Radicalism and the Spirit of Terror

In 1904, Max Weber visited America to attend the World Fair in St. Louis.  Ablaze with electric light, the fair also lit up Weber’s imagination.  He didn’t St Louisleave America right away but, instead, hopped on a train and traversed the countryside of Mid-America.  What he noticed was the amazing number of churches, little churches:  here a church, there a church, everywhere a church church.

The Fair was not called the St. Louis Fair; it was not called the Missouri Fair; it was not even called the American Fair:  it was The World Fair.  The World was happening in the heart–and soul–of America.  America had lit the world.  American enterprise and industry was leading humans–leading human somewhere, we didn’t know where.  The trumpet sound of the soul was forward, not back to the torment of slavery and a country divided or the crush of unfair labor practices in industry.   The echoes of Marx’s voice continued, to be sure, but Weber had something new to say, and it was that capitalism was in the air and it sprang from the cauldrons inside the vast number of little churches that dotted the countryside. Something was turning in the American soul.  It was Protestantism, then Capitalism.

When he returned to Germany, he could complete the book he was writing:  Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Among the early Sociologists, it is Weber we can thank for putting the soul back in and reminding us that as humans something moves us.  Humans are not just automatons, cogs in machines, members of groups, crushed or crushing as Marx would have it. Humans are beings with beliefs, and their beliefs make them run.  The beliefs are more than opium.  Humans’ groups, in turn, sanction and reward  behavior that is thought to be a result of the “proper” set and seating of beliefs in the human system called being alive.

Weber held that Calvinism in particular among the various Protestant belief systems taught that God had a plan.  No man can alter God’s plan.  There was going to be heaven and their was going to be hell–and by the time your feet got to trod on this earth, you already had a bar-code from God on you:  you were destined to be one of the elect–or not.  There was nothing you could do about it.  This thought was so fearsome that it created a detour:  if you were really really well-behaved here on earth–not too showy and clearly disciplined–maybe, just maybe, you could breathe easy that you were among the elect if you behaved in such a way as you’d think one of God’s elect would behave.  If you are industrious, you will end up with more than you started with.  What do do with it, then?  Conspicuous consumption was looked down upon – the “elect” are not conspicuous; they do not show it off.  Asceticism was the hip way to be:  a nice black dress and a black bonnet.  So if bird of paradiseyou could not spend it on jewels and furs, well–invest it.  Hello, capitalism.  Yearning for immortaility, soul by soul, Capitalism emerged.

Now we have it again.  Terrorists are behaving in ways potentially as world-course altering as with Calvinism and capitalism.  Like the Calvinists, they do it to soothe their souls and, in the process, they shape a world in the wake of their soul yearnings.   Terrorism with the end result of Paradise, it could be argued, in a certain way expresses a belief in free will, for Paradise can be earned by suicide.  Souls are not marked by God as “ready” or not; they are not bar-coded ahead of time.  The act of terror is an Olympian rush towards the Gold.  And yet, the two groups have in common the pattern that a reward after life creates behavior here on earth.  The belief in the after life is so strong, it can change the course of history on earth.

This is astounding, simply astounding.  Life here on earth with its blue skies, flowers, dogs, children, music, fitness, and good food is overlooked for an even more imaginable–no, not even imaginable–good life in Paradise.  When you think of how bountiful can be be life on this earth when your heart is full of joy, it is unimaginable to dream of Paradise.  What could be more fulfilling than to give love, to hear a symphony, to witness the moon, to have a puppy jump up on you, to watch men on high rises building a sky scraper, to enter a cathedral, a mosque, a temple, or a yoga studio.  Each one is a bit of paradise–and it’s right here!

And then cast your gaze to the inside of the apartment of the Brothers and Friends in Brussels.  Empty.  Barren.  Some names scratched on the walls.  A kitchen that reminds us all of our first apartment in college, but without the daisies and chocolate cake, peace signs and packages of Ramen.  Just white walls,RIP empty cupboards, a tiny sink, hard surfaces, a window on an exterior wall.  The living room:  just a little wider than the narrow kitchen, and just as bare.  Nothing.  There is nothing here on earth for these boys–and they have removed all the magic of their women.  The doorbell downstairs:  just names taped on, for residents are transient.  No homestead established, no continuity, no culture, no geology of being human, no connection to the earth.  And the culture outside the building?  Not yours.  Foreign.  To take hold, one must hold on to something distinct and distant that threads, however thinly, back to something recognizable.  And you go back to your mortality itself and the basic distinction of tribalism.  My tribe is good, so yours is bad.  So now we have something–at least something in the foreign land–to hold onto.  There is me and my brother, and there is you.  We are good; you are bad.   There are women, and there are men.  There is life on earth–cold, narrow, white and empty–and there must be paradise.


