In 1930, the Spanish political philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, seeking to understand the rise of totalitarian fascist and Bolshevik movements, published what would become one of the 20th century’s most influential political texts, “The Revolt of the Masses.”
He was fascinated by the onset of mass culture, by the sense of possibility it opened up for ordinary people to live lives of plenty, but also by its dangers to governance and culture based on rationality and respect for expertise and intellectual effort.
Ortega y Gasset foretold the rise of a deeply narcissistic culture, where everyone’s point of view was valid, no matter how specious their beliefs. He feared the triumph of a personality that “makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself,” a person who “is satisfied with thinking the first thing he finds in his head.” He feared a populism that made no room for minorities, and the rise of an anti-intellectualism that denounced the views of experts as “sociological subversion.”
Reading his work, it’s difficult not to think of our current totalitarian moment, our culture held hostage by a twitter-obsessed demagogue, our nation divided by distrust of science and a large swath of the populace increasingly prey to conspiracy theories.
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Overwhelmingly, the timbre of our age is irrationalist, based around the dangerous notion that it is enough simply to say something to make it real.
If we say often enough, for example, that climate change isn’t real, then the glaciers will cease to melt, global temperatures will stop rising, forest fires will die down and sea levels will retreat. If we opine that coal plants’ pollution or the release of mercury into the environment don’t cause cancer, asthma and other diseases, then they won’t. If we promise that eliminating California’s higher fuel efficiency and clean air standards won’t lead to a resumption of smog in Los Angeles and elsewhere, then it won’t.
If we write a note to Congress stating that a 2 percent pay raise for federal employees is being cancelled because it will somehow cost $25 billion (off by a factor of about ten), and claim this action won’t impact the ability of the government to retain and to recruit the best talent, then it won’t actually have a negative impact.
If we argue that defunding health care organizations that provide testing for sexually transmitted diseases and mammograms won’t lead to increases in STDs and in breast cancer, then it won’t – notwithstanding huge increases in STD infections in recent years.
If we publish a report concluding that wholesale poverty is no longer a problem, then the one in six Americans living under the government’s own definition of the poverty line will no longer be poor, or hungry and struggling to pay the bills.
If we insist that making high-powered semi-automatic weapons as widely available as possible has nothing to do with America’s epidemic of mass killings, then it doesn’t.
If we indignantly push the point that taking children from their immigrant parents and putting them into detention centers where staff are prohibited from hugging them and where they are punished for crying, isn’t child abuse, then it isn’t.
If we say that calling African countries “s---hole” nations, or that declaring on TV than an African-American gubernatorial candidate will “monkey things up” isn’t racist, then it isn’t. If we announce that defending neo-Nazis as “very fine people” isn’t a defense of fascists, then it isn’t.
If we say that a handshake and a photo-op with a dictator are enough to secure the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, then they are. If we proclaim that the intelligence experts are wrong about Russian interference in western elections, then all that trolling, propaganda, and misinformation will simply be scrubbed from the historical record.
If we throw paper towels out like candy to the victims of Hurricane Maria, we aren’t showing contempt for their pain. And if we deny the staggering scale of death caused by that hurricane and say the government response was “fantastic,” then it was.
If we first insist that Trump didn’t have anything to do with transferring $130,000 to a porn star in exchange for her silence about an affair with Trump, then acknowledge that he did have something to do with the payment, but there was nothing illegal about it, both statements must be simultaneously true.
If we go on television to utter the Orwellian concept that truth isn’t truth, as Rudy Giuliani did recently, well then it isn’t.
Finally, to cap it all off, if we go on Fox News often enough and say that our performance is “A-plus” then it must be so.
For Ortega y Gasset, the demolition of standards against which the truth could be measured represented both the triumph of vulgarity and of barbarism. In such a world, he wrote, violence becomes the norm and the public becomes inured to the daily barrage of “commonplaces, prejudices, fag-ends of ideas or simply empty words.”