The importance of rhetoric in politics

There is an intricate and intractable relationship between the three foremost modes of discourse – grammar, logic, rhetoric – which comprised the teaching of language in the Middle Ages – taught for a thousand years as the “Trivium.” Grammar, logic, and rhetoric have all changed over the years – as they must – but I think the Medieval teachers better understood what we need to learn about language practices than we do today. At any rate, a good theorist or critic of rhetoric, to be such, must be well schooled in the Trivium – must be aware of logic and grammar, to recognize how these are used rhetorically. It should also be noted that in evolutionary terms, grammar is probably primary, since without order language cannot be understood, rhetoric is secondary, since the principle function of language is agreement on action between people, and logic tertiary, as a clarification of rhetorical and grammatical protocols. But I admit I am now wandering into speculations on the origins of language, which can only be the subject of speculation, since we have little evidence on the matter.

The following develops from responses to an article by Dwayne Holmes, “No Contest,” which attempted to refute understanding of rhetoric as a proper heuristic for deployment in either understanding or enacting political discourse. [1] It deployed two primary arguments: The first is that rhetoric, as the art of persuasion as such, is too dangerous to be allowed unconstrained in public argumentation, which ought to proceed to judgments derived logically. The second is that rhetorical criticism is useless for understanding the public presentations of the current President, Trump, since he makes no argument and is no master of rhetoric; intead, it is asserted, he is merely a dishonest entertainer, and only has followers seeking to be entertained rather than deal with issues of policy.

What we’re supposed to see from the conjunction of these arguments is how powerless an understanding of rhetoric is in dealing with political discourse, since the real tension there is not between rhetoric and logic, but between ‘serious’ political engagement (necessitating logic) and political ignorance.

However, this doesn’t make any sense, because it leaves us with a lack of explanation of the Trump phenomenon such that we can develop strategies of persuasion for those who follow him. This would necessitate a broader, deeper appreciation of how people make political judgments based on emotionally informed motivations and not simply rational self-interest, which thus also necessitates a broader, deeper understanding of the art of persuasion that must address these motivations. So what we really find is that failure to understand the full dimensions of rhetorical practice leaves one powerless before phenomena that seem to involve irrational judgments based on criteria other than the logically feasible.

The two arguments do not hold together in such a way that a conclusion follows logically from their premises; and the premises lack properly convincing definitions their of terms. It is not surprising then, that the essay ends, not with a summary restatement of the argument(s) and their logically derived conclusion, but with the rhetoric of an emotionally charged promise that the future will somehow make all such matters clear.

Let’s consider Holmes’ issues from a different perspective.

Journalist Anthony Zurcher, remarking Donald Trump’s rhetoric: “He pulled back the curtain on the show and laughed along with his supporters at the spectacle. He encouraged his crowds to cheer the hero (him) and berate the villains (everyone else).” That’s an appeal to an audience. It is persuading that audience to respond in a certain way. That is what rhetoric is supposed to do. [2]

‘Vote for me because…’ is quite obviously the initiation of an argument during an electoral process. One may say, the election is over; however, Trump is already currently engaged in a campaign for re-election in 2020. Therefore, he is still making that argument. (There are several other more discrete arguments he is making, concerning the nature of the media, the right of a president to do as he pleases – thus the very structure of American government, the nature of American society, and the nature of foreign affairs. But his argument for re-election is the most obvious. [3])

Some would deny that Trump is making any arguments or using any rhetoric, insisting that Trump is involved in distractions rather than persuasions; but as I showed with the Zurcher quote, this won’t do. It is true that Trump is not reaching out beyond his base, but his rhetoric is quite successful in keeping his base committed to him.

While I personally think the Electoral College is an outdated institution, it remains a hard fact of American politics, and needs to be addressed in political strategy and should help guide the rhetoric of a national campaign. Clinton didn’t plan on this, relying on a “Blue Wall” of reliable states that didn’t really exist. The Republicans understood this full well, and reaped the rewards of their strategy and the rhetoric used, including that by Trump.

One might wish politics would be entirely reasonable and orderly. So did Socrates – that ended in his drinking hemlock. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, politics is war by another means, not the other way around. It’s a dirty business, and those who don’t like the dirt should not play. If Democrats keep insisting that ‘the other side’ play fair, instead of coming up with a more persuasive politics, they will keep losing elections.

I suppose one might look forward to things getting worse to the point that everyone awakens to realize the rightness of the liberal point of view (and act accordingly). There are two things wrong with this: 1, no matter how bad things get, they can *always* get worse; and humans simply learn to adapt. Because of this, 2, such a hope is doomed to disappointment – Marxists believing this have been disappointed time and again; social critics in ancient Rome were disappointed to the point of the collapse of the Western Empire, after which there was nothing left to hope for.

