The Use and Abuse of Blindness (3)

This is the third in a series of posts.

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Motivations for Blindness: Second Case

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

—Upton Sinclair 


In 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression and the massive westward migration of individuals and whole families escaping from the desolation of the Dust Bowl--depicted indelibly in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath--Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California as head of a movement to End Poverty in California (EPIC). Running on that platform and despite his long history as a socialist, Sinclair managed to secure the Democratic nomination, to the consternation of the entire California establishment—including that of the Democratic Party itself—which did everything it could to insure Sinclair's defeat, largely by completely ignoring every real issue he was raising. 

The next year, Sinclair published I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked, his own account of what occurred. In that book, he recounts* how, in speeches after the election, in explanation of his defeat he would often deliver the line cited above. Sinclair used that line especially to explain to his audiences why the mainstream California press was unanimously hostile to his candidacy, and refused to give any serious consideration whatsoever to the possibility of ending poverty, whether in California or anywhere else, treating the very idea of such a thing as though it were utterly unintelligible. Then as now, the press was blinded by its own concern not to threaten the powers that be, and on which it was itself financially dependent. That dependency permitted the press itself to be used as a tool for helping to make a few ridiculously rich at immense cost especially to the least rich of the society, as it so greatly helped make William Randolph Hearst rich back in Sinclair’s day, or helps make Jeff Bezos today.

In the course of serving oneself one may often have to perform some dis-service to others. That is especially tempting if by the disservice to one’s community one can amass great financial wealth for oneself. Those tempted by the prospects of accumulating such wealth are at the same time tempted to “turn a blind eye,” as our apt common expression has it, to the disservice to others such single-minded pursuit of their own profit entails. Blinding themselves to how destructive their own deeds are of their own communities, such individuals pursue their own narrow, selfish interests regardless of its impact on others. By not allowing themselves even to see the damage they do, they can continue to seek their own profit “with a clear conscience,” as another common expression has it.

Nor is it only the greatest exploiters who cultivate such blindness to the negative impact on others of their exclusive pursuit of their own individual interests. Sinclair was very aware of that fact, and was thinking exactly along such lines in his critiques of the supposedly “free” press of his day. Not only do the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Jeff Besos have a vested interest in blinding themselves to the reality of their own acts. So, too, do those who simply work for such profiteers. A reporter or editorialist on a Hearst or Bezos paper knows without needing to be told—and often without ever even letting the matter surface into his or her own reflective awareness—that keeping one’s job depends upon not offending the boss, or what that boss represents or chooses to affiliate himself with. 

A recent example is how, just this past June (2018), the political cartoonist Rob Rogers was fired from The Pittsburg Post Gazette for daring to keep posting anti-Trump cartoons. 

By the time he was fired, Rogers had already earned a strong positive reputation for his cartoons, and he certainly had options available to him to move to some less “officially correct,” Trumpist paper. It was, to be sure, an act of courage for him to have resisted pressure to conform to a stance that violated his own political conscience, but fostered his employer's own selfish interest.  

However, for every established press employee such as Rob Rogers--whether that employee be  a cartoonist, an editor, a columnist, a reporter, or any other employee of the given press organ--who already has an established reputation and probable prospects for shifting to other employers, not to yield to corporate coercion does indeed take far greater courage. It is for that reason to be even more loudly applauded. 

The argument might be made that in such cases as Rob Roger's, where “all” that is at issue is not saying anything against some powerful public figure such as Trump, are of far less weight than, for instance, the case of the German philologist friend of Milton Mayer I discussed in my preceding post. That was the case in which, in Germany in 1935, the individual at issue decided to sign an oath of fidelity to the Nazi State, even though that oath was in clear violation of his own conscience, in order to keep his job. 

To recount that case briefly: After initially refusing to sign the oath, and being given twenty-four hours to think about his decision, the person in question changes his mind. He decides to sign the oath after all, in hopes that by doing so to keep his job he will be able retain a potential to do “more important” acts to help those in need in the future—and who actually does perform a number of significant subsequent acts to help those endangered by Nazism. 

However, against any such argument in terms of embracing a “lesser evil” now, in hopes that one later can achieve a “greater good,” Mayer’s confidant himself subsequently provides the answer. He comes to see that any such thinking as he engaged in to justify going ahead with signing the oath was really no more than self-rationalization for embracing evil. It was, he comes to see, a betrayal of trust and of faith—not only of his own trust and faith in doing “the next right thing,” in effect, but also of the trust and faith that others had full right to place in him. Complicity in evil can never be justified by such self-rationalizations. They only deepen one's shame. 

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To be continued.


*Page 109 of the 1994 re-edition (Berkeley and Las Angeles: University of California Press).