Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The undertow of totalism

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author and which circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a book without a title. People referred to it, if at all, simply as the book. But one knew of such things only through vague rumours. Neither the Brotherhood nor the book was a subject that any ordinary Party member would mention if there was a way of avoiding it.

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O'Brien's heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out 'Swine! Swine! Swine!' and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein's nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

-- George Orwell, 1984, (Chapter 1)

Totalitarianism is always a two-part dynamic: there are the totalitarian leaders, and there are their followers.

The success or failure of any kind of totalitarianism always comes down to the symbiotic relationship between them, that is, how skilled the would-be leaders are at gathering and maintaining a flock of True Believers. This depends not only on the leaders' skills, but on how many people are willing to become followers, and the conditions that affect their willingness.

When coming to terms with totalitarian trends like the rise of pseudo-fascism, it's reasonable and necessary to focus on the leaders, political and civic, who promulgate them. But in the process we often overlook the role played by the other half of the dynamic: the members of the public who not only participate in it, but ardently embrace it.

These followers are totalists, and recent events make clear that American society is increasingly awash in them.

The most notorious case that recently made national headlines involved the congregation in North Carolina where Democrats were chased out:
Nine members of a local church had their membership revoked and 40 others left in protest after tension over political views recently came to a head, church members say.

Some members of East Waynesville Baptist Church voted the nine members out at a recent scheduled deacon meeting, which turned into an impromptu business meeting, according to congregants.

Chan Chandler, pastor of East Waynesville, had been exhorting his congregation since October to support his political views or leave the church, said Selma Morris, a 30-year member of the church.

"He preached a sermon on abortion and homosexuality, then said if anyone there was planning on voting for John Kerry, they should leave," she said. "That's the first time I've ever heard something like that. Ministers are supposed to bring people in."

The case caught a lot of people's attention because it was one of the first really public examples of the embrace of totalitarian exclusionism and eliminationism. But it represents, I think, the tip of the iceberg.

I've been hearing from a broad range of readers, mostly through e-mail, about similar incidents in which bosses, pastors, school officials, and other low-level but everyday figures of authority used tactics of intimidation and pressure to not only promote but enforce the conservative movement's agenda in general, and support for George W. Bush in particular.

One of those readers described an interesting case of Big Brotherism:
I had another experience last night that I felt was worth sharing. On a liberal chatboard I was suprised to find a conservative taking information from chatter's profiles. He claimed that whenever someone spoke against the United States occupation of Iraq, or President Bush in general he'd contact his local Homeland Security and FBI offices to report terrorist activities on the part of the democrats. Though I wasnt there with him, he told me this in a private chatroom. I had been posing as a conservative when he contacted me. It reminded me a great deal of the children in 1984 who reported their families for thoughtcrimes. It would likely be funny, if part of me didn't have the suspicion that his reports may one day be acted upon. Luckily my fears were removed after he mentioned 1,244 (i have no clue how he got that number) American "Liberal Traitors" have been tried for sedition in 2004. He felt proud to take credit for one of the "sedition arrests," a chatter whom I had interviewed personally only days before.

This shouldn't be surprising, considering how widely the notion that Democrats by nature are traitors has been repeated by movement conservatives, most notably Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. Of course, mainstream conservatives like to dismiss figures like Coulter as being unrepresentative of their movement, someone "no one takes seriously" -- an easy way of eluding the reality of the depth and breadth of her actual influence among the ordinary footsoldiers who comprise their ranks.

Similarly, another reader from a "red state" describes her local milieu:
My child goes to an excellent private school and I am very pleased with the education they offer. However, the majority of parents are very wealthy, powerful (at least in our small "fishpond") and conservative. Anyone, even children, who dare to voice a dissenting opinion about our "glorious leader, George Bush" are immediately labeled as trouble makers and the kids are subtly ostracized by not being invited to birthday parties etc. Most of the teachers aren't right-wing radicals but the administration is and they dare not disagree with anything that the headmaster says for fear of losing their jobs. I know this because I taught in the preschool there for 2 years and finally quit because I couldn't stand the "zip your lip" culture that the teachers have to follow. The principal even set up a celebration rally for the kids when Bush "won." They were allowed to skip wearing their school uniforms for a day as long as they wore red, white and blue street clothes. They had cake and ice cream for lunch to celebrate his election. My daughter, who was 7 at the time, knows that we don't like Bush but she was afraid to say anything to her little friends because she knew that she would be an outcast.

