The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.
Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.
Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.
Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!
Daniel: You’re kidding!
Ralph: Have you read it?
Daniel: No…and I never will!
Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?
Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!
Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.
Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.
As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.
The Irish sociologist Kieran Healy reminds us that rituals do not have to arrive dressed in costume or accompanied by swinging censers to create bonds between people. But they do have to allow people to find a place to do their part and do so amongst other people who will also do their part.
Crucially, those involved all see one another participating in the event. By doing so, they enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins. That, Durkheim thought, is at root what a society is.
Healy goes on to observe that mass shootings have become an American ritual:
The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting … preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy. My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. …This ritual of childhood is not a betrayal of “who we are” as a country. It is what America has made of itself, how it worships itself and how it makes itself real.Kieran Healy, here
Ritual and religion. Healy’s insight helped crystallize my thoughts about how our home grown mass murderers arise out of the same basic religious impulses that also fertilize the Taliban. Men (generally, young men) struggling with social isolation, looking for a narrative to give their lives meaning and a community of people who buy the same storylines; these are the acolytes. The internet is their church. In their church, they can click on text sacralized by which ever community of fear mongers, white supremacists, xenophobes and misogynists most suits them. With every thumbs-up they click, with each screed they post, they are participating in rituals of togetherness and feeling the pulse of solidarity with fellow travelers. They are in their basements singing with the choir, fondling their guns and making themselves real to themselves.
They are free to think what they want and they are free to acquire an arsenal with which to exercise their religious impulses. The rest of us are “free” to be randomly shot at any time.