Seeking Solace in Understanding

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At times, the sheer volume of lunacy oozing out of the Chávez Cult is almost more than I can bear. What can I say, it gets to me. It’s things like Chávez’s contention that the CIA and Colombian paramilitaries are behind the crime wave in Caracas slums, like ViveTV’s report that the quake in Haiti was set off by a gringo military experiment gone heywire. These people are…unwell.

As chavismo detatches itself ever more decidedly from any kind of grasp of reality that’s even marginally coherent to people outside the confines of the cult, I find myself going back to this essay by Lee Harris for solace.

The piece resists easy summarizing: there’s just too much insight crammed into too little space for that. But this passage gives you a taste:

It is a common human weakness to wish to make more of our contribution to the world than the world is prepared to acknowledge, and it is our fantasy world that allows us to fill this gap. But normally, for most of us at least, this fantasy world stays relatively hidden. Indeed, a common criterion of our mental health is the extent to which we are able to keep our fantasies firmly under our watchful control.

Yet clearly there are individuals for whom this control is, at best, intermittent, resulting in behavior that ranges from the merely obnoxious to the clinically psychotic. The man who insists on being taken more seriously than his advantages warrant falls into the former category; the maniac who murders an utter stranger because God — or his neighbor’s dog — commanded him to do so belongs to the latter…

 

But what happens when it is not an individual who is caught up in his fantasy world, but an entire group — a sect, or a people, or even a nation? That such a thing can happen is obvious from a glance at history. The various chiliastic movements, such as those studied in Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (Harper & Row, 1961), are splendid examples of collective fantasy; and there is no doubt that for most of history such large-scale collective fantasies appear on the world stage under the guise of religion.

But this changed with the French Revolution. From this event onward, there would be eruptions of a new kind of collective fantasy, one in which political ideology replaced religious mythology as the source of fantasy’s symbols and rituals. In this way it provided a new, and quite dangerous, outlet for the fantasy needs of large groups of men and women — a full-fledged fantasy ideology. For such a fantasy makes no sense outside of the ideological corpus in terms of which the fantasy has been constructed. It is from the ideology that the roles, the setting, the props are drawn, just as for the earlier pursuers of millennium, the relevant roles, setting, and props arose out of the biblical corpus of symbolism.

But the symbols by themselves do not create the fantasy. There must first be a preexisting collective need for this fantasy; this need comes from a conflict between a set of collective aspirations and desires, on one hand, and the stern dictates of brutal reality, on the other — a conflict in which a lack of realism is gradually transformed into a penchant for fantasy. History is replete with groups that seem to lack the capability of seeing themselves as others see them, differing in this respect much as individuals do.

 

A fantasy ideology is one that seizes the opportunity offered by such a lack of realism in a political group and makes the most of it. This it is able to do through symbols and rituals, all of which are designed to permit the members of the political group to indulge in a kind of fantasy role-playing. Classic examples of this are easy to find: the Jacobin fantasy of reviving the Roman Republic, Mussolini’s fantasy of reviving the Roman Empire, Hitler’s fantasy of reviving German paganism in the thousand-year Reich.

 

This theme of reviving ancient glory is an important key to understanding fantasy ideologies, for it suggests that fantasy ideologies tend to be the domain of those groups that history has passed by or rejected — groups that feel that they are under attack from forces which, while more powerful perhaps than they are, are nonetheless inferior in terms of true virtue. Such a fantasy ideology was current in the South before the Civil War and explained much of the conduct of the Confederacy. Instead of seeing themselves as an anachronism attempting to prolong the existence of a doomed institution, Southerners chose to see themselves as the bearer of true civilization. Imperial Germany had similar fantasies before and during the Great War. They are well expressed in Thomas Mann’s Notes of an Unpolitical Man: Germans possess true inwardness and culture, unlike the French and English — let alone those barbarous Americans. Indeed, Hitler’s even more extravagant fantasy ideology is incomprehensible unless one puts it in the context of this preexisting fantasy ideology.

 

In reviewing these fantasy ideologies, especially those associated with Nazism and Italian fascism, there is always the temptation for an outside observer to regard their promulgation as the cynical manipulation by a power-hungry leader of his gullible followers. This is a serious error, for the leader himself must be as much steeped in the fantasy as his followers: He can only make others believe because he believes so intensely himself.

Considering the political moment when the piece was written, not to mention the massive politico-ideological flamewar it set off, it’s easy to understand why Harris’s piece ended up being pigeonholed as some sort of wacky wingnut screed.

Personally, I think it’s due a dispassionate re-evaluation. For once, it’s not just a throw away phrase: do read the whole thing.

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