Tuesday, May 1, 2018

UWTWCHCGN Part 3: Fanatical Movements As Churches

     In his magnum opus The True Believer, Eric Hoffer makes repeated references to the church-like nature of a mass movement:

     Man on his own is a helpless, miserable and sinful creature. His only salvation is in rejecting his self and in finding a new life in the bosom of a holy corporate body—be it a church, a nation or a party....

     When a mass movement begins to be preoccupied with the present, it means that it has arrived. It ceases then to be a movement and becomes an institutionalized organization—an established church, a government or an army (of soldiers or workers)....

     An effective division is one that fosters a multiplicity of compact bodies—racial, religious or economic—vying with and suspicious of each other....

     The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole—the church, party, nation—and not to his fellow true believer.

     It’s clear that in Hoffer’s use of a church as a metaphor for a mass movement, he had the fanatical characteristics of historical religious movements in mind. Though contemporary Western faiths – Christianity and Judaism – are not of that sort, at various points in history they exhibited those traits, which has made many of today’s Christians and Jews a bit gun-shy about discussing our pasts.

     By fanaticism in the above, I mean the all-or-nothing, you’re-in-or-you’re-out attitude of those historical movements. To be “in” was to be enfolded among other fanatics, who would presumably protect you against attacks from anyone who was “out.” But the price of being “in” was never, ever to dispute any tenet of the faith. By implication, defending or tolerating anyone who was “out” would cause you to be deemed “out” yourself.

     That absolutism made it possible for the clerics of those movements to be very, very naughty. But more important by far, it allowed them to compel the fanatic to assent to blatantly counterfactual assertions. That laid him open to accepting any claim, no matter how absurd, and to acting on any order he might be given, no matter how horrific. It also rendered him wholly dependent on his fellows for defense against those who were “out.”

     "We do not joke," said Nessus. "My species has no sense of humor."
     "Strange. I would have thought that humor was an aspect of intelligence."
     "No. Humor is associated with an interrupted defense mechanism."
     "All the same--"
     "Speaker, no sapient being ever interrupts a defense mechanism."

     [Larry Niven, Ringworld]

     It’s hard to see love in the mortar that binds the individual fanatic to a fanatical movement. It’s a lot easier to see hatred. At any rate, what C. S. Lewis has termed “the Law of General Benevolence” cannot operate at the boundary between the movement fanatic and those who differ with him.

     If Peck is correct in his definition of love and his assertion that “Ultimately, love is everything,” then the fanatical movement demands that love cease at the border that separates the movement fanatic from all others. This is a much sharper division than it might seem at first blush. Revisit this contretemps of three years ago and reflect on what such inability to laugh at oneself really means.

     If the movement is all the defense the fanatic has, he will never permit it to be joshed or twitted, much less ridiculed. Not only would that reduce the movement’s stature, it would imply that he is himself ridiculous. No one can pledge his life to anything and stand to see it derided.

     It’s important that we draw the necessary distinction between loving something grand and abstract and proclaiming it beyond all question as a fanatic does. Love of country and love of one’s church do not forbid us to note their flaws and misdeeds. Neither does such love require that we take umbrage at outsiders. Love of country doesn’t forbid the American patriot to laugh at The Mouse That Roared. Neither does it demand that he despise foreigners who prefer their own countries to ours.

     But the movement fanatic must obey much firmer restrictions.

     I’m mainly concerned with the Left and its subsidiary movements, of course. Their absolutism is reminiscent of the early, fanatical churches. Their willingness to pronounce anathema upon anyone who dares to question any of their doctrines makes up a good part of the political news coverage these days. I suspect that this will ultimately be their downfall. No one can maintain his self-respect under such a regimen.

     The Right has occasionally exhibited some of this tendency. Note how many movement conservatives and libertarians were aghast when Donald Trump endorsed tariffs in defense of particular American industries. Despite their value in preserving strategically important capacities that our armed forces could hardly do without, many a movement conservative was rabid in denouncing Trump for daring to suggest such things. Libertarians, whether “large or small l,” exhibit a similar absolutism about recreational drugs. I’ve expressed my concerns about this elsewhere, at great length.

     Absolutism, and the unwillingness to allow that one might be wrong, are things to beware. Dissent and debate are important tools to anyone interested in refining a body of thought. Just don’t expect your neighborhood fanatic to agree.

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