walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 16, 2011
Revolutionaries with American Passports

On February 5, 2011, The New York Times carried a story about Eva Golinger, a lawyer from New York, in her thirties, who has become a fervent advocate for Hugo Chavez and his “Bolivarian revolution.” She came to Venezuela in the 1990s and now lives in Caracas, and speaks Spanish with a pronounced American accent. She must have made quite an impression on Chavez. She has been admitted to his inner circle, accompanied him on his recent trip to Iran, Syria and Libya. Golinger says of herself: “I’m a soldier of this revolution. I’d do whatever asked for me in this country.” What is apparently asked of her is a barrage of anti-American propaganda. She frequently appears on television, and she edits the English-language edition of Correo del Orinoco, a major voice of the regime. Her specialty is denouncing human rights and pro-democracy groups as puppets of U.S. imperialism. This activity has influenced the passage last December of what is often called the “Golinger law.” It limits foreign funding for the sort of NGO she has been attacking.

The Times article mentions earlier leftist pilgrims to anti-American socialist regimes in Latin America, cutting sugar cane in Cuba in the 1960s and flocking to Nicaragua in support of the Sandinistas in the 1980s. But the phenomenon is not limited to this hemisphere. There has been for close to a century a long parade of admirers of socialist tyrannies, all the way back to the Western supporters of the Soviet Union, whom Lenin is reputed to have called “useful idiots.” The Soviet Union was succeeded as tyranny du jour by China, Vietnam, even Communist Albania (upheld by some Western admirers as the last stronghold of true Maoism after the Chinese regime began to show signs of pragmatism). There are two requirements for any regime deemed worthy of admiration: It must claim to be socialist; and it must be vocally anti-American. The degree of bloodshed does not appear to be a relevant criterion. It will either be denied or ideologically justified. For anyone who has faith in reason as a factor in history, there is here a sad and discouraging story. Paul Hollander of the University of Massachusetts has over the years, in work after work,  produced a painstaking record of this political pathology.

In my own case there is a strong case of déjà-vu. I was teaching at two American universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period when this particular pathology erupted on campuses. One by one, some of my brightest students morphed overnight into fanatics impervious to rational argument. I tried. In the beginning I had not been unsympathetic with “the Movement.” I had been inspired by the civil rights campaign, and I was opposed to the war in Vietnam. But I also understood the nature of the regimes and the ideologies which the students were so enamored by, and I made an effort to convey this understanding. In most instances it could not be done. I learned the painful lesson that people engaged in a St. Vitus dance cannot be stopped.

The dance continues, though in more muted form. “The Movement” has made its “march through the institutions” (at least some of them), its icons have changed (the big picture of Mao hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City, seat of a regime now in charge of the most relentless capitalism on earth), and the angry students of those early years are tottering toward Medicare. But there is continuity all the same. I remember how enthused my leftist students were about NACLA—the North American Congress on Latin America. Founded in 1966 to protest the sending of American troops to the Dominican Republic, it started its newsletter a year later. It is still published, now called NACLA Report on the Americas. Its thrust has not changed. The most recent issue posted online has a lead story expressing worry about the decision by the Cuban government to open possibilities for self-employment—the move may increase inequality and it smells of “neoliberalism” (does Fidel know what Raul is up to?). This story is followed by an obituary on a NACLA advisor, and an attack on the “UN occupation” of Haiti. It somehow failed to blame the CIA for the Haitian earthquake.

For over fifty years now, cohorts of young, well-educated Americans have become supporters of a long string of bloody revolutions and tyrannical regimes, united by the two traits of socialist ideology and hostility to the United States. What is one to make of this?

The term “Stockholm syndrome” suggests itself—first coined when a group of hostages, held prisoner by terrorists in an incident in Sweden, emerged from captivity as converts to the ideology of their captors. But this term seems to refer to a somewhat different psychology, not quite applicable here. My students who admired the Cultural Revolution in China were not imprisoned by the Red Guards. I would suggest a broader term—radical identity redefinition (the “Stockholm syndrome” would be a subsidiary category).

After my colleague Thomas Luckmann and I had written, jointly and separately, a number of books (all in the late 1960s) outlining a different approach to sociological theory, we were thinking of writing another book together. It would be to concoct something we wanted to call a “sociological psychology,” ignoring all existing psychological theories and basing itself on the approach we had developed in our best-known book, The Social Construction of Reality. (We were touchingly young then, and were not lacking in chutzpah.) This idea never got off the ground, as both of us got distracted by other projects. But I did propose the first theorem of this putatively historic opus: Any identity is better than none. I still think that this proposition can take us quite a long way. It can help explain the continuing dance around the icons of utopian revolution.

