Zealots and Fanatics


"Is there any hope that the subtlety of logic can overcome the emotional appeal of the fanatical? The future of mankind is at stake. It will take a lot longer for the sun to burn out than for the last zealot with a sword to render the last infidel 'saved.'"


Date: Wed, 15 Apr 98 06:38:12 GMT
To: cybrgbl@deltanet.com
Subject: Feedback and or Questions
email="g8mirgutt@aol.com"
comments="Dear Rich--

I wrote to you a few weeks ago, simply gushing about this extensive, enlightening, and uplifting cyber-endeavor of yours. I want to reiterate how much I have enjoyed your work, especially after reading your 'heroes' pages. Amy Biel? Who knew?! What an incredible example of spirit! Thank you for telling her story to the previously ignorant, and without a lot of editorial. Her story speaks for itself.

Which brings me to the point of this missive....in short, is there any hope for us? To me, the advancement of the human race depends on logic, rational discourse, and love (a touchy-feely word for respect of others). Amy Biel seems the embodiment of these principles, yet her enlightened voice was silenced forever in a dogmatic frenzy.

Can rational thought ever overcome dogma? I feel it needs to, but all recent evidence points to the popularity of superstition superceeding the scientific. Fundamentalists rewrite American history so that the Founding Fathers are avid Protestants, and the public believes them. Hundreds of Pilgrims are brutally crushed in Mecca, but the clerics say the dead are guaranteed a place in heaven, so that makes murder OK. Is there any hope that the subtlety of logic can overcome the emotional appeal of the fanatical? The future of mankind is at stake. It will take a lot longer for the sun to burn out than for the last zealot with a sword to render the last infidel 'saved.'

I respect your opinions, and look forward to any correspondence on this matter.

Thanks again for stretching the grey matter a little....

Doug

      Dear Doug,

      Thank you for your nice words about my page on Amy Biel. I would gently remind you that Amy's voice was NOT silenced forever in the frenzy of violence that fateful day back in August of 1993. Her example and life's work live on in South Africa, on my website, and in the hearts and minds of anyone who hears her story and is touched and influenced by it. In this, the mindless passion of a mob has perhaps lent Amy a semblance of immortality and authority that might have otherwise been lacking. Cruelty and barbarism are often the common currency of human beings; and an individual who swims against the stream stands out as an example to the better angels of our natures. Take Amy, for example.

      You refer to the "subtlety of logic" and the "emotional appeal of the fanatical." I think it goes deeper than mere logic vs. dogma. I believe in all times and in all cultures there exists a never-ending battle between good and evil; and I believe this struggle rages also inside of every individual. One need takes sides in their own way; the evil will swallow up the good if people do not stand together against it in gestures big and small in issues grand and trivial. I fear zealots and demagogues riding the raging seas of human passion and prejudice will always be with us just as you describe; history is full of goons commanding the field and sweeping away all intelligent opposition. Pol Pot kills millions of his countrymen and yet recently died a peaceful death an old man and now will have time in hell to compare notes with Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and the many other villains of history. But ultimately people are attracted to intelligence (in contrast to brute force) when it speaks to them - as over time it shines through the obfuscating slander of this opinion or that one hurled by this self-interested critic or another. That which has enduring value remains with us long after the temporal political questions of the day and hysterical pronouncements born out of hatred and ignorance are long forgotten.

      It is the ever-elusive search for truth and ability to understand it, in my opinion, which, undertaken with sufficient patience and humility, separates us from the beasts. That is the palliative which soothes, as Plato describes it, the beast inside even the best men which stares out in sleep. This makes a person reasonable, or capable of using their reason to question and remain open to new ideas and opinions through the accumulation of better information, wider experience, and riper wisdom. There is something so absolutely maddening in the totally engaged zealot such as Lenin or Robespierre or Khomeini, the terrorist as revolutionary; they are so absolutely sure they know the path to a better tomorrow and are capable of committing any barbarity to pull mankind to it screaming and kicking. As Daniel Boorstin writes: "I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever." These grim inquisitors and their single-minded religiosity, singularly unable to doubt even a little their own infallibility. Life and the living out our deaths in this working-day world full of briars is hard enough; they make it harder.

