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Open Minds on Air Episode 6 – Conspiracy Theories

This month Pearse Redmond and Yuval Laor explore the issue of conspiracy theories and their power to manipulate individuals and groups.  They start off by discussing the popular Qanon theory, breaking down how adherents to this and many other conspiracy theories operate within the structure of a secret society, and the dangers of being in a secret society. Yuval also discusses the concept of “argument from strangeness” and how this factors into both conspiracy theories and miracles. Later they touch on why authoritarian groups such as cults often employ conspiracy theories in order to control and manipulate their members.  Finally, they close out the show by discussing the danger of dismissing all conspiracy theories, and the human need to question authority, using the fabricated Nayirah Testimony and the Iraqi WMD’s as examples to support their arguments.

You may also download this episode as an mp3 here.

What do you think about this interview? Do you agree? Do you have a story about conspiracy theories that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

The Human Side of Extremism

It is now exactly one year ago that I was doing research on the Greek island of Corfu into the electorate of the extreme-right, neo-Nazi, and openly racist political party ‘Golden Dawn’. In the shadow of the severe economic crisis that had hit Greece, the Golden Dawn grew to be the third largest political party in the country. During the elections of 2015, around 400,000 people voted for the Golden Dawn, despite its members being explicitly linked to violence, and while most of them were on trial for running a criminal organization. As part of my master’s in social and cultural anthropology, I had set myself the task of finding out how ordinary people on a peaceful island like Corfu could be voting for such an extreme political party, and what impact this had on their lives.

During a period of three months ‘in the field’, I held 21 in-depth interviews with both voters of the Golden Dawn and people with other political affiliations. Aside from these interviews I indulged in ‘participant observation’, a popular research technique among anthropologists, whereby one infiltrates the given group to become familiar with its cultural environment and behavior. As a result, I regularly found myself having a drink in a supermarket-turned bar in one of the mountain villages of the island, where Golden Dawn voters would meet in the evenings. Another spot I frequented was an electronic store whose owners were Golden Dawn voters, and where like-minded people visited them.

In contrast to what I expected before coming to the island, I was welcomed warmly by these people; even though my interviewees found themselves in a severe economic crisis, they always insisted on paying for my coffee or beer. At the time, the friendly relations that started to build up made me slightly uncomfortable. One of my informants would tell me during an interview that violence against immigrants is permissible, as, by his logic, these immigrants are invading his country and violence against them thus counts as “self-defense”. The next day I was happy to greet him on the street. Another informant matter-of-factly told me that Albanians are second-class citizens. A moment later she invited me to dinner.  At the time, I decided to create some distance between myself and my informants.

Now, almost a year has gone by; I have completed my thesis, and have had the time to reflect on my fieldwork in Greece. I have written about the economic, political and humanitarian crises that naturally caused grievance among Greek citizens: between 2009 and the elections of 2015, the unemployment rate passed 25%, and government trust reached an all-time low. Around this time, a new social class was born, dubbed the “newly poor”: hard-working people who ended up jobless with neither health benefits nor faith in the political parties that had governed their country for years.

The rest of my thesis contains personal stories of Golden Dawn voters that illuminate their marginalized position in society, as well as their belief in conspiracy theories that are used to explain the aforementioned crises. The Golden Dawn voters were stigmatized as “dumb” and “narrow-minded” people, with whom any contact should be avoided. In the Golden Dawn, they found a group to which they could belong, readily accepting irrational conspiracy theories that conveniently placed the cause of the different crises far beyond the realm of their own influence.

After giving the problem more thought, I am convinced I should not have tried to create distance between myself and my informants. It is this distance that keeps the feeling of being marginalized alive, while it also reinforces the “echo chamber” these people find themselves in.