Different, to be sure.  But similar in that a prize beyond the earthly one is the generator of behavior here on earth.  The Calvinist was seeking clues that maybe God picked him for Paradise.  The terrorist is, in his mind, guaranteeing himself Paradise.   Huge success for the Calvinist leads to too much money which turns either into miserliness or conspicuous consumption, neither of which is a good sign from God; therefore re-investment and asceticism.  Huge success for the terrorist leads to the deaths of many and absolutely advances the drive towards the Apocalypse.  It is as if these boys have a coupon, guaranteed.

Why is it that we are galvanized by the unseen, by the lust for permanence, by the allure of knowing the unknown?   There is Paradise right here when we are lucky enough, relaxed enough, grateful enough, awake enough, and exercising our human intelligence enough.  Catch a breeze, exercJimmiise, write a poem, eat an ice cream cone when you have not had one in a very long time, look at the curl of a lover’s hair, listen to sublime Shostakovitch, walk in The Rain Room, get carried away by a motion picture, celebrate a high holy day with your congregation, become a parent, watch your child graduate, cross the finish line of a marathon.  Paradise, now.

Sometimes we project this burst to the finish line onto celebrities.  Celebrities seem to make it to Paradise, to immortality, to stardom.  If they can do it, so can we.  We might spend our days playing basketball, hoping to be the one in a million to make it to the NBA.  We might spend our days in front of the mirror, hoping to be the one in a million to make it to the Silver Screen.  We might spend our days at the keyboard, hoping to be the one in a million to make it to be the next great American novelist.  If we do not write or primp or dribble, we might just spend our days gazing at images Kobe, Kim, and Kurt Vonnegut on the internet – yearning for even a second-hand glimpse at immortality.

For many decades – since “Hollywood” – we have adored our stars for what they have done.  Now we have come to adore celebrity itself, despite the little that a given celebrity has done.  News websites that gather news the way they like to gather it for our consumption now gather stories about other news reporters and news commentators rather than just the news itself.  News-makers have become newsworthy as meta-news bits.  In this context we have created fashion and life styles that simply are the extreme, that tend towards the animalistic in the absence of anything better to do.  Women strip down to a bareness that most men wanted to see and then rebuke the men who look.  Some men so relish sex (and unsuccessfully corral it to a civilized matter) that they abandon themselves to it or make it so impossible that they grow weird about it and maybe stalk–or worse.  Stars who sort of can but sort of cannot sing or act take off most of their clothes just to be looked at.  Girls give cameras the finger and bare not only their teeth, but their gums, their tongues.  It’s as if people want to turn inside-out:  whether in guilt or repudiation of civilized effort.  Politicians seek poll numbers more than public policy.  Warring people not only kill, they chop off heads to let the blood roll all through the internet.  The whole world in its seeking of paradise seems to have gone to hell.celebrity powder

How do we as individuals and how do we as a culture help to balance the scale of  reality with the deep end into which we have fallen with the search for immortality?  As an individual, you need only to practice the techniques of awareness that allow you to see “infinity in a grain of sand.”  As a culture we need to come together to recognize that our youth need us elders to crack open grains of sand for them so that they, too, can begin to see the miraculous in the ordinary, the getting in giving, the richness in poverty, the opportunity in freedom.  Whether it is through philosophy and words used to understand ourselves, flours and sugars to make sweets, wood and tools to craft furniture, water and pipes to plumb, alternating current to bring electricity, coding to move machines, imagination to bloom stories – we must teach our young.  We must teach them the ways to create, the joys of growth through holding a routine job, the sacredness of family to uplift sex to its proper elevation, and the freedom in art.

Sure, we all want to be the creatures Karl Marx envisioned with his concept of our “species being:”  to hunt in the morning, to fish in the acelebrityfternoon, rear cattle in the evening,criticize after dinner.  We want to work only 20 or so hours a week and to play the remainder.  We expected machines to free us rather than to enslave us.  We want some of what the billionaires get. The world has turned upside down since before that World Fair of 1904 and we have idiot politicians, rapacious priests, naked celebrities, and biased reporters to set us free.

We can only count on ourselves.  Simply receiving the wherewithal to live will not bring us to Paradise–not the Paradise that is here now or the Paradise that floats somewhere in our imagination.  Paradise–the Calvinists and the terrorists have it right–is the result of something we do.  But “my side” believes Paradise is right here, this afternoon, available to me as a mortal, living out my mortality with my feet on Mother Earth.  I just cannot conceive of killing others and dying to reach it.   I believe that young people need to be taken by the hand of their minds and imaginations to learn to create, not to kill.  That is indisputable.  The horrible but necessary question is:  what do we do with the millions of children who have already been taught that hatred is the way.

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