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  • Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism

    Posted by David Foster on July 10th, 2018 (All posts by )

    John Dos Passos was an American writer.  In his younger years, he was a man of the Left, and, like many leftists and some others he was very involved with the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

    But he was more than a little disturbed by some of those that shared his viewpoint.  Describing one protest he had attended, he wrote:

    From sometime during this spring of 1926 of from the winter before a recollection keeps rising to the surface. The protest meeting is over and I’m standing on a set of steps looking into the faces of the people coming out of the hall. I’m frightened by the tense righteousness of the faces. Eyes like a row of rifles aimed by a firing squad. Chins thrust forward into the icy night. It’s almost in marching step that they stride out into the street. It’s the women I remember most, their eyes searching out evil through narrowed lids. There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right.

    I agree with their protest:  I too was horrified by this outrage.  I’m not one either to stand by and see injustice done.  But do I agree enough?  A chill goes down by spine..Whenever I remember the little scene I tend to turn it over in my mind.  Why did my hackles rise at the sight of the faces of these good people coming out of the hall? 

    Was it a glimpse of the forming of a new class conformity that like all class conformities was bent on riding the rest of us?

    Quoting Dos Passos and connecting his observations to our own time, Jay Nordlinger wrote:

    I know these people. I saw them in Ann Arbor. I saw them in many other places afterward.  Today, you can see them on campuses as “SJWs”: “social-justice warriors.” You can see them wherever there is arrogant, intolerant extremism (no matter which direction it’s coming from).

    The thing that frightened Dos Passos in the attitude of these protestors–who were, remember, his allies–is in my opinion quite similar to the thing that is so disturbing about so many of today’s “progressive” protestors.  Dos (as he was called) was entirely correct to be disturbed by what he saw, but I don’t think he diagnosed it quite correctly.  Though he refers to the protestors he observed as “those good people,” quite likely many of them weren’t good people at all–even if they were right about their cause–but were rather engaging in the not-good-at-all pleasure of conformity and the enforcement thereof, and would given half a chance have gone all the way to the even-worse pleasure of bullying.

    Whether or not this view of the protestors’ motivations is a fair one–and I am simply layering the explanation that seems to make sense to me on top of Dos’s description of his own subjective reactions–the spirt of conformity certainly drives a great deal of political and other wickedness.  I remember a German man who was interviewed near the beginning of the TV series The World at War.  Although he was anti-Nazi, he described the emotional pull he felt when viewing Party rallies–a strong desire to be part of such a cohesive and comitted group.

     

    Here’s a related post: A desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing.

    Although most assume that an immoral person is one who’s ready to defy law and convention to get what they want, I thinkthe inverse is often true. Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values.

    One feature common among today’s ‘progressives’…and maybe among those of Dos Passos’s time too…is coupling the feeling of courage that they get from believing that they are defying law and convention with the feeling of security they get from conforming to an in-group.

    See also C S Lewis on The Inner Ring.  Speaking at King’s College in 1944, Lewis said:

    And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

    And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

    Closely related to the Pleasures of Conformity are the Pleasures of Bullying.  See this post on that subject, and in particular on the persecution of a professor at Florida Atlantic University for the “crime” of accepting grant money from the Koch Brothers.

    Professor DeRosa’s picture has been plastered on the walls of college buildings by supposedly concerned students with demeaning messages that he’s a “white supremacist” and that his presence on campus is an outrage “demanding action.”  In my opinion, it’s ridiculous to describe those engaged in these defamatory actions, as some commentators do, as “snowflakes.”  They are dangerous thought police, who in this case have targeted a thoroughly decent teacher.

    I have no doubt that many of these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ are people who, had they lived in earlier times, have eagerly participated in the burning of witches, the accusation of innocent people as Communists, or the mocking and humiliation of any woman who dared deviate from her prescribed gender roles.  For a lot of people, the ability to combine submission (to the group) with aggression (toward the designated targets of the group) is very attractive.

    I’m again reminded of a passage in Goethe’s Faust.   Gretchen, after finding that she is pregnant by Faust, is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:

    How readily I used to blame
    Some poor young soul that came to shame!
    Never found sharp enough words like pins
    To stick into other people’s sins
    Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
    And never black enough to suit
    Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
    Now I myself am bared to sin!

    There’s a lot of this…”sharp enough words like pins to stick in other people’s sins”, combined with the pleasure of preening, going on today.  And many if not most practitioners thereof will, unlike Gretchen,  likely never repent.

