Tag Archives: chinese cultural revolution

Mass Movements, Devils & Tipping Points

anti-jewish poster

The Nazis made the Jews their “Devil”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer once wrote, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”

Hatred is an amazing emotion. I the day and a half that I have been home from Europe I have been almost overwhelmed by the amount of hatred being posted on social media, blogs, and by supposedly Christian preachers, politicians and pundits. Of course if you want find a politician, pundit and preacher all wrapped into one person look no further than Baptist preacher, conservative media pundit, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, but I digress…

It is funny when you even mildly disconnect from this climate for even a week, just how overwhelming returning to this can be, and how easy it would be to respond in kind, because unlike love, hatred is easy to conjure up. It is kind of like what you need to build a fire; fuel, oxygen and heat. To generate hatred on a massive scale all you need is a disaffected populace, a convenient target, and an agent to ignite the mixture.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

Snyder is quite correct, demonizing a people and making them some kind of “other”, “they”, or “them”, is a wonderful way to blame a group of people for the ills of society. It is also a good way to deflect the blame for the corporate failures of societies and governments onto a convenient scapegoat; and to blame others for the personal failures and petty jealousies of the people doing the demonizing. It also allows people to abandon ethics and the simple notion of the Golden Rule an engage in genocide.

Mass movements and their leaders; of which the contemporary “Christian Right” is one, love to use this technique; especially when using it against those of other races or religions. The technique is not at all new, it has been used from antiquity but has become much more dangerous in the modern era with the spread of instant communications technology. History shows us all too clearly how it has happened and how easily it can happen again. Witch hunts, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of the Native Americans which inspired Hitler in his campaign of genocide and the Holocaust; the Soviet gulags and ethnic cleansings, the Rape of Nanking, the Chinese Communist “Cultural Revolution” the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the current crimes against humanity of the so called Islamic State. Sadly, the list can go on and on.

All of these events simply required the elements of a disaffected population, a devil or scapegoat to blame, and a leader or leaders to ignite the volatile mixture; fuel, oxygen and heat. Hoffer was quite correct that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements understand this. For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen; for American Southerners after the Civil it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the American “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Catholic; for Stalin it was non-Russian ethnic minorities. For the leaders of the Islamic State, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. The examples are so plentiful to support this fact that it is almost overwhelming.

The problem is that when any society, or government begins to label or stigmatize a race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, or political ideology, and then in the process demonize those people to the point that they become less than human we have reached a tipping point. We reach the point where we are just one crisis away from all of those crimes against humanity that we believe that we are no longer capable of doing. But sadly, we human beings are not nearly as evolved as we think and I think that the tipping point in the United States may be far closer than we could ever imagine.

Those that follow my writings on this site know how much I love the various Star Trek television series and movies. There is an episode (The Siege of AR-558) of Star Trek Deep Space Nine where the Ferengi bartender Quark, makes a truly astute observation during a battle for survival at an isolated outpost:

“Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people… will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don’t believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes.”

I really do not think that we are too far from some tipping point where the politicians, pundits and preachers; especially those of the political right and the media whores who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated. Of course when they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose; or perhaps use the language of Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, or the Stab in the Back or some other historical myth that suffices to justify their actions.

In the Star Trek the Next Generation episode entitled The Drumhead Captain Picard has to warn his security officer, Lt Worf about the dangers of rampant paranoia. Worf starts: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”

Picard pauses and then notes:

“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

To claim Picard’s words for myself after being somewhat off the grid in Europe the past week and having come home to the fusillade of hatred being spewed forth, I have to admit that I don’t like what we have become either.


Padre Steve+


Filed under ethics, faith, History, Political Commentary, Religion

The Promise and Peril of Revolutionary Times: A Warning From History

“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

“They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society.”  Eric Hoffer – The True Believer

I don’t know about you but it seems that everywhere I look that revolution is in the air.  Revolutionary times can be exciting to watch or even to participate in because all at least initially cater to the hopes of people, the hope of change, freedom, justice and equity are common themes.   As a historian I find it fascinating to observe revolutions and to read about revolutions throughout history.  But I always have a concern about how even the most well intentioned revolts against real or perceived injustice often miscarry and create conditions ripe for civil war, dictatorship and even regional or world war.

