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.