Fantaticism in Politics

Over the years Arthur Silber has been one of the most insightful writers on the blogosphere. Thus I was surprised and sorrowed to see him fall into the “Obamabot” meme.

Based on anecdotal evidence from some clearly fanatical Obama supporters, Silber implies that Obama himself is a cult leader and (based on the title, “It’s the 1930s, and You Are There”) dangerous. Silber doesn’t use the word “fascist,” but it hangs over the post like a bad smell.

Yes, there are fanatical Obama supporters who have attached to Obama as the Savior. But if you have any understanding of fanaticism, you would appreciate that fanaticism is self-created, and the object of a person’s fanaticism can be entirely innocent of causing whatever emotional pathologies are fixated on it.

For this reason, I find Silber’s conclusions astonishing:

Depending on how this campaign develops, and depending on how Obama conducts himself and — very significantly to me — how Obama’s most devoted supporters act, I may conclude that, if you vote, you should vote for John McCain. Unbelievable, I realize, but I may have no choice but to think that the alternative is far too dangerous to countenance.

What alternative? Does he think Obama intends to turn America into a Jonestown cult and hand out Kool-Aid?

My primary reason for supporting Obama is that his considerable organizational skills and his resonance with younger voters could bring about a political realignment and a shift in political culture that progressivism can build on in the years to come. I keep saying I don’t think he’s liberal Jesus and that I expect him to make mistakes and take wrong turns. I am less interested in what I think he will do than in what I think he might help to enable, which is an America in which progressive ideas at least can get a fair hearing.

Some of his recent turns are disappointing, particularly his stand on the FISA bill. I’m not making excuses for that. I realize he’s probably doing it for political expediency to help him win the election in November, but I still don’t like it.

But does that make McCain the better alternative? Hardly.

One of the frustrations I had during the Endless Primary was that so many Clinton supporters clearly were operating on some level of fanaticism even as they screamed about Obamabots. You couldn’t talk to them. They’d literally get wild-eyed and dredge up dark suspicions about Obama’s motivations and possible ties to right-wing extremism, suspicions based on nothing but their own overheated imaginations. And I do think the Clinton campaign cultivated this fanaticism to some extent, particularly as time went on and it was about the only thing the campaign had going for it.

But, ultimately, fanaticism is about projecting. Fanatical Clinton supporters were not fixated on the real Senator Clinton, but on a Hillary Clinton who lived only in their own heads. This is part of the nature of fanaticism.

Awhile back I wrote quite a bit about fanaticism and religion. Religion is a force that does attract fanaticism, no question. Many religions encourage absolutist thinking, and many of them are pinned on some sort of messianic concept of Salvation coming to us from Above. But not all religious people are fanatics, and not all religions are dangerous cults.

Further, a fanatic can be fanatical about nearly anything. And often the cause of the fanaticism, the root of it, has little to do with the object of fanaticism.

Let’s revisit Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other. …

… The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources — out of his rejected self — but finds it only in clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. … The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justice and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. …

… The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. [Hoffer, The True Believer, HarperPerennial edition, pp. 84-86]

In other words, usually people become fanatics because of their own emotional neediness, not because the object of their fanaticism, whatever it is, seduced them into it.

We are living in way too interesting times, darkened with paranoia and suspicion. Too many of us have lost the ability to stand back and analyze politics (and ourselves) with anything resembling objective detachment. So most of us are projecting frantically and perceive national figures as archetypes of good or evil instead of as the flawed, frightened, imperfect human beings they actually are.

But let us understand why this is happening. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

I realize Obama doesn’t have a big track record, but he does have a track record, in the Illinois Senate as well as the U.S. Senate. And his record is pretty solidly progressive. So I have a hard time understanding what dark, horrible thing Silber thinks Obama is going to do.

Everybody: Get a grip.

20 thoughts on “Fantaticism in Politics

  1. Maha, great analysis. I saw a lot more fanaticism coming from the Clinton supporters than I ever saw from the Obama crowd. The calls of “kool aid!” coming from the same people who would type “rise hillary rise!” without so much as a flinch was fairly, ummm, entertaining.

    BTW, Glenn Reynolds linked to Silber’s post. Reynolds has been milking the PUMA tomfoolery lately for all it’s worth (I know Silber isn’t by definition one, but he’s certainly exhibiting some of tics).

  2. Your deconstruction of fanaticism is spot on.

    I have this habit of stopping by Tenneessee Guerilla Woman to read commenters, carolynkb, womanvoter, yttk,etc, express their fanatical rantings everyday! They have become a virtual echo-chamber of each other- “Obama is not qualified”, and other imagined positions, including misogyny, sexism and racism they want to ascribe to him for the day. One of the statements I find hilarious is how Obama will be bad for the women’s movement.
    All in their attempt to crown Hillary as the perfect presidential candidate.