The revolutions sweeping the world today and I include the proto-revolutionary movements of the conservative Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements as revolutionary movements are becoming mass movements.  As mass movements they share many things in common even if their ideologies and backers appear to be diametrically opposed.  We now have two diametrically opposed revolutionary movements seeking power in this country and neither side will be satisfied until they achieve it.

Those that dismiss or seek to tame the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement are foolish. The anger, resentment and the hatred that these movements have for the established order are too great to be easily dismissed.  The politicians that try to channel these movements for their own benefit or party or that attempt to encourage them without actually addressing their grievances will discover too late that lip service and cosmetic change will not be enough.  Peaceful nonviolent protests can turn violent in a moment with very unpredictable results.

In our country there is great dissatisfaction with the status quo on the right and the left which in large part is due to the actions of those in power in government, media, business and even religion to address the concerns of those on both sides of the political abyss.  Likewise it is the same entities that in order to maintain their power have used every opportunity to create enmity among Americans.

Similar events are occurring on the other side of the Atlantic as the crisis in Greece threatens the economic stability and quite possibly the viability of the European Union.  The extremists on the left and right are garnering support that they have not had in decades from people that until the current economic downturn were content with the status quo because they were doing alright.

Even those revolutions that bring positive change tend to bring in some form of social unrest and upheaval to include the maltreatment and sometimes exile of people that did not agree with the revolution.  One only has to take a look at the large numbers of British colonists in the 13 Colonies who were loyal to the British Crown and lost their place in society and many times their homes and livelihoods as they were no longer welcome.  Many fled to Canada, the British West Indies or had to return to England.

Revolutionaries do not take kindly to those that oppose them, especially when they are kinsmen.  Those officers or Federal officials that remained loyal to the Union during the American Civil War that hailed from Southern States often found that they were no longer welcome in their communities and sometimes disowned by their families.  This was the fate of General George Thomas who remained faithful to his oath despite being fromVirginia. His family turned his picture around and refused to have anything to do with him from that point forward even refusing financial assistance from him after the war.

The English Civil Wars of 1641-1653 were some of the most brutal to occur inEuropeand devastated Ireland which lost some 41% of its population and where the lingering scars are still seen today.

The French Revolution was a bloodletting that shaped France to the present day.  People tend to forget that the root cause of this revolution was a financial crisis brought about by the costs of the Seven Years War with England and the French support of the American Revolution which brought the country into more conflict with England. The antiquated and regressive French tax code put a heavy burden on the middle and lower classes but provided many exemptions to the nobility and the clergy.  When comptroller Jacques Necker proposed ending or reducing those exemptions he was fired.  But the crown was so week that it decided to call the Estates General into session for the first time since 1618 and when the three components of the assembly could not agree on credentials the lower assembly of commoners broke off and formed their own National Assembly and when it appeared that the King was bringing foreign troops to Paris it set off an armed revolt.

The revolution was brutal and unleashed an unprecedented series of wars which engulfed the European continent the West Indies and Egypt.  Eventually a young Army officer named Napoleon Bonaparte did much to secure the new regime’s security by a series of brilliant military victories.  He was so successful that he overthrew the government and became a dictator in 1799 and would proclaim himself Emperor in 1804.  The wars in Europe were devastating and would create a situation where a weakened Spain and Portugal would lose their colonies in Central and South America.

When Napoleon was finally defeated for the last time at Waterloo in 1815 the Congress of Vienna reestablished a conservative order and peace inEurope.  There was a brief revolutionary period in 1848 and the wars that led to the unification of Germany and the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870-71. But for the most part stability reigned until the First World War as European powers focused on using their power in imperialist ways in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.   The war set in motion revolutionary movements that would lead to the overthrow of empires and birth the mass movements of Communism, Fascism and Nazism that would be responsible for some of the most destructive wars and crimes against humanity ever seen by the world.

Other revolutions have caused immeasurable suffering, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Iranian revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to name a few. The Spartacus revolution in the early days of the Weimar Republic helped doom it and led to the Nazi revolution in Germany. The Nazi revolution was brought about through legal means with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor after which his revolutionary policies were put in place.

