Totalitarianism: we have become comfortably numb - Part 7

Whether class struggle that must inevitably lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, or “No one comes to the Father except through me,” or “until all worship is for Allah alone," the idea is the same: we act in accord with our purpose, the only way to real human happiness.

Totalitarianism: we have become comfortably numb - Part 7
Václav Havel, first President of the Czech Republic

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

One of the Prefaces to the 2011 Routledge Classics edition of Karl Popper’s famous The Open Society and its Enemies bears the following footnote:

The Chancellor’s Lecture for 1995, Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Given on the occasion of the visit of Václav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, to the University to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Literature. 1995 was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Open Society and its Enemies.

Václav Havel titled his lecture, Karl Popper’s "The Open Society and its Enemies in the contemporary global world," and in the opening paragraph we read:

He [Karl Popper] was a world traveller who followed the biggest war ever waged by humankind – the war unleashed by the tribal fury of Nazi ideology – from this country, from New Zealand. It was here that he thought about the state of the world, and it was here that he wrote his most important books. …He posed the question why is was so difficult for the idea of an open society to prevail against wave after wave of tribalism, and inquired into the spiritual background of all enemies of open society and into the patterns of their thinking, (emph. AP)[1]

Both Karl Popper and Václav Havel were acutely aware of the “tribal fury of Nazi ideology”. So profoundly overwhelming were their experiences that neither Popper, nor Havel can be blamed for failing to notice the tribal fury of Islamic ideology making ready in the pre-dawn darkness. “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are ruthless against the unbelievers and merciful among themselves.” (Qur’an 48:29)

Popper was writing when the Nazi regime was at its end. It was exactly the moment that Havel’s young nation was handed over from one, vanquished, totalitarian master to another, this time victorious, one. Those who have experienced neither Nazism nor Communism have no excuse for not noticing the rising menace of Islam. Among them are the demoralised people of whom Yuri Bezmenov speaks, fruits of the KGB’s labours, and those paralysed by multiculturalism, or by so-called critical race theory, people who spit on their own freedom, self-righteously ignorant of what it means to not have it, ready to walk off the cliff at the edge of their moral high ground.

Havel could not see that when he called for “remaining constantly in touch with life and constantly enriching our experience, …without the arrogant presumption that we have understood everything about this world and thus know everything there is to know [about?] how to change it for the better,” the “arrogant presumption” of which he speaks is also the arrogant presumption of Islam. “This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion,” (Qur’an 5:3) i.e., the last of the Qur’an has been revealed and all knowledge is now complete (the reader has to understand the mediaeval mind of the Muslim here: life is religion and religion is life; there is nothing else, something that Israeli thinker and social critic Mordechai Kedar sees very clearly). Václav Havel continues:

In my country, one of the understandable reactions to the tragic experience of Communism is the opinion we sometimes encounter that man should, if possible, refrain from changing or ameliorating the world, from devising long-range concepts, strategic plans or visions. All this is seen as part of the armoury of holistic social engineering. This opinion, of course, is a grave error.

I share Havel’s frustration, having witnessed first hand the paralysis that can afflict a people in over-reaction. It is, unfortunately, more than just an opinion. It is, rather, an active driver of approaches to everyday problems that are easily solved but for the fatalism underlying the approach. “We can do nothing about it,” does not follow from engaging with problems and arriving at conclusions and strategies, but precedes any engagement and thereby precludes it.

