Commenter “Phil D” has some questions and observations [I’ve corrected one typo in the following]:
When exactly did we lose the “courage to see things as they are”?
When FDR recognized the USSR in 1933, just after that regime murdered millions of its own people, did he “see things as they are”?…
As for Obama, he didn’t come as a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky. Before you became a “neocon” did you “see things as they are”? Did the anti Vietnam war “Peace movement”?…And yet it was in that period that the coming of Obama was prepared.
I think the West has for a very long time not “seen things as they are”.
It’s not always—probably not even often—an easy or simple thing to comprehend the “truth” of events as they are happening. Doing so requires a host of elements: correct information, sound judgment, some knowledge of the past in order to put the present in context, and yes, the courage to face what you see even if it is a disillusioning departure from a previously held belief and/or hope.
That’s a tall order, and not a simple one.
In the post in which Phil D made that comment, I had quoted a letter to the editor to a British newspaper written right after the Munich agreement with Hitler, in which the author of the letter, WWI war hero F. L. Lucas, opined on something that Lucas thought was crystal clear and not difficult to understand at all—the intentions of Adolf Hitler at the time.
It’s worth revisiting what Lucas actually wrote:
No doubt [Neville Chamberlain] has never read Mein Kampf in German. But to forget, so utterly, the Reichstag fire, and the occupation of the Rhineland, and 30 June 1934 [the Night of the Long Knives], and the fall of Austria! We have lost the courage to see things as they are. And yet Herr Hitler has kindly put down for us in black and white that programme he is so faithfully carrying out…
In other words, Lucas was contending that these events and their meaning were not hard to see or to understand. He felt it was as plain as the proverbial nose on one’s face (or the mustache on Hitler’s) what the end result would be, and to ignore that or not see it was a form of willful denial which could only come from a failure of courage.
Now, we can argue here about whether that charge against Chamberlain was justified or not. Some say that Chamberlain knew but that his hands were tied by the fact that England hadn’t yet armed itself sufficiently; others say he was a naive dupe. I’m not going to get into that side issue here; what I’m interested in now is the process of trying to understand what’s happening in the world and what it might signify.
I have written my personal story of “seeing things as they are” in fairly exhaustive detail in the series “A mind is a difficult thing to change,” and if you’re interested and haven’t read it yet you can click and read the posts (they’re listed in reverse order). In them, I also discuss at length the antiwar movement during the Vietnam years, so I don’t need to recap that here, either. Suffice to say I do think the roots of today were present then; that’s why I spent so much time talking about it.
In personal terms, I believe that I always had the courage to see things as they are, but I lacked the information and the context. In addition, I assumed that I was already “seeing things as they are,” and didn’t realize my error. What I didn’t realize is how looking at things more closely and changing my mind would affect me socially; how it would set me apart in ways small and large from most of my friends and family. I suppose if I’d known that it would have given me pause, but it never would have stopped me because I was driven by something else: curiosity and a personal need to know.
I’m not arrogant enough to think I’ve got the corner on truth or the complete story even now; far from it. But I now have easier access to much more information than during those years, and I give these topics much more time and effort than I did when I was young.
It’s a work in progress.
We all now have access to a lot more information (just for starters, many more periodicals and even books can easily be accessed online) than we did before. So now, people who turn away from learning that information, or who make excuses for the destructive actions and/or lying by certain public figures they admire, either are lazy, avoidant, or already know or should know certain truths but don’t have the courage to admit that their idols have feet of clay—or to admit to themselves that they have made errors in judgement in admiring those people or voting for them. If something is obvious (as F. L. Lucas thought Hitler’s intentions were back in the days of Munich), then to ignore it is a failure of both courage and judgment, and compounds earlier errors. If something isn’t the least bit obvious—if it’s complex or hidden or needs special knowledge to understand—then it’s not so much a failure of courage as of knowledge and judgment.
