Friday, September 03, 2010

Crazy for You, My Sweet Little Ideological Fanaticism

I'm an environmentalist. I've seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and I find it to be what it basically is - a rather superficial advertisement for a very real and serious phenomenon. Part of my professional work is directed at understanding and trying to facilitate effective responses to this phenomenon. I also think we ought to preserve our remaining rainforests and other endangered ecosystems/habitats, try to keep our oceans and skies clean, and help those who struggle to make a living from the limited natural resources they can draw upon without exhausting those resources.

I also think the Discovery Channel basically broadcasts fluff concerned above all with the company's bottom line rather than any interest in advancing public knowledge of science and nature. If a revenue-significant portion of the US viewing audience wanted to see kitten tossing, I'm not so sure Discovery wouldn't offer it to them.

But I don't want to kill anyone.

In the wake of James Lee's attempted kidnapping and who knows what else at the Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring, Michelle Cottle is right to bemoan the loss of simple craziness as the motivation for violent acts by political and religious ideological fanatics.

Lee "thought the best way to save the planet was to force a television network to run game shows promoting the ideals of 'human sterilization and infertility.'" This is a view that even those population control advocates who have discussed the issue of sterilization - Paul Ehrlich, for example - have placed within the framework of a hypothetical and improbable worst-case scenario in which such drastic population control measures are considered in light of other worst-case "life-boat" or Malthusian catastrophe situations such as mass starvation due to severe resource strains. Perhaps the emblematic population control advocate, Garrett Hardin (of "Tragedy of the Commons" fame), was always heavily criticized from the environmental left, a critique that echoed Henry George's much earlier critique of clergyman Thomas Malthus' views on population.

In other words, Lee's views - apart from the wacky game show idea - are a confused distortion of an old discussion about population control that doesn't track typical left-right politics at all. To try tag Lee's putative politics with a liberal or conservative label is an ignorant and just plain stupid endeavor. The guy was a fanatic. As were Timothy McVeigh, abortion doctor murderers, and the anti-tax guy who flew his plane into the government building in San Antonio.

Fanaticism comes in all ideological stripes. All of us have some sort of ideological preference, often several, and often overlapping. Usually incoherent at some level too. Most ideologies have their fanatics - people who can't see anything beyond the boundaries of the most tightly knotted, extreme forms of their ideologies. These are the people who view anything unlike the extreme version of their ideological makeup to be a threat. As a threat, self-defense and defense of the core extremist ideology comes to be seen as a perfectly legitimate response. The more grave the threat, the more that violent self-defense or preemption becomes the only possible choice for the fanatic.

Any society or group that encourages such fanaticism, and the demonization of others that becomes the inspiration for violent action, is irresponsible and morally corrupt. Quite frankly, much of the current public political discourse in the US involves the mainstreaming of the rhetoric of fanatics. I would be surprised if we don't see a growing number of violent acts steeped in ideological fanaticism.

1 comment:

Purpleslog said...

I don't think the "kill all humans" theme of the guy comes from Gore (I am no Gore fan, BTW).

The other book cited was from Daniel Quinn who is a sort of anti-Civilization activist. In "Beyond Civilization" he suggests that homelessness-culture is preferred to current civilization.

I believe reports said tghe discovery guy was also living in a homeless shelter at the time. I suspect it was buying into the sort of anti-civilization, anti-people themes of Quinn that brought the killer out in this guy.