When Havel describes as a paradox that this paralysis has much in common with “the fatalism Popper finds in those who believe they have grasped the laws of history and that they serve those laws,” I have to disagree with them both. Every religion claims that it has “grasped the laws of history,” and expects of its votaries “that they serve those laws,” as the religion sees them. It does not matter whether the holistic social engineering is grounded in belief in the supernatural, or the down-to-earth instinct for self-preservation under a dictator, the idea is the same. As Ayatollah Khomeini helpfully clarified:

Those who follow the rules of the Quran [Muslims] are aware that we have to apply the laws of qissas [retribution] and that we have to kill. …War is a blessing for the world and for every nation. It is Allah himself who commands men to wage war and kill. The Quran commands: “Wage war until corruption and all disobedience are wiped out!” The wars that our Prophet. …waged against the infidels were divine gifts to humanity. Once we have won the war [with Iraq], we shall turn to other wars. For that would not be enough. We have to wage war until all corruption, all disobedience of Islamic law ceases [throughout the world]. The Quran commands: “War! War until victory!” A religion without war is a crippled religion. …It is war that purifies the earth …Allah be praised, our young warriors are putting this command into effect and fighting. They know that to kill the infidels is one of the noblest missions Allah has reserved for mankind.[2]
Colins English Dictionary

Whether class struggle that must inevitably lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, or “No one comes to the Father except through me,” or “until all worship is for Allah alone," the idea is the same: we act in accord with our purpose, the only way to real human happiness. Pope John Paul II, in office at the time of the collapse of the USSR, also had something to say on the arrogant presumption Havel describes:

When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organisation which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organisation into being. Politics then becomes a “secular religion” that operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world.

The arrogant presumption that they “possess the secret of a perfect social organisation which makes evil impossible,” induces them to readily employ evil, both to pursue and to maintain, their "perfect social organisation." Violence and deceit are explicit and unmediated in Islam, as it is in the vindictive cruelty of Catholic compassion, and the paradox that John Paul II highlights is not a paradox in Islam. It is not a bug, but a feature, as they say. Khomeini continues:

The entire system of government and administration, together with necessary laws, lies ready for you. If the administration of the country calls for taxes, Islam has made the necessary provision; and if laws are needed, Islam has established them all. ... Everything is ready and waiting. All that remains is to draw up ministerial programs.

The inevitable outcome of one's telos being fixed at some point in the distant past is, naturally, one's ever-worsening conditions relative to one's ever-improving surroundings. In the meantime, those unfortunate enough to not have "everything ready and waiting," have been doing things like this:

What happens when you are not locked into barbarian priorities, such as killing "those who believe not in Allah."

To this the Islamic response, according to Khomeini, is, “If you have any tie or link binding you to this world in love, try to sever it. This world, despite all its apparent splendour and charm, is too worthless to be loved.” Such arrogant presumption, together with the setting aside of reason, unites the supernatural with the natural through the totalitarian controllers of the two realms, God and the dictator, respectively, as Iran under Islam so pristinely encapsulates.

Much can be said about the KGB’s role in creating the conditions that led to an Islamic fascist regime, rather than a Stalinist fascist one, seizing power in Iran. It could easily have gone either way. It is not clear to me whether Pope John Paul II appreciated that his words may be read from opposite sides, and that just as certainly, religion becomes “sacred politics” that operates under the illusion of giving access to Paradise in the next world.

Each of these projects in “holistic social engineering,” to stick to Havel’s term, prescribes the mode and content of thought that sustain the prescribed behaviours that lead to the predetermined outcome. Under Communism, all thought and behaviour has to be “ideologically correct”, under Islam, all thought and behaviour must be halal, while under the inchoate totalitarianism of the European Union and now the United States, all thought and behaviour must be “politically correct” or latterly, “woke”, recalling again George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.

To deviate from prescribed behaviour and thought “triggers” the ordinary citizen beside you to “do the right thing”. In the United Kingdom, doing the right thing means reporting “hate crime,” i.e., “Islamophobia,” to the police even if it isn’t a crime and even if they have no evidence. Under both Communism and Islam, doing the right thing means denouncing your parents. In Islam, doing the right thing means:

The believers, men and women, are Auliya’ (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another [to the exclusion of non-Muslims, AP], they enjoin (on the people) Al-Ma’ruf (…all that Islam orders one to do), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (…all that Islam has forbidden). (Qur’an 9:71)

Karl Popper, in The Open Society, makes the same point as Bezmenov, albeit more philosophically. Often quoted as the soundbite: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,” Popper’s insight, although true as quoted, deflects the attention from a missing link in Popper’s formulation.

The paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.[3]

By what route does unlimited tolerance lead to the disappearance of tolerance? Here Bezmenov, the ex-KGB agent, is clearer than both Popper and Havel. By understanding the process by which totalitarianism subverts a free people, Bezmenov appreciates the steps in that process, the mechanism, by which a people comes to “pour out the baby with the bathwater”. Pouring out the baby with the bathwater, as Havel acknowledges, is an understandable reaction to the tragic experience of Communism. Undoing a stubborn propensity for such a reaction requires more than just compelling argument.

To demoralise a people, says Bezmedov, takes fifteen to twenty years, the educational career of one generation. The demoralised generation itself picks up the work of deepening both their own and their nation’s demoralisation, by itself becoming an instrument of totalitarianism and turning on the tolerant, independently of the original demoraliser, who might no longer exist. This is where tolerance of the intolerant turns into intolerance of the tolerant. An example of this in the United States is the assertion that all whites are racist. The tolerant tolerate even this direct attack on themselves, and through it, become intolerant of themselves, otherwise known as “white guilt.” Intolerance of the tolerant metastasises into a relentless, all-fonts assault on the tolerant: multiculturalism; political correctness; diversity; equity; “wokeness”; and above all, an adopted culpability for transgressions you could not possibly have had anything to do with. They have become a racist unto themselves. The content of their character has become irrelevant. All that matters is the colour of their skin.

NYU Shanghai's first Commencement Ceremony in 2017 was not only an instance of submitting to two totalitarian systems at the same time, but demonstrated the tolerance of the intolerant of which Popper speaks. In the illustrations below, the signs tells their own little story of double submission to the Chinese Communist Party. The official name of the university, established in 2012, is New York University Shanghai. The Chinese wouldn't have that, so in Chinese its official name is Shanghai New York University, as in the image below:

Chinese: "Shanghai New York University"; English: "New York University Shanghai"

At the NYU Shanghai inaugural Commencement Ceremony in 2017, however, that submission was not enough, and the name "Shanghai" had to take precedence also in the official English name: Shanghai New York University, was displayed on the Commencement lectern, even though the official name remained New York University Shanghai. When a hall is filled with so many Communist Party bigwigs, it's best not to be too open about niggly things like who kowtows to whom in your institution's name.

But the official name of the university was not the only double submission of the day. Karl Popper's tolerance of the intolerant was further on display. With proper decorum and courtesy, the Provost, a woman, and the Vice-Chancellor, Chancellor and President, all men, in that order, congratulated each graduating student with a handshake, and some even with a hug, except for those women wearing a hijab or niqab (yes, I kid you not). The Provost extended her hand as with everyone else and the courtesy was reciprocated, no problem. When the Muslimas continued towards the men, however, the men kept their hands very much to themselves, submitting the Islamic prejudice that there is something distasteful about a woman shaking hands with a man, and particularly unsavoury about a Muslim woman shaking hands with a kafir man. The submission is deepened in that these kafir men had obviously been schooled into accepting this particular degradation of a common and decent Western courtesy, as none of them even attempted to extend his hand.

The transformation of tolerance of intolerance into intolerance of tolerance I was to run into later. In an open discussion before a student audience, a colleague insisted that it is incumbent on me to "queer the class." My colleague seemed to hold that being gay meant I had to neglect my job and make the classroom "safe" for gay students. It wasn't enough that my classroom was already safe for everybody, and as to why it shouldn't be was beyond me. I insisted that it was incumbent on me to teach every student to the best of my ability, including students who had a problem with homosexuality, and including racists, I added, just to make the point. Besides, I happen to be averse to propaganda. My response drew a baffled silence. Apparently, I was not the kind of teacher the students wanted. I met with many icy stares from students after that. Tolerance of intolerance had metastasised into intolerance of tolerance.

