A further reason for my hatred of National Socialism and other ideologies is quite a primitive one. I have an aversion to killing people for the fun of it. What the fun is, I did not quite understand at the time, but in the intervening years the ample exploration of revolutionary consciousness has cast some light on this matter. The fun consists in gaining a pseudo-identity through asserting one’s power, optimally by killing somebody – a pseudo-identity that serves as a substitute for the human self that has been lost.Eric Voegelin[i]
The pseudo-identity of a totalitarian dictator relies on pseudo-ideas. And what are pseudo-ideas? They are often ideas about the victim status of some group – based on sex, race, nation, or class. We hear these themes regularly; for example, that women or transgenders are oppressed, that non-whites are oppressed, that the poor are oppressed by the rich. Here is a victimology that promotes mass murder by encouraging despair. It is a despair that justifies “killing people for the fun of it.” The National Socialists said Germany was the victim and blamed the Jews. The neo-Marxists say people of color are victims and blame white racism. The old-line Marxists say the workers are victims and blame the bourgeoisie. The dictator states, who also see themselves as victims, blame America and/or NATO. In its current war against Ukraine, the Kremlin uses a confused mix of all-the-above, citing Ukraine as a U.S./NATO/Nazi conspiracy under Ukraine’s Jewish president, who is backed by Jewish oligarchs. Here we have an “all-the-above” goulash of popular resentments to justify Russia’s war of aggression. This justification differs markedly from the usual totalitarian demagogy. It partakes of an intellectual incoherency and rhetorical carelessness suggestive of mental disintegration. Who would have guessed? Russia’s regime of banal mediocrities cannot be bothered to make their lies credible. They no longer possess the intellectual wherewithal of the early Bolsheviks. The elder Soviet statesman laid out a long-range strategy. But now it seems, the post-Soviet generation cannot think for themselves. When the old strategy began to fail, they improvised. It was then, and only then, that the mediocrity of the nomenklatura showed itself. The Russian and Chinese governments are failing their people. Russian military setbacks in Ukraine and a financial meltdown in China follow.
In the beginning, the totalitarians were intellectuals; or, rather, they were pseudo-intellectuals; always talking about a better future for mankind. Yet their actions have always been less than ideal. They followed Stalin’s rule of elimination. “No man, no problem.” As Putin said in his 21 September speech, people who oppose the Kremlin lies are now subject to elimination. This is not merely a declaration of war against Ukraine. It is a declaration of war on freedom of speech. If anyone dares to contradict the Russian lies, they are “fair game.” So says that wonderful Christian and conservative, Vladimir Putin. All critics of Russia must die. Here is how “killing for the fun of it” is now justified. The Kremlin will have its way. And Putin says, “I am not bluffing.” So the world will bend its knee, or burn. Here is the logic of the coming nuclear war.
However long he pretends to be tolerant and normal, the revolutionary totalitarian cannot live in peace with people who disagree with him. He must overthrow the world order. He must destroy the powers that be. Because he must have his way, he must be the world’s boss, his only recourse is murder. Eric Voegelin wrote about this, and so did Edmund Burke in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France.
We see today, in America, self-described revolutionaries emerging on the right and left. These would-be totalitarians, lacking self-knowledge, appear to be enemies of each other; but the stage is set so that they can be turned into allies (as happened when Hitler and Stalin agreed to their famous pact in 1939). From the left, everything possible is done to divide and alienate people. Conservatives and patriots feel more and more alienated, disempowered, and even afraid. There is, in American today, a growing paranoia and distrust of the authorities. Policies hostile to the citizens are routinely adopted by elites who think of the people as “deplorables.” Criminals have more rights than their victims. Illegal aliens are preferred over the citizenry. The basis of our existence, which depends on cheap energy, is under a coordinated assault in the name of Climate “science.” We the People are being strangled. Oh yes, the stage is set. Pre-revolutionary conditions are being fostered.
Worse than this is our intellectual confusion. Fact and reason are no longer relied on to establish common ground for discussion. The news is no longer news, in the old sense. Nobody seems ready to agree on the most basic things. Every fact is twisted to fit a partisan purpose, or to fit a conspiracy theory, or a revolutionary agenda. History no longer teaches lessons. Our ideas about history are now “deformed” by apocalyptic consciousness, ideologies of despair, or by those who claim to have unmasked history’s meaning (e.g., Hegel, Marx, and the conspiracy theorists). These deformed standpoints may be summarized as follows: (1) Apocalypticism – which assumes knowledge of the “end of history”; (2) despairing creeds – which say we should withdraw from the world on account of its wickedness; (3) historiogenesis – a linear misconstruction of history that promotes policies that lead to nowhere.[ii]
What we have learned, from recent international events, is that an intellectual decline is affecting both East and West. There has been a global dumbing down. Yet the freedom enjoyed by the West has provided an outlet for creativity and technological innovation that continues to bring advancements. Russia and China cannot, in the long run, compete. The only thing they can do is rain nuclear destruction on our heads. But do they have the nerve?
