Unthoughtful Emotions

Unthoughtful Emotions

The Financial Times, 5th November 2016, led its Life & Arts supplement with an interview with an American fascist of the name Richard B. Spencer, who promotes racism, anti-Semitism, and ultra ‘white’ nationalism through Twitter and other media. He it was who first coined the term ‘alt-right’ that has, in the wake of Donald Trump, found a voice for itself. “No matter what happens I will be profoundly grateful to Trump for the rest of my life” says Spencer. He is clearly clever without necessarily being intelligent—an important distinction—reads books, is influenced by philosophers who were favourable to the rise of Nazism in Germany such as Freidrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, and more modern philosophical conservatives such as Roger Scruton. That makes him different from the majority of his fellow-travellers, most of whom are more at home as trolls sending anonymous expletives and hurtful tweets to well-meaning people, especially it seems to women who stand up for their rights. It’s easy to see how the intervention of Donald Trump has been a gift to them.

What makes his views of interest is the way he pinpoints exactly the role of social media as a means of propaganda. Of course, ISIS and similar ideologues know it already, but Spencer sums it up beautifully. Following the printing press and the spread of literacy (this is not him talking yet), the technology served the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, the Encyclopaedia of Diderot, The Wealth of Nations of Adam Smith, the Origin of Species of Darwin, even The Interpretation of Dreams of Sigmund Freud. People read these works. My generation grew up with them. They contained thoughts logically constructed supported by empirical data that could be challenged by others. The revolutionary interventions of Francis  Bacon who brokered the idea of experimentation as a foundation of modern science, and of astronomer Galileo Galilei who not only noted that the Earth revolved around the Sun but could demonstrate it by peering through a new technology called the telescope, seeped through the haze of medieval deity-based obscurity into an enlightened world. René Descartes was the philosopher of this transition, and his maxim of inquiry was “Doubt Everything”. The idea of continuous progress in society was born.  Now it seems to be gasping for air.

Mr Spencer understands, or thinks he does, that we are now moving back (this is him talking now) to an age of pre-Enlightenment, enabled by new social media technologies. Thoughts are replaced by emotions. Reading by evocative images and captions. The long view by instant gratifications. In other words, the world can be more easily manipulated, steered, and groomed, through an excruciating use of social media, reality TV shows, and a large dose of repetitive assertions that are rarely critically examined, analysed and adjudicated. They appear and are gone in a flash, many flashes, over and over again. Of course the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels springs to mind, but that misses a crucial point. ‘Flash politics’, let’s call it, is being adopted across the board. President Obama himself made successful use of social media, tweets, etc. It’s the ‘new normal’ and its replacing, not enhancing, reading and thoughtful listening. The technology no longer seems naturally to lend itself to the promotion of these values.

Mr Spencer repulsively but with irony tweeted alongside a photograph of a blood-covered young Syrian boy which went viral, “Hey, let’s start WWIII for this f***king kid”. The interviewer challenged him. His response is interesting. Tweets “make people feel, rather than think” and points out that the liberals who posted that image were doing so to promote their own agenda to overthrow Assad. “They weren’t making a rational case. They were playing on your sense of pity…”

I remember many years ago a friend of mine started work for the Yorkshire Post newspaper in the UK. When I asked him what he had learned about journalism he replied that you always had to look for the broken doll. I asked him to explain. “Well” he said “if there is an accident somewhere, get a picture of the broken doll lying on the ground, an exemplifier of the carnage and the tragedy.” I asked “what about the cause of the accident?” I got a look back that said “you’d never make a journalist”. It’s not just the technology, it’s very much the decision by those in the media to focus on the emotional, especially if a non-rational argument is to accompany it in an editorial. Was it ever thus? Yes, but the new technology simply makes it much easier to do that, and has a global reach which the Yorkshire Post never had, nor the Financial Times come to that. I would be good to think that Mr Spencer has also reached his global limits. But that sounds like wishful thinking. Of course, fire can be fought with fire, and social media with social media, but the moment that becomes detached from enlightenment and shortcuts to the emotional, then the technology starts to determine our responses. After that it’s a choice between back to medievalism or forward to Aldous Huxley and his warning in Brave New World written in 1931. Unlike ISIS, I suspect Mr Spencer would be more at home in the latter. It was tried once.

Postscript: Earlier this year the historian Fritz Stern died. He had escaped from his homeland when the Nazis came to power and since warned of a resurgence of fascist sentiments, not in Germany but in his new homeland, America. The Financial Times wrote a review, which is worth quoting. “Stern was worried about the corruption of public discourse and a world in which everything has become opinion. He would have been doubly alarmed by the impact of Twitter and the spread into mainstream media of conspiracy theories once found only on the margins.”[1] The FT commentary goes on the remind us that it is not a renewed fascination with ‘strong men’ and dictators that is the cause, but the underlying parallels with the years following the 1929 Great Depression of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ that hollows-out and eventually erodes the institutions of democracy.

Post-Mortem for Progress?: “Trump choice of ‘alt-right’ Bannon queried” Financial Times 15 November 2016. President-Elect Donald Trump made his first appointments, including Steve Bannon, ex-Goldman Sachs and editor of the alt-right anti-Semitic and white supremacist Breitbart New, as top White House advisor, and Myron Ebell, a leading climate-change denier,  to head up the Environmental Protection Agency. Those appointments will make Richard B. Spencer happy.

PPS: 16th November – Twitter and Facebook removed the blogs of Richard B. Spencer and several other alt-rightists. According to Twitter “The Twitter rules prohibit violent threats, harassment, hateful conduct and multiple account abuse, and we will take action on accounts violating those policies.”[2]

[1] Financial Times ‘Ideas that fed the beast of fascism flourish today’ 7 November 2016  https://www.ft.com/content/599fbbfc-a412-11e6-8898-79a99e2a4de6

[2] Financial Times ‘Twitter suspends alt-right accounts’ 17 November 2016 https://www.ft.com/content/65f4b7f0-ac18-11e6-9cb3-bb8207902122

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