     

     

     

    16 Responses to “Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism”

    1. Gringo Says:

      The Spanish Civil War was the final changer for Dos Passos.

      I have no doubt that many of these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ are people who, had they lived in earlier times, have eagerly participated in the burning of witches, the accusation of innocent people as Communists..

      Except that a lot of those accused as being Communists but WERE Communists- though at the time they proclaimed their innocence- Fifth Amendment rights and all that. Alger Hiss, Dalton Trumbo and Pete Seeger denied being Communists, but had actually been CPUSA members at one time. In addition to being Communists, they had performed services for the Communists. Alger Hiss was a spy. Trumbo and Seeger created antiwar agit-prop works in support of Stalin- before the June 222, 1941 invasion of Russia. Funny that after June 22m,19441, Trumbo and Seeger were no longer pacifists.

    2. Mike K Says:

      Interesting the cookie thing remembers my blog site but not my name.

      I just finished reading for the third of fourth time, Cliff Stoll’s great book, “The Cuckoo’s Egg.

      The later edition has a epiloge chapter and a note about his later life (as of 2005).

      He makes it clear, but in an amusing way, that he and all his friends were typical Berkeley leftists in 1986 when the story takes place.

      He has quite a bit about his personal life, which is why the book is so enjoyable even though outdated. His live in girlfriend was Martha Matthews who was studying for the Bar as he was tracking the hacker. They had been together for 8 years at the time.

      They married at the end of the book. It is all charming. He moved back to Boston with her to accompany her to a new job. He had little trouble finding a job as an Astronomer at Harvard where he participated in the famous case of the net work “Worm” that ravaged many computers in 1987 and which turned out to have been written by the son of Robert T Morris, the chief scientist of the NSA.

      He mentions that he later returned to California and now (2005) lives in Oakland with his wife Pat.

      What happened to Martha ?

      She lives in Los Angeles with her lesbian “wife.”

      Ms. Matthews is a 1987 graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation from law school, Ms. Matthews served as a law clerk for Judge Thelton E. Henderson in the Northern District of California, Judge [now Justice] Stephen Breyer in the First Circuit, and Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

      Ms. Matthews currently resides in Los Angeles with her spouse Yolanda Vera and their children.

      Some people grow out of leftism and some don’t.

      He is a very interesting guy.

    3. David Foster Says:

      “Except that a lot of those accused as being Communists but WERE Communists”

      True, and needs to be better-known…but still no justification for lynch-mob justice based on accusations alone. Even if there HAD been witches as a real thing, the Salem Witch Trials would not have been an acceptable form of jurisprudence.

    4. Gringo Says:

      True, and needs to be better-known…but still no justification for lynch-mob justice based on accusations alone. Even if there HAD been witches as a real thing, the Salem Witch Trials would not have been an acceptable form of jurisprudence.

      Given CPUSA members’ gross manipulations of the legal system when confronted about their party membership, accusations of “lynch-mob justice” would need to be examined on a case by case basis. (As for supporting dissident views, recall that after Hitler invaded the USSR, Dalton Trumbo turned into the FBI people who had gotten in touch with him regarding his anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun.)

      For example, what proportion of those summoned to testify to HUAC about their CPUSA ties were actually members of the CPUSA? My guess would be most, perhaps nearly all.

      As far as I can tell, FBI files were fairly accurate. While Howard Zinn denied to his grave that he was a member of the CPUSA, the FBI pegged him as a member. My money is on the FBI. Here is an interesting story about Howard Zinn.

      Decades after the fact, I found out that two members my age in my Liberal Religious Youth group (Unitarian) were red diaper babies, whose relatives were high up enough in the CPSUA hierarchy to make the New York Times. I don’t blame them for not publicizing this information. However, their existence inclines me to believe that Reds Under the Bed was much more based on fact than the liberals- my former tribe- would have us believe.

    5. David Foster Says:

      Gringo…”The Spanish Civil War was the final changer for Dos Passos.”

      I’ve only read a small part of what Dos wrote about his SPW experiences, but one interesting observation he made: Since Spain had not been involved in the Great War, the heavy hit to optimism and the Enlightenment view of Progress, which had occurred in the belligerent countries, had not occurred there. (Of course, this applied only to those on what would be the Republican side)

    6. Mike K Says:

      Spain was ruined for 400 years by Philip II and his religious wars.

      She should have been richer than England. Read the recent book about the Armada, and learn how poor England was at the time. The Drake captains reprovisioned their ships from captured Spanish ships, especially powder and shot.

      Spain has been the sick man of Europe long before the Turks. The amount of gold and silver brought from the New World should have kept the country rich until modern times.

