Now is the time to (re) read The Captive Mind

This mid-century warning about limiting creative freedom is worth revisiting

In the days following President Trump’s inaugural festivities Amazon reported that its sales of George Orwell’s 1984 had experienced a 10,000 percent increase. The disconcerting consonance between the Trump administration and the fictional dictatorship which imposes its own facts on the public motivated 1984’s publisher, Signer Classics, to issue a 75,000 copy reprint. Despite the constant buzzing of our iPhones and iPads, books do still matter in 2017. Amidst the current chaos of civic life, another book well worth revisiting is Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind.

Born in what is today Lithuania, Miłosz lived through five years of Nazi occupation in Warsaw during the second World War. Though admittedly apolitical in his younger years, Miłosz became a supporter of the Polish socialist government after the war because he felt that his only alternative was self-exile. However, it quickly became clear that the state agenda cared little for artistic self-expression. As a writer, he began to feel that his blind allegiance to government doctrine was eroding his consciousness and identity. Explaining his internal struggle he wrote:

I agreed to serve, not for materials reasons, but through conviction…I was forced to abandon my philosophic beliefs one after the other, if I was to keep from throwing myself into the abyss.

Nevertheless, Miłosz broke with the communist government in 1951 and defected to Paris. The product that resulted from that decision, The Captive Mind, is an exploration of how individual minds function and change under a totalitarian regime.

Frustrated with the West’s inability to understand why so many intellectuals in Eastern Europe had initially collaborated with their country’s puppet governments, Miłosz sought to draw from his own internal intellectual struggle and his experiences during the war to show how the mind may mold itself to a given doctrine over time. The Captive Mind is not only an explanation of that process; it is a warning against mass propaganda highlighting the power of creative freedom.

Miłosz dedicates four chapters to the stories of the artists “Alpha, the Moralist,” “Beta, the Disappointed Lover,” “Gamma, the Slave of History,” and “Delta, the Troubadour.” These characters’ stories poignantly show how easily one’s consciousness may change in the face of historic circumstance. Despite their different artistic temperaments, all four eventually capitulate their individuality for the sake of the state. The stifling nature of the socialist regime, where art and freedom of expression existed only within carefully curated parameters, eventually contributed to the system’s collapse. Intellectuals and dissenters emigrated, succumbed in some degree to the state machine, or risked their lives in protest.

Of course Miłosz’s Poland serves as a unique example from the Soviet bloc; rather than being inspired by exclusively economic or ideological factors, the Solidarity movement was born out of both the lack of basic economic needs and ideological inspiration. Between 1956 and 1989, the Polish system was shocked repeatedly by events that effected Poles across all classes. This prolonged process served to strengthen the movement as it developed slowly over time, uniting the beliefs of the intelligentsia with the more practical economic demands advocated by Polish workers.

As opposed to other Soviet bloc countries, which experienced sporadic revolts (all quashed) in an otherwise apathetic society, Solidarity evolved into a mass movement because it had maintained a constant presence for over a decade in the minds of Polish workers as well as the intelligentsia. This fusion propelled first the Poles, and later the rest of Central Europe, out of social apathy and into action. But despite the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist system, countries behind the Iron Curtain still spent decades stuck in an intellectual quagmire.

Miłosz explained:

In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery of the human spirit. Man must be made to understand, for then he will accept. Who are the enemies of the new system? The people who do not understand. They fail to understand because their minds work feebly or else badly.

Thus begins “Ketman,” the chapter dedicated to an ancient Persian philosophy Miłosz discovered through his research on consciousnesses. Ketman, Miłosz explains, is the false identity adopted by a person “in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone.” Often, it begins as a persuasive argument in favor of survival. Over time, the construction and maintenance of the Ketman facade consumes the individual, replacing his consciousness with a staged identity that conforms to the accepted doctrine’s guidelines. If the individual does not conform, he risks being branded as an enemy of the state. And thus, the individual is ultimately persuaded to sacrifice his mind to the regime. Based on his own experiences Miłosz argued:

A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt. In the same way, the growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature.

In much the same way pundits, statisticians, politicians and many Americans attempted to normalize and rationalize Trump the candidate and then Trump the nominee. “Maybe it won’t be that bad” we said. But it seems that many of us can’t swallow the frog that is President Trump. In much the same way, we’ve distanced ourselves from friendships, family and acquaintances who have succumbed to the malady of mental captivity. Our stomachs are revolting but perhaps there is still a silver lining:

Life in constant internal tension develops talents which are latent in man. He does not even suspect to what heights of cleverness and psychological perspicacity he can rise when he is cornered and must be either skillful or perish.

The level of political engagement witnessed in the two months since President Trump’s inauguration far eclipses that of the campaign cycle. Protests materialize out of thin air, mere hours after a breaking news story or inflammatory tweet. The Women’s March was one of largest, if not the largest, mass protest in American history, backed by people across seven continents. Public outcry has pushed federal judges to rule against both of Trump’s travel bans. Outrage over Trumpcare is mounting from both sides of the aisle.

Perhaps a large portion of our society has suddenly found a part of themselves ignited, a part that lay hidden away until it was suddenly under attack. After all, could anyone have predicted last November that the greatest symbol of resistance would emerge to be a pink pussy hat knitted by a group of crafty ladies in California?

