The racist terrorism that killed so many in Charleston this past Wednesday was followed almost immediately by the extraordinary efforts of leading American ‘conservatives’’ to redefine what had just so clearly happened. As they did, they revealed the inner soul of their movement and, as I hope to show, demonstrate how people can ultimately degenerate into defenders of evil in the name of virtue.
The shooting had barely ended before FOX News was suggesting the crimes reflected a “war on Christianity.” Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum echoed this charge. Rand Paul explained how the shooting demonstrated people “did not know where salvation comes from.” They were killed because they were Christians, not because they were Black.
While the dominant right wing position sought to turn the murders into props for the lie that Christians are persecuted in the US, others floated alternative explanations. Rick Perry suggested the killings were an “accident” brought about by drugs. Erik Erickson, a major right wing media figure, suggested it reflected the moral failings of a society able to tolerate a male Olympic star becoming a woman. Others suggested the killings were the inexplicable act of a lone mad man. Bad stuff just happens. Nothing deeper was involved.
The connecting thread throughout all this was that whatever the cause, it was not racism. Alternative explanations either reinforced standard right wing positions on religion, drugs, or moral decay, or claimed the crimes were inexplicable.
While he was killing people Dylan Roof told a terrified man “You rape our women and you’re taking over the country. And you have to go.” Almost immediately pictures of Roof appeared with the Confederate stars and bars, as well as with the flags of South Africa under apartheid and of the White dictatorship of Rhodesia. Every fact subsequently uncovered has supported what was obvious at the time. The root cause was racism.
Historical events often have multiple credible interpretations. Not this time. There is no ambiguity and it has nothing to do with hostility to Christianity, drugs, accepting sexual redefinitions, or inexplicable irrationality.
Rarely in America has an attempt to rewrite history to serve a narrow political agenda been so blatant and so dishonest. What are we to make of it?
The totalitarian mind
I have argued for many years that contemporary American ‘conservatism’ is not conservative in any sense, and shares more in common with the right wing totalitarians that plagued Europe after World War One than any American political tradition. (Obamacare is based on a genuinely conservative proposal developed by the Heritage Foundation back when it was conservative.) And it is from these earlier totalitarian movements that we can shed important light on how Republican leaders and their allies reacted to the carnage in Charleston.
After the Russian Revolution many people hoped a free society would arise from the ashes of Czarist absolutism. Many idealistic men and women had given their lives in devotion to that task. Around the world others had joined local Communist Parties to support the Soviets and push for similar changes within their own countries. The US was no exception.
Over time the Soviet regime became increasingly brutal, reaching a pinnacle of violence with the state caused starvation of peasants resisting collectivization and terror wielded against Communists who had fallen under Stalin’s suspicion. Many millions died.
As the news filtered out from Russia American Communists were faced with a challenge. Either admit something had gone horribly wrong there, or soldier on in loyalty to the cause to which they had devoted their lives. Many Communists left the Party at this time but others shut their eyes, closed their hearts, and remained loyal.
Later, in 1939, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, setting the stage for their invasions of Poland and the start of World War Two. Communists around the world were ordered to abandon their “united front” with the Nazis’ enemies and start attacking them. American Communists were faced with another wrenching moral dilemma, and again a great many resigned in revulsion while others accepted the change in tactics and remained loyal to Moscow.
Those remaining loyal were people who had once been idealistic seekers of a better world for all, and had often suffered imprisonment for their views. Now they were supporting show trials, mass executions, and an aggressive alliance with a right wing dictatorship that had executed many German Communists.
How could this happen? How could intelligent people exposed to a variety of sources of information resolutely deny what was in front of their eyes? The words of some ex-Communists explain this puzzle and are useful today for understanding our own right wing.
Miklós Gimes was a prominent Hungarian Communist after it became a Communist country following World War Two. Some years later he became disillusioned and was an active figure in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For this he paid with his life after the Soviets invaded and re-established the dictatorship. He was executed in 1958.
During the Revolution Gimes described how he and so many other loyal Communists had become unable to see the larger reality their efforts supported.
Slowly we had come to believe, at least with the greater, the dominant part of our consciousness, that there are two kinds of truth, that the truth of the Party and the people can be different and can be more important than the objective truth, and that truth and political expediency are in fact identical. . . . if the criteria of truth is political expediency, then even a lie can be ‘true’ . . . [This outlook] poisoned our whole public life, penetrated the remotest corners of our thinking, obscured our vision, paralyzed our critical faculties, and finally rendered many of us incapable of simply sensing or apprehending truth. That is how it was, it is no use denying it.
Arthur Koestlerwas another long time Communist who ultimately saw through the intellectual cage in which he had trapped himself. Unlike Gimes Koestler lived in the West, and so did not pay for this with his life. In The God that Failed he wrote “My party education had equipped my mind with such elaborate shock absorbing buffers and elastic defenses that everything seen and heard became automatically transformed to fit a preconceived pattern.”