There certainly is an ethics of the practice of rhetoric, and this is discussed within rhetorical theory; but ultimately this depends on a more general ethics per se. The fundamental criteria of a successful rhetoric is that it works. When to use it, whether or not to use it, how best to maneuver between different modes of discourse and in the service of what causes, is entirely a matter of practical ethics and (in the present context) practical politics.

I’m not a cynic, but I am a pessimist. That’s because I accept people pretty much as they are, rather than how I think they should be. Most people – yes, even most Trump voters – hold themselves up to pretty high standards – they may not be my standards, and I understand frustration with that – but they are standards, nonetheless, and people try to live up to them. When they fail to do so, it’s not because they’ve been manipulated by swindlers, but because uncertainty leads them to misjudgments – they are trying to do their best, but are unsure of what the best might be in a situation of insecurity. Some want them to adopt other standards, and, further, to discuss those standards only in reasonable argument, and, finally, only act according to a reasonable conviction reached through those arguments. This is not addressing human beings.

In real politics, there is a necessity for addressing all the perceived needs of the electorate, and not just their ‘best interest’ as decided by experts.

That politics is war by other means – this derived from Hobbes, not Machiavelli – is certainly pessimistic, but it stands on solid ground: History demonstrates time and again that when politics breaks down, war results. Perhaps it is this inevitable trajectory that politics is intended to stave off.

I said that the Western Empire collapsed, and it was the Western Empire that social critics in the Late Empire were concerned with preserving. Eventually the City was abandoned, and civilization moved elsewhere. In the West, by the way, this meant the conquering of hearts by way of an utterly irrational promise that the life after death would resolve all the dilemmas of the earthly struggle to survive, delivered through a militant organization drenched in mystery and armed with paradoxical faith in what could not be ‘proven’ but only believed. – exactly because it could not be ‘proven,’ and thus ‘must’ be believed.

-_-_-

[1] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/07/13/no-contest/

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40475448 – Or consider the analysis of Trump’s use of hyperbole by Joseph Romm. Also not a professionally trained rhetorician, yet Romm has earned ‘street cred’ in the field after years of experience negotiation public policy and authoring a book advocating the use of rhetoric. https://thinkprogress.org/donald-trump-may-sound-like-a-clown-but-he-is-a-rhetoric-pro-like-cicero-ac40fd1cda79

[3] And given this, by the end of this year, there should be at least two Democratic candidates running for the 2020 nomination. However, this is unlikely, because the DNC, which should be fostering new talent in such efforts, remains convinced that their glory days were the Clinton Administration, and that people will just get so appalled by Trumps antics… like hoping that the Republican Congress, knowing that Trump will sign any bill they can get onto his desk, would consider impeaching him.

 

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A note on rhetoric

(This includes revised material from previous posts.)

“Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.” – Morse Peckham [1].

Dialogue: A rhetorician and a logician:
‘Let’s say we have one audience that sets stock in logic based discourse; another prefers appeal to emotions. The problematic is not how each target audience has its base preferences triggered rhetorically, but why it is they wish their preferences appealed to. The one identifies with their intellect, the other with their ”gut feelings….”’
‘This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated.‘
‘I wouldn’t say manipulated; I suggest their responses are directed toward a preferred end.’
‘But surely an appeal to reasoning is simply part of a dialogue in the effort to find a common truth.’
‘Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically directive?’
‘But if I am faced with a choice reasonably presented, allowing me to judge on logical grounds -‘
‘And how does that make you feel? Isn’t that the person you always wanted to be? and would you submit if you did not feel this?’
‘But I am trying to convince you -’
‘You want my assent; and how shall this be evidenced?’
‘If my logic is sound, you will agree.’
‘You want me to engage a speech act, “yes;” and further, don’t you also want me to go about “convincing” others on your behalf?’
‘On behalf of the truth!’
‘It may be; but that’s beside the point. Therein lies your dilemma: Everything you want me to say may be true; everything you want me to do based on that, may be based on true beliefs. But first, you must have me acquiesce. You must persuade me to your cause. You can appeal to my previous experience and education; you may appeal to my inculcated beliefs; you may appeal to my sense of self, to the values with which I identify. But you will never get my assent with pure logic. “If” covers a lot of ‘maybes,’ and “then” only necessarily follows in a truth table.’

Rhetoric: the practical value:
There is not a single thing we say lacking rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and critical response to it – begins with admitting that. Rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications, i.e., our images of ourselves: it defines our selves socially, and how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, whether good or ill; or even if it is perceived as benefiting the other somehow [2]). We use it on others, there is no socialization otherwise; and others use it on us.