Now, of course I’m not saying that we should all befriend a neo-Nazi and simply accept their behavior. However, it’s good to keep in mind that some of these voters are kind and caring people whose situation makes them highly susceptible to the fear-mongering, blaming tactics, easy solutions, and seemingly comprehensible explanations radical groups such as the Golden Dawn – and other extremist groups – have to offer. We need to better understand that in crisis, people will seek any possible life-raft – even a leaky one, like the Golden Dawn.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about political extremism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Certainty, Aversion and the War of Jenkins’ Ear – Jon Atack Talks with Pearse Redmond

Jon Atack and Pearse Redmond are together again, this time exploring a wealth of fascinating questions, including, but not limited to:

  • Who is Scientology TV produced for?
  • Why do we feel so certain about our beliefs?
  • Why did the German people of the 1930’s vote to give up their right to vote?
  • What is hypnotism?
  • What can we learn from the assault of Louise Ogborn?
  • How do salespeople get us to buy – NOW?
  • Has the actual quantity of bombings gone up, or just the prevalence of reporting them?
  • What is the cultural significance of aversion and disgust?

As always, it’s an amazing and thought-provoking conversation – a must-listen.

Foucault’s Hair – Part Two: Cults and Multiculturalism

Editor's Note: This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Foucault's Hair

The reduction in slavery, exploitation, abuse, humiliation, and physical and psychological violence are not solely the result of widespread non-Western cultures. Indeed, if a culture is a patrimony of ideas typical of vast human aggregates, the systems of beliefs and customs shared by restricted human groups are micro-cultures. These may be minority religious cults or congregations of followers of alternative medical practices or, moreover, extremist ideological groups. These aggregates often function as totalitarian groups. Just as for “meta-cultures,” there are two ways of dealing with coercive groups: censorship and indifference.

In a liberal and democratic society, the indifferentist choice is prevalent in the name of secularism and multiculturalism; but, as we have seen, it soon becomes a situation of confusing the “wheat” with the “chaff,” or the liberal with the totalist, or a Fascist with a minority advocate.

The problem arises when, in the face of a proclaimed detachment, the supposed indifferent ones put themselves in charge of defenders of cults against the claims disinterest endsof those who consider them places of abuse and harassment. The disinterest ends as soon as the interests of the coercive groups are affected. Therefore, the so-called “cult apologists” follow the logic already seen for broad cultures, namely relativist indifferentism and differentialist indifferentism.

Liberal apologists

The first typology refers to some defenders of cults who are considered bearers of the liberal culture. They are, of course, relativist in the sense that they believe that no one can impose a single vision of the world and, hence, they wish for what Max Weber called “polytheism of values.” This can only be an emancipating and progressive idea, because we are well aware that Western relativism has always been the enemy of religious and political absolutism, and thus the true basis of freedom. If I do not have unquestionable truths, I would never want to impose dogmatically, ex auctoritate, anything to anyone. The concept of secularity is all here, woven together with   relativism, pluralism, freedom, and tolerance.

Presenting yourself as a relativist is, therefore, a great business practice for a progressive man. Too bad that this progressivism is often as concrete as Foucault’s hair. In fact, it is one thing to assert that one can never, say, possess the truth: that is the basic concept of liberalism. It is quite another thing to assert that truth does not exist, for that is a cultural construction.

Certain “advocates of freedom” sometimes sneak over this border. As Maurizio Ferraris writes:

Curiously, the “school of suspicion”, the idea that we have to doubt everything, is born like a critical exercise, but it can have results that are dogmatic, to say at least, because it teaches us to doubt not only lies, but also truths, making this an excellent service to falsehood, which is placed on the same level as the truth. This principle, which, if applied to science, makes a physician indistinguishable from a shaman and an astronomer from an astrologer, is particularly dramatic in the case of history because it lets a total amnesty drop as a graveyard on the worst tragedies of humanity.

This engenders a twofold assist to “alternative” groups. First of all, a thought that rejects the value of tests and makes “indistinguishable a physician from a shaman and an astronomer from an astrologer” facilitates the emergence of groups that are hostile to science and based on spiritualism and subjectivism. This comes about in a paradoxical way, because, in spite of the proclaimed relativist anti-authoritarianism, authority, which was driven out of the door, comes in from the window. As Giovanni Jervis writes:

In practice, it is not true that all opinions are equally authoritative. To some people more than to others – we all need fathers, Freud said – is attributed an unusual dose of wisdom. In this way, by refusing the authority of the experts, we find ourselves in the arms of the gurus.