For reasons which are not mysterious and which can be analyzed sociologically, modernity undermines taken-for-granted identities. No longer an unavoidable destiny, an individual’s identity increasingly becomes a matter of choice. This can be experienced as a great liberation, especially in its early phases. It can also be experienced as a burden. There is a deep human longing for certainty concerning the things that matter most—among which, as Immanuel Kant classically formulated it, is an answer to the question “Who am I?” As a result, there is a market for any movement that purports to provide a certain identity, one that can be relied upon beyond the precarious products of individual self-construction. That is the great attraction of all totalitarian movements. It is the psychological benefit of all fundamentalisms—religious or secular. The promise is always the same: “Come and join us. And we will give you what you have longed for—you will know who you really are.” The promise is kept—if and as long as the individual adheres to the ideology of the movement. Part of such adherence may be the denial of realities that contradict the ideology.

I think that the psychology of the Westerners who convert to radical Islamism is quite similar to that of the leftists discussed above. Of course this type of Islamism has distinct disadvantages, not only the unpleasant possibility of being killed in Waziristan if one takes the conversion to an active conclusion, but also a rigorous sexual code that has little appeal for those raised in post-1960s Western societies. Nor must the political form of the totalitarian temptation be leftist in ideology. In the 1930s, when fascism appeared to many as the wave of the future, there was a similar psychological dynamic propelling some individuals to the radical right (though more in Europe than in America). But fascist ideologies have gone out of fashion. Leftist ones are clearly more attractive. They rarely get you killed. Very few Americans have volunteered to join guerrillas in the jungles of Latin America. And, even while wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, these “soldiers of the revolution” can enjoy the sexual freedom allowed in Western democracies. They also have the freedom to proclaim their new identity with impunity. In important sectors of elite culture this identity can even be a passport to prestige and tenure.

Despite the poor prospects, reason should not be discarded in efforts to pry individuals out of the St. Vitus dance. It is comforting to recall Freud’s view, that “the voice of reason is quiet but persistent.” But I know of one contingency that has a good chance of de-converting these revolutionaries with Western passports—if they actually reside for a while in the totalitarian society they had admired from afar.

show comments
  • Neville

    Isn’t this part of a broader phenomenon in which members of a group who feel insecure about their future status suddenly perceive that if they denounce their own group they can thereby instantly award themselves a permanently superior moral status?

    This has always seemed to me to work quite well as a model of the behaviors we see. For instance, it’s an enthusiasm that often hits when young people are facing the end of college, and have no idea how to reconcile the jobs they seem likely to be able to get with their own view of what their social status ought to be.

    Also, nobody ever does this without a welcoming group to run to, and of course a foreign regime in need of validation by a few emigre Americans can get that job done nicely.

    The people who go this way always seem to me to share on central characteristic – they care about their own social status more than anything else.

    Consistent with this, the most powerful factor liable to reverse their trajectory is if their chosen denunciatory group becomes unfashionable or an object of open derision. Some of them of course just move on serially to the next available ideology, religion or cult.

  • Neville

    Sure enough, as mentioned in the linked NYT article, Ms. Golinger experienced her conversion just as she completed her law degree in New York.

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  • adam Garfinkle

    Oh sure. I think F. Tonnies is the ur-source here. Gesellschaft envies Gemeinschaft. I wrote about this sort of thing in my book Telltale Hearts (1995), about the antiwar movement. Chapter 5 especially.

  • Andy Catsimanes

    Is not the burden to which Berger refers identical to Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being”?

  • Martin Berman-Gorvine

    Thanks for an excellent short essay on this ever-worrisome phenomenon. A particularly noxious form of it is often (and somewhat misleadingly) termed “Jewish self-hatred,” and usually takes the form of strident denunciation of Israel coupled with calls for its destruction. Noam Chomsky, the son of Zionist parents, is the most infamous example–but when he penned an introduction to a Holocaust denier’s book many years ago, he made it clear that he had long ago crossed the line. This spiritual disease must of course be distinguished carefully from Jewish supporters of Israel who are critical of the Israeli government’s policy.

  • jbay

    The best lies are the ones that have grains of truth. Unfortunately coupled alongside mans desire for order vs chaos many are led to believe all sorts of things. Platos allegory of the line comes to mind here. Men prefer shadows over the objects which cast them.

    So we find human pattern seekers longing to make order out of a chaotic world. These weak minded humans thus turn to: conspiracies, cults, half truths that can’t be whole, etc.. The plain truth; chaos is chaos because our ability to perceive reality is limited by our faculties. Being limited we decide that the shadows of figures are the truth and deny the objects themselves.

    Square root 2 is not whole. It is irrational just as C is. Hippasus was drowned for proving this. For that reason I hesitate to throw simpletons overboard.

    Chaos is not chaos but order beyond our perceptions as figures reflecting shadows against a wall. Most people are distracted by these shadows because they are a small reflection of the truth. To un-distract them shine a light in such a way that no shadows are cast. Before this can be done we have to be honest with ourselves and honest with them. Shoot from the heart and watch the block heads crumble away.

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