Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What Is the Monster of the Twenty-First Century?-Part Eight

The Totalitarian Monster Concluded

"The worst tyrants are those that establish themselves in our own breasts."
--Reverend William Ellery Channing (1830)

In 1940, you could have scared your children with images of Hitler, Mussolini, or Tojo. A decade later, a picture of Stalin would have done the trick. Those men and their followers were effective monsters before mid-century. Thankfully they are all gone now, most done in by war and violence.

If there is one lesson the aspiring totalitarian should have learned from World War II and wars since, it is this: brute force will be met with greater force by people of courage and conviction. There are still old-fashioned totalitarians in the world, but they are old, like Castro, or small, like Assad, or even comical, in a murderous sort of way, like the latest dictator of North Korea. Each exists along the fringes of humanity. That's one reason why they have survived. They have been surpassed by a different kind of totalitarianism however. It is more subtle than before, creeping stealthily among the shadows of our society, or more accurately perhaps in the shadows of our own hearts and minds, for totalitarians have learned that the most effective and efficient way to impose totalitarianism upon people is for them to impose it upon themselves and each other. Put another way, if all people have a totalitarian impulse, and all people have some measure of political, social, and economic power, then all people can become totalitarians. We had a taste of that in The Lives of Others, a German movie from 2006 that showed what it was like to live in a society in which everyone spied on everyone else. Still, external force was necessary to sustain that society. In the end, it proved unsustainable. What was lacking was the desire among the people to establish a tyrant in their own breasts, to throw open the gates and invite the tyrant in. 

Karl Marx was a crackpot in a long line of nineteenth century crackpots. He may have aspired to be like Charles Darwin, to explain human history using an overarching theory in the same way that Darwin used an overarching theory to explain natural history. Instead, Marx was more like Madame Blavatsky, claiming as he did that he had uncovered the secret history of the earth. (1) The difference is that Theosophy is harmless and has few followers, while Marxism became like a new religion and led to the murder of millions. (2, 3) There are still true believers in the world, but they have adopted more peaceful means to stifle dissent, control thought, and enslave their fellow human beings. Critical theory and political correctness are examples of that. There are now millions of people who have taken totalitarian ideas to their breasts, perhaps without even knowing that they have done such a thing. Hitler and Stalin would be both proud and envious.

In the nineteenth century, the psychopathic killer evolved into a city dweller. Like monsters of old, he still lives on the fringes of society, beyond the firelight, but only figuratively, for he is now inside the gates. Having learned to pass as one of us, the psychopath can now live among us while yet preying upon us. However, he is still weak because he is still an outcast. The idea that animates him is still repugnant to us. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn't have any and cannot recruit any followers. If the totalitarian is a monster, then he is unlike the monsters of old and equally unlike the lone psychopath, for he lives not only among us, but rules over us, and he has recruits and followers. In addition, he has made his animating idea attractive to the masses, despite the fact that it means their enslavement. The totalitarian is scary in himself. The face of Hitler is the face of a monster. What is scarier still is that great masses of men and women would follow a psychopathic god, that they would revere him, that they would enslave themselves and other people to him, that they would die for him. The totalitarian, made possible in part by mass movements of the nineteenth century, gave rise to another kind of mass movement for the twentieth century and today: mass monstrousness, shared among all the people. (4)

To be continued . . .

(1) Hitler made a similar claim: "The race question not only furnishes the key to world history, but also to human culture as a whole." Quoted in The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler by Robert G.L. Waite (Signet, 1978), p. 98.
(2) If you can trace the descent of Theosophy through the Shaver Mystery to flying saucers and Scientology, then maybe Theosophy wasn't so harmless after all--not that we should hold anyone but L. Ron Hubbard and his acolytes responsible for their own impulse to control totally the lives of their followers.
(3) Marx believed that history is a science and that extrapolations could be made for the future, essentially predicting the future. That future of course failed to materialize. The idea reminds me of Isaac Asimov's psychohistory, from the Foundation series. I can't say what connection, if any, there was between Asimov's and Marx's ideas, but Asimov came of age in the 1930s among a group of science fiction fans who were Utopian, socialist, or even communist in inclination. Asimov was also an atheist. He may have been the only contributor to Weird Tales to have been born under Bolshevism, although he would not have had any memory of it.
(4) I'm taking the long way around, but I'm getting somewhere with all this. Just remember that part about masses of monstrous people.

A cartoon by Cy Hungerford of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an example of the scary dictator. Lewis is of course John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers. Hungerford had a talent for deflating self-serious men by making them ridiculous.
Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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