Revolutionaries with American Passports

In the excerpt below Peter Berger attempts to explain why some Americans fall in love with authoritarian regimes. His explanation may well be part of the story but I think that for many young Leftists it is rather simple: They hate America and need to find some alternative to it. So they look to regimes that are most unlike America.

That those regimes are in most ways very unattractive explains why most American Leftists don't emigrate to their nirvana but rather remain safely at home. That way they can build castles in the air about their supposed "alternative" society without having to face all the realities of it.

The fools who do put their money where their mouth is generally don't stay for long. The famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein migrated to Soviet Russia in 1935 but lasted less than three weeks there

But why do American Leftists hate America? There are a variety of reasons which I set out here but both political stance and tendency to happiness are highly hereditary -- so many are simply born whiners whom nothing suits -- JR


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?

Any identity is better than none.

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.

Leftist [loyalties] 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.

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