Philosopher Bertrand Russell spent much of his long life as a public thinker exploring what we now call cognitive dissonance, the tendency to replace unsavory contradictions in ourselves with more palatable fictions, or outright self-deceptions, or inner lies.
As a British Lord who witnessed four ferocious wars ending with Vietnam, Russell was particularly interested in “ruling class fictions.” Last week, Russell pervaded my thinking about the horrors of recent days — the massacre in Las Vegas; the unimaginable devastation in the wake of three major hurricanes, especially in Puerto Rico; Trump’s absurd, embarrassing and disgusting responses; and watching PBS’s 18-hour special on the Vietnam War and remembering the profound reality check the world’s war correspondents gave us every night on the TV for 8 long years.
All this sunk in over a miasma of news stories, punctuated by the 59 killed and nearly 500 wounded at the Route 91 Harvest Festival country music concert in Las Vegas. The shooter was a man armed to the teeth in a country in which the firearms industry plays into American class warfare, hatred of government, libertarian rugged individualism, and social Darwinism which wants the unfit to fail and fade way to make room for the rule of plutocratic skinflints, misers, and those whose Midas touch literally kills everything good it touches.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the absence of gun control, and the ruling class’s detestation of any kind of safety regulation, isn’t a direct cause of the Las Vegas calamity. Corporate Tobacco, the Military Industrial Plutonium Complex, Big Gas and Oil, join Big Guns to prey on this country not like snipers, but like agents of the colonial British Raj. Not all companies make us sick or kill us off with their products, of course, but those who oppose regulation usually have nefarious, poisonous, killer practices to hide. The NRA and big gun manufacturers surely do. Americans constitute a huge financial colony of suckers and body-bag candidates from whom these companies make a massive killing.
There are more guns in American than there are people. And we can thank companies such as Remington, Smith and Wesson, Glock, Savage, Springfield Armory, Ruger and their shill the NRA. When it comes right down to it, no amount of firepower will keep the government (in all its forms) from anyone’s door, should it come to that. And it doesn’t matter how many guns you have in your house if a home invader or a burglar catches you by surprise, which they are more than likely to do.
And gun control? Here’s the insanity. In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings in the United States, and 33,686 deaths due to guns, thanks to the virtual absence to any gun laws that can be meaningfully enforced. In the United Kingdom, however, with its stringent gun licensing and background checks, and absence of the gun floods that plague America, firearms killed 50 people in 2015. And gun control in Australia has had a similar effect despite the image of its wild and woolly outback culture and the occasional terrible shoot up. A crazy man causes mayhem with firearms in Australia and gun control laws are knotted even tighter.
In the underbelly of corporate elitism where the Ruling Class has its man caves and spawns its fictions, Big Gun is looked up to as one the great masters of bamboozlement in American corporate history, right up their Big Tobacco, and Big Oil. Somehow they convinced a great many of us, now and in their day, that Tobacco doesn’t cause cancer, Co2 doesn’t cause climate change and monstrous hurricane and monsoons, and that guns don’t kill people. Just imagine trying to kill 33,686 people with kitchen knives, fireplace pokers, big stones, and hammers.
And from where does this bamboozlement stem? From the Ruling Class Fictions in American culture. I define the American Ruling class as any individual or company that can harm people, get away with it, and make a fortune doing it though nefarious forms of persuasion, and that includes corporate propaganda and its intertwining with the manufacturers and political operatives of the American war machine, spread out in virtually every congressional district in the nation.
And what is the chief operable fiction of the Ruling Class? That somehow they know better than the rest of us, and that somehow magically their profits match their wisdom about what is good for each of us, for our country, and for our planet. The essence of a fiction created to dispel an uncomfortable inner contradiction is that the fiction is mistaken for the truth.
Take what happened to Puerto Rico, an entire island culture of 3.5 million people, flattened by Hurricane Maria, flooded, powerless, and without food or medicine, especially its largest city San Juan. The President of the United States appears and blames the mayor of that city for being incompetent in the face of the worst disaster in the island’s history. Now that’s Ruling Class Fiction at its worst. Trump’s inner sense of false superiority actually allows him to look like a cruel and sadistic clown, blaming an island of hurricane victims for somehow contributing to their wretched plight, and thinking to himself that he was being not only a paragon of the truth but of the American Way.
In a fine piece in the magazine Philosophy Now, Russell expert John Ongley asks “Are People Rational?” Russell was concerned with how people deal with the contradictions of their opinions. His conclusion was that even though the contradictions and inconsistencies they held were irrational, they managed them rationally. They do this, I think, by using methods of persuasion and propaganda on themselves.
Who in their right mind, with a full range of clear-headed self-knowledge, could ever feel deep down that they know better than everyone else? Only people who have bamboozled themselves into believing that power equals virtuous, and even selfless, sanity could possibly go that deep into narcissistic egoism.
Ongley writes, “Russell’s view of human reason is one confirmed by recent research in psychology. In what is called cognitive dissonance theory, psychologists today maintain that we tend to avoid uncomfortable truths by replacing them in our minds with more comforting fictions.” He continues, this theory “is the view that people feel uncomfortable holding inconsistent beliefs, especially about themselves, and that to dispel the inconsistencies and the accompanying discomfort, they will modify their beliefs even to the point of adopting false ones.”
This is the essence to the ruling class fiction of inherent superiority attached to “success and power” won at the expense of “losers” who just happen to be almost everyone else. We can see it in the workings of the leadership of three administrations during the Vietnam war, each of which thought it knew better than what was plain as day to many of us — the war was useless and immoral, we were losing, we were killing tens of thousands of innocents and our young people were being senselessly slaughtered.
President Trump is the great jester of the ruling class, because he wears his irrational fictions like bells on a clown suit, while the rest of his peers hide the absurdity of their comforting untruths behind the cloak of fraudulent decency, made more attractive with the aphrodisiac of the massive power of influence wedded to money.
Russell himself took a dim view of human rationality and those who wielded great power. “Holders of power, always and everywhere, are indifferent to the good or evil of those who have no power, except in so far as they are restrained by fear.” Ongley observes, “As well as being an excuse for mistreating the subject people, the ruling class fiction typically includes a rationalization that the subjects were actually being treated well, or at least were not mistreated by the ruling class. Any sort of excuse for ignoring or not knowing of one’s own injustice is willed ignorance, that is, desired ignorance, even if it is not consciously desired or chosen.”
Donald Trump in Puerto Rico is an essay in willed ignorance, and so is the NRA and its corporate leadership.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it