    7. Whitehall Says:

      I remember reading Dos Passo’s masterwork “USA” while in high school – all three volumes. Very depressing and made me wish I could be a Wobbly – but I grew out of that quickly and cast my first ballot for Nixon.

      But I later came to the same criticisms of the Wilson Administration’s dictatorial behavior during WWI. However, the Palmer Raids were probably the right thing to do.

      So where do the lost souls we call Social Justice Warriors come from? Better, how do we guide young people to more fulfilling and less obnoxious and dangerous mental states?

    8. Mike K Says:

      but I grew out of that quickly and cast my first ballot for Nixon.<

      I did, too. To the consternation of my family who thought we were related to JFK.

      We might be but my genealogy researches make me doubt it.

      I had taken a class in Economics and that is what made me a Republican, the first in my family.

      I'm not sure today's courses would have the same effect,

    9. David Foster Says:

      Whitehall…”So where do the lost souls we call Social Justice Warriors come from? Better, how do we guide young people to more fulfilling and less obnoxious and dangerous mental states?”

      On the question of where do they come from, here’s something Sebastian Haffner observed during a rare period of stability in Germany between the wars:

      A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.

      Of course, that still leaves the question of *why* these individuals had become so dependent on the public sphere for their deeper emotions.

      Here’s a post suggesting that in America today, much of this is driven by *loneliness*, by anomic individuals looking for someone to affiliate with.

      https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/loneliness-fueling-rise-political-polarization-us

    10. Mike K Says:

      Richard Fernandez has posted on this and I linked to his post here in 2015.

      The West is filled with millions of people like Alex, all of them waiting for Someone.

      Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher and babysitter, was trembling with excitement the day she told her Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam.

      For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online — the most attentive she had ever had — who were teaching her what it meant to be a Muslim. Increasingly, they were telling her about the Islamic State and how the group was building a homeland in Syria and Iraq where the holy could live according to God’s law.They are the product of a multi-decade campaign to deliberately empty people of their culture; to actually make them ashamed of it. They were purposely drained of God, country, family like chickens so they could be stuffed with the latest narrative of the progressive meme machine. The Gramscian idea was to produce a blank slate upon which the Marxist narrative could be written.

      They are “living lives of quiet desperation.”

    11. David Foster Says:

      I remember that post.

      “Alex” sounds like a downscale version of Arthur Koestler’s Hydie.

    12. Anonymous Says:

      Mike,

      “Spain has been the sick man of Europe long before the Turks. The amount of gold and silver brought from the New World should have kept the country rich until modern times.”

      The dominance of New World specie flows into Spain, coupled or even reinforcing their feudal social structure were the causes of their “sickness”. There was little incentive to become productive when the rest of Europe and especially Britain was understandably willing to produce real wealth and exchange it for their specie. Adam Smith correctly identified the source of the wealth of nations and it wasn’t precious metals as such. David Hume developed his thoughts on the quantity theory of money from this understanding and Spain was his example. He was explaining the inflation across Europe of the Spanish inflow of precious metals and touches on the lack of productive incentives this caused in Spain in terms of actual production of goods and services.

      Death6

    13. Mike K Says:

      Neoneocon has the same problem with the site not saving commenter ID but has a warning popup if you post without adding your ID.

      He was explaining the inflation across Europe of the Spanish inflow of precious metals and touches on the lack of productive incentives this caused in Spain in terms of actual production of goods and services.

      Oh, I agree but Philip also spent most of it on useless religious wars.

      At the time, only the Dutch were interested in commerce.

    14. Phil Ossiferz Stone Says:

      >She lives in Los Angeles with her lesbian “wife.”

      Huh. I thought they were born that way.

      /spit

    15. Anonymous Says:

      “”Spain was ruined for 400 years by Philip II and his religious wars.

      She should have been richer than England. Read the recent book about the Armada, and learn how poor England was at the time. The Drake captains reprovisioned their ships from captured Spanish ships, especially powder and shot.

      Spain has been the sick man of Europe long before the Turks. The amount of gold and silver brought from the New World should have kept the country rich until modern times.”

      Have you ever been to Cartegena?? It’s where all the South American gold left for Spain. You see all these magnificent old forts on the way into the harbor. You get an idea of the wealth that was going to Spain just from those forts

    16. David Foster Says:

      Another example of cruelty in the name of conformity enforcement: WSJ yesterday had item about a woman who was with her little boy in a public park in Sweden: she was surrounded by women berating her for not having the boy in day-care.

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