Since we are on the subject of "safe spaces," I hasten to add that had the niqab-wearing student been one of mine, I would have lost my job, because I would not have allowed into my classroom anyone whose face was hidden, not only because it is an extremely discourteous way to conduct oneself in our society, but because it presents a security risk to everyone. When I am in charge of a classroom, I hold myself responsible for the safety of everyone in that classroom. Putting her out of the room would have put me beyond the pale, but I was prepared for that. Thankfully, she wasn't one of mine.

From noble causes like the emancipation of women to facile endeavours like women’s studies and World Hijab Day; from concerns over consumerism and industrial alienation to curriculum lite, such as alternative technology and climate studies (not to be confused with geography and meteorology, two real sciences), the dumbing-down of education to ever-narrower single and sectional issues kept pace with the reduced requirement to think that is associated with demoralising a population, to stick with Bezmedov’s phrase. This creeping malaise afflicts the entire Western world. The same degeneration has been the fate of the media, the factories of public opinion that, together with useless education,[3] effected the climate change necessary to drive our culture towards totalitarianism.

The immediacy of the Nazi and communist experiences for Popper, the French Reign of Terror and the Bolshevik Red Terror having been so integral to their respective Revolutions, and Stalin's Great Terror still fresh in living memory when the Nazi death camps rolled around, might explain the near-silence of The Open Society on Islam (Muhammad purportedly having boasted, "I have been made victorious with terror"), as well as Popper's suggestion that totalitarianism is the flip side of the Enlightenment coin.

For these troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority of the merely established and the merely traditional while trying to preserve, to develop, and to establish tradition, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism. …This revolution has created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered.[4]
Muhammad said, "I have been made victorious with terror," Sahih Bukhari 2977, somewhat earlier than the French Reign of Terror and the Bolshevik Red Terror.

But developments in the United States, especially the usurpation of the November 2020 Presidential election and the paralysis of the American population in the face of that usurpation, have caused me to look more sympathetically at Popper's idea of the proximity of totalitarianism to enlightenment. My contention has always been that the greatest weakness of democracy is that politics can be a career. To me, this was demonstrated by the impotence of both the lauded First and Second Amendments of the US Constitution and the supposed judicial guarantee of those Amendments under they sway of career politicians. The full words of Muhammad reported in Sahih Bukhari 2977 reads:

I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror (cast in the hearts of the enemy), and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.

The use of "the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings" was much in evidence in the days before and following 3 November 2020: "free and fair", "absentee ballot", "election observer", "ballot-count", "ballot-recount", "voter-ID", "monitor", and many more, including "election", "Constitution", and "checks and balance". Discover the Networks reports:

In 2005, a landmark report by the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, known informally as the Carter-Baker Commission, advised all U.S. states that in order to guarantee free and fair elections, they should: (a) increase voter ID requirements; (b) minimize the use of mail-in ballots, which “remain the largest source of potential voter fraud”; (c) disallow ballot harvesting by third parties; (d) purge voter rolls of all ineligible or fraudulent names; (e) allow election observers to monitor ballot-counting processes without restraint or obstruction; (f) ensure that voting machines are accurate in their tabulations; and (g) encourage news organizations to “delay the release of any exit-poll data until the election has been decided.” All of these recommendations were widely ignored in the elections of November 2020.

There are many in America who think that they'll win it all back in 2024, by the very rules that were so comprehensively trashed in 2020. Some people know totalitarianism when they see it, others just don't.


  1. Václav Havel, Preface to Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge Classics, 2011, ppg. xii-xiii.
  2. Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted in Laurent Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad, 2008, Cambridge University Press, p45.  It is, of course, entirely possible that Ayatollah Khomeini misunderstood Islam.
  3. Karl Popper,  ppg581-2.
  4. Preface to the Second Edition of Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1950.