Our local public school system is very, very bad and there aren't many choices in private education in our area. Our area is home to a massive military base and it's rare to see a car without a "W" sticker on the bumper. I don't dare to put any Democratic stickers on my car because I've heard of other cars that have been vandalized for having pro-Kerry stickers. I've been tolerating this Republican-glorification for the sake of my daughter's education and at home we teach her about what our family sees as the trampling of civil rights in both her school and the country in general. I am so, so sad to see how Bush is dismantling our great land from top to bottom.

The reader's anger at Bush is not misdirected. There's little doubt that the Republicans both in the White House and in Congress have done their level best to encourage and inflame this kind of ground-level totalitarianism -- most often leading by example. All you have to do, really, is look at their public appearances.

Though it showed up throughout his first term, especially in the form of "First Amendment Zones," it really manifested itself during the 2004 campaign, when it became routine for the Bush campaign to exclude, often with a real viciousness, anyone deemed a non-supporter. The nadir of this behavior came when some schoolteachers in Oregon wearing T-shirts proclaiming "Protect Our Civil Liberties" were unceremoniously removed and threatened with arrest. For that matter, even soldiers returned from Iraq were prevented from entering if they were deemed insufficiently supportive. Towards the end, there was the bizarre phenomenon of the "Bush Pledge", which Billmon acutely described as "truly sinister."

Rather than ending with the election, this behavior has seemingly only escalated since. The most noteworthy example was the incident in Denver in which two people attending a Bush "town hall" forum were ejected and threatened with arrest because they had arrived with Kerry bumper stickers on their car. Unsurprisingly, it later turned out it that it was, in fact, a Republican operative posing as official security who had engaged in this faux-official thuggery.

But then, we've known all along that Bush's roadshows are not real exercises in town-hall democracy, but are completely phonied-up propaganda events, Potemkin gatherings for Potemkin audiences.

At the same time, anyone who dares dissent, especially in any kind of noticeable way, is likely to invite a visit from the Secret Service, as Matthew Rothschild at The Progessive (via Jillian at Slyblog) recently reported.

The most striking feature of this cauldron of totalism is its distinctly religious cast, which makes it innately alloyed with likeminded followers inclined to join in line. This has become especially evident in recent manifestations of the trend, especially the Terri Schiavo dustup and the campaign against the judiciary, embodied by the recent "Justice Sunday" event (or, as Nancy Goldstein called it, "the Passion of the Frist").

Mainstream conservatives pooh-pooh such talk, but I think the Rev. Carlton W. Veazy had it exactly right, after "Justice Sunday," in describing the nation as being on the "brink of theocracy":
There is a right way and a wrong way to engage religious voices in the public square. I believe "Justice Sunday" reflects the latter and highlights several disturbing trends. I agree with the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, who called "Justice Sunday" sacrilegious and said, "The radical religious right turned a sanctuary into a political platform." As a Baptist minister for more than 40 years with a profound respect for religious freedom and pluralism, I fear it will get worse. In fact, I think we are teetering on the brink of theocracy and the Christian Right could conceivably use the battle over the judiciary and weakening support for reproductive rights to push us over the edge. Unfortunately, although Frist has been vigorously, and appropriately, criticized for his poor judgment and political opportunism in taking part in the telethon, the greater problem of sectarian religious manipulation of public policy debates has been minimized. President George W. Bush brushed off a question about the role of faith in politics at his April 28th press conference with the innocuous response that "people in political office should not say to somebody you're not equally American if you don't agree with my view of religion." Rather than give a high school civics lesson, he should have had the courage to disavow the religious arrogance and extremism of "Justice Sunday."

There is also a media component to this right-wing evangelical takeover. As Mariah Blake recently reported for Columbia Journalism Review, the religious right is clearly succeeding in its long-term plan to construct its own media counter-universe of "Christian" media. The heavyweight in this is the National Religious Broadcasters organization, where in recent years politics has become the name of the game, and anyone dissenting from that direction, unsurprisingly, gets the usual treatment:
In the sixty-one years since its founding, the NRB has grown to represent 1,600 broadcasters with billions of dollars in media holdings and staggering political clout. Its aggressive political maneuverings have helped shape federal policy, further easing the evangelical networks’ rapid growth. In 2000, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission issued guidelines that would have barred religious broadcasters from taking over frequencies designated for educational programming. The NRB lobbied Congress to intervene, at one point delivering a petition signed by nearly half a million people. Legislators, in turn, bore down on the FCC, and the agency relented.

At least one mainstream media mogul has taken note of religious broadcasters’ political might. In 2002, Rupert Murdoch met with NRB leaders and urged them to oppose a proposed Echostar-DirecTV merger, which they did. After the FCC nixed the deal, Murdoch’s News Corporation bought DirecTV and gave the NRB a channel on it.

