Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Danger of Being Self-Educated

J.M. Cotzee reviews Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest and reviews Hitler's intellectual life as a young adult:
Hitler may not have been much of an artist (he always had trouble with the human figure—a telling weakness), but there is no denying that, at least in his early years, he was an intellectual of sorts. He read incessantly (though only what he liked), he was interested in ideas (though only in ideas that fitted his preconceptions) and believed in their power, he involved himself in the arts (though his tastes were unshakably provincial and prematurely conservative).

From the wealth of new ideas to which he was exposed, he made a selection which he cobbled together to compose the philosophy of National Socialism. The pseudo-anthropology of Guido von List made a deep impression on him. List divided mankind into an Aryan master race, originating in the northernmost fastnesses of Europe, and a race of slaves with whom the Aryans had regrettably miscegenated over the centuries. He urged the recovery of the pure Aryan blood-line by strict sexual segregation from the slave race, via the creation of a state comprising Aryan masters and non-Aryan slaves ruled over by a F├╝hrer who would be above the law.

Another of the charlatans under whose influence Hitler fell was Lanz von Liebenfels, founder of the Order of the New Templars and publisher of the magazine Ostara, of which he was an avid reader. Liebenfels was an extreme misogynist who saw women as lower beings attracted by their nature to "primitive-sensual dark men of inferior races." What Hitler knew of racial science and eugenics, and later imported into National Socialist policy, came not from scientific reading but filtered through popularizers and vulgarizers like Liebenfels.

All in all, the adventures of Adolf Hitler in the realm of ideas provide a cautionary tale against letting an impressionable young person loose to pursue his or her education in a state of total freedom. For seven years Hitler lived in a great European city in a time of ferment from which emerged some of the most exciting, most revolutionary thought of the new century. With an unerring eye he picked out not the best but the worst of the ideas around him. Because he was never a student, with lectures to attend and reading lists to follow and fellow students to argue with and assignments to complete and examinations to sit, the half-baked ideas he made his own were never properly challenged. The people he associated with were as ill-educated, volatile, and undisciplined as himself. No one in his circle had the intellectual command to put his chosen authorities in their place as what they were: disreputable and even comical mountebanks.


Today we have information everywhere. Much of it conveniently sorted by Ideological bent. It is easy to find scholarly (or pseudo-scholarly) articles online that will conclusively state the viewpoint you believe....with footnotes! Perhaps this follows from Postmodernism's exaltation of the subjective. Perhaps it is the lowered barriers between the author and print. Now I don't have to have the money to pat for a press run or to be able to convince a skeptical publisher in order to put my ideas out there for all the world to see.

And there are people reading these ideas, many will glom onto the good, some will attach to the bad. Millions of souls ingesting from their own reading list becoming ever more convinced of their side's rightness and everyone else's insanity. Where will they take us?

1 comment:

News Agent said...

It might take us to common ground. Sort of like sand grinding against sand, certain intrinsic aspects likely will be found to be shared between almost all of us. Freedom of speech and the free flow of thought and ideas is needed for a proper exchange, even if hostile or ugly. Obviously a silenced author can reach no mans thoughts, which is why such freedom is almost spiritual in significance.