Apart from contributing to its development, relativistic “anti-authoritarianism” is a valuable tool in defending totalitarian groups. Indeed, cult apologists defend, with liberal coherence, the existence of every creed and practice, but their approach often resembles that of Foucault with Khomeinist Iran.

In fact, taken with the freedom heat, they risk overlooking the bigotry that happens in cults. This is the greatest contradiction of radical cultural relativism. In other words, its proponents underline the superiority of the criteria of secularism and tolerance of liberal-democratic culture, precisely because other cultures are unable to offer anything like it. After that, they claim that groups or societies that do not accept such principles should not be judged, exactly in the name of the relativity of the historical interpretations of human coexistence.

In other words, after having judged the tolerant cultureas superior, they come to assert the equivalence, for the worthiness and for the right, of any cultural expression, including intolerant ones, by declaring any comparison unlawful. Nico Berti writes:

This conclusion is derived from the clamorously illogical use of the epistemological criteria proper to the relativistic paradigm, which is theoretically affirmed but virtually denied (they are, in fact, fake relativists but true anti-liberal).

That the defenders of cults are fake relativists and true anti-liberals is demonstrated whenever from the second and third rows of parties and movements of liberal inspiration emerge paeans in favor of the most questionable groups from an ethical point of view. And, paradoxically, they tend to “crucify” those who denounce those misdeeds, accusing them of being the new “inquisitors.”

The most naïve among the exponents of this relativistic culture, in short, misconstrue abuses, manipulations, threats, blackmails, and physical and psychological violence into acts that cannot be interpreted except by a local and special “regime of truth” – that of the group. In this way, the rights of worship and association devour the rights of individuals, producing an unforgivable paradox for the true liberals. In fact, the attitude of sincerely liberal parties has always been a censure against dictatorial regimes and to fight against practices that are offensive for human dignity – for example, female genital mutilation. On this aberrant practice, parties and liberal movements, such as the Transnational Radical Party, have conducted strong campaigns for its abolition. The paradox is that if these practices were accomplished in a minority religious group, the less awake exponents of these same parties would defend the practice on the basis of the relativistic criterion.

These paladins of the freedom of the bully are not aware of being the useful idiots of the promoters of cults. The latter refer to the principles of freedom working outside the confines of the cult in order to allow them to deny the same principles within the group. One of the greatest Italian liberals, Gaetano Salvemini, noted that:

The cleric demands liberty for himself in the name of the liberal principle, except to suppress it in others as soon as it is possible in the name of the clerical principle.

This is made even more evident by replacing “cleric” with “guru.” This observation illustrates the difference between a giant of liberal thought and action and the “nannies” that they are believed to be.

Differentialist apologists

The second type of apologist are basically members of cults. Therefore, they have stronger motivations. The defense that they make of the right to difference is absolutely similar to that of allogenic cultures in differentialist racism. They do not believe that all ideas, faiths, and cultures are equivalent, but instead they propose a “multiculturalism” that safeguards the identities of every single “culture,” as this general law implies the safeguarding of their own culture in particular.

This is an openness that is fake, like curls would be on Foucault’s head. It has nothing to do, then, with liberal thinking. However, even in this case, it ends with giving equal dignity to democratic ideas as to those that deny democracy in the name of the “respect” for all cultures – read “Foucault’s curls.”

This type of logic, when applied on a large scale, involves a coexistence with immigrants that is not based on assimilation, but on sufferance. In this case, the democratic state renounces part of its rights in favor of groups that do not believe in democracy, creating a democracy with holes, like a Swiss cheese. The same is true when multiculturalism applies to cults. Liberal-democratic societies are expected to foster within them islands in which liberal-democratic rules are suspended. It is here that the help and support of “liberal” apologists (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) becomes important and is sought after. What is serious is that this support is usually obtained.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

Although an alliance between differentialism and progressive liberalism may appear incredible and aberrant, the observations by Foucault and de Benoist on human rights prove that breaking into alcoves leads to discovering strange bedfellows. It’s a night in which all cows are black.