The art becomes, how to navigate in its stream, not whether we wish to stand apart from it (which is impossible) or what we can know independent of it (which is nothing). We might want to be intellect separable from material reality; but that is not as nature made us. We are as we are; my dog will use every sign she can present to get me to pet her, to feed her, to let her out at night. Our signs are far more complicated; but do they not originate in similar needs for recognition and social ‘stroking’? What a wonderful thing it would be, if we were ‘spirits in a material form’! Unfortunately, we are merely animals, trying to get the world around us to do our bidding.
“The goal of all argumentation (…) is to create or increase the adherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent. An efficacious argument is one which succeeds in increasing this intensity of adherence among those who hear it in such a way as to set in motion the intended action (a positive action or an abstention from action) or at least in creating in the hearers a willingness to act, which will appear at the right moment.” – Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric [3].

We have developed a great many technologies with which to do this; but the first and foremost available, and indeed inevitable, to all – is rhetoric. Who cares if you can upload consciousness into a computer? The important question is whether you can persuade a plumber to clean your pipes on Saturday! (Extra points if you get him/her on weekday rates!)


[1] Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior, U Minnesota, 1979.
[2] “Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up healthy as Popeye.”
[3] Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver, Trans. ), University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.
This is probably the most comprehensive text on rhetoric in the modern era, and links well with classical rhetoric without simply re-iterating it, since the authors were well aware that they were writing in the post-propaganda era following WWII. It had considerable influence on Continental philosophers, but is written in the straight-forward academic prose preferred in the Analytic tradition.

The real problem with Trump’s rhetoric

It has taken me forever to try to figure out why Trump’s hyperbolic bluster, outright lies, and paranoiac screeching has any effectiveness at all – and it’s not simply that the media find it fascinating.

 

The fact is, Trump is saying exactly what his core followers would say in the same situation.  They would want to order people about; they would want to threaten and bully; they want to belittle people noticeably different from themselves.  They want to “grab her by the pussy;” they want to laugh at the disabled; they want to threaten nuclear war.  They want to gloat over perceived enemies after every little victory, and to blame others for every failure.

 

The key to understanding Trump’s behavior since entering the White House is that he is always playing to these core followers.  He has nothing to say to Merkel; it is more important to his followers that he say something about her.  By now he must know that bullying doesn’t work with Congress – even his Republicans; but that doesn’t matter, it’s the appearance of bullying that delights his core following.  He mocks the press because they have not fallen in line and glamorized him as he thinks they ought to – and that thrills his core following, who believe him glamorous as they could never be.

 

The real problem with Trump’s rhetoric is – Trump’s voters (or at least what I am calling his core followers, his true believers).  They represent about a third of the electorate, and they have no contact with any reality science can study, any logic one might wish to use in argument, and evidence not promised in conspiracy theories that will never be brought out in public (because of course non-existent; but that doesn’t matter to them, because they ‘believe’ in it, that’s all the validation they need).

 

That’s the problem.  A third of the electorate unreachable by any reasonable discourse or fact or evidence.  A personality cult verging on a religion.

 

It has been often said, without an informed an electorate, democracy is unsustainable.  Well, America is at least a third underwater now; and unfortunately, they’re the ones who elected the captain of the boat.

The election’s over; what now?

Among the many gaffes, groundless accusations, false flags, insults and general whining these past couple weeks, Donald Trump assured his followers that he couldn’t possibly lose in Pennsylvania unless the election were rigged.   Let’s stop and consider the logic of that.  Trump was not relying on any polls (indeed he has taken to deny they matter).  He was not referring to a tsunami of letters to the editor of various news organizations, or some set of petitions.  His reference point seems to be entirely his own ‘gut,’ his confidence that everyone recognizes him as the ‘smartest guy in the room,’ who so many people love and admire.

Actually, my suspicion is that his true reference point is simply and only the applause he hears from fans at rallies.  If true, that tells us a lot about the man, first of all that he really doesn’t get the difference between fans applauding and an electorate voting.  But I think it is becoming more and more obvious that this is exactly the case.

But the logic of his assertion that he can only lose if the election’s rigged, extends beyond the rallies.  Basically, what he’s saying is, that since it s so obvious that he’s so smart, and would do such wonderful things, and is so beloved for this – the election is now immaterial.  Indeed, if Trump’s gut were a true measure of reality, then we shouldn’t hold the election at all.  Hillary should simply throw in the towel, and the House of Representatives appoint him to office.

The irony is that Trump is making his gut known on this matter at exactly the moment when it is now possible to admit that the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is some not so nice things for a progressive – or even a liberal.  She does lie, she is dishonest, she is conniving and manipulative.  She’s also a neocon on foreign policy, and a neo-liberal on economics.  The judge she appoints to the Supreme Court will steadfast moderates – meaning that while the train-wreck that was the Roberts court is now over, it’s legacy will not be undone by any major reversals.  On top of that, she has now a small constituency of anti-Trump Republicans that she will have to accommodate after election.  In short, Clinton’s offers to become the most conservative Democratic administration since Woodrow Wilson.

