Toxic Activism: Is Politics Your Drug of Choice?
The professor leaned back in her chair and asked, “What do you want to do when you graduate next month?”
“Well,” I responded, “I’m not certain. That’s the problem... that and the fact that I am forty-six.”
“What did you dream of doing when you were a child?”
I thought back to the time when I still thought as children do. All the normal dreams would have been before I turned thirteen. At that pivotal age I began my transformation from an idealist in the heart of an ultra-conservative religious organization into an antisemitic radical.
I spent the next 25 years obsessed with the ideas of the European religious far-right, dreaming only of helping to bring about a religious utopia. The obstacle was the “Judeo-Masonic New World Order.” The United States, my own country, was considered the enemy’s tool, exporting modern democracy and materialism. At thirteen, I stopped dreaming my own dreams and joined a crusade against the modern world.
How did a normal child from California end up in a convent in Vichy, France, indoctrinated by mentors who mixed Christianity with Holocaust denial and anti-democratic extremism? In 1978, when I walked into a church run by the organization now known for its Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, I had no idea that the conservative liturgical worship went hand in hand with a radicalized geo-political worldview. In the early days, I saw only the legitimate conservative religious aspect.
“So,” the professor questioned, “you didn't join because your family was antisemitic?”
Are you kidding? Growing up, my father’s best friend in Brooklyn was Jewish. He loved to tell me how, whenever he visited his friend’s home on Friday night, the mother put a plate of delicious fish in front of him and said, with a big smile, "No good Catholic boy is eating meat in my house on Friday!" My parents were devoid of any racism.
“And yet, you became antisemitic?”
Yes. I experienced why and how the Hitler Youth were radicalized and lost themselves and their futures to a utopian ideal. You join a group for a good cause. In my case it was a preference for the traditional Catholic liturgy. Warning signs that the group culture promoted antisemitism were ignored. The positive aspects of the spirituality led me to close my eyes and minimize the place of the "Jewish conspiracy theory." My eventual acceptance was based on the implicit trust I had in the leaders and the pernicious mixture of an evil political theology with authentic spiritual doctrine.
A child raised in an enlightened American home sets out to find God and finishes by believing that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz, that America is the greatest threat to mankind, and that women should not pursue higher education. Such is the seductive power of toxic activism.
The vision of reconstructing society became, almost overnight, my whole life. Friends who didn't share my convictions were abandoned. Personal interests evaporated, along with dreams of any future not contributing to the crusade. While not all members gravitate with the same intensity to the group’s political mission, most do distance themselves from activities or friendships outside the group.
Studies of “cause-based” or isolationist groups indicate that similar psychological dispositions are present regardless of religious or political specificity. Groups gain ascendancy over members by filling fundamental human psychological needs. At the heart of toxic activism is the inebriating sensation of transcending the limitations of daily life and participating in a mission of global importance. Most members also become deeply attached to the support system. As a committed comrade-in-arms, you are superior, necessary, valued.
At eighteen, I left my country for a convent in France where Catholicism blended with the writings and ideas of the European religious far-right, including those of Charles Maurras and the antisemitic Fr. Denis Fahey. The danger of the political formation was all the more serious because it was presented as the only legitimate social application of the Faith.
Though not prone to waltzing on the way to Mass or whistling on stairs, I was as mismatched for the convent as Maria von Trapp and eventually returned to my home in California, still politically radicalized. Though many leaders of the group discourage higher learning for women, I justified attending college as a sort of “finishing school” and enrolled, an 18-year-old in a 32-year-old body who couldn't explain why she didn't know who U2 was or why the Soviet Union was missing.
While taking a Modern Middle Eastern History class, I discovered the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood. For the first time, I looked objectively at my own political worldview because of its presentation in the context of another religion. I can still see where I sat in class that day as I peered into the mirror of hatred and ignorance called radical Islam and saw my own gruesome reflection. So this was my face -- the paranoid objectification of Jewish people, the hatred of my intellectual nature as a woman, the loathing of America, the disdain for everything and everybody not myself and not engaged in my war for my Utopia.
That I wore no bombs was merely accidental. My hatred of the world was as destructive as a terrorist. That day in the classroom, unable to face the consequences, I closed my mind in a blatant act of intellectual dishonesty and put Band-Aids on the wall enclosing my mind.
The bandages held for several years until the crack became a gaping hole. I owe my defection, in great part, to information available from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the brilliance of my husband, who researched and documented in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism the extensive connections between members of the Society of St. Pius X and the radical neo-fascist movement in Europe.
It has been four years since we left the group.
Last month, at the Kansas Republican Caucus, I met my 13-year-old self in the person of a young Ron Paul militant. Wild-eyed and laser-focused on her Cause, the ghost from my past harangued voters about the intricacies of the Federal Reserve.
