The worst are full of passionate intensity

The New York Times ran a story this week about how the Islamists seem to be the best-organized political force amidst the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. It quoted a secular Libyan businessman who had backed the revolution, Adel al-Hadi al-Mishrogi:

“Most Libyans are not strongly Islamic, but the Islamists are strongly organized, and that’s the problem… Our meetings go on for hours withour decisions. Their meetings are disciplined and right to the point. They’re not very popular, but they’re organized.”

That same dynamic seems to be true in Egypt and other countries that experienced the Arab Spring. It makes sense historically. For decades, dictators repressed political dissent, and so it took people with really deep, really powerful beliefs – people like religious fundamentalists — to maintain a clandestine opposition.

Libyan protestor / Photo by CrethiPlethi

It worries me when I think about what will happen in those places. Yes, there are all those inspiring young pro-democracy activists with their tweets and Facebook pages. But I keep thinking of Reading Lolita in Teheran, Azar Nafisi’s book about Iran, and her description of how in 1979 she and other university students believed they were fighting to replace the Shah with an open, democratic society.

And then the students – moderates, leftists, too busy squabbling among themselves to confront their real enemy — were completely bulldozed by the Islamists. The result? The repressive, theocratic regime that continues to exist there today.

It’s not just that religious extremists do better at building organizations under repression. They also harbor less doubt. They are more single-minded. They’re willing to do what their leaders say, and put their own individual desires second.

And this doesn’t just apply to Islamic fundamentalists. Here in the U.S., it seems like the Christian right plows ahead with single-minded determination while those of us on the secular, liberal side of things complain about Obama and fiddle with our iPhones and feel like we have made a significant political statement by spending an extra $2 per pound on organic, free-range chickens at Whole Foods.

The American right has media icons like Rush Limbergh and Glenn Beck who don’t admit a single speck of doubt. The left has… the New York Times and NPR.

Which not only admit specks of doubt, but have a mission of showing both sides and presenting nuance. Doubts R Us. 

Or translate this same question to Israel. The West Bank settler extremists are 110 percent convinced that God gave them the land they are occupying, and are willing to kill prime ministers to hold on to it. More liberal Israelis, meanwhile, go around in circles with ambivalence: Yes, the Palestinians deserve a homeland. But they’re shooting missiles at us. But you negotiate with enemies, not with friends. But we tried negotiating and it didn’t work. But there’s no long-term alternative to two states. But that new Palestinian state will become a Hamas beachhead…

I think of that line from Yeats’ The Second Coming:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I find myself strangely nostalgic for, of all things, the American Communist Party.

Okay, don’t pillory me just yet, I am aware of the Stalinist show trials and the gulag and the Maoist reeducation camps and the invasion of Czechoslovakia and all the other terrible things that can be attributed to communism.

But wouldn’t it be nice if there were a group on the left these days that was as committed, disciplined, fierce, and hard-working as the CP used to be? Those of you who are history buffs, please correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the CP the quiet, behind-the-scenes engine behind much of the progressive stuff that happened in mid-20th century America — the New Deal, the civil rights movement, the labor movement? The CP did the grassroots organizing and created the pressure from the left that allowed more moderate liberals to move forward with a progressive agenda.

When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1980s, there was a disparaging term for a liberal intellectual — yafeh nefesh, or “beautiful soul.” The caricature was of someone who had oodles of culture and ethics and philosophy, but no clue how the world really worked. No toughness.

I often fear that ideologues on the right — the Egyptian and Libyan Islamists, the American Tea Party, the Israeli right — have the muscle worldwide.

And we on the left have beautiful souls.

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4 Responses to “The worst are full of passionate intensity”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    Yes, of course. What could the problem be? Too much use of SSRIs? i think we are heading for serious bad times in this country as unemployment and poverty continue to worsen, with the rich getting even richer. Think organized repression of protest and mass detentions. The USA has to hit bottom before things will turn around.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I am afraid you are probably right about things getting worse. I don’t think necessarily in the short run, but in the long run I don’t see the US being able to maintain the standard of living that we are all accustomed to — given limited global resources, the rise of countries like China that will need a share of the pie, etc. Many people will tend to lash out at others, try to maintain their standard of living through “any means necessary.” America has been by and large a tolerant society during my lifetime. But it is easy to be tolerant when there is enough pie for all. Not so easy when the pie is shrinking.

  2. johnroark Says:

    Excellent post Ilana. Unfortunately the pattern for most revolutions to be that of the French Revolution. Initial egalitarianism and laudable goals, then the most extreme authoritarian elements prevail in the end often with very destructive, violent outcomes after the initial change in regime. It’s certainly a dilemma. My experiences with the American CP and the Trotskyite SWP and their descendants have been interesting. The commitment to a dogmatic line and discipline is so effective. One envies the ability to get things done. But the downside appears to be the inevitable corrupting influence of authoritarian power. You and I would be some of the first they would come for. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. No easy answers here.

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