However there is one thing Clinton is not, that Trump now obviously is – She is not mentally ill.

Call it sociopathy, or narcissism or delusions of grandeur or some other out-of-touch egomania, what you will.  Donald Trump has not the slightest clue as to the nature of the political process, the nature of government, what it means to be a political leader of the most powerful nation in a very complicated world order that is untethering at the seams in response to years of finance-capital-elite driven globalization.  (In fact, by some reports, he wouldn’t even know what to do in day to day administrative tasks, and is not entirely enthusiastic about becoming President for that reason.)

However – the good news is, that the election is all but over.  Whatever the final numbers prove, this is why Donald Trump has lost the election:

Demographics:  Besides loyal Democrats, Trump has alienated the majority of each of the following voting blocks:

African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, non-Muslim Americans from pre-dominantly Muslim nations, Mormons, Jews, Americans with disabilities, LGBT Americans, atheist Americans, scientists, veterans, parents of veterans, attractive women, not so attractive women, mothers, women who menstruate (I think that’s quite a number), Republican women, Republican moderates, Republican politicians struggling to retain their seats in the next congress, Republicans concerned for national security, Republican business people, the college educated (left and right), Americans who don’t like Putin, Americans who like babies – and the list goes on.  Trump has failed to alienate angry uneducated white men, but recent polls indicate that he’s no longer doing so well among them.  (And yes, he has alienated the Christian Right, but then hired Mike Pence for VP to make amends.)

But, that’s not all.  Trump has utterly failed to understand the post-nomination campaign process.  He has no ground game, few storefronts with door-to-door campaigners, few liasons with local Republican politicians.  (It’s not even clear he understands why that’s needed.)  He expected the RNC to fund his campaign, when part of the responsibility of the Presidential nominee is to raise funds for the Party.  He has isolated himself from the national press, failing to realize that he is expected, in part, to speak through them, especially were he to become the President.

It clear now that Trump has no strategy.  His pet boy Manafort may be able to guide him to battleground states, but in as lop-sided an election as this, he can’t just ignore previously safe ‘Red’ states – even Arizona, probably the most right-wing Republican state in the West, and one suffering severe tensions between dominant Anglos and a Mexican American underclass, is now in play.

But Trump’s biggest problem, of course, is his own mouth.  He can’t stop it.  That’s why he is clearly pathological.  He sounds like a robot when he reads a written speech, but when he goes off-text, he’s an uncontrollable, foam-at-the-mouth ranter, and self-promoter.  Even if his people could get him to reign it in, it’s probably too late.

The next big moment of the campaign season is the arrival of the Presidential debates.  My guess right now is that Trump will probably make it through one or two before he blows up.  After which he will ‘double-down’ on the narrative that the ‘system is so rigged against me, they won’t let me win,’ because by that time it will be obvious even to him that he has already effectively lost the election.

So the discussion progressives and liberals now need to begin is, what are we do during the Clinton administration – how do we further progressive causes and somehow begin winning seats in Congress and in State capitols?    That’s a long game to play; but otherwise we may have more nightmares like 2016 further down the road.

The dead end of moral relativism

I confess that I would find it very difficult to go to the families of the victims in Orlando, and explain that ethical prohibitions against murder are simply a question of taste; that their suffering is a matter of complete indifference, philosophically; and that the deaths of their loved ones are of little importance because these were somehow predestined by random physical acts at the Big Bang; or because, being gay, they weren’t expected to pass on their genes.

If evolution has gotten us to that point – it wasn’t worth it.

There are certainly those suggesting such a perspective – by logical implication and extension – that there is no ‘wrong’ to it. Don’t we even have those proudly declaiming that they are happy making no judgment concerning Hitler?

Come on – let’s get real. Ethics is not about theory (and certainly not about meta-theory), it’s about behavior – those behaviors we enact, and those of others we live with.

I find the denial of ethics to be inhumane, arrogant, and egotistical. It’s really a way of saying, ‘ethical standards do not apply to me (or only when I want them to).’

The squirrelly, weaseled language defending such a vacuous, self-centered, anti-social antipathy toward all the social bindings that make living human difficult, painful, and sometimes joyous is *at best* evidence of a lack of tact and rhetorical skill; at worst… well, something far worse.

How can people who claim that ethics is entirely a matter of feelings, be so insensitive to the feelings of others, so as not to recognize that our discussions of ethics, both in the Academy and in the wider community, are part of the process that brings people together, that forms the community, that generates our laws and our sense of decency.

