Belmont Club


When Henry David Thoreau observed in 1854 that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he anticipated James Thurber by 85 years.  Walter Mitty, perhaps Thurber’s greatest creation, outwardly lives a normal man’s life in Waterbury, Connecticut,  no different from “the mass of men”. But in inwardly Walter dreams of saving the world.  In the course of the story Mitty has “five heroic daydream episodes.”

The first is as a pilot of a U.S. Navy flying boat in a storm, then he is a magnificent surgeon performing a one-of-a-kind surgery, then as a deadly assassin testifying in a courtroom, and then as a Royal Air Force pilot volunteering for a daring, secret suicide mission to bomb an ammunition dump. As the story ends, Mitty imagines himself facing a firing squad, “inscrutable to the last.”

Walter Mitty imagined himself as one of the popular action stereotypes of the late 1930s. Martin Gurri notes that human nature has not changed much since  1939.  What’s changed are the action figures which people dream of becoming.

Look on the images of the killers, pouring out of Paris. They seem straight out of an action film: black-clad, ninja-looking, gun-toting, full of self-conscious swagger and mysterious hand signs. Virginia Postrel has written of the “glamour” of the Islamic State’s recruiting imagery:

Videos, magazine features and Twitter memes mirror the glamour of action movies, shooter video games and gangsta rap. They make killing look effortless, righteous and triumphant. They promise to make the jihadist manly and important.

The audience for the Paris terrorists’ message is among young people, mostly but not exclusively male and Muslim, in the Middle East but also in the West, who find the cinematic costumes and poses and clichés difficult to resist. The slaughter of unarmed journalists translates, for this group, into an exhilarating adventure. Brutality is never excused or explained: it’s central to the seductiveness of the message.

Running around shooting people might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the illusion of saving the world is, at least in part, an affirmation of one’s significance. It must be exhilarating, to say the least for young men from modest backgrounds to set a great Western capital trembling in anticipation of their actions. In the aftermath of the recent attacks the Daily Mail reported”a city on edge: Euro Disney evacuated and armed police sent to synagogue and pharmacy to false reports of shootings as fear of fresh terror attacks grips Paris.”

It’s worth pointing out that a lot of people would like nothing better than to dissolve themselves into the “mass of men”, like a drop of water in an endless sea, and besides  why we can’t leave things to our betters? Perhaps the most psychologically revealing of  the reader comments in the Mail was one which made an impassioned plea for more impotence. “Anyone caught with a knife or a gun now should be locked up under anti terrorism laws …and I mean ANYONE.”  Gun-control and now knife-control are the keys to combating terrorism.

We must control our emotions too, perhaps above all. One website dedicated to “bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society” explained without a trace or irony why “I unfriended my childhood pal over #JeSuisCharlie”.

The answer to terrorism is tolerance, not fear. … A childhood friend, a sweet woman and kind mother, replied that this is not the time for tolerance—because Islam was a faith and community of violence. I replied:

“My friend, serious? There’s all kinds of killy-y stuff in the Bible. Doesn’t mean that followers take that stuff seriously. Only extremists do. They killed a Muslim cop. They’re full of hate, not faith. “While not all Muslims are terrorists…”…big of you.

PS you’re right. MLK was wrong. Tolerance and love are losing strategies! Let’s go with hate vs. hate, I’ve heard fire defeats fire!”

Then, I unfriended her. I am all for mindful discussions and agreeing to disagree. I am not all for blaming a generalized population for something. That’s pre-judice–pre-judging. I am all for making up and being friends again. I have zero tolerance for prejudice.

That reproof must have put the “childhood friend, a sweet woman and kind mother” in her place. The enlightened author restated the standard liberal canon. Drink your anodyne and above all do nothing rash without instructions from the Great Leaders. From the State Dept’s Marie Harf, who says “we’re not jumping to conclusions” on which group is behind the Paris attack, to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein who says “we need a moment of calm now. We do not need retaliation. Neither Islam nor multiculturalism in Europe is to blame for the bloody attack two mornings ago, as some right-wing political leaders have already begun to say”, the message is the same.  Light candles, leave flowers, compose hashtags and march around in approved places but leave the thinking to Obama, Cameron and Hollande.

Our Western leaders are on one side of the chessboard and the big kingpins of the international Jihad — the Middle Eastern billionaires and the heads of rogue state intelligence agencies — are on the other.  Their foot soldiers in the lands of Islam might be starvelings fighting for a pittance.  But their recruits in the West, the Lone Wolves, come from that part of the population which in each generation doesn’t want to stay on the conveyor belt.  They are the guys who some reason don’t want to spend their lives driving back and forth from the panel beating shop to public housing.

They are the reprobates who don’t want to sit down to take a leak or press their legs together in subway seats; who don’t want to eat arugula.  They are the crazies who want the superhero stuff, fast cars, the big headlines, the testosterone and adrenaline high; who want to proclaim they exist.

It’s easy to forget how important image-identification can be.  One reason the Brownshirts out-attracted the Communist youth street gangs was the Nazi’s investment in uniforms.  While Communist street fighters were dressed in clothes that made them look like municipal garbagemen, the Brownshirts wore uniforms by Hugo Boss.  We exist.

In another era the same personality types would have joined anarchist groups, bombed Alexander II, shot William McKinley or Franz Ferdinand;  shot up Lod Airport or joined the Red Brigades.  The ideologies would have differed but the temperaments would have been the same.  Each generation has a cohort that affirms itself by burning down the surrounds; that is driven by a need to believe so strong as to make them willing to be henchmen for the modern day equivalent of the Black Hand. Anything for the chance, before they leave this godless, meaningless existence to shout: “look mom, I’m on top of the world.”

The drab, leveling sameness of multiculturalism that a certain type of bureaucrat finds so comforting can reproduce Thoreau’s condition for despair. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The Old Man’ll get us through,” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!” . . .

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”

Why indeed?  And for some the turnoff leads to the glamor of evil.

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