To add further elements of paradox, this inclination of the anti-relativists to seek support between relativists can be found in Italy, the privileged theater of the most bizarre of its manifestations. In fact, the cradle of Catholicism can unexpectedly boast a scant squad of Catholics among the ranks of the cult apologists. The clique is small but extremely noisy, like small dogs.

It is difficult for a non-religious person to understand how it is possible for the faithful of a religion that puts its foundation on “non-negotiable principles” and which is “universal” by definition to defend clearly anti-Christian cults, and go along with the proponents of anti-universalism. It is difficult, in short, to associate the idea of ​​relativism with Catholicism. Still, Giovanni Jervis, in a profusion of adjectives that accurately carve out the characteristics of the model he is speaking of, writes:

There is a sort of ambiguous Catholic relativism, rhetorically do-gooding, irenic, possibilist, hyper-tolerant, generic, vague, accepting, benevolent, little inclined to deepen, friend of vague and sometimes inane dialogues and enemy of serious discussions, in short, a bit apathetic.

So, the somewhat sickly and up-to-date ecumenism that distinguishes the “emancipated” Catholic is not a concrete and integral relativism, but has the appearance of it, and plays fully into its hands. As Jervis rightly points out:

The more open and democrat between Catholics, with their excess of relativistic possibilism, end up giving up criticism of the fanatics and dogmatics of all religion, including, note, their own.

In fact, though there is a significant difference between the mellifluous conditioned relativism of “democratic” Catholicism and the relativism run-off on a tangent of certain “liberals,” this “weak thought” of Catholicism can become easy prey for much more determined wills that ride those Catholics’ watchwords.

It is true, as Jervis points out, that “liberal Catholicism ends up playing the game of uncompromising Catholicism.” But it is also true that it plays into the hands of the intransigence of all other cultures. Therefore, it is no surprise that the watchwords of conciliatory ecumenism are often used by the members of a Catholicism that is far from being open and progressive, with the same logic as the more “liberal” proclamations which can be found in the mouths of the most dictatorial gurus. All bald people combing their hair.

In short, we are witnesses of a jumble that, like an improbable chimera, combines totalitarians, liberals, and clericals in a single line. People who should act according to the Weberian ethics of responsibility, such as liberals, are in cahoots with those in this ethics fight, such as clerics and gurus, who advocate the ethics of principle (and vice versa). Stuff to tear your hair out – if you have hair.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about cultural relativity that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Foucault’s Hair – Part One: Two Frenchmen

Editor's Note: This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Foucault's Hair
michel foucault

Michel Foucault

If I said that the thing I most appreciate about Michel Foucault is his hairstyle, surely someone would point out that the philosopher was bald. If, however, I said that what I most appreciate about him is his anarchism, no one would object. Anarchism provides love for freedom as much as a hairstyle involves hair. However, while the baldness of the Frenchman is a clear and demonstrable fact, the man himself belonged to a line of thought – post-modernism – that denies attributing value to facts, by lowering them to the rank of opinions. Instead, the decanted liberating value of his thought is just an opinion raised to a fact. We can see a valid example of Foucault’s love for freedom by reading his enthusiastic reportage from Khomeini’s integralist Iran.

Indeed, sent to Teheran by the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera at the beginning of the 1979 revolution, Foucault was conquered by the “beauty” of the Ayatollah’s medieval regime. To those who asked him how he could find a totalitarian theocracy so beautiful, he answered:

They do not have a regime of truth equivalent to ours, which, on the other hand, is quite special even if it has become almost universal.

The way to avoid an uncomfortable question is always to say that the question is wrong. The French system is to say that the question is wrong because it presupposes the existence of reality. In fact, it is in reality that regime shootings, gender discrimination, executions for adultery and for homosexuality (so, even for Foucault, if he had been an Iranian) exist. But Khomeinians, Foucault tells us, have a different “regime of truth.” In fact, our truth, which we believe to be universal, is, instead, “completely special.”

Now, if reality is not objective and is only a perspective among the many possible ones, if there is no knowledge but only points of view, if justice and rights are no judgment possible
not universal data but are rather local and historical concepts, then judgment on anything becomes impossible, because it is always arbitrary.