I should note that conventionalism, ala Hume and Darwin, is in itself an ethic (not a meta-ethic) that the Logical Positivists relied on in their effort to curtail discussion of ethics in philosophy. This is almost never discussed as such in philosophy, because its faults are plain: projected out from a given society, it spirals down the rabbit hole of relativism. (‘We don’t like murder of girl infants in Europe; but if they practice that in the backwoods of China, who are we to say it’s wrong?’) Consequently it is usually defended as a consequentialism. But consequentialism, just as such, is fundamentally simplistic, and blurs into psychological anxieties involving such issues as peer pressure and legal sanction. Someone who’s gay can still be fired for this some states. The self-loathing bisexual in Orlando, no longer able to tolerate the multiple threats to his own sense of identity, produced a consequence he apparently hoped would meet approval from at least one group of self-serving religious fanatics – and he accomplished this consequence. He wanted to die doing that – and he did.

Ethics must be complex, complicated, sociologically rich and psychologically layered, in addressing human needs, fears, hopes, because it is about maintaining a stable society with as little potential for harming others as possible.

We all behave according to ‘oughts;’ whether derived from utility, or religion, or deontologically; virtue, or convention or consequence. The question is *how we share these with others*. Because when we don’t, the only ‘oughts’ an individual may comply with are psychological drives, some of which lead to destruction or self-destruction.

Again, this iss the logical implication of what is said, extended into the practicalities of real life – and not empty and undisciplined ‘theorizing.’

Ideas have consequences. We live with them. That is why study, sharing, caution and care, are so important.

I didn’t lose anybody in Orlando. But I did on 9/11/01. Gesticulations about ‘utilizations’ for maximum ‘good/bad’ in some empty theory insult me in times like this.

I don’t care to discuss such matters with those who even won’t pass judgment on Hitler; half the family of my first girlfriend (whose memory I still cherish) was wiped out in Dachau.

Such people keep saying its all about emotions, likes and dislikes; but they don’t care about any of this, any of the real feelings of the people they address – even on their own terms, why the hell should we care about them?

I’m sorry; I won’t talk to any of them about such matters anymore – they don’t have anything to say that I would find interesting in any way. If I found myself on a bus with them, I would get off and hitch-hike. Then maybe I’d get a ride from someone with something interesting to say about politics and ethics. It might not be ‘philosophical,’ in the professional sense (and certainly not ‘theoretical’) – but at least it would be the meat and potatoes of real people talking about real things.

The moral relativists should explain how their positions properly ground condemnation of the Orlando murders. All of them, really. Or let them keep their disgusting egoism to themselves, because I won’t be paying attention anymore… .


Note added next day:

I’ve realized that I need to clarify to what or whom I am referring to as “moral relativists” –  especially since I am to some extent a relativist of a kind, in that I think weighing the differing behaviors of peoples from different cultures must always be undertaken carefully and with charitable tolerance for behaviors that may be useful and conducive to greater well-being within the given culture.  No, what I am referring to here are those who gleefully proclaim their independence from ethics all together, who would even argue that we should have no discussion of ethics, particularly in philosophy or politics.  This makes no sense at all. We do not have any guidance of behavior that is somehow free of the necessity for public articulation or public argument; and as long as this is the case, there must also be a corresponding philosophic discussion of the general principles of such articulation and argument.  And the inevitable response to this seems to be, that we don’t need any guidance of behavior at all, and this is clearly false, for reasons I suggested above.  We will have such guidance; the question is whether it will be reasonable and social, or whether it will be egocentric or psychologically driven.  I believe the former is more conducive to the possibility of stability and greater flourishing.  The latter creates monsters and generates violence.  And we just don’t need that anymore- we ought not to have it anymore – we cannot survive together like that anymore.

Hitler’s religion

Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? Was he, as others charge, an atheist? [1]

These questions are poorly formed. A more apt question would be, ‘What did he ‘believe’ beyond his own destiny, if anything?’

A preliminary point that needs to be made concerns the touchy question about which scholars one trusts and which one does not; but I don’t really want to raise that issue. Nonetheless, a rule of thumb is, if the same historical trend has been noted independently by different scholars giving careful interpretation of the source materials, then likely their remarks can be trusted, and any disagreements resolved through consideration of their differing perspectives. The majority of scholars I’m familiar with agree that Nazi Germany, and the Nazis themselves, were not as religiously homogenous. Hitler’s own beliefs depend on a careful study of Mein Kampf – selected passages will mean nothing taken out of context.

Such a move leaves one utterly unable to account for the complexities of Hitler’s psychology; unable to account for his biography, what led him to the juncture that Mein Kampf marks as the arrival of the historical Hitler; unable to account for the complex relationship Hitler had with the German right and the German people as a whole. It will certainly not adequately account for the anti-Semitism; or for the obvious tensions between Hitler’s own cosmogony and that of Christianity, which are not identical and in many respects antagonistic.