      I believe with Plato that there is a Good which resides in our souls as a kind of recollection from our ancestors who came before us. I believe that the Good and the True and the Beautiful are always visible like the sun to those who would lift their heads to view it; I believe they shine forth through the fog of uncertainty and unhappiness to lead us away from the human folly and error in which we otherwise remain mired. It is thusly - through the parallel universe of art and beauty! - that we half reclaim this failed world from those ambitious bullies and energetic thugs who so often rise to the top and put the lie to the assertion that the good are rewarded on this earth and the evil punished. Not three or four days pass that baffled I don't scratch my head in confusion and astonishment to reflect upon the black period of inter-war history of the 1930s ("the locust years," as Churchill described them) when it seemed Fascism and Communism were ascendant and unstoppable in all four corners of the globe, when it seemed mankind was on the point of entering a new Dark Age... but even in our worst moments, the divine spark of intelligence inside man has never died out entirely; I can think of no period of our collective history when this desire to know has been completely extinguished. As long as there are people willing to search for wisdom and truth, I do not despair for struggling mankind. As this has been the case in the past, I do not despair for the future. I may, in my own way, be an idealist; but I am not the only one.

      You catch the tone correctly when you allude to the great, sad music of humanity and its precarious prospects; one need not look long to find examples of crime and failure amongst Homo sapiens. However, human history is also replete with happy moments and glorious victories as well! I never will forget the bliss and optimism that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact; I read Aeschylus, listen to Mozart, or look upon the works of Michelangelo and feel as if I am at their side and share in the bliss of their genius! Every extant library and museum is at least partially a victory against the darkness; Emerson tells us that "every burned book enlightens the world." Every new born child is potentially a genius, a hero, a lover, a welcome addition to a species which despite so many setbacks has a glorious history! These are the events and ideas I choose to honor; this is the legacy left to me by those who went before me.

      I nearly lost my breath recently as I read the following from Howard Fast's novel "April Morning" where in 1776 a colonial American tells his son the evening before he is killed in the Battle of Lexington:

"We are plain people. Not poor - for we are blessed with more than a necessary share of the world's goods, and we have a good house with good furniture and good food on our table, for which we thank the Lord in His mercy - but plain and thrifty people. Yet we, your mother, myself, my father, and my grandfather - we have always prided ourselves that we are in a sense the people of the Book. My brothers and I were raised, and I make every effort to raise my own children, not as blackguards and loafers, not as soldiers or tavern sots, but as thoughtful and reasoning creatures, men who honor the written word, who respect intelligent writing, and who, like the ancient philosophers, look upon argumentation and disputation as avenues toward the deepest truth. I am a farmer who tills the soil to earn his daily bread, but there are three hundred and odd books in this house, well thumbed, well read. Nor are my neighbors unlike me. That is why, Adam, we are what we are."

And that is why I am what I am: as a child of my parents and teacher of other children, an American and citizen of the world, and an independent thinker and free human being on the earth.

      It has long been fashionable to be pessimistic in this murderous tragic stretch of history which began in 1914 and ended only recently with the fall of the Soviet Union. (What will come next?) No less a person than Henry Kissinger claimed with a triste air back in his Harvard dissertation:

"No person can choose his age or the condition of his time. The past may rob the present of much joy and much mystery. The generation of Buchenwald and the Siberian labor camps cannot talk with the same optimism as its fathers. The bliss of Dante has been lost on our civilization."

I disagree. I am filled with excitement when I think about the great music yet to be written, love stories and epic poetry still to be penned, improved societies we may yet construct! The dynamic drama of human history continues and I fully intend to play a part in it! What part will you play?

      This gives me hope - maybe the most precious of things. This makes me proud (despite everything!) to be a human being. This moves me to work for something greater than myself. This helps me to look at my face in the mirror every morning without unendurable self-loathing. This gives me strength in the struggle not to blow my brains out across the living room floor.

      It is a complex and difficult question you put to me, Doug. It was either a rather long explanation or none. I apologize for my long-windedness and hope you find my comments profitable.

      Very Truly Yours,

      Richard Geib


THE DIVINE SPARK OF HUMAN DIGNITY AND INTELLIGENCE

"We are plain people. Not poor - for we are blessed with more than a necessary share of the world's goods, and we have a good house with good furniture and good food on our table, for which we thank the Lord in His mercy - but plain and thrifty people. Yet we, your mother, myself, my father, and my grandfather - we have always prided ourselves that we are in a sense the people of the Book. My brothers and I were raised, and I make every effort to raise my own children, not as blackguards and loafers, not as soldiers or tavern sots, but as thoughtful and reasoning creatures, men who honor the written word, who respect intelligent writing, and who, like the ancient philosophers, look upon argumentation and disputation as avenues toward the deepest truth. I am a farmer who tills the soil to earn his daily bread, but there are three hundred and odd books in this house, well thumbed, well read. Nor are my neighbors unlike me. That is why, Adam, we are what we are."


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