  3. Barbara, Great post, I particularly enjoy the reference to Hoffer, a book I read as an undergrad. Here is one of the underlying issues that has given hope to so many progressives and (arguably) made them a little fanatical about supporting Obama. The U.S. has not had a truly progressive President since Jimmy Carter. That is the entire lifetimes of many of these young “fanatics” who are playing such a large role organizing Obama! To make it a little more personal, I was born in 1980, and have yet to see a progressive President. Clinton was a pragmatic centrist after all. My point being, who can blame progressives for being excited about having a progressive Presidential candidate who’s message is resonating? I don’t think I’m a fanatic, but its still pretty exciting times.

  4. Here’s a good read..

    Kinda sums up my thoughts. I’m very unhappy with Obama’s embracing Bush’s faith based initiative as a path to emulate given a few minor tweaks. It’s gonna bite him in the ass..He’ll be empowering the likes of Dobson,Robertson, Hagee, and a thousand other nutball zealots ,and it won’t deliver the votes he thinks because the Christian right has already written Obama off.

    I see McCain got to kiss Franklin Graham’s ring, and Billy gave him the Father’s blessing. A home run for McCain..With just a minimal amount of groveling and butt nuzzling he hit one out of the ball park. It doesn’t get better than that then to recieve Billy Graham’s blessing right before he crosses the Jordan.

  5. Lets not tit for tat it, Kevin K. maha’s point is that fanaticism is a function of the believer, not of the object of belief but its also a function of political life and the fact that you perceived “a lot more fanaticism” from the Clinton supporters” than *you* saw from the “obama crowd” is irrelevant. No one sees the beam in their own eye. I saw plenty of craziness from both sides of that debate and I’d say the nuttiness was well balanced. Its only because clinton has dropped out and her supporters are left holding the bag of their emotions that makes the Obama people look calm and sane. And when you scratch them, they look pretty nutty too.

    That arthur silber piece is scarily scary, though. But what can you expect? Underneath Arthur’s incredible rhetorical skills and his undoubted brilliance has always lain a basically dysfunctional, isolated, and fairly nutty person. He’s a libertarian, for god’s sake, who is honorable enough to live utterly on the fringe in order not to infringe on his personal morality. He seems to live entirely inside his own head, and to see the world as a reflection of his own experiences (which seem to have been bad). He projects onto Obama (but not, oddly enough, onto McCain) a will to evil that is just totally not indicated in Obama’s background. He sounds like those strange people interviewed in the Washignton Post article about “flag city” who, because they persist in believing that black people aren’t a part of the american dream, are forced to imagine that this black person came out of africa, is a manchurian islamic candidate, who means to take this country over from the top and destroy it. The much more ordinary explanation taht Obama is a middle class senator who dreams of being president *as they all do* and will accomplish relatively little in this hide bound society seems to have escaped Arthur. But occam’s razor isn’t his thing.


  6. Good going, Maha. I’ve probably cited this study before but it really fits here. With their brains hooked up to sensors, people were asked questions, invited to discuss, whatever on two subjects only – politics and religion. During the entire exercise the reasoning, rational sides of their brains registered zero activity. All activity took place on the ’emotional’ side.

    Silber’s conclusion puts him in the same category as the mindless fanatics he seems to have so much trouble with – it’s mindless.

    I’ve become aware that Obama’s seeming reversals, recapitulations, whatever you call them on various issues, are not necessarily so when I read his views in their entirety. (We really are at the mercy of MSM if we take their 30 sec ‘sound bites’ between commercials as the sole substance of anything.)

  7. I find it amazing how many ways have been invented to show that Obama is bad for America. He’s attached to a radical Christian minister, but he’s a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist, then, according to Tom Delay, a Marxist. Assuming your head doesn’t explode trying to internalize those contradictions, they say he’s too unpopular among white working people to be elected… and now he’s too popular among his supporters to be elected? Whups, there it went – my head just exploded.

  8. This is going to sound odd, but Arthur lost one of his cats to illness about 6 weeks ago, and his straits are as dire as ever. No doubt he’s in even greater despair than normal, and that this is affecting his writing, hence the quasi-endorsement of McCain.

  9. Silber seems to be unfamiliar with the adage that the plural of anecdote is not data. While the examples he cites are cringe-worthy, there’s no evidence that they characterize the bulk of Obama’s support, or yield true insight into his campaign.

