Things That Don’t End Well

Regarding this weekend’s planned coup d’etat, I bring you this quote —

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. — Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)

In The Book (Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World) I turn to this quote several times in discussing mass movements and religious violence. It seems to me that the holy cause/fanatical grievance combination is at the center of just about any violent mass movement I can think of, whether political, religious or other.

For example, when people hear about violence perpetrated by a religious faction there’s a common assumption that religious doctrine is somehow at the center of the animosity, that I think that is rarely the case. This is especially true on the “fanatical grievance” side of the equation. The roots of the Islamic jihadist “fanatical grievance” have more to do with history, culture and politics than with Islam, for example.

In the book I devote a large part of a chapter looking at violence being perpetrated by Buddhists, including monks, in Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka. These violent mass movements make a particularly good case for my theory, because there is absolutely, positively no justification for what they are doing in Buddhist doctrine. The Buddha was far more uncompromising about not causing violence than were the various authors of the Bible, for example. There is some limited allowance for self-defense, but being an aggressor in a violent situation is a clear violation of the dharma. Yet there are Burmese and Sinhalese Buddhist monks fomenting violence and declaring they are doing it to “defend Buddhism” in their overwhelmingly Buddhist countries. To understand where this is coming from you have to look at history, politics and culture (which I do, in the book).

Note that a “holy cause” doesn’t have to be religious. Nationalism and patriotism will do, especially when mixed into belief in the presumed virtue of racial or ethnic purity.

Another common factor in violent and/or totalitarian mass movements is a kind of messianic worldview, or a belief that current struggles will lead to a glorious destiny. This doesn’t have to involve religious doctrine; you can see messianism in the communist and fascist movements of the 20th century. Where religion is present it can act as a kind of accelerant, however. When people believe their cause is not only just but holy, it’s a lot easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

The point is that, as absurd as the “American Spring/Bundy Ranch” crew might be, all the violence factors are present. And I don’t see anything on the horizon that is likely to discourage them. Even assuming the May 16 coup d’etat is a dud, they’re likely to keep trying.

What they lack, which is notable, is some genuinely charismatic and articulate leader who is smart enough, or at least tethered to reality enough, to organize these clowns and grow the movement beyond fringe status. I think Ted Cruz could fill that role, if he wanted it, although I suspect even he realizes that if the public ties him to right-wing domestic terrorism he can kiss his political career goodbye. However, that could change in the future. And if it ain’t Ted, it could be somebody else who steps up. We’ve been lucky so far.

Even without a charismatic leader, barring unforeseen developments I suspect the anti-government militia movement will grow increasingly violent as participants become increasingly frustrated. We can’t assume they’re just going to go away.

Along these lines, do see “Spitting, Stalking, Rape Threats: How Gun Extremists Target Women.” It’s interesting that a common factor in fundamentalist religious movements is an obsession with keeping women under control and thoroughly subjugated. Here we see gun rights extremists targeting women who oppose them. It may be this is because more women than men are stepping up to oppose them, but one wonders if there isn’t something else going on with them than merely feeling opposed.