This is the message of helplessness that is announced by that vast stream of theories (deconstructionism, structuralism, post-structuralism, etc.) that shape “postmodern thinking.” Rooted in the skepticism of Nietzsche and Heidegger (two authors more connected to Nazism than to ideas of liberation), postmodernism passes for an anarchistic, egalitarian, and progressive philosophy. We will call this approach relativistic indifferentism, because its core is radical relativism.

Staying in France, consider two gentlemen discussing the ban on the veil for Muslim girls who attend public school. One of the men is a democrat and open-minded citizen; the other one is an exponent of a far-right movement. Which of the two is more likely to feel proper in safeguarding the Muslim girl’s right to wear a veil? Did you say the first one? Wrong – he is the second. In fact, the latter is Alain de Benoist, the main exponent of Nouvelle Droite, the name given to a conservative, reactionary, anti-modern, and anti-egalitarian movement.

Yet, in the face of the idea of ​​censoring the costumes of others in the name of civil rights, his response is indistinguishable from that of the radical leftist Foucault. In fact, he says:

It is that [modernity], finally, that we find in the advent of the new religion of human rights, which claims to subjugate the whole Earth to its juridical and moral dictates.

In other words, de Benoist tells us that every culture has its own scale of moral values, which means that the imposition of the values ​​of the West (“the new religion of human rights”) is a form of imposing a dominant idea – the liberal-democratic one – which is intended to be universal.

The declarations by de Benoist and Foucault seem like two apples falling from the same tree. The heretic and anarchistic (as well as bald) Marxist refuted universalist ideologies and sought shelter in the marginal spaces, celebrating whatever seemed to him unmatched, even un-assimilated, from Iranian theocracy to sadomasochistic fetishes. The crypto-fascist lover of northern paganism refuses modern universalism, and celebrates whatever appears to have not yet been assimilated, from the Islamic veil to female genital mutilation.

michel foucault in the marginSo, we have a paradox: an advocate of freedom who exalts Khomeinism, or totalitarian libertarianism, ends up pairing with the paradox of the fascist who respects non-European cultures and defends the customs of minorities in the name of the “right to difference”, or, libertarian totalitarianism.

The Nouvelle Droite opposes all those policies that aim to overcome natural forms of backwardness or barbarism, such as sexual discrimination or, even infibulation. That is because they believe that opposing such practices would destroy the cultural roots of an ethnicity – hence, its identity. At first glance, someone who defends the freedom of a student to wear hijab at school appears to be an open and democratic person, a guardian of personal freedom and individual rights.

This type of proposal by Nouvelle Droite, however, is only respectful of beliefs and customs – on the surface. In the name of the differences between cultures, considered irreconcilable, it proposes a form of “multiculturalism”, far from the idea of a ​​“melting pot,” where everyone mixes together in a large cauldron, and the various forms of hybridization and enriching cultural “crossbreeding” take place. Rather, this new proposal is but the creation of non-Western cultural islands in industrialized countries, whose purpose is just to avoid such confluence and communion. Pierre-André Taguieff notes that this logic, in the passage from race to culture, does not lose one gram of its prejudicial charge. This has been called differential racism, but the purposes of this discussion, which is centered on the neutrality of some currents of thinking about ideas and practices incompatible with human rights, we will call it differentialist indifferentism.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about cultural relativity that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Preventing Violent Extremism: Robert Örell Champions the Cause in Belgium

One of our board members, Robert Örell, who is also the director of Exit Sweden, recently participated in the European Commission’s RAN Steering Committee meeting. Its focus was on the Annual Activity Plan for 2018. Örell also presented at the conference of the Brussels practitioner network Ufungu.

Robert Örell - Advisory Board Member - Public Speaker and Extremism Expert - Stockholm, Sweden

Robert Örell

The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) of the European Commission is a EU wide practitioner network. Their aims are to share best practices, facilitate cooperation and develop practitioner-based policy recommendations to the EU member states. The ultimate goal is to prevent, respond to and counter violent extremism. Robert has been a member of the steering committee since 2011, and co-chairs the working group RAN Exit, which gathers practitioners who are interested in setting up, or have already set up, Exit work within the EU.