This analysis is not meant to be apocalyptic. We cannot view political and military events through such a lens without being blindsided by history (which keeps coming at us). Even worse, our secular and hedonistic intellectuals produced their own version of the Apocalypse, minus the Seven Vials of God’s Wrath. In their version of the Millennial Reign, everyone skips happily past World War III directly to the End of History. Such was Francis Fukuyama’s false revelation in which Satan is not cast down to Earth; merely, the Soviet Union falls and becomes a capitalist paradise. If anything, this was a big thumbs-up for the absurd policies of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Of course, people had such high hopes for the post-Cold War era. The peace dividend was going to make us all prosperous. Americans erroneously supposed that the threat of nuclear war was a thing of the past. The left was free to advance gay marriage, transgenderism, and an open border. The right was free to embrace its own version of hedonism. Absurdity followed absurdity as history itself was used to play out a reductio ad absurdum – as if history were a bad joke (at our expense). The premise of every political clown was “the end of history.” If the outcome has been ridiculous, if the disaster has finally come into view, we have welcomed it.
Imagine if our ruling elite believed the world was flat. Believing thus, consider the legislation they would have forwarded to guarantee we would not “fall off” the world’s edge. Trillions would have been spent on something unnecessary – on something that was not a problem. And this is what the West has done with its thirty years of peace and plenty. (I say “peace” because the real war was never engaged.)
We stupidly believed that Russia and China were our “partners.” We allowed our military power to atrophy, our nuclear arsenals to rot. The military industrial complex, after all, was inherently evil. We imagined these arsenals were no longer necessary. The threat, Congressman Ron Paul told me in April 2001, was the U.S. Government. And many people still see things through this lens.
After the end of the Cold War, the growing power of the left, achieved by a long march through the institutions, was becoming a juggernaut. Under three successive presidents the country lost its cultural homogeneity. What followed was a cancerous mistrust. The alienated individual, on the political right, was growing ever more paranoid and despairing. Unlike conservatives of earlier generations, a new radicalism was beginning to emerge. As Carl Jung had foreseen, religious deliverance from evil had been turned into “worldly promises about freedom from care for one’s daily bread, the just distribution of material goods, universal prosperity in the future, and shorter working hours.” If the left had been partial to revolutionary ideas since 1917, the right was developing its own revolutionary rhetoric. Nearly everyone is now mass-minded and neurotically susceptible to despair. In respect of this, Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote, “Despair is sin.” Despair is a perverse attitude which gives latitude to errors of omission and commission. Here is a reciprocal source of our troubles. The sin of despair, built on alienation, is leading us, step by step, to “killing people for the fun of it.”
“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history,” wrote Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke held that a true understanding of the past serves as a bulwark against error. Yet what have we learned? “History consists,” wrote Burke, “for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same.”[iii]
As in the time of Julien Benda, politics has devolved into the intellectualization of political hatred. Four decades ago, Eric Voegelin warned of “the murderous equanimity of the intellectuals who have lost their self and try to regain it by becoming pimps for this or that murderous totalitarian power….”[iv] It is shocking, but true. There are those, on the right and the left, who live in a perpetual rage. For whatever reason, they have adopted an attitude that leaves them profoundly alienated. Like Putin, they see themselves as victims. Doubtless, such people suffer from the tragedy of their smallness. In fact, tragedy holds center stage in their soul. They do not let go of it and therefore never heal. “O woe is me,” they say, and worship at the altar of their rage.
To give a leftwing example, from personal experience, I once engaged in a long conversation with an angry Marxist from Colombia. For my benefit, he poured out his anti-Americanism in a passionate rage. The world’s misery owed everything to American imperialism. There was no justice in the world, he said, and no moral order. Morality was an illusion. I was naïve, he said, to think that criminals could not be happy. It is a strange thing, this moralistic condemnation of morality. Yet being an atheist, he avoided the error of confusing his own rage with the Wrath of God. He therefore brought everything down to the personal level: “I hate America. I hate all Americans,” he raged. Only the Revolution, he added, could set things right. Only violence. Only hatred – as if the disease was its own cure.
