Sunday, August 13, 2006

Neiwert's blog -- examining the origins of authoritarian thinking

David Neiwert is taking a brief Sabbatical, leaving his blog in the impressively capable and articulate hands of one "Mrs. Robinson." I'm not a long-time dedicated reader but this has apparently happened before. (I keep this blog on the list for the same reasons that I keep a Bible handy. Not all the time running to look up stuff, but a great place to go for comfort, reassurance and inspiration when I get to feeling dry.) Suffice it to say, this guy does nearly all the heavy lifting for those of us who are nothing more than cannon fodder in the fight for reason, civility and tolerance. Not since discovering Gordon Allport have I found a rock as stable as David Neiwert.

But all that is beside the point. The reason for my post is to bring attention to a series of essays being published under the sobriquet Mrs. Robinson. I got midway through the second before I realized it was not Neiwert writing in a different mode. He typically has so many links supporting what he says that it is like reading a treatise subject to peer-review. Downright tiresome if you read all the links, but totally necessary because so many ignorant people itch to quarrel with what he says. But I digress again...

I have no way to know as I write to whom I am writing. Such is the ellusive attraction of blogging. I will pretend for a moment that you, dear reader, are one of those people who are here because you are trying to figure out what makes this quirky guy think as he does. Why on earth does anyone with his obvious intelligence cling to so many notions that are for most people contrary to both experience and common sense? Why can't he simply sit back and enjoy the ride? And why on earth, for crying out loud, does he persist in advancing argumants and ideas clearly not part of the mainstream?

Part of the answer to those questions can be found in these essays. Here you will find insights that you may not find stated as clearly anywhere else. This is not a quick read. It is easy language but tough content for a lot of people. If you happen to be among those who agree with me that the theses being advanced here are correct, then go and drink deeply of what is written there. But if you happen to be among the skeptics, the seekers, the (I don't really like the term, but she uses it so I shall) fundies -- then go with an open mind and see if you don't discover something about yourself you may not have known before.

Snips here --

Alice Miller points to abusively authoritarian child-rearing practices, which teach the child anger and fear, and train out compassion or respect. George Lakoff points out the ways in which Strict Father conservatives try to apply this same logic to government. Emmanuel Todd points out that a nation's family structures are almost always mirrored in its political structures, as well as its tendency towards imperial ambition. Several observers, including Kevin Phillips, point to the authoritarianism inherent in certain religions, and in the regions of the country they dominate; other historians have contrasted the relative levels of social hierarchy countries that were colonized by Catholic versus Protestant countries.
Taken together, this chorus seems to paraphrase the Bard: some are born authoritarian, some achieve authoritarianism, and some have authoritarianism thrust upon them. Most of us fall somewhere along a wide continuum of willingness to follow authoritarian leadership. Our place on that scale is determined by the culture and religion we grew up in, how our parents treated us, our education and life experiences, and our inherited temperament. These things conspire to make a few of us desperate to follow, and a few others obstinate in their outright refusal of all authority. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in between, open to seduction only in certain circumstances.
For the past five years, I've been a member of a large and busy online community of former fundamentalists. Through years of discussion, we've learned a lot from each other about how and why people become fundamentalists -- and also how and why they find themselves inspired to leave authoritarian religion behind. We've noticed patterns in the various ways people are seduced into fundamentalism; and also a predictable progression in the steps they go through in the agonizing months and years after enlightenment dawns....

Two or three times a week, we find new members on our doorstep. Safe in the anonymity of the Internet (and often under cover of night -- these missives are typically time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, usually posted furtively after weeks or months of lurking) we're often the first people they've ever whispered their doubts out loud to. Their introductions are often heartbreakingly miserable: "I can't believe this any more -- but my husband will leave me if he knows." "My whole family is fundie. I can't tell my parents I've stopped going to church -- it will kill them if they ever find out." "I'm a deacon at my church. If I start asking these questions, I'll lose my whole community."

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity. On the scale of relative trauma, it's right up there with a divorce after a long marriage; and it requires about the same amount and kind of grieving....

I have to interject here another thought. She may or may not address this idea later, but I have also observed since I have been blogging that there are a good many identifiable people who have also moved in the other direction. The ranks of Libertarian and strongly-conservative groups are filled with many self-proclaimed "former hippies," "recovering liberals" and the like. Many whose college days and coming of age years were marked by down and dirty, in-the-streets activities later decided that those were nothing more than the vapid and unrealistic antics of youth. They put aside such craziness along with binge drinking and sleeping around, assuming a more mature, more respectable place in the productive adult world in which they finally took root.

Whether or not this series of essays will address this other trend, which True Believers might call counter-revolutionary, I don't know. I can only speak for myself when I say that after spending my entire working life and adult years (almost...I'm still a few years from actual retirement) I have lived, moved and reared my family in an environment that should have made me into a very different person. I have been in management, I have dealt with all sorts and conditions of men and women, I have seen how responsible decision-making and a right sense of order and values results in security and great personal rewards. I have also seen the tragedy of what happens when ignorant people make self-destructive moves and cannot seem to grasp even the rudiments of how delayed gratification yields greater rewards than grabbing on to whatever feels good.

Despite all that I have come out at the other end an unreconstructed, Sixties-era, old-fashioned Liberal and all that I come across in David Neiwert's blog hits me as a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. So go and read, and don't blame me if you get challenged or hooked.

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