Sunday, January 09, 2011

It's the Movement, Stupid

Like many, my television has been on almost constantly since yesterday afternoon, and Twitter is my constant companion (often giving me information more quickly than TV, and certainly pointing me to more varied and even more sophisticated viewpoints). My thoughts go out to the families of all of the victims, particularly of those who have died and of Congresswoman Giffords, whose fate remains unknown.

Surprising myself, while watching and reading, I have also been writing. In connection with work on my book Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children, I have been looking once more into Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. There, I found the following:

In pre-Hitler Germany it was often a tossup whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. In the overcrowded pale of Carist Russia the simmering Jewish population was ripe both for revolution and Zionism.

Jared Lee Loughner is just such a 'restless youth,' and it makes no sense to throw blame on either right or left for his action.

The blame should go on all movements of 'true belief,' for it is the yearning for belief, for certainty, that attracts the Loughners.

Today, there are few such movements associated with the American left... but that doesn't mean there haven't been or won't be. Yes, it is the right, today, that is 'full of passionate intensity' (to steal from Yeats), but the dangers of the mass movement have no particular political bent.

But that doesn't mean there's no room for blame: The fault, if fault there be, of contemporary American conservative politicians lies in their coddling of mass movements founded on 'true belief'--going back as far as the John Birch Society. From the Moonies to the Tea Party, the Republicans have greeted them with open arms.

The Democrats, at least, look askance at such groups, distancing themselves from them as eagerly as the Republicans have embraced them.

That is the heart of the problem, as it pertains to American politics.

The Republicans, confident they can control the lunatics, try to make use of them as far as they can, believing that the 'true believers' will never take them over. And, in the current instance, they may be right: the Tea Party, now that it has been effectively used, is being cast aside.

But the Republicans play with fire, as the shooting in Tucson shows. Letting groups such as the Tea Party or other fringe elements within the party rile people up can have serious consequences.

"Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Henry II (if he said this at all) may have been speaking rhetorically, not really wanting Thomas a Becket dead. But Becket died. The king, intentionally or not, was responsible.

The Republicans, with their rhetoric playing to 'true believer' audiences from the Tea Party to the successors of the Posse Comitas, are just as responsible for this attack as Henry II was for Becket.

Loughner's specific political beliefs aren't the question here. What's significant is that the right has fomented an atmosphere that encourages those such as he. The right abets movements of the sort that produces Loughners, something the left has not done for a long, long time.

On a final note: Having read a bit of what Loughner posted online, I was struck by another passage in Hoffer, one that also seems a description of Loughner:

Patriotism, racial solidarity, and even the preaching of revolution find a more ready response among people who see limitless opportunities spread out before them than among those who move within the fixed limits of a familiar, orderly and predictable pattern of existence.

It's sixty years since The True Believer first appeared. It's appalling how little we've learned, since.

Update:Paul Krugman makes a similar point to mine, and much better than I do.

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