Take Obama. I think many things about him are now obvious—and should have been obvious even during the 2008 campaign. I’m happy to be able to look back at my posts from then and see that, although I certainly didn’t perceive everything about him, I perceived plenty. That’s not because I’m such a psychic or a genius, it’s because I think it was obvious to any intelligent person who was paying attention. And yet, plenty of seemingly intelligent people don’t see it, even today. Is that a failure of courage? Information? Judgment? Imagination? Is it in many cases a reluctance to admit one was wrong (I wouldn’t underestimate that motivation)? Or party loyalty? Or a fear of being accused of racism, even at this late date? I think it must be different for different people. But at this point, people do know or should know that something is very, very wrong.
I’m not a relativist. I do not think that truth is completely “constructed” and exists only in the mind of the beholder. I think there really is an objective truth. But I also think we can only see it through a glass, darkly.
That doesn’t mean that we cannot, and should not, do our best to apprehend it. In fact, we must do so, if we are to make decisions in the world. It’s not an easy task, nor is it a quick one. But it’s a necessary one that many people wrongly delegate to others.
[NOTE: F. L. Lucas was also a man of great erudition, energy, and output, worthy of some attention on his own. Here are some excerpts from his Wiki profile, which is long:
Frank Laurence Lucas (1894–1967) was an English classical scholar, literary critic, poet, novelist, playwright, political polemicist, Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and intelligence officer at Bletchley Park during World War II…
His criticism, while acknowledging that morality is historically relative, was thus values-based. “Writers can make men feel, not merely see, the values that endure.” Believing that too many modern writers encouraged men and women to flee to unreason, decadence and barbarism, he condemned the trahisons des clercs of the twentieth century, and used his lectures and writing to campaign for a responsible use of intellectual freedom. “One may question whether real civilisation is so safely afloat,” he wrote in his last published letter (1966), “that we can afford to use our pens for boring holes in the bottom of it.” The writer or artist serving up “slapdash nightmares out of his Unconscious”, “in an age morbidly avid of uncivilised irreticence”, not only exhibited his own neuroses, but fed neurosis in others. Literary critics, too, had to take more responsibility. “Much cant gets talked,” he noted of the Structuralists, “by critics who care more for the form and organisation of a work than for its spirit, its content, its supreme moments.” The serious note in his criticism was counterbalanced by wit and urbanity, by lively anecdote and quotation, and by a gift for startling imagery and epigram.
There’s more—much much more—about this tremendously erudite, articulate, profound man, whom I’d never heard of until yesterday. He was, among other things, a classical scholar who knew many languages. Clearly, he had a lot of information and context in which to place the events of his day, far more than most people. When I read the sentence in his letter to the editor where he said that “no doubt” Chamberlain had never read Mein Kampf in the original German, it almost immediately occurred to me that F. L. Lucas, whoever he might be, had done exactly that. Sure enough, from his Wiki entry:
Having read Mein Kampf in the original and taken its threats as a statement of intent, he urged in September 1933 that Nazi Germany be prevented from re-arming.
Lucas didn’t just write that one letter. He was very active in urging preparedness against Germany in all sorts of ways;
As well as letters to the press (some forty in all) his campaign included satires, articles, books, public speaking, fund-raising for the Red Cross, petitions to Parliament, meetings with émigrés like Haile Selassie and Stefan Zweig, and help for refugees. In these activities he was inspired by the example of “that grand old man” H. W. Nevinson, “one of the most striking personalities I have ever known”, “whose long life has been given to Liberty”.
Lucas also kept a journal during the late 30s. Here’s what he wrote in it about Munich:
Even if what he did were the right thing to do, this was not the way to do it. The surrender might have been necessary: the cant was not. Any statesman with a sense of honour would at least have stilled that hysterical cheering and said: My friends, for the present, we are out of danger. But remember that others, who trusted in us, are not. This is a day for relief, perhaps; but for sorrow also; for shame, not for revelling. But this Chamberlain comes home beaming as fatuously as some country-cousin whom a couple of card-sharpers in the train have just allowed to win sixpence, to encourage him.
There’s much, much more. But I’ll just close by offering this from Lucas, which he wrote in 1936:
A hatred of war can be no reason for being false to ourselves, in the name of an aimless amiability that cries ‘peace’ where there is none.
Again, I suggest reading the entire Wiki entry.]