Supporters of other candidates were enthusiastic; Paul’s representatives were consumed with the imperative. It was clear that for the young girl Paul was not just a political option; getting him elected was her whole life. The Silicon Valley Nazi and the Ron Paul phalangist had both been seduced by total self-oblation to a cause and the euphoria of living high on the drug of choice-activism.
When I left the religious organization, the absence of the Cause created a terrifying void. Because the group had provided me with convictions, feelings, values, a mission, and an identity, I had gone through life as an extension of a centralized persona. Once bereft of my raison d’etre, I redirected my radicalism to politics. I found a guru, a group, and a Cause. The objectives were less extreme, my fusion with the Cause was not. I was still a Utopia-junkie.
One day I looked up from my blog and realized that my daughter was no longer three, but nine. The world was neither a Catholic monarchy, nor ruled by the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. But the sun was shining. It was time to grow up.
Withdrawal from a radical life was not motivated by disdain for authentic Catholicism or for responsible accomplishment of civic duties. There is a legitimate place in life for Faith and for dedicated efforts to free America from the Golfing Marxist and his entourage of Chicago Rasputins.
Destructive, “toxic” activism is the abandonment of personal identity for the sake of a Utopian Cause; the replacement of attainable personal life with a dream of forcing transformation upon society. The Toxic Cause becomes the unique focus and organizing principle of all activities. Only the Cause energizes. The individual moves from caring about reality and family, to living life for the abstraction.
Instead of cultivating his or her unique talents, preparing and advancing a career, and nurturing family relationships, the individual melds into the group. The authentic person disappears.
Soon, the only social network surrounding the activist consists of people of like mind. This isolation prevents the normal enriching interaction with people who are neither in agreement nor interested in the Cause.
The activist need not be a formal member of a localized group to suffer from toxic group activism.
Through radio, cable, and Internet social networking or blogging, the activist can be part of the “virtual cult,” and connect with others who share constant preoccupation with the Cause.
One identified with a Cause is not dissuaded by argumentation alone. The Cause-focused group fulfills so many emotional and psychological needs that the thought of leaving inspires terror -- and a sense of humiliation. The individual has the security of being accepted and valued by a dynamic group and, as long as he or she lives for the Cause, there is no need to face loneliness or make the efforts required by normal socialization, including bonding and rejection, based on exposing the vulnerable but authentic self.
The Cause provides a sense of superiority. Simply watching a conspiracy movie enables believers to consider themselves experts in the intricacies of finance, forensics, criminology, history, the military, physics, bio-hazards, secret societies, politics, ballistics, international diplomacy, pyrotechnics, immunizations, the Mossad, and the fine art of controlled demolition.
The greatest obstacle to abandoning The Cause is the void left in a life by lack of personal development. Each need once filled by The Cause, including deciding what you want to be when you are 13, must be confronted. To give up toxic activism means accepting responsibility for living life.
We cross the line between enthusiasm for politics and toxic activism when the political cause becomes the organizing principle of life. Toxic activism focuses obsessively on transforming what is external to the self; other people, other governments, other voters.
Efforts to bring about good in the world should make us better, more balanced individuals, not mindless, frenzied minions. The expression, “There is vodka in the gulag,” while in no way meant to be taken literally, contains the antidote to group activism. True Utopia is not attained by bitter zealotry. Utopia is first and foremost peace, defined by a characteristically pithy Aquinas as “the tranquility of order.” The antidote for toxic activism is order, an order established through tempering the individual 's intellect, will, behavior, and emotions such that they might then emanate into the organic social spheres we inhabit. This order moves us to do the good we can, especially in our families.
Embracing The Cause of becoming authentic, noble human beings brings about the most ironic of transformations. Most lasting, freely embraced global transformations for true good can be traced to individuals who set out to improve themselves or serve others.
Looking back on the ease with which I was radicalized, converted to toxic activism, at such a young age, I understand the crucial need for awareness of the addictive nature of cultic groups offering the false security of surrogate family given on condition of identification with the group.
Focusing on nurturing our real family support systems, critical thinking skills, and an early understanding of one's unique potential are the real "Causes" that should energize parents, teachers, and policy makers. In addition to being the basis for balanced citizens and healthy society, they are also the most powerful deterrents to the enticement of cultic groups and the Utopian escape from reality offered by toxic activism.
This is a speech given by Roberto Fiore in Budapest, October 23, 2008. Fiore is the founder of the International Third Position, a neo-fascist organization whose teachings are popular and typical of extremism within traditional Catholicism. Here, Fiore declares that the people who caused the economic crisis of 2008 are the same as those "who put Christ on the cross." Fiore calls for the nationalists of Budapest and Italy to rise up and "fight them." (Portion of interest at 6:03 minutes.)
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