagogues tend to use.

  4. Great post but chilling.
    Years of trash TV and trash news have elevated stupidity as a new normal.
    Dark ages are ahead of us, I’m afraid

  5. Thank you Marina from the bottom of my heart. I had a dear friend/neighbour years ago when I lived in NYC. She was a few decades older. In her native country she had been a Geophysicist and her husband an architect. While he managed to get some drafting work (102 floor of the World Trade Centre-before 9-11) she ended up working in sweatshops as neither could produce the necessary documentation. She would show me the rare letter from her brother and a few from her mother. The letters would be heavily censored. It was over six months before her brother could get a letter through to let her know that their mother had passed on.

  6. I set this aside when it was first published – to return to now that I can focus properly, having finally dispatched a lingering headcold. Great post – some of those quotes are utterly chilling. These are challenging times …

  7. I saw a GOOD film … and there was a passage from the “bad guy” … it sounds at first … a little … ( Ill leave it to you …) and at the end is got me thinking … how much truth there is in it.

    This is how it goes…

    Most people believe that the 20th century was a death struggle between Communism and Capitalism, and that Fascism was but a hiccup. But today we know better. Communism was a fool’s errand. The followers of Marx gone from this earth, but the followers of Hitler abound and thrive. Hitler, however, had one great disadvantage. He lived in a time when Fascism, like a virus… like the AIDS virus… needed a strong host in order to spread. Germany was that host. But Germany did not prevail. The world was too big. Fortunately, the world has changed. Global communications, cable TV, the internet. Today the world is smaller and a virus does not need a strong host in order to spread. The virus… is airborne. One more thing. Let no man call us crazy. They called Hitler crazy. But Hitler was not crazy. He was stupid. You don’t fight Russia *and* America. You get Russia and America to fight each other… and destroy each other.
    I mean no evil.

  8. Scary quotes. Good ones to remind us to beware. Working through my stages of grief and beginning to want to sink my teeth into the challenge we are facing. I may be old and slow, but I am not dead yet! This may birth a resurrection of the Spirit within me. I have re-blogged others’ posts of hope and resistance and tracked my journey through fear, depression, anger, hope, faith, love, and resolve. Deciding on my first concrete act of hope in response to the challenges we are facing. Good to read this and all the encouraging comments. Thanks.

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