In March of 1930, Joseph Stalin wrote an essay for Pravda titled “Dizzy with Success.” Stalin proclaimed, “The Soviet government’s successes in the sphere of the collective-farm movement are now being spoken of by everyone. Even our enemies are forced to admit that the successes are substantial. And they really are very great.”
Not only did he declare “very great” success, but Stalin claimed collectivization was totally voluntary: “The successes of our collective-farm policy are due, among other things, to the fact that it rests on the voluntary character of the collective-farm movement and on taking into account the diversity of conditions in the various regions of the U.S.S.R.”
Stalin feigned support for the principle that “collective farms must not be established by force…The collective-farm movement must rest on the active support of the main mass of the peasantry.”
While some Western apologists for Stalin did laud collectivization, none of the rest was true. When Stalin wrote his essay, the murder/exile/starvation of approximately five million Ukrainians was underway. Except for the victims, few knew the truth, even in the Soviet Union. Likely they believed Stalin when he wrote: “We can achieve anything! There is nothing we can’t do!”
If you are wondering why more Americans are not alarmed by eroding freedom, there are lessons we can learn from the horrors experienced by Soviet citizens and many others. In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek writes, “If the feeling of oppression in totalitarian countries is in general much less acute than most people in liberal countries imagine, this is because the totalitarian governments succeed to a high degree in making people think as they want them to.”
Hayek observes, “It is not difficult to deprive the great majority of independent thought.” With sufficient censorship, persuasion isn’t necessary: “The skillful propagandist…has power to mold their minds in any direction he chooses, and even the most intelligent and independent people cannot entirely escape that influence if they are long isolated from all other sources of information.”
Of course, the United States is not a totalitarian country. State propagandists don’t have complete control of information. Yet millions look forward to receiving “the news” each day from mainstream outlets such as The N.Y. Times, NPR, CNN, and Fox News, and willfully choose not to exercise “independent thought.”
In 2021 President Biden was “dizzy with success,” proclaiming the unvaccinated will experience a “winter of severe illness and death” but “if you get vaccinated, you won’t get COVID.” Today lawsuits are making clear that, in violation of the First Amendment, his administration coerced social media to censor the news about the reality of vaccinations and masks.
Out of ignorance, angry individuals lash out at others, and even though they do not know what “the science” is, they still demand others “follow the science.” Interventions harmful to millions are still vigorously supported.
If you are sure you are an independent thinker, read no more, but ignore Hayek’s warning at your peril. Even in 2022, erstwhile champions of liberty are still rehashing government Covid propaganda.
So, what can the average person do to see through propaganda?
First, realize that none of us are immune from herding and irrational thinking. We herd when we follow the crowd rather than making independent decisions. As put by 16th Century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “no matter what we may say, the customs and practices of life in society sweep us along.”
In 1978, shortly before Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran, Iranians in mass “saw” Khomeini’s face in the moon. One journalist who lived through the herding hysteria wrote, “Everyone’s talking about it. Taxicabs brake in the middle of traffic so people can jump out and look up at the sky, and neighbors gather in the alleys at sunset to point at the outlines of his eyes.”
Another writer added, “Khomeini’s face in the moon was a typical belief in those days and reflected the changes in thinking, belief, and behaviour of the masses at that time.”
Here is an account:
At the awaited day of 27 November, millions of people received the moon with cheers, actually recognized the image of Ayatollah Khomeini and shouted ‘āllāhu akbar’ from the rooftops of their houses – which became an established sign of political disobedience in the subsequent days and weeks. The emotional change transported through this mass phenomenon was exceptional. The people of Iran ‘experienced a festive moment that sharply contrasted with the rest of that bleak bitterly cold and bloody autumn. Tears of joy were shed and huge quantities of sweets and fruits were consumed as millions of people jumped for joy, shouting ‘I’ve seen the Imam in the moon.’’
A person who didn’t see Khomeini on the moon was denounced as a “miscreant and bastard.” Today, those who fail to “trust the science” are similarly vilified.
For a moment, let’s turn to something less charged than Iran, COVID policy, or opposing totalitarians. Have you wondered why so many people who attempt to time markets buy at the top and sell at the bottom? Robert Prechter, Jr. explains herding in financial markets:
Most people get virtually all of their ideas about financial markets from other people, through newspapers, television, tipsters and analysts, without checking a thing. They think, ‘Who am I to check? These other people are supposed to be experts.’ Many people are emotionally dependent upon the ticker tape, which simply reports the aggregate short-term decision-making of others. This dependence is nearly universal, even among long-term investors. They are driven to follow the herd because they do not have firsthand knowledge adequate to form an independent conviction, which makes them seek wisdom in numbers. The unconscious says: You have too little basis upon which to exercise reason; your only alternative is to assume that the herd knows where it’s going. When a crowd is in command, participating individuals appear rational on the outside, but inside, their impulses and emotions are in control.