Perhaps the main theme of The Captive Mind might have been hard for Americans to fully grasp at the time of its first publishing in 1951. While the concepts of repression, suffering, and religion are easy enough to recognize, selling one’s soul and one’s mind to a repressive idea did not quite resonate with Americans in the same way it did with Eastern Europeans. At least not until now. President Trump’s administration may well change that. Mental captivity is developing into a widespread affliction, fueled by “alternative facts,” fake news, absurd tweets, conspiracy theories, and shadowy events that suggest our President has a loose grip on reality.

Xenophobia, racism and misogyny aside, the Trump campaign, and now the Trump administration, have succeeded in convincing an alarmingly large percentage of the public, in increasingly nefarious ways, that globalization is an encroachment on American sovereignty and American livelihood. Furthermore, globalization has been marketed as a devilish construct, the effects of which can be easily remedied in order to “Make America Great Again”. This tactic has effectively infiltrated public consciousness, despite the fact that the U.S played a pivotal role in the creation of the global economy, and the fact that there is no way to effectively stop it. But as Miłosz pointed out, “Men will clutch illusions when they have nothing else to hold onto.

The Ketman-like trance, which so plagued Bush era officials swept up in the weapons of mass destruction hysteria, seems to now hypnotize not only the Trump administration, but the majority of Congress, and indeed half the country. As during the Iraq war debate, people support the President’s delusions despite their private hesitations and despite concrete evidence that disproves his claims. When the farce of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs was exposed, Bush supporters blamed administrative incompetence. Few would admit they sold their support for the sake of their image (which was, ironically, tarnished as a result.) The opening chapter of the Trump presidency has been a worrisome preview of the next four years. Ignoring the news, while tempting, won’t make the world a better place. If you are shocked, you are aware. Awareness leads to action, and action ultimately leads to change.

As Miłosz points out:

Internal revolt is sometimes essential to spiritual health, and can create a particular form of happiness…For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectuals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure.

Miłosz, of course, could not have predicted that the dawn of social media would provide a constant state of tension for everyone, intellecutal or otherwise. We are bombarded with news, images, facts, statistics, snapchats, and tweets that hurl towards as full speed from all the far corners of cyberspace. This constant buzz has made us more socially and politically aware, turned our attention to various good causes, and inspired us to make our voices heard in anyway we can. But social media and the 24hr news cycle have also morphed into a breeding ground for blatant falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and absurd stories which bombard us at alarming rates and spread like wildfire. Our oversaturated brains don’t always see the difference. “Everything, thus, takes us back to the question of mastery over the mind.”

We need to recognize abnormalities in our society, and we need to know what to expect and how to react. It’s certainly not in the current administration’s interest to change its strategy of watering down reality.

As Miłosz points out:

Despite its apparent appeal to reason, the “club’s” activity comes under the heading of collective magic. The rationalism of the doctrine is fused with sorcery, and the two strengthen each other. Free discussion is, of course, eliminated.

In the increasingly mind boggling environment of the club known as the White House Press Room, logic and facts have found themselves in exile. Trump deflects uncomfortable questions by claiming journalists are not being fair. He tweets about media witch-hunts hell-bent on destroying his reputation and amazing progress. He explains nuclear weapons in a way that makes our blood run cold. Any questioning of his knowledge, actions, authority, policy, or administration results in ludicrous conspiracy theories about the previous administration. Trump inhabits unreality, his minions dispersing sorcery on every wavelength. Rational, adult debate is quickly becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Vulgarized knowledge characteristically gives birth to a feeling that everything is understandable and explained. It is like a system of bridges built over chasms. One can travel boldly ahead over these bridges, ignoring the chasms. It is forbidden to look down into them; but that, alas, does not alter the fact that they exist.

Our new President struts down this bridge confidently claiming that climate change is a hoax orchestrated by China, while rising sea levels flood the chasm below. He offers only a snide “believe me” as evidence. His goal is adoration, and the captive mind is his route to achieving it “bigly”.

In this spirit the Trump administration has proposed eliminating funding for most, if not all cultural agencies. The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are at risk of losing all federal support. The comparatively miniscule budgets of these organizations fund thousands of local, state and federal arts initiatives around the country which would not exist otherwise. The unique services cultural agencies provide for the public are not easily replicated. In the words of the Lincoln Center’s open letter in favor of the NEA:

A child’s early introduction to ballet teaches strength and discipline. A veteran’s exposure to art therapy brings healing and hope. A student’s participation in music class improves math scores and critical thinking skills. Art shapes achievement, with profound and practical effects.

Though not easily quantifiable and abstract in theory, exposure and participation in art has long lasting and profound effects on human development, and thus on human contributions to society. Most importantly, exposure to art in all of its forms molds the mind into an autonomous entity, creative, curious, and challenging. Eliminating access to art in the lives of thousands of Amercian lives will have tragic consequences for our society. But of course, Trump would rather increase our gargantuan defense spending instead of motivating you to think critically about the world; it’s a much better gamble for him.

Czesław Miłosz and his intellectual contemporaries understood that a successful society is ultimately fueled by the power of the free mind. Their generation was handed trial and tribulation by the cruel realities of history and geography. Nevertheless, many, whether writer or worker or citizen, persisted in challenging their governments, both from within and from afar, in ways large and small. Given the current state of global affairs, the lesson and warning of the The Captive Mind is as timely today as it was over a half a century ago.