What these men described is what I call the totalitarian mentality. It is an extreme expression of what we all to some degree are attracted to: a way of thinking that makes sense of all we encounter. The difference between the totalitarian mentality and other people with strong beliefs is that it is a closed system. Nothing can dis-confirm it, and everything others say or do showing the ideology to be mistaken is reinterpreted to prove the opposite.
We are witnessing this phenomena among many on the American right today where any explanation for the Charleston murders is given serious credence except the one that is obvious to everyone else: racism. The reason is that racists and the NeoConfederates of the South are a crucial element in the right wing’s attempt to gain power. It is inexpedient that racism be exposed as the cause of violence. Therefore it cannot be the cause.
In the face of now overwhelming evidence that Roof was motivated by racism, right wing leaders are beginning to argue Roof was so different from American ‘conservatives’ that he in fact had no connection with them. This claim is also false. The Republican Party and ‘conservative’ writers and media figures have a very long history of attacking Black Americans in order to cement their alliance with racist NeoConfederates. I myself have heard Southern style slavery defended only once, by a relatively prominent and very drunk Arkansas Republican. Many of us can recall that Sean Hannity’s idol and general right wing hero Cliven Bundy praised slavery.
Looking more deeply still
Our ideas signal to us what is important and what is not. Our efforts at intellectual understanding help develop a mental map for navigating our world. Over time we grow in knowledge and experience and usually develop better maps. But our map is not the world and it is always possible for it to be wrong. When we adhere to them strongly enough we often do not see what they deny can happen, even when it does.
Members of totalitarian movements treat their map as the world. They live in a kind of trance, having become carriers of an ideology that controls rather than serves them. They have given up their minds to be dominated by ideas.
Totalitarian ideologues, left or right, shift from making ideas our tools for understanding to making themselves their ideas’ tools for manifesting in the world. In a sense they are mentally parasitized. Worse still, the ideas they serve demand they acquire power over all who disagree. Since gaining and keeping power is what ultimately matters, everything is evaluated by its ability to serve that goal, whatever the ideological wrapping might be. We are led to Gimes’ insight “the truth of the Party and the people can be different and can be more important than the objective truth.”
This is the kind of thinking we are seeing among leading ‘conservatives’ today after the Charleston killings. Neo-Confederates make up a fundamental part of their power base, and so must not be attacked.
Morality as antibody
If parasitism by an ideology is a useful way of looking at totalitarians, moral revulsion is the antibody that can free them from the totalitarian trance. Moral revulsion, not intellectual arguments, turned dedicated Communists from loyalty to the Party to rejecting it. I suspect the same can return some ’movement conservatives’ to the world of civil relationships. They have certainly proven immune to inconvenient science, history, facts, and logic, as earlier were the most dedicated Reds.
Moral revulsion is not an intellectual decision arrived at by dispassionate analysis. It is visceral, rooted in the depth of our humanity and forces us to acknowledge that this is wrong. In doing so moral revulsion elevates truth to being superior to ideology. It is true that this is wrong. Truth is not devotion to a cause but devotion to whatever might be the case, even if we do not know where that devotion will lead us. Devotion to truth is the death knell of any totalitarian movement because it reconnects the infected with standards more basic than Power, and does so by awakening their deepest humanity.
I think this is why totalitarian movements incessantly attack the moral character of all opposed to them, and so regularly project their own failings onto others. To the degree they succeed, any empathetic identification with others is stifled. Dylan Roof acknowledged he was treated very well by the people he met in that Charleston church, but he closed his heart because they were inferior Blacks prone to violence. Communists did the same to men and women who had never done them any harm because they were “class enemies” possessed of a consciousness standing in the way of a world good for all. Jews were the Nazis’ primary targets, though others were rated as subhuman as well. Anyone who has studied how Nazis dehumanized Jews within what had once been one of the more tolerant counties in Europe will recognize much in common with how the right wing consistently describes liberals today. Claudia Coonz’s excellent study The Nazi Conscience is eye opening when read with this in mind. Dehumanizing opponents is a common theme in totalitarian movements, be they Communist, Nazi, or today’s American right wing. It builds a wall between their humanity and others. Class enemies, Jews, Liberals, and Blacks are not people like themselves with different views, they are contemptible, innately hostile, degenerate, and above all, irrevocable enemies.
Today scientists are discovering our moral sense is more basic to who we are than our intellectual reasoning. Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals is a powerful demonstration that what in humans would be easily identified as moral action is common among many animals. Morality does not emerge from our intellect, and that intellect can either deepen our appreciation of it or, as in totalitarian movements, help suppress it.
I think these observations about the primacy of a moral sense rooted in the nature of life itself, rather than in intellectual reasoning, easily makes sense to us Pagans as well as others who experience our world as an ultimately sacred place filled with more-than-human meaning.
If I am right here, the way to reach most right wingers is not through their minds, caught up in a trance, but through appealing to their hearts whenever we have the opportunity. But whether they can make the break, or remain apparatchiks of the totalitarian right, is ultimately dependent on themselves.
My quotations from Gimes and Koestler are taken from Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, Chicago, 1968. pp. 21, 31.