Our financial well-being is on the line, and yet we irrationally follow the herd. Perhaps we would have more confidence in our views on issues less consequential to our well-being. Unfortunately, for many of us, that is not the case.
What happens when you are “a minority of one against a unanimous majority”? In one of psychology’s most famous experiments, Solomon Asch showed that if subjects in a group are viewing two lines, and most of the group members claim a clearly shorter line is longer, 75 percent of us might just go along. The larger the number of researcher confederates claiming the shorter line was larger, the more likely we are to agree.
If you’re sure you would go against the grain when it matters, consider Asch explained that in his experiments, the subjects had “independent [visual]access to the facts” but in many situations, we don’t. In real-life, going against the herd is harder:
The experimental arrangements ensured that each person could see with his own eyes and under optimal conditions. In this respect the present situation differs sharply from other, and frequent, forms of disagreement. Often in social life differences of judgments are about facts that are far less visible. The social and political ‘lines’ and their relations are as a rule not bluntly given in the individual’s field. Instead he often depends on others to inform him not only about the interpretation, but also about the existence of facts remote from his experience. This indirectness was here excluded. The facts were constantly present, and the individual could not help but see them as he did.
In Asch’s words, the majority “did not exert pressure in the usual sense of persuading or applying sanctions…Whatever pressure the subject felt grew solely within himself.”
During COVID, of course, the “facts” were not physically present, and sanctions were applied to many, even as they lost their jobs. Throughout COVID, many in the majority have tried to bully and shame minority voices regarding masks and vaccinations. No wonder so many went along and deified their oppressor “officials.”
Asch reported many subjects in the experiment described a “painfulness of standing alone against the majority” and presumed the majority must be correct. Asch wrote, “A substantial proportion of subjects yielded once their confidence was shaken. The presumed rightness of the majority deprived them of the resolution to report their own observations.” Other subjects feared being labeled as defective. Asch explains, “Others who yielded lost sight of the question of accuracy, being dominated by an imperious desire not to appear different, apparently out of fear of revealing a general and undefined defect.”
The courage not to conform does not come easily. In other essays, I have explored why.
In this essay, I want to cut to the chase and share the one quality, without which moral courage will be fleeting: we must cherish the humanity in others, not just for their sake but for our own.
The ideas you have about someone else exist in your mind. A mistaken idea—in which you deny someone else’s humanity—can be projected, but it will never leave its source—your mind.
Without seeing it in others, we will never embrace our humanity, warts and all. We will never find our own freedom without valuing freedom for all others. The courage we seek comes from a place where individual action is informed by a vast truth that dwarfs our calculative thinking.
In his timeless Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote almost two thousand years ago, “Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other… Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy; none of its parts are unconnected… One divinity, present in them all.”
Today quantum physics offers support for the reality of the interconnectedness of all things. There is a universal human need for connections, but the quality of those connections depends on what theory we use to build them.
Major Karl Plagge was one of the few members of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) to see the humanity in all and aid Jews during World War II. Plagge was stationed in Vilnius where the murder of Jews “were mostly committed by the Einsatzgruppen [SS paramilitary death squads] and local volunteers, militias, and police.” The atrocities shocked some soldiers in the Wehrmacht, but an inestimably small number of them did anything to slow down the slaughter.
In 1931 Plagge joined the Nazi party “in order to participate in a good cause.” Plagge soon regretted his decision as the Nazis violated his “basic moral principles.” He “rejected the arrogant and haughty behavior as well as the unscientific feeling of racial superiority of many party members.”
In Vilnius, “surviving witnesses compared [Plagge] to Oskar Schindler” as he protected Jews in his work details and frequently stood down the SS. In 2005, in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel, almost 50 years after his death, Plagge became one the only members of the German military to be recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Plagge saw “an obligation to stand, not on the side of the castigator, but to espouse the cause of the victim.” He drew his moral courage not from exceptional strength but from the belief that the only way to fight “a disgraceful outrage” is through “common decency”:
Perhaps others lacked only a little determination to act in the same way in order to prevent or reduce the horror. I have never felt that this took special courage. It only required a convincing strength that anyone can draw from depths of a moral conscience everyone has. Moreover it takes perhaps a bit of good will, occasionally a good idea and dedication to the task at hand. I never had the feeling that I was in great danger since my arguments on a factual as well as on a personal level were always rational, honest and irrefutable…Basically I am not a ‘hero’ but a rather timid person.
Reading the history of totalitarian movements, you learn there is always a point, in its infancy, when a movement would have died had enough “timid” people drawn on their “moral conscience” to act with “common decency.”
Totalitarians become “dizzy with success” only when the masses enable them. If moral courage is in short supply when the costs of opposition are relatively low, the worst becomes inevitable.