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.