On the political right, among traditionalist conservatives, the same rage can be found – with a religious veneer. For example, an acquaintance of several years standing, hopelessly addicted to conspiracy theories, has regularly filled my ears with the story of his victimization at the hands of a cruel and Godless society. To be sure, his discourse is interesting, sometimes insightful, yet always disturbed. It is not surprising in retrospect, that after offering him advice on forgiving and forgetting, he poured out such retaliatory abuse (on me) as to make my ears burn. Such rudeness can only be met with rudeness in return, for one immediately sees the problem; namely, the fun of hurting other people. This man has, for my benefit, poured out his passionate anti-Americanism without appeal. Any attempt to mitigate the country’s guilt was, for him, an impiety. The man’s mind had become a not-so-fun funhouse mirror, reflecting such monstrous distortions as to bring the central question of Voegelin’s work to mind: Why do men indulge in a dishonesty that separates them from reality, from themselves, and from God?
One would think, of course, that a deeply religious man, who professes to pray and talk to God every day, would not so casually embrace Putin’s totalitarian lies. This man favors Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, seeing Russia as a haven for Christians. That Putin is a murderous dictator, he will not admit. That Russia is less of a Christian country than America, he will not admit. And he will not believe Russia has lost any battles in its bloody invasion of Ukraine, which he says is justified. He also believes that RT [Russian TV] is a reliable source for news. All of this reminds me of Eric Voegelin’s statement: “I have no sympathy whatsoever with such characters and have never hesitated to characterize them as ‘murderous swine.’” And why, indeed, should an outwardly religious person qualify as a ‘murderous swine’ in this context? Voegelin held that those who enable totalitarian lies, are collaborators in totalitarian power. They are accessories to mass murder after the fact.
One might ask: Why do such people render ideological assistance to mass murder? On close examination we find that my traditionalist acquaintance, and the Colombian Marxist, cast blame in every direction for their personal misfortunes. For example, the traditionalist says that American society is an abomination in the eyes of God because it tolerated the breakup of his family and allowed his wife to take his children. The Church is also wicked, he said, because nobody in the church lifted a finger to put his Humpty Dumpty marriage back together again. According to his creed, America only gets to exist if it is a Bible society organized around his theology. Failing that, the country must suffer the Wrath of God – or is it the wrath of a lonely, embittered man?
Of this type of Christian, Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “He loves God above all, God who is his only consolation in his secret anguish, and yet he loves the anguish and will not give it up.”[v] And it was Kierkegaard who said, “Sin is despair.” Being full of self-pity, despair gives a nod to revenge. The despairing man emerges from his anguish and, said Kierkegaard, “[he] cannot humble himself under it in faith.”[vi] And faith, we might add, is the opposite of despair.
Religion, noted Carl Jung, “means dependence on submission to the irrational facts of experience.” It is not about the perfection of our social or physical state. It is about our soul. The irrational facts of existence, said Jung, “concern far more the individual’s psychic attitude.” [vii] Since misfortune is always coming to us, the question then becomes: How do we deal with misfortune? As it turns out, attitude is everything, and man’s attitude depends on his “point of reference outside” life’s external condition. Religion offers such a standpoint, which a secular philosophy cannot provide. Yet an Apocalyptic consciousness, craving an “end of history” and the punishment of a less than perfect humanity, reveals a less than spiritual perspectivism. Here is an ideology, dressed in the shell of religion, whose focus is the same as the leftist revolution; that is, revenge.
How problematic, indeed, are those who say, “Our society deserves to be destroyed. It is horribly, horribly, wicked.” Yet, who are we to pronounce such a judgment? We, too, are wicked. None are perfect. And while Job’s wife told him to “curse God and die,” faith tells us to rebuke the counsels of despair.
[Postscript: I have had terrible problems with editing this piece. My corrections would not take while posting, and when I caught them later my corrections would not correct. I have pressed the update button dozens of times only to find the errors remained. I apologize to readers about this. There is a parenthesis I am unable to close, despite all efforts. The app on all devices has been buggy lately. In recent articles I apparently cannot see all the comments.]
Below is my latest interview with Seth Holehouse:
Links and Notes
[i] Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), pp. 46-47.
[ii] Glenn Hughes, Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity (Kindle Edition), p. 84.
[iii] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 247.
[iv] Voegelin, p. 47.
[v] Soren Kierkegaard translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 77.
[vi] Kierkegaard, p. 78.
[vii] Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self with Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 12.
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