Mattias Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism is arguably essential reading in understanding how it is that not only is the narrative running in the “Collective West” a pack of lies, but that a big majority of ordinary people believe the lies so fanatically that they marginalise any objectors.
His theory of Mass Formation (not dissimilar to other similar theories over the last century) explains the circumstances in which, and the means by which, mass fear produces mass compliance to irrational stories, and totalitarianism follows in its wake. It’s a persuasive case, and you should read it.
I find the philosophical position he’s coming from, as he works his way into the nitty gritty, to be both refreshing and frustrating. On the one hand, he decries the Enlightenment’s reductionist materialist worldview in some really interesting ways, one good example being his analysis of why digital communication proved so dehumanising during COVID, with reference to developmental psychology. This, of course, leads to a major critique of the technocracy promised, or threatened, by bodies like the WEF in the wake of COVID, which fail to take into account what is unmeasurable, and therefore most valuable, in human experience.
On the other hand, he seems to have imbibed the typical Enlightenment illusion of “liberation” from “organised religion,” which he sees, in the best New Atheist fashion, as the oppression from which the Enlightenment freed mankind before it unaccountably lost its way. In fact it seems to me it was the abandonment of Christianity that made its failure inevitable. Desmet seems to espouse the kind of mystical spirituality that characterised the beliefs of some of the twentieth century’s major physicists, ie a belief in the mysterious Unknowable, coupled without any clear justification to a respect for human freedom.
That, of course, one can easily forgive in seeking to understand his main thesis, except that on at least one occasion it leads him to play fast and loose with historical truth in the very way he criticises in others when they allow their ideology to govern the evidence. In chapter 5, in arguing how we have become excessively averse to pain (a good point), he cites Henry David Thoreau to claim:
In the seventeenth century, when Jesuits tried to convert Native Americans to Christianity by burning them at the stake, the missionaries discovered, to their great frustration, that the Indigenous Peoples were unimpressed. Over time, the Native Americans themselves suggested other, much more painful forms of torture. “Why always at the stake?” they asked the missionaries.
Now when I read that, my bullshit monitor immediately started bleeping. I’m no apologist for the Jesuits, and suspect that their missionary methods were seldom as culturally sensitive as even Protestant missionaries of the time would have liked. But even a moment’s thought would tell you that nobody gets converted by being burned to death, and that it would require a great deal of force to inflict it on the local people successfully. It would need armed roving bands of missionaries, picking off isolated Natives for fiery conversion. Back home, burning was the fate only of heretics and, sometimes, witches after lengthy, if seldom dispassionate, trials. Why would missionaries turn it into an evangelistic method? Furthermore, I would have expected to hear about it before now.
I had immediate suspicions about Thoreau as a historical source. He was actually writing about off-grid living, not American history, and indeed it seems he was not particularly fastidious about the truth even of his own life and times, as well as being a professed enemy of “organised religion” and of Catholicism in particular. But did even he accuse the Jesuits of “conversion by combustion”?
Searching on the subject discovers a lot of scholarly discussion about Jesuit accounts of being tortured by Native Americans, and of the latter torturing each other. But nothing about Jesuits inflicting it. Most of the scholarly discussions are about whether they exaggerated the stories as martyrology for their European readers, or simply misunderstood the complex social reasons for the practice. Mostly, they point to one seventeenth century autobiographical account by Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues of his treatment at the hands of the Iroquois, and it is almost certainly this account to which Thoreau briefly refers in his book, Walden. Jogues was a courageous cookie – getting home after his torments, minus a few fingers and very scarred, he nevertheless volunteered to return as French ambassador to his beloved Iroquois, and they killed him.
What Thoreau actually writes, in Chapter 1 of his book on simple living, is this:
The Jesuits were quite balked by those Indians who, being burned at the stake, suggested new modes of torture to their tormentors. Being superior to physical suffering, it sometimes chanced that they were superior to any consolation which the missionaries could offer; and the law to do as you would be done by fell with less persuasiveness on the ears of those who, for their part, did not care how they were done by, who loved their enemies after a new fashion, and came very near freely forgiving them all they did.
The original missionary’s account makes it quite clear that, since a captured Native from another tribe was tortured at the same time as he was himself, he was able to observe, if not fully understand, how both the torture and the victim’s response differed from his own. What is obvious is that, through bravado (or, as modern scholars conclude, in order to demonstrate the stoicism of his own tribe in the face of the enemy), this Native American expressed scorn at his prolonged burning, and asked if his captors couldn’t come up with anything that really hurt.
I should add that it seems that the ritual of torture, for the Native rather than the despised Jesuit “magicians,” was sometimes used, should the victim survive, as an initiation rite, washing away his old life so he could be adopted into his captors’ community. Expressions of courage were the only way of saving his life. So indifference to pain and love for enemies is scarcely a complete interpretation, casting doubt on both Thoreau’s point and the relevance of the one Desmet draws from it. But it is abundantly clear that nothing in the passage casts the missionaries in the light of torturers, still less punishers of non-conversion by death, but only as victims of torture, evidently borne as bravely by Jogues for the cause of Christ as by the Native America, though more severe.
Does this matter? Can we excuse Desmet on the grounds that as a Belgian he might have missed the full meaning of the English text he cites? Although the passage is entirely tangential to the main thrust of Desmet’s book, it matters because it is just the kind of false narrative that easily gets repeated over and over again (with a cross reference to Desmet’s reputably academic book).
Longstanding readers will know that I have from time to time focused on the anti-religious “scientific” myths perpetrated by the nineteenth century science-secularists such as J. W. Draper and A. D. White and still circulating today. Mediaeval Christians (these jokers claimed) used the Bible to insist the world was flat; they burned the library at Alexandria; they insisted the earth was created in 4004BC etc. Particularly in our day this casting of aspersions on Christianity, currently the most persecuted religion in the world, holds very real dangers.
In Canada many churches (I believe about fifty), mostly Catholic, have in the last year or two been burned down on the basis of entirely unvalidated claims that Catholic Schools for Native Canadians systematically murdered children in their care and buried them in mass graves. It is not insignificant that near-identical, and equally unsubstantiated, claims have been made in Ireland and Australia. Falsehoods like Desmet’s, widely extant in society, make such fictions plausible. They give support to the very kind of false narrative that Desmet’s work highlights and opposes, whose ill effects have been demonstrably proven in the burning of churches and the open demonisation of Catholic institutions by politicians like Justin Trudeau. They underlie the British court decision that biblical Christian beliefs on gender are “not worthy of civilised society.” And so they contribute to the kind of mass-formation that is the subject of his book, and can be lethal to the innocent.
Given the prominence of scientistic education in our state schools, it is not surprising that scientific and historical fictions are tied into the mythos of “organised religion” (for some reason a bad thing, unlike “organised science”), in order to dissuade young people from finding truth and community in the Christian churches. Hence they contribute to the “atomization” that Desmet diagnoses as a primary underlying cause of the malaise of society leading to mass-formation. It is hard to see how some generalised “sense of the Unknowable,” gained from “lived experience,” could avoid being just another aspect of society’s individualised fragmentation.
Mattias, you’re supposed to be solving the problem – don’t inadvertently add to it by careless scholarship!