Quite a number of scholars believe that the evidence strongly suggests that the Nazis not only intended to re-interpret Christianity, but do away with it entirely. (The ‘bible’ they placed on the alter of the one church they established themselves, in Berlin, was of course – Mein Kampf.) That doesn’t make them atheists, but I never said it did. The matter needs greater study, more complex and nuanced argument, greater accounting of the historical context. The problem at the time was not simply Nazism, nor religion, but the history of Germany to that date, and the malaise the Germans found themselves in during the 1920s. The issue simply cannot be reduced to a question of whether they had a religion or not. They had Hitler.

What Hitler himself seems to have believed about himself and his place in the world, is that Fate – some cosmic force, which he sometimes equates with ‘the Almighty,’ but also simply refers to as a less personalized ‘Fate’ or ‘Destiny’ – had placed him at the epicenter of an age old racially determined struggle between the Aryan and the Jew. ‘Good’ (Aryan) and ‘evil’ (Jew) are entirely defined by this struggle, there is no morality otherwise. [2] His dedication to this struggle effectively became his religion.

Thus, Hitler’s own profound sense of personal destiny and his rage against the Jews led to his religion – not the other way around.

Mein Kampf is an act of self-creation. It’s a passion, a narrative of apotheosis of a self-identified savant and savior.

After the disappointment of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler wanted to trash the established right-wing, with its old militarism, and re-define Nazism as a holistic anti-Semitic revolution, and at the same time culminate the reconstruction of his personality that had been on-going after his nervous collapse at (and as response to) the end of WWI. This meant providing an entire cosmogony that could synthesize with both traditional beliefs and prejudices as well as then-contemporary popular understandings of scientific knowledge. It also meant providing a mythic figure that could function as both prophet and savior – Hitler himself, of course.

It is not at all clear what Hitler really thought about the trends of belief that came before him, whether that which could be found in traditional churches, or the developments of science. Paganism, eugenics, Weimar hedonism, evangelical tent-revivals, blind faith in technological innovation, paranoid denial of then current physics – all were simply melted into the alloy forged in the furnace of Hitler’s rage against the world (where he had only felt belonging as a soldier during during the First World War [3}). (A close reading of Mein Kampf reveals that he actually held Germans in contempt almost as much as Jews – “Are these still human beings, worthy of being part of a great nation?” he allows himself to wonder in evident disgust, concerning the German construction workers with whom he worked before the war. [4]) Hitler’s racism was conditioned by Social Darwinism as well as by ‘special creation’ theories, since both were prevalent in that day; but originated in his personal disgust with the human, and his experience of the world as little more than a battleground in a war of all against all.

Claiming to know “what Hitler believed” is simply facile, without struggling to grasp who this cypher was [5] or why his speeches resonated so well with the Germans of his day. It is also a misconception of modern revolutions to try to define their attempts to supplant previous religious beliefs with their preferred ideology, as reducible to the imperatives of their ideology. It is in the nature of modern revolution itself to supplant and dissolve traditional religion. This is as true of ISIS as it was true of the French Revolution’s “Church of Reason.” And it was certainly true of Hitler’s self-created messianism. Of course Hitler would find it useful to claim the authority of “the All-Mighty” for his project. But beyond some profound sense of personal destiny, it is wholly unclear that Hitler believed there was anything ‘out there’ but chaos and never-ending conflict. Although Hitler courted the Wagner family to lay claim on Nietzsche, in fact the only philosopher he read was Schopenhauer (although he inverted Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as what needed to be constrained, choosing instead to unleash it).

So what did Hitler believe? I have tried to suggest here that, while the question is most certainly interesting, answers to it cannot be reduced to ‘ready-mades’ to fit our own ideological preferences. He was a product of history – but that history was not simple, not linear, and not uni-vocal. Like most of history, it was – and remains – a morass of conflicting urges and social pressures against the individual’s will to achieve some importance – some sense of ‘being there.’

That’s the problem – the will to become a self in opposition to all other selves.

Any ideology promising that will only bring about heart-break.

—–

[1] Really, the dangling of the ‘Hitler-monster’ in the theist/ atheist god debate has got to stop. It does no justice to the victims of Nazism, and distorts the history rather than clarifying it. ‘Well, they started it!’ each side claims – I don’t care. It’s got to stop. It is poorly informed, a-historical, and contributes to the general stock of discursive muddle that plagues the public mind, especially on the internet. Those who think they really have a case to make, should engage in the research necessary to make that case, and not mine for quotes. As raw source, Hitler can be made to say practically anything. Anyway, the whole “believers in X do nasty things, therefore X is wrong,” is a bad argument. Every ideology contains imperatives that can be used to justify even heinous acts. The real lesson of Hitler here is that, if one wants to perform those acts, one will find the justification for it – or make it up.

[2} See: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The war against the Jews, 1933-1945. Weidenfeld And Nicolson (1975).

[3] See: Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press(1974).

[4] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated and edited by Alvin Johnson et.al., Reynal & Hitchcock (1941); page 54.

[5] See: Joachim C Fest, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt (1973).

