I work in city government – it’s not exactly the belly of the beast, but it’s not free of bloat, scandal, and waste either (not to mention the left-wing ideologues who run the place!) I try to keep my head down, do my job, and stay out of trouble – this is especially true given that 95% (maybe 99%) of my colleagues are more liberal than I am and I don’t want to lose my job one day or be denounced to ‘management’ for the sin of ”crimethink”
So I come here to express my heretical thoughts – which is why I am sharing this little story with our readers. The great Czech dissent Vaclav Havel wrote a powerful essay called The Power of the Powerless about the ways in which totalitarian government maintain control over their population and how brave individuals are willing to stand up for the truth in such circumstances. I recommend you read the whole essay, but it is particularly memorable for the famous story he tells about the “greengrocer:”
THE MANAGER of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life "in harmony with society," as they say.
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace." This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer's superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan's real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer's existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.
I don’t live in a totalitarian nightmare – at least not yet. But the other day when I went to the city’s Department of Family and Support Services (basically our social services department) I saw something that reminded me of the greengrocer and sent a shiver up my spine. There were buttons all over the office, piles of them, presumably for employees as well as extras to be handed out to agencies that we fund and/or political supporters – all the buttons said was “HEAD START WORKS.”
Now, if you have done even the first bit of honest research into the subject of the federal program known as Head Start you would find out very quickly that there is almost no sense in which the program does indeed work – in fact, the federal department responsible for administering the program studied its long-term effect on children and came to the conclusion that the program was a multi-billion dollar failure:
For cognitive development, the third-grade study assessed 11 outcomes for the original three- and four-year-old cohorts. Access to Head Start for each group had no statistically measurable effects on all measures of cognitive ability, including numerous measures of reading, language, and math ability.
It doesn’t get much worse than this – after close to 50 years and over $180 billion, one of the most rigorous social science studies ever determined that kids who enter Head Start (basically a pre-school program for poor, single mothers) show no difference in any academic measure you want to look at by the third grade. Far from “working”, Head Start has been a total and complete failure. However, it is even worse than these results suggest – most modern (all?) social science research has failed to account for the revolution in understanding we’ve made into genetics (here is Greg Cochran just ripping into one of his commenters who posted a few studies trying to prove a link between early childhood intervention and educational outcomes!) But there it was staring me in the face – just like the greengrocer’s sign ‘Workers of the World Unite”, except for the City’s employees of that department it was their “HEAD START WORKS” button.
I have to confess, for the first time in a long time, I thought of our old ‘friend’ Mencius Moldbug, who had many crazy ideas about the United States, including the idea that “America is a communist country." For one brief moment, looking at those colorful, shiny buttons, I thought to myself, maybe Moldbug has a point...