    And, if the goal is to avoid leaders who take advantage of fanatical followers who are disconnected from reality and endow their chosen candidate with superpowers, has Silber noticed the GOP’s hagiography of El Jefe, (before, of course, the chickens started coming home to roost)? How voting Republican can be seen as an answer to cultish devotion to a political leader is thoroughly beyond me.

  10. I loved Arthur talking about Alice Miller and the rise of fascism, but had not stopped by lately.

    And if he is living direly (perhaps of his own choice) and lost one of his few companions, it is a situation that would drive one to extremes.

    Genuine enthusiasm is rare and wonderful. The possibility of finding some end to the dark tunnel that is not an oncoming McCain has lifted my mood of late. Some of the polls indicate people are waking up.

    About time.

    I know people who are suspicious of strong emotion, thinking that it inevitably leads to wrong thinking and bad decisions. But it need not. After all, we are wired that way, and people who go for the Spock and dismiss emotion can get their own tangled up. Which can mess up their thinking more than anything else.

  11. Excellent analysis. I’ve appreciated a lot of what Arthur had to say over the years, but on this one, I think he’s really off base. I also don’t believe Barack Obama is the Second Coming, but he’s a lot better than the other candidates I’ve seen this season, and for once in my adult life as a voter, he is someone I can really support and believe in. I’m afraid Arthur’s terminal cynicism is definitely influencing how he views Obama.

  12. The thing I can’t figure out about all these people who worry that Obama will not turn out to be a good president: How much worse can he be than the fanatical dolt that now sits in the office?

    What, Obama might sully and tarnish the paragon, the saintly model of excellence brought to the presidency these past 7 1/2 years?

  13. Silber’s been writing recently about which is worse: those who are pure evil or those who enable evil. He comes down decidedly in the latter camp, to wit:

    …I came across Digby’s Credo (“We’re 2% less shitty than Pure Evil! It’s all we’ve got!” — a deeply inspiring manifesto if ever I heard one, and one which appears to work wonders with the morally insensate, intellectually inert pustule that is the progressive netroots)…

    …This is profoundly wrong, and exactly backwards. Think about this: as history has demonstrated many times, full actualization of a great evil such as the imperial presidency is only made possible by those who are weak and corrupt. Since Digby was thoughtful enough to bring up Germany in the 1930s, you can get a head start on my new essay by reading or rereading this: “Thus the World Was Lost.” Pay special attention to the comments of those Germans who tried to work for change “within the system” and to “bore from within,” and about “the problem of the lesser evil,” and how bitter were their own later condemnations of their acquiescence to evil…

    And so, in his mind, it follows that McCain is the lesser evil. I will say this for Arthur, he is good at taking an argument to its conclusion. He’s got something about the enablers of evil, certainly about how they felt afterward, but even in their delusions I find his argument hard to accept. (And it feels weird dissecting his words here, but he doesn’t provide a way to comment).

    I read a comment on James Kunstler’s blog (in reference to Peak Oil and Peak Credit – cute phrase, that) that:

    …The best Obama will be able to do is guide the smart folks, twits, racists, wealthy, poor, middle-class, hypocrites, criminals and good folks through a series of increasingly difficult shocks to our American way of life.

    Think of Obama as the elevator going down. McCain (and most Republicans and the Democratic Party (not Democratic voters)) is the elevator in free fall.

    You make the choice.

    I don’t think Silber sees the difference.

  14. moonbat — I haven’t been following Arthur lately, so thanks for filling me in.

    It’s the Zen student in me, but IMO this shows us there’s much to be said for seeing things as-they-are without trying to fit all phenomena into pre-constructed conceptual boxes.

    I also think conceptualizing “evil” usually leads people to odd conclusions. As far as judging which is worse — doers of evil or enablers of doers of evil — from a Buddhist perspective it’s kind of irrelevant. It’s all one big dance. The enablers give rise to the doers, but at the same time the doers give rise to the enablers. They create and define each other.

  15. maha – the more I learn about Buddhism, the more impressed I am. Thanks for your take on the dance between doers and enablers – I agree – they need each other.

  16. Moonbat – I have to say, as a practicing Catholic no less, that the Buddha’s message of detachment from all that is transitory – which all is – has certainly helped to get me through the last 7 years.

  17. But, ultimately, fanaticism is about projecting. Fanatical Clinton supporters were not fixated on the real Senator Clinton, but on a Hillary Clinton who lived only in their own heads. This is part of the nature of fanaticism.

    Yes, that’s true. And exactly the same is true about what so many Obama supporters believed about Clinton. I watched a campaign in which ardent supporters of each candidate seemed to be supporting a symbol rather than the real person who was the candidate, and increasingly finding the opposition to be a monster.

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