Hitler’s Mom

I’ve remarked in comments here and elsewhere, that I once wrote a critical-rhetorical analysis of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf  (circa 1994). I would like to submit here a chapter of that analysis, so that if further reference to it becomes necessary, there is evidence of its existence.

This particular chapter, as essay, reveals the somewhat odd relationship Hitler had with his mother, at least as far as can be gleaned from Hitler’s text.

The argument:  Hitler uses rhetoric to redefine his early experiences in a way that tends to bury facts, suppress anxieties concerning women and sexuality, and shape those experiences as seeming necessities of fate. The principle revealing rhetorical moment is when, having effectively blamed his mother for the poverty he suffered in Vienna (eliding his own irresponsibility as something of a wastrel), he tropes a new mother for himself (‘Dame Care’), which thenceforth effaces memory of his actual mother altogether.

One reason for posting here is the recent legalized publication of Mein Kampf  in Germany for the first time since WWII. It is also always a good thing to remind ourselves, not only of what Hitler and his  followers did, but the kind of people they were – especially since there are many such people among us, unfortunately even in politics.

Finally, I hope the essay demonstrates the helpful interaction between rhetoric and history (and indirectly psychology). The understanding of history is not simply the recording of facts, but a greater understanding of the people who make history, and of their motivations.

(Another time, I will probably tell something of the story of why I did not follow the full study through to publication, which is not without its own interest…. )
—–

Hitler’s Two Mothers, by E. John Winner:

My mother, to be sure, felt obliged to continue my education in accordance with my father’s wish; in other words, to have me study for the civil servant’s career.
(…)
Concerned over my illness, my mother finally consented to take me out of the Realschule and let me attend the Academy.
(…)
Two years later, the death of my mother put a sudden end to all my highflown plans.
It was the conclusion of a long and painful illness which from the beginning left little hope of recovery. Yet it was a dreadful blow, particularly for me. I had honored my father, but my mother I had loved.
(…)
What little my father had left had been largely exhausted by my mother’s grave illness(…). [1]
(…)
When my mother died, Fate, at least in one respect, had made its decisions. [2]
(…)
After the death of my mother I went to Vienna (…). [3]
(…)
I exalt it [poverty] for tearing me away from the hollowness of a comfortable life; for drawing the mother’s darling out of his soft downy bed and giving him ‘Dame Care’ for a new mother (…). [4]

In a book of some 300,000 words, much of it purporting to be autobiographical in nature, and from a man who had, at the time of writing, lived nearly half his life with his mother, the above handful of sentences and fragments comprise every last word Adolf Hitler chose to write about his mother in Mein Kampf.

Respect his father but love his mother? Considering her nearly complete absence from his autobiographical material here, one wonders if he thought much about her at all.

Historians tend to agree that Klara (Polzl) Hitler, the young wife of a middle-aged man (who, by some accounts, abused her), several of whose children died before the age of six, spoiled her only surviving son (excluding step-children), Adolf. One could expect that. And one could expect that the son would be devoted to his mother in return; or, if the relationship took a pathological turn, perhaps the son would respond to the fawning attentions of the mother with an equal pathology, in what might be termed a ‘love/hate’ relationship. It could take on even a sado-masochistic quality. Certainly Hitler’s character and reputation invite this interpretation. But, alas! why doesn’t it show up in what he writes of her?

To be sure, National Socialism’s brutally exclusionary ideology, and its dominating attitude toward women, are well known. The ideal ‘Aryan’ is a male; women, even in terms of their most admirable qualities, are little more than baby-making housekeepers. Their greatest virtue, accordingly, would be their ‘racial purity’ – bearers of good genes. Nothing else would be asked, or expected of them. Indeed, any more would be too much. (But see the discussions in When Biology Became Destiny. [5])

Hitler’s own attitudes were kinky enough, even as manifest and openly expressed, without (pace the once famous OSS psychoanalysis by Langer [6]) speculating on his behavior in the bedroom. Hitler was oft dependent on women, and yet uncomfortable around them. He idealized them, avoided them, talked down to them. He treated both of his known mistresses, Geli Raubal and Eva Braun, as sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, children. The matter is made more pathetically complex when one remembers that Hitler surrounded himself with the promiscuously homosexual leadership of SA, as well as pathologically sado-masochistic anti-Semites like Jules Streicher. And Hitler’s rants in Mein Kampf – against syphilis, prostitution, and genetic contamination – are widely held as evidence of his own sexual pathology, although no one is quite sure anymore what that pathology might of been. Disgust? Suppressed desire? Certainly these rants are mad parodies of reformist rhetoric, and need closer reading. But when revivalist ministers begin foaming at the mouth about the terrors of Hell, are they expressing a personal fear? doing all they can to save the souls of their listeners? or simply selling a belief in exchange for filled coffers? (And who would want to believe in the terrors of hell, and to what purpose?)

