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How dominant cultures make intelligent people believe lies
on 14 February 2002
At the risk of overstatement, this is one of the handful of books from the twentieth century that genuinely deserve the description 'great'. It is about the use of coercive power by clear minds in the cause of absurd lies. And it's about how those clear minds turn that coercive power on themselves before they do it to others.
Written by Poland's foremost poet, who emigrated to America after the war, it is presented as an analysis of intellectual life under Stalin. It serves, though, as an analysis of the life of the mind under any intellectually oppressive dictatorship, and the processes which force, cajole and woo thinking men and women to believe self-evident lies.
If you've ever wondered how people can have believed such culturally self destructive nonsense as Stalin's progroms, and convinced themselves that it is socially necessary not only to do so but force others to do so too, this is the book for you. By extension, though - and Milosz won't allow his case to remain in the East or the past - whether we believe the lies of left or right, liberalism, libertarianism or the 'third way', we can all potentially persuade ourselves to deceive ourselves and others for the good of our cause.
This book is a wonder, and deserves careful study by any one who aspires to political office or intellectual leadership. More importantly, it should be read by all of us who have a vested interest in the integrity of our political life. The temptation to by dazzled by a hypothetical future, and to make ourselves and others in the present pay horrific prices for that, is ever present, and requires constant deconstruction and examination.
Only someone who had lived in Stalin's thought-world could analyse it so clearly; perhaps only someone who had also lived in the West could see the increasing relevance of those lessons for the deomocratic countries too.