The NRB has taken a number of steps to ensure it remains a political player. The most dramatic came in 2002, after Wayne Pederson was tapped to replace the network’s longtime president, Brandt Gustavson. He quickly ignited internal controversy by telling a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter that he intended to shift the organization's focus away from politics. "We get associated with the far Christian right and marginalized," Pederson lamented. "To me the important thing is to keep the focus on what’s important to us spiritually." That didn’t sit well. Soon members of the executive committee were clamoring for his ouster. Within weeks, he was forced to step down.

Frank Wright was eventually chosen to replace Pederson. He had spent the previous eight years serving as the executive director of the Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Capitol Hill ministry that conducts training for politicians on how to "think biblically about their role in government." Wright acknowledges that he was chosen for his deep political connections. "I came here to re-engage the political culture on issues relating to broadcasting," he says. "The rest is up to individual broadcasters."

Amy Goodman recently had a fascinating interview with Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, who discussed the potency and significance of the religious right as a political force:
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, this is the annual gathering of the most powerful religious broadcasters in the country. Over the last few decades these radical religious broadcasters, who have essentially taken control of the airwaves, have built a parallel information and entertainment service that is piped into tens of millions of American homes as a way of essentially indoctrinating listeners and viewers with this very frightening ideology. I would second most of what your previous guest said, except that I don't believe, and -- I just, you know, for your listeners and viewers, will reiterate that I grew up in the Church. My father was a Presbyterian minister. I have a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School, which is what you get if you are going to be a minister, although I was not ordained. For me, this is not a religious movement. It's a political movement.

If you look at the ideology that pervades this movement, and the term we use for it is dominionism, it comes from Genesis, where the sort of founders of this movement, Rousas Rushdoony and others, talk about how God gave man -- this is a very patriarchal movement -- dominion over the land. And dominionists believe that they have been tasked by God to create the Christian society through violence, I would add. Violence, the aesthetic of violence is a very powerful component within this movement. The ideology, when you parse it down and look what it's made up of, is essentially an ideology of exclusion and of hatred. It is a totalitarian ideology. It is not religious in any way. These people quote, as they did at this convention, selectively and with gross distortions from the Gospels. You cannot read the four Gospels and walk away and tell me that Jesus was not a pacifist. I'm not a pacifist, but Jesus clearly was. They draw from the Book of Revelations the only time in the Bible, and that's a very questionable book, as Biblical scholars have pointed out for centuries, the only time when you can argue that Jesus endorsed violence and the apocalyptic visions of Paul. And they do this to create an avenging Christ.

They have built a vision of America that is radically -- and a vision of this -- and latched onto a religious movement or awakening that is radically different from previous awakenings, and there have been several throughout American history. In all religious revivals, Christian religious revivals in American history, the pull was to get believers to remove themselves from the contaminants of secular society. This one is very, very different. It is about taking control of secular society. And, of course, I think, as you and others have done such a good job of pointing out, they have built this dangerous alliance with the neoconservatives to essentially create across denominational lines. And we saw this at the convention with the, you know, radical Catholics with -- even there were even people from the Salvation Army; they have recently begun reaching out to the Mormons -- a kind of united front. Those doctrinal differences are still there and still stock, but a front to create what they term a "Christian America."

And this is an America where people like you and me have no place. And you don't have to take my word for it, turn on Christian broadcasting, listen to Christian radio. Listen to what they say about people like us. It's not a matter that we have an opinion they disagree with. It's not a matter of them de-legitimizing us, which they are. It's a matter of them demonizing us, of talking us -- describing us as militant secular humanists, moral relativists, both of which terms I would not use to describe myself, as a kind of counter-militant ideology that is anti-Christian and that essentially propelled by Satan that they must destroy. Listen to their own language. You know, when in "Justice Sunday," listen -- you know, I urge everyone to go back and look closely at what James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, said. He talked about Roe v. Wade causing the biggest holocaust in the 20th century. There is a frightening kind of revisionism and a kind of moral equation of a magnitude that, you know, having lived through disintegrating states in Yugoslavia and other places, essentially divides -- destroys the center, divides the American public, and creates a very dangerous and frightening culture war. And that's what these people are about.

The popular conception of totalitarianism, however, has often tended to view it as something almost extrinsic to the society on which it is imposed, usually through brainwashing or propaganda. But in reality, totalitarian systems are almost invariably empowered by people who ardently seek and support authoritarian social rule, for a variety of reasons, many of them directly related to psychological needs: that is, totalists.

The most significant work on totalism was pioneered by Erik Erikson, whose work I've discussed previously in a similar context. One of Erikson's chief disciples and descendants is Robert Jay Lifton, who has done some of the most thorough work examing the totalist mindset. Lifton describes it as consisting of eight key themes, notably:
Milieu control

The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads or writes, experiences, and expresses), but also -- in its penetration of his inner life -- over what we may speak of as his communication with himself. It creates an atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.

Such milieu control never succeeds in becoming absolute, and its own human apparatus can -- when permeated by outside information -- become subject to discordant "noise" beyond that of any mechanical apparatus. To totalist administrators, however, such occurrences are no more than evidences of "incorrect" use of the apparatus. For they look upon milieu control as a just and necessary policy, one which need not be kept secret: thought reform participants may be in doubt as to who is telling what to whom, but the fact that extensive information about everyone is being conveyed to the authorities is always known. At the center of this self-justification is their assumption of omniscience, their conviction that reality is their exclusive possession. Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth (and having the need to dispel any possible inner doubts of their own), they consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this "truth." In order to be the engineers of the human soul, they must first bring it under full observational control.

Perhaps the trait that progressives seem to be observing on the ground a great deal is the Demand for Purity:
In the thought reform milieu, as in all situations of ideological totalism, the experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood of stern moral judgments. All "taints" and "poisons" which contribute to the existing state of impurity must be searched out and eliminated.

The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity is attainable, and that anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral. In actual practice, however, no one is really expected to achieve such perfection. Nor can this paradox be dismissed as merely a means of establishing a high standard to which all can aspire. Thought reform bears witness to its more malignant consequences: for by defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition.

At the level of the relationship between individual and environment, the demand for purity creates what we may term a guilty milieu and a shaming milieu. Since each man's impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment -- which results in a relationship of guilt and his environment. Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracism -- thus establishing a relationship of shame with his milieu. Moreover, the sense of guilt and the sense of shame become highly-valued: they are preferred forms of communication, objects of public competition, and the basis for eventual bonds between the individual and his totalist accusers. One may attempt to simulate them for a while, but the subterfuge is likely to be detected, and it is safer to experience them genuinely.

People vary greatly in their susceptibilities to guilt and shame, depending upon patterns developed early in life. But since guilt and shame are basic to human existence, this variation can be no more than a matter of degree. Each person is made vulnerable through his profound inner sensitivities to his own limitations and to his unfulfilled potential; in other words, each is made vulnerable through his existential guilt. Since ideological totalists become the ultimate judges of good and evil within their world, they are able to use these universal tendencies toward guilt and shame as emotional levers for their controlling and manipulative influences. They become the arbiters of existential guilt, authorities without limit in dealing with others' limitations. And their power is nowhere more evident than in their capacity to "forgive."

The individual thus comes to apply the same totalist polarization of good and evil to his judgments of his own character: he tends to imbue certain aspects of himself with excessive virtue, and condemn even more excessively other personal qualities - all according to their ideological standing. He must also look upon his impurities as originating from outside influences -- that is, from the ever-threatening world beyond the closed, totalist ken. Therefore, one of his best way to relieve himself of some of his burden of guilt is to denounce, continuously and hostilely, these same outside influences. The more guilty he feels, the greater his hatred, and the more threatening they seem. In this manner, the universal psychological tendency toward "projection" is nourished and institutionalized, leading to mass hatreds, purges of heretics, and to political and religious holy wars. Moreover, once an individual person has experienced the totalist polarization of good and evil, he has great difficulty in regaining a more balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality. For these is no emotional bondage greater than that of the man whose entire guilt potential -- neurotic and existential -- has become the property of ideological totalists.

Lifton, notably, emphasizes that totalists are only too ordinary, and in many regards reflect long-honored human traits:
Behind ideological totalism lies the ever-present human quest for the omnipotent guide -- for the supernatural force, political party, philosophical ideas, great leader, or precise science -- that will bring ultimate solidarity to all men and eliminate the terror of death and nothingness. This quest is evident in the mythologies, religions, and histories of all nations, as well as in every individual life. The degree of individual totalism involved depends greatly upon factors in one's personal history: early lack of trust, extreme environmental chaos, total domination by a parent or parent-representative, intolerable burdens of guilt, and severe crises of identity. Thus an early sense of confusion and dislocation, or an early experience of unusually intense family milieu control, can produce later a complete intolerance for confusion and dislocation, and a longing for the reinstatement of milieu control. But these things are in some measure part of every childhood experience; and therefore the potential for totalism is a continuum from which no one entirely escapes, and in relationship to which no two people are exactly the same.

It does not take much reflection, however, to recognize that totalism is not a healthy phenomenon -- especially not in a democracy. Combating it requires understanding it, but understanding does not mean succumbing.

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