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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Captive Minds

I have written before about how Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 book The Captive Mind is one of the most important—and seldom read, alas—books of the twentieth century. The book is a taxonomy of the usually gradual (but absolute) capitulation to Communism of a number of Polish intellectuals familiar to Milosz following World War II. Intellectuals, in my experience, are the most prone to ideology, and the higher up the academic (BA, MA, Ph.D.) scale they are, the more inclined they are to an uncompromising resoluteness. As a biodynamic farmer with a doctorate in early modern English literature, I may have a unique perspective in that my life straddles the worlds of academia and the working-class / small business owners. I prefer the latter world. By a long shot.

I have often wondered what it is that makes academics so prone to ideology and so intolerant of those holding opinions opposite of theirs. Certainly, one contributing factor must be the conditioning centers of higher education, and especially graduate programs (particularly in the humanities--but please do not think this makes the sciences any more moral: see here). People in these programs are conditioned to at least act the part of the dutiful Progressive—at least until tenure. Even then they might be in danger of retribution if they step out of line. (You can read one account of the process here.) It didn’t use to be that way, and I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule. But this is pretty much what I saw during my twenty years in higher education.

Example: as a visiting professor years ago, I received an email I shouldn’t have received. The department hiring committee had been interviewing candidates who had done the rounds of MLA interview, campus visit, and sample lesson. It was down to two candidates: a progressive with a degree from the University of Michigan (the kind of person who began a lot of conversations at this Catholic liberal arts college with the phrase, “As an atheist...”) and a conservative Christian (I forget where he went). Everyone agreed that the Christian was more intellectually gifted, had great scholarly potential, and was a better teacher. The students in the sample lesson were not at all impressed by the U of M grad, but thought the Christian was fantastic. Nevertheless, though all these things were admitted in the email I received by accident, the Chair of the department recommended they hire the lesser candidate because the other was a conservative Christian. At the time, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to have received the email, but minutes later the Chair burst into my office to tell me it wasn’t meant for me, that he had sent it to all the department by accident. He was actually a bit freaked out. They hired the lesser candidate. The students didn’t like her very much, but political hegemony of the department was assured. This is how the game is played.

Academics don’t typically think of themselves as the products of classical conditioning, but Pavlov was no dummy. Reward and punishment combined with resent (often repressed) at the process make for toxic psychological and social environments. Milosz was onto it as well. As he writes,

The intellectual’s eyes twinkle with delight at the persecution of the bourgeoisie, and of the bourgeois mentality. It is a rich reward for the degradation he felt when he had to be part of the middle class, and when there seemed to be no way out of the cycle of life and death. Now he has moments of sheer intoxication when he sees the intelligentsia, unaccustomed to rigorously tough thinking, caught in the sphere of revolution. The peasants, burying hoarded gold and listening to foreign broadcasts in the hope that a war will save them from collectivization, certainly have no ally in him. Yet he is warm-hearted and good; he is a friend of mankind. Not mankind as it is, but as it should be. He is not unlike the inquisitor of the middle ages; but whereas the latter tortured the flesh in the belief that he was saving the individual soul, the intellectual of the New Faith is working for the salvation of the human species in general.” [1]

What we have here, then, is not a political problem so much as a psychological one.

After World War II and the horrors of Nazism, Fascism, and the Holocaust, Western culture engaged in a thoughtful interrogation of the psyche as many of the physicians, philosophers, and intellectuals engaged in a much needed examination of the collective conscience—people like Viktor Frankl (who survived the concentration camps), Hannah Arendt, Erich Neumann, and Milosz himself. Others played the tried and true intellectual’s game of “go along to get along.”

In my years of teaching college, a constant question I have posed to students is “How do you know if you’re brainwashed?” I ask students this in every course, in every semester, and often (depending on the course) show them the first installment of Adam Curtis’s masterful documentary The Century of the Self as an introduction to the topic. Twenty years ago, when I began my college-teaching career, I also talked much about transhumanism, an idea that at the time was dismissed by my students and colleagues alike as absurd, but now, due to its endorsement by Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum, has reached a level of cultural cache I never could have imagined in my lifetime. I attribute some of it to a dreadful lack of critical thinking in the public square, but even more to the classic technique used by both corporations and political parties known as “the engineering of consent.” Has your consent been engineered?

As I said, what we’re dealing with here is only secondarily about politics. It’s primary phenomenon is psychological and we would do well to consider Jung’s notions of the individual and collective shadow (discussed in the clip below by Marie-Louise von Franz) and do a little critical self-examination of our own. Think about when you feel tempted to project your anger (much of it built up over almost a year of destabilization) on the Other dealing with his own shadow and being overcome by the Zeitgeist. How do you know if you’re brainwashed?

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

1. Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, trans. Jane Zielonko (Vintage, 1953), 10-11.

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