Politics and Fanaticism
December 5, 2011
I am listening to a CD book, Brothers in Arms, as I drive back and forth to Bridgewater State University, a book about Bobby and Jack Kennedy and Fidel and Raul Castro. There isn’t much in the book about Raul. But many stories are told, not all of them true I would imagine but one stood out today. After JFK had been killed and his body transported back to D.C., Bobby was heard to cry out, when alone in his room, “Why? Oh, God why?”
Well, Bobby, there is a reason why: Namely, that you and Jack thought you could kill Castro and destroy his revolution and you played fast and loose in order to get this done. Several times you and Jack tried to have Fidel killed, thinking it necessary to “fight fire with fire.” What you forgot is that when you play with fire, you can and probably will, eventually, get burned. There is no mystery here, Bobby, no reason to try to plumb the depths of some divine plan. It was tit for tat and Fidel “said,” as it were, along with Mae West: “Well, if you are going to go tit for tat with me, you better have a lot tat!” Or as Willie Nelson sings: “Just a little old fashioned justice going round; It really ain’t hard to understand, if you’re gonna dance you gotta pay the band. Just a little old fashioned justice going round.”
But there is something more to this drama, a something that plays itself out in American politics frequently. In my last post, on Aristotle and his understanding of the political world, I argued that the fact that there is no regime, no political order, where all govern – and, hence, no policies that can comprehend the good of everyone – reflects another fact, viz., that there is no comprehensive good that is available to human beings. Even or especially what many deem to be the “highest good,” a life of philosophy, is not available to all and, in fact, is not even good for all. Hence, let us say that aristocracy, literally the rule of the best, is the best regime – an argument attributed to Aristotle all the time but of which I am skeptical. But even if this is so, this regime is not best for everyone; in fact, it may not even be good for everyone. [Aristotle indicates that he thought that there would be slavery even in the best regime.]
Why is this important and what does it have to do with fanaticism? Well, it seems to me that fanaticism is only possible to the extent that one thinks that there is a good that is comprehensive; that is, that there is a good that is good for all human beings all the time everywhere. It is something like this – I hesitate to call it a “thought” – that makes it possible for human beings to think that they can get to the good through less than good means, even through bloody and inhuman means. If you seriously believe, for example, that American values are universal, good for all people everywhere all the time, then it is possible for you to endorse or even engage in brutality for the sake of universalizing these values. Fanaticism feeds on a “commitment” to what is perceived to be “the good,” that is, “the good” which is good for all everywhere. “We will pay any price, bear any burden,” as JFK said, to save the world. But is this not fanaticism? And isn’t it fanaticism to declare a desire to rid the world of evil or of “the axis of evil?”
I recently read a book entitled Socratic Citizenship in which the author argues that Socrates’ conception of citizenship of the best kind did not involve an intense commitment to a political order or to political action. Rather, Socrates thought that the best kind of citizenship was of a restraining character, that the best citizens were those who encouraged the powers that be to “slow down,” to deliberate, to think before acting. From this it might be said that Socrates was convinced that all politics, all policies, all political actions involved, always and everywhere, injustice. The larger the political action, the more comprehensive the policies pursued, the greater the injustice. And, for Socrates, human beings need to avoid, first and foremost, committing injustices because for him committing an injustice was worse than being treated unjustly.
Fanaticism is concomitant with political life because all political actions are oriented toward the good. Hence, to combat fanaticism successfully requires more than political action. Human beings have to come to understand the importance of limits and this is an understanding that is not easily taught in the political arena. The Kennedy’s, Bobby and Jack, never learned the importance of limits and, as a result, they became fanatics – just like Fidel and Raul. And it was this fanaticism that led, not surprisingly, to their demise. “It really ain’t hard to understand: if you’re gonna dance, you gotta pay the band. Just a little old fashioned karma comin’ down.”