Aug 30, 2010

Justification for mimesis

An odd detail about the John Birch Society: The membership is secret.

Not that you wouldn't know a Bircher if you met one. They tend to be pretty obvious, with their literature and their special editions of The New American, and they tend to be pretty evangelical and freely announce that they're john Birch Society members. Officially, though, the society will never say how many members it has. That's secret.

Practically, this works to protect the organization from being dismissed as inconsequential, and it has also allowed people to sometimes project nightmare fantasies onto the group, imagining it as bigger and more pervasive, more important and more influential than it really is.

What's fascinating about this, though, is how the John Birch Society, by being secret, by being a secret society, is imitating what they imagine to be the worst of what they oppose. Whether the conspiracies of control they imagine actually exist or not, they themselves are examples of what they fear, what they oppose, what they have dedicated themselves to fighting against forever. This is not a simple case of hypocrisy, either, since the shadowy evil of the other is invoked as the reason for their own shadowy behavior.

The structure of this reason -- this displacement, this excuse -- is really interesting. On a certain level it's as simple as a child's excuse, he did it so now I have no choice, and on another level there's classic Girardian mimesis at work. There's a way, too, that the logic works to salve guilt and justify anything and to seal oneself off from any criticism. The move starts with the idea the other people are evil, doing what they do, while you are good. This is taken as an axiom. One's own rightness can't be questioned, since it's the very ground on which one builds. And the structure of this reason reinforces it.

You see this with the Nixonian justifications for dirty tricks. Murray Chotiner, teaching the young future-master-manipulator-of-the-cover-up John Dean the ropes, reportedly said, "If the president wants you to turn the IRS loose [on political opponents], then you turn the IRS loose .... Do you think for a second that Lyndon Johnson was above using the IRS to harass those guys who were giving him a hard time on the war?" That's the logic that gets used everywhere in the buildup to the Watergate burglaries. Nixon and his lackeys justified what they were doing by appealing to the real and imagined evils they imagined FDR, LBJ and JFK had done: "Well, they did that to me," Nixon said. "I really mean it when -- I want to go in and crack that [Watergate] safe."

This is the same logic, the same move, that keeps getting deployed in the political attacks against Islam. All the talk about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is this mimesis, paranoia acting to justify imitating what has been imagined to be the evil of others. The idea that they're intolerant justifies intolerance. The idea that they hate freedom justifies the abridgement of freedom. The idea that their religion necessitates violent opposition to Christians and Western democracies justifies -- demands -- violent opposition from Christians and Western democracies.

This argument seems to cry for the counter question: Then what makes "us" the good guys?

This argument can't be made, though, without an foundational belief that one side is different than the other. Different in some essential way that has nothing to do with how one acts. This is, of course, the definition of bias, and maybe also it works to explain a little bit what paranoia does, how it functions: It's this mechanism of justification for the imitation of what one fears.