The revolutions in the Soviet Union and Warsaw pact in aftermath of the Cold War have brought a multiplicity of outcomes, some which appear to have brought forth societies where human rights and individual liberties are respected and others which have become or are in the process of becoming dictatorships.

And so today we live in an age of revolution which is heightened and moves across the globe like a wind fanned wildfire due to the instantaneous nature of the communication and media that we now enjoy.  There is the Arab Spring and the beginnings of revolutionary movements in Europe, Asia and now even North America.  Governments seem impotent to do anything about the conditions that have moved these revolutionary groups to action and have given the ideologues on the left and right respectability that they could have never enjoyed before.  The ideologues make their money by providing a platform for the airing of the grievances of their readers or listeners real and imagined by playing on the need for hope.  The motive of the listener or follower is finding something to believe in a hope and promise, hope around the corner not hope deferred.  Eric Hoffer noted “To have a grievance is to have a purpose in life. It not infrequently happens that those who hunger for hope give their allegiance to him who offers them a grievance.”

The extremists on both sides of the line in the United States have held sway so long that they have turned the extreme into the mainstream inspiring one of the most amazing displays of left-right groupthink that I have ever seen.  I read a lot of conservative and liberal blogs and websites,some which are considered mainstream by their proponents.  I believe that you can tell a lot about movements by what the rank and file write or share.  One thing that I notice is how interchangeable these blogs are and how much they mirror the talking points of their respective echo chambers.  There is little creative though only the endless repetition of talking points. If one ventures a dissenting opinion on one of these sites he or she will find themselves shouted down and demonized and it doesn’t matter if the site is left wing or right wing, religious or secular.  The purity of ideology and necessity of conformity to the group-think ensures that opposing points of view be shouted down.

I first started noticing this when I returned fromIraqin 2008. At that time I was still listening to conservative talk radio on a regular basis and I started noticing that with minor differences all the talk show hosts sounded alike, the same talking points driven home day after day.  Alternative viewpoints even those that differed only slightly from the party line were ridiculed and demonized. That was eye opening to me and I noticed a similar tone emanating from the left.  Both emphasize that they are being oppressed or persecuted and the rank and file believe that they are oppressed and gladly allow themselves to become parts of these mass movements.

It is the real and perceived feelings of oppression or persecution provide these disparate movements their most fervent followers and energy.

One attitude prominently displayed is an absolute hatred and distain of moderation.  Both have an absolute distain of dialogue and neither appear to want a win-win situation to develop simply because to both sides only absolute victory for themselves and destruction of all that that they oppose matters.  It is a nihilistic zero sum game that both sides play.  Both sides are slaves to their doctrine and the vast majorities of the followers of these mass movements are absolutely unaware of this.  Philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Revolutionary movements of themselves can be transforming and in the long run quite beneficial but for every one that is such there are many more that in succeeding bring about tyrannies as bad or worse than the ones that they ended.  The evidence of this is widespread.  Much of this is due to a desire not for freedom but for revenge as those that viewed themselves as oppressed or persecuted turn their new found power into a weapon of revenge and retaliation.  Hoffer wrote “It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power — power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate.”

History shows that in more cases than not that when revolutionaries take power they become oppressors themselves and are perfectly willing to crush dissent by force. They become the conservative faction resistant to change and opposed to dissent.  Hannah Arendt observed that “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

Eric Hoffer understood mass movements as few in the last century have.  Hoffer’s book The True Believer (1951) is a study of mass movements and since Hoffer had witnessed the mass movements of the 1920s and 1930s that defined the age, Fascism, Communism and Nazism.  Hoffer notes similarities between political, social and religious mass movements and when it was written in 1951 President Dwight D. Eisenhower praised it.  It is well worth the read.  Hannah Arendt also understood how individuals in mass movements could participate in evil including genocide and think that they were just doing their job and helping society.  Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Revolutionary times are filled with promise and peril. The wise in Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street and other movements around the world need to understand that crucial truth.  Movements such as these can be co-opted and driven in ways that those that began them can little anticipate and the leaders of such movements often become victims of the very movement that they helped create.  The names of such instigators that have become victims is too long to list.

As a historian I find the process that we see unfolding as simply fascinating and I cannot predict how this revolutionary era will play out.  I just hope and pray that things don’t get too sporty.


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary