October 12th, 2005
Last winter I went to a liberal church in Cambridge to hear Chris Hedges deliver a pre-publication version of his May 2005 Harpers article Soldiers of Christ II: Feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters. He spoke about the dangers posed by the Christian Right. He argued that the Christian Right was not a religious movement, but an authoritarian political movement. He detailed the drive of this movement to take over the country, using any means necessary. He made it clear that they were not interested in dialog with those they disagreed with, using as evidence, a rift between the National Religious Broadcasters association and the National Association of Evangelicals after the latter initiated a dialog with the National Council of Churches.
Hedges concluded by citing a professor of his, Dr. James Luther Adams, who 25 years ago warned of the dangers of the “Christian Fascists.” Dr. Adams pointed out that the Christian Right’s first target might be lesbians and homosexuals, but that a later target would be us.
As I listened, chills ran down my spine. Hedges was saying the forces akin to fascists were on the march and coming our way. I wondered how the audience, largely composed of liberal churchgoers, would respond to the talk. When Hedges finished, they clapped politely. Questions were asked about this point and that. Hedges declined to give out copies of the talk because, as he said, Harpers wouldn’t pay him if it was published somewhere else first. After a few minutes, the audience started looking for the cake then being served. A few looked to see if ham remained from the pre-speech lunch. People drank their coffee and chatted amicably. That’s when I truly became afraid.
Here we had just been told that the fascists were on the march, aiming straight for us, and cake and coffee was the number one priority. Where was the response to what we had just been told? Where was the discussion of how to fight back? Would these people fight at all? If not them, who would?
What was lacking was the passion to fight, the sense that what these people did really mattered, or even any obligation to do anything to confront what, I’m sure many agreed was a serious danger. I already had been thinking about the dilemma of passion. Passion for social action is aided by strong belief and a sense of certainty that one is right. Also important is a belief that one’s opponents are more than wrong, that they are evil.
As a psychoanalyst, I realize that this is the passion of splitting and projection. In this view, the world is divided into the good and the evil, with the other, the opponent, the enemy, as an embodiment of evil and good residing in one’s self and one’s allies. This evil takes on the qualities of one’s self of which one is guilty or ashamed, the qualities one needs to disown. In other words, this view constitutes a paranoid approach to the world.
Now paranoia can be very powerful. It produces intense energy for the effort to fight evil, while emphasizing one’s goodness and one’s importance. Think here of the Bush administration with it’s division of the world into the good and the evil empire, or of the similarly inspired Blair regime in Britain. But think as well of the culture of “political correctness” that, in the name of acceptance of diversity easily condemns those who disagree with labels intended often as indicators of evil and as a rejection of any potential discussion: racist, sexist, or whatever. Also think of the various socialist sects, composed of often only a dozen or less people, who spend their lives developing programs to lead the working class to the socialist promised land and attacking other similarly-sized sects. Monty Python depicted these groups in their Life of Brian:
- “Brothers! Brothers! We should be struggling together!”
- “We are!”
- “We mustn’t fight each other! Surely we should be united against the common enemy!”
- “”The Judean People’s Front?!”
- “”No, no! The Romans!”
- “”Oh, yeah.”
So, the very belief and certainty that provide energy and motivation to remain committed to righting the world’s wrongs can also reduce one’s openness to the complexity of the world. In its extremes, it can lead one to become virtually indistinguishable from one’s opponents. We have a long history of “liberation movements” becoming as oppressive as the regimes they opposed: the Soviet Union lurching from the crushing of the Kronstadt Commune to the Gulag; Communist China with the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution only to end up with “To make money is glorious!;” and the story of liberated Zimbabwe crushing opposition and starving the populace into submission. It seems likely that the origins of this oppression was based, at least in part, in the processes leading to “liberation,” including, among other factors, the “us versus them” approach that does not encourage tolerance of differences or dissent.
Yet, an acceptance of the complexity of the world, of the difficulty of certainty, can lead in turn to an inability or unwillingness to act. In the United States and many other countries today there is a pervasive cynicism. “What’s the point? All politicians are corrupt.” Such attitudes encourage a retreat into the private world of our families, of work, of television, and of celebrity. If nothing really matters, why not follow the latest celebrity scandal or reality TV show; at least they’re interesting and provide ample material for conversation and for fantasy. Further, the basic irrelevance of what happens provides a protection. My life goes on whether Michael Jackson is guilty or innocent.
How can this cynicism and its associated passivity be confronted and a passion for confronting the problems of society be sustained without resulting in the paranoid approach of good versus evil? Can those listening to Chris Hedges be inspired to oppose the looming threat of the Christian Right without resorting to the same dichotomizing of good ad evil that terrorizes us in the right and that has the potential of creating a society all too similar to that we oppose? This is the dilemma of passion. I do not have an easy answer. But I know this is a dilemma those of us working for a better society face every day. It’s a dilemma we must openly discuss and confront lest we, like so many others, become that which we oppose.
To be continued…