At any rate, the point is, Hitler’s attitude towards women per se is enough of a question that anything he might say about the first woman he would know intimately, his own mother, would promise to reveal much about that more general attitude which so informed the ideology of a major political movement that would eventually dominate an entire nation.

But such is not the case. Hitler’s one great opportunity to wax sentimentally over the virtues of motherhood, in their embodiment in the form of his own mother, slips by with little remark.

In sum, the story Hitler tells is this: His mother (notice the absence of name) feels obliged to continue with his dead father’s plans for his son. Then her own illness brings about her death. This impoverishes the son. He leaves for Vienna, and further poverty. However, this turns out to be fortuitous – indeed, decided by Fate. The son learns more from the harshness of his poverty than he could have learned from his comforting mother and her comfortable lifestyle. So much so, that itself becomes his surrogate mother thenceforth, figuratively speaking.

But what is the nature of this figure of speech? The unnamed actual mother becomes displaced by the figural mother, ‘Dame Care’ – apparently a noblewoman, and a masterly one. The actual mother could teach Hitler nothing, but ‘Dame Care’ is insistent, unyielding. From her, he begins to learn his lessons about life. She is thus his real mother, since she fulfills the parenting function.; the actual is thus displaced by the real. The actual had obligations, but would not meet them; thus her position is surrendered to the real. Of course, the death of the actual was convenient; but perhaps more than that: Fate, again, takes a hand.
There is bitterness in this little fable, but there is more. Interestingly, no scholar I’ve read seems to pick up on it; but Hitler’s ambivalence towards his mother, and towards her death, are right there on the surface, nothing could be clearer. He “loved” her, but her death turns out to be a good thing. She loved him, but this was not such a good thing, he learned nothing thereby. Perhaps (could this thought have crossed his mind?) it would have been better for her to fulfill her obligations to the dead father and push Hitler to pursue a civil servant’s career? But he hated this idea. Nonetheless, he would not have suffered in poverty if she had done so. Yet if he hadn’t suffered in poverty, he would never at last have learned the world, would never become the leader of a historically important political movement. So it was good that she relented, and good also that she died, and good that her death forced him into a life of poverty, and good that she was revealed as not a very good mother (for loving too much) by a parenting figure, Dame Care, poverty, who proves a much better mother indeed – because she (poverty) does not love her son.

So the matter stands thus: Whatever he actually once felt for his mother, by the time of the writing of Mein Kampf, Hitler had condemned her for loving too much, and fulfilling her parental (rather than wifely) obligations. He turned instead to experience itself to be his guide, assuming it to have a will (and thus a personality), and an intention for the education it was giving him. His own experience thus becomes projected outside of himself, as a power greater than himself, directing him in his career. As much as to say: ‘This happens to me, but the “This” has its reason for happening; it wills me to move in a given direction. It is not me, yet it makes me who I am.’

On the surface this sounds terribly optimistic, a healthy means of learning from one’s mistakes, so to speak. But Hitler isn’t writing of mistakes – all this has been fated, there are no mistakes. Under this seeming surrender to experience lies a complete denial of the lessons that could be learned from experience. ‘This wills itself on me;’ i.e., ‘I am not doing this, it is doing itself.’

Perhaps a bit of factual detail helps clarify the matter.  In his subtle but unmistakable condemnation of his mother, Hitler effectively accuses her of impoverishing him by growing ill and dying, thus incurring costs for medical treatment and burial. But according to all his recent biographers, the evidence is clear that this is false. The family pension on which he lived at the time, continued after her death; he appears to have squandered it by acting as a kind of bargain-basement spend-thrift. To be sure, he had little; but what little he had he spent carelessly. Yet poverty, he claims, ‘happened’ to him, and he implies that this was his mother’s fault.

Well, if poverty is such a great teacher, perhaps Hitler owed his mother thanks, and this was his round-about way of expressing it. But the point is, Hitler, however he might be viewed objectively, presents himself as a kind of motherless child – the actual mother failed him; his ‘real’ mother, Dame Care, is simply a figure of speech. He is thus thrown into the arms of Fate, propelling him to his destiny….

And that is why Klara Polzl Hitler, to give her back the name he refuses her, so quickly disappears from view in the autobiographical passages of Mein Kampf. The love mother and son shared was but temporary weakness; its only contribution to his life was its closure. Any further memory of it – tracing possibilities to which he had turned his back – would merely prove annoying.

—–

[1] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (hereafter MK), 1925; Trans. Ralph Manheim, Houghton Mifflin, 1943; p. 18.

[2] MK, p. 19.

[3] MK, p. 20.

[4] MK, p. 21.

[5] Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, Marion A. Kaplan, When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany; Monthly Review Press, 1984.

[6] Walter C. Langer. The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report; Basic Books, 1943.