Monday, September 29, 2014

Cults and Cruelty

Okay, cut it out Ross Douthat, it's getting spooky now. I swear I had been meaning all week to write something about cults and totalistic movements (Robert Lifton's term); I just needed that one galvanic jolt from the outside world that gives a potential blog topic some claim to newsworthiness and urgency-- and that bothers me enough to set my internal furnaces of outrage belching again. And there, in my hour of need, was Ross Douthat's column on the New York Times Op-Ed page yesterday morning-- treating the subject I wanted to write about, and taking a stance toward it that was perfectly calibrated to rile me up. And this despite the fact that there's been nothing in the news or elsewhere that would explain why we were both thinking, at this particular moment, about cults! Yikes. Why should I, of all people, gain clairvoyance into the mind of Douthat, of all people?-- and why should these sympathies of interest be accompanied by such violent antipathies of outlook? Oh well.

The claim -- or more properly, suggestion -- of Douthat's that got me so hot under the collar is that the decline of cults and similar extreme movements in the United States is at least partly to be regretted. This will come as a surprise to many of us who thought that the badness of cults was pretty inarguable. But their decline, thinks Douthat, while it may not be obviously lamentable in itself, is nevertheless a symptom of a general cultural and intellectual malaise-- a sign of our evident unwillingness these days as a culture to think radical, dangerous, and innovative thoughts. As he paraphrases the argument of several other writers:
"The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large [.... T]he entirety of human innovation [...] depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace[.]"
In fairness, Douthat does hold out the possibility that the decline of cults is on balance a good thing. He is willing to admit that totalistic religious movements -- you know, those groups that routinely bilk desperate people out of their life savings, try to sever all of their postulants' ties to outside family and friends, and then intimidate and stalk and litigate against them after they try to escape -- might have a few marks in the debit column. But Douthat's acknowledgment of this point is given briefly and rather cursorily, as if it were an afterthought. "Cults can be dangerous, even murderous," he says, several paragraphs deep into this not very long article. Oh right! Jim Jones caused the deaths of nearly a thousand innocent people. Suddenly the idea of modern "spiritual gurus" being comparatively "comforting, vapid, safe" (as Douthat puts it) doesn't seem so bad.

Shouldn't facts like the ultimate fate of Jonestown or the consequences to thousands of individuals and their families of membership in Scientology or the Unification Church be given, well, rather more pride of place in this discussion? I would think so, but Douthat does not take us through these points in any detail, and by the end of the piece he seems to be doubting whether the decline of cults is a good thing at all. Note his closing rhetorical suggestions, which prejudice the discussion irretrievably:
"Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists. [...] Or maybe the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk."
Right. "A little extra risk." Who wouldn't be willing to accept that as a fair price for greater intellectual depth? But the point is -- "a little extra risk" is not really the price we're asked to pay by cults and totalitarian movements for their presence among us. They are far more exacting than that.

Having said all of that, however, I can't pretend that I don't know what Douthat is talking about. I suspect anyone who's ever considered himself a Communist or a Christian, for any length of time, would basically take his point, and sympathize with it on some level. Our intellectual life these days does often seem to be afflicted by a terrible staleness and homogeneity of outlook. Our novelists and journalists and academics do all seem to share the same attitudes, and Douthat's formulation of what those attitudes are -- "Managerial capitalism and social liberalism" -- is pretty apt. Funny how pluralism ended up making everybody the same and totalitarianism made them all different.

It's easy to see how this can engender a feeling of bitter distaste in anyone with a deeper spirit of intellectual wanderlust. Perhaps, like Miniver Cheevy, we feel we were "born too late" -- that ours is a time after all the ideas had already been thought and discarded, after the death of the belief that questions have answers.

But I have a much harder time than Douthat seems to in allowing myself to trust this feeling, even though I share in it. In light of what totalitarian creeds and movements have actually done to the world, I worry that there's something horribly narcissistic in pining for any aspect of their legacy, however superficially divorced it may seem to be from their concrete actions. If we absolutely must do credit to the emotional residue that totalism often leaves in us, then we should only do so alongside a candid acknowledgment of the tremendous perils of this residue. The narrator of The Golden Notebook remarks: "I, like thousands of others can't remember our time in or near 'The [Communist] Party' without a terrible dry anguish. Yet that pain is like the dangerous pain of nostalgia, its first cousin and just as deadly."

Let us suppose for a moment that Douthat is right that the decline of cults involves a trade-off-- that we must accept intellectual banality as the price of living without totalistic movements. I'm not at all sure that we do, but suppose. If that is the case, then Douthat's first closing possibility, the one he plainly means to dismiss, sounds entirely right to me: "Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists." Yes, I would say, so it is.

To arrive at this conclusion requires taking a few intellectual stances that won't be universally shared. It requires, for instance, "putting cruelty first," as Judith Shklar would say. This means regarding cruelty as a worse sin than others, as so deplorable a sin that it is worth risking a great deal else in its extirpation. It is a stance that requires, in short, placing the claims of particular individuals and their families to live free of cruelty ahead of the conservation of abstract social goods, such as cultural efflorescence and intellectual boldness.

Whether this is the only, or the best, stance to take is an open question. But adopting it is an essential stage in the move from a totalistic outlook toward a liberal one. The intellectual history of liberalism is full of individuals who had many faults, and committed many sins, but who shared this one profound moral commitment. Hugh Trevor-Roper once described it in speaking of Edward Gibbon, according to a recent article by Minoo Dinshaw, as the "total hatred of cruelty."

Douthat may convince some readers that the liberal solution is a cowardly one. Why not accept a "little extra risk," after all, for the sake of cultural grandeur? I can't prove to anyone with certainty that we shouldn't. But I wonder if Douthat had chosen to write his column about our more contemporary extremist and totalistic movements, rather than the ones like Heaven's Gate or Aum Shinrikyo, whose crimes have been forgotten by many younger people, if he would have ended on precisely the same note. If he had been writing about ISIS, say -- which recruits people by playing on most of the same emotions that cults and totalitarian political ideologies have always done; would he have still ended his article with the words: "maybe the quest for secrets [...] is worth a little extra risk"?

One should be very cautious in  wishing ill on liberal consensus, however securely placed it seems to be in a given society. Liberalism is inherently a very fragile thing, and the need for whatever intellectual frisson one derives from having parlous totalitarian movements running around is not a sufficient consideration to risk its hard-won gains. In our world of ISIS and Putin and Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu and Guantanamo Bay-- and for that matter, of Scientology and the Unification Church, both of which are still in operation -- this should be only too obvious.

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