During the steering committee, representatives of the co-chairs of the nine working groups, together with the RAN Center of Excellence, discussed and finalized plans for the coming year’s activity. The RAN Exit working group will look at a number of specific areas, such as left-wing extremism and training for Exit workers, as well as learning from adjacent fields, such the issues of those leaving criminal gangs.

You can learn more about RAN and their activities, reports, events, and collection of best practices by visiting their webpage.

Robert Örell also presented the work and experiences of Exit Sweden to the Ufungu network, emphasizing the need for multi-agency cooperation, individual adapted interventions, as well as the important and challenging role of engaging ex-members in Exit work. The Ufungu (Swahili for key relations) network aims to gather practitioners, researchers, and policy makers engaged in the work of preventing and countering violent extremism (PVE/CVE) in the Brussels region. The network arranges conferences, where experienced researchers and practitioners share insights and experiences, with the goal of inspiring and motivating disengagement and Exit work within the Belgian context.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you seen Robert Örell’s TED talk, or his interview with advisory board member Chris Shelton? Do you have a story about preventing violent extremism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Chris Shelton and Robert Örell – “Let’s Stop Punching Nazis”

Our board member Chris Shelton interviews another one of our board members, Robert Örell, on his “Sensibly Speaking” podcast. They discuss Robert’s organization, Exit Sweden – Fryshuset, as well as discuss his expertise and experience in the world of extremist groups. They also tackle the difficult question of just why people join abusive groups, and discuss why violence – even against violent groups – is never the answer.

Chris’ interviews are always worth a listen, and this one is no exception!

Word of the Day: Manichean

Manichean comes from Manichaeism, a third-century Persian religion incorporating Christian, Zoroastrian, Pagan and Gnostic elements, but ultimately espousing an extreme worldview involving an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. In modern terms, Manichean refers to a dualistic philosophy incorporating black and white thinking, or simply a viewpoint which excludes, or even dismisses, the idea of any moral grey area.

Some years ago, I was having a tense conversation with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, whose lawyer was fighting off the collections department of a large corporation. The lawyer, who was working for free, had advised him to lie for a better chance of settlement (doubtless the lawyer used plausibly deniable language, as lawyers always counsel their clients to tell the truth). For me, it helped to shift this man’s role in my life from current to ex; it was the wrong moral choice to commit perjury, even when it was a “victimless” crime, and I told him, using far more direct language than his lawyer had.

“So, you just think we should all just roll over and let the corporations run roughshod over us?” he snapped.

Any student of debate will recognize this as a “straw man” argument, where an absurd over-exaggeration of the opponent’s viewpoint is used to denigrate their whole line of argument. Like the “slippery slope” fallacy, this form of false logic relies on the idea of black-and-white thinking, where something can be one or the other, but never both, and one is either willing to commit a felony for the “right” cause, or one is shaking hands with the enemy – there is literally no middle ground.

High-control groups and even abusive individuals often use Manichean thinking to create double binds with which to ensnare their victims: You’re either with us or against us; Either you toe the line and ignore your disbelieving family member, or Jehovah will be angry with you; Either you spend time only with me, or you’re an out of control slut; Either you think our leader is wonderful, or you hate our group and everything it stands for (and should be harassed as an enemy of all that is good and right).

Manichean thinkingNow, I could also be tasked with holding a “black-or-white” viewpoint in stating flatly that perjury is wrong, but although I cannot conceive of such a situation, I am willing to concede that it might – just might – be the acceptable moral choice, but it would have to be a very serious matter: such as if perjuring oneself was going to prevent, say, a genocidal massacre, or some sort of global disaster, or at the very least, keep them from making another “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel. Simply put, I am open for debate, even in hypotheticals.

A Manichean system, however, is never open for debate. Or, rather, believers will “debate” you happily, but there is no recognition of your views or your evidence. This is negative fervor, that zealous state where belief is all-encompassing and everything centers upon that belief. There is no room for other opinions or possibilities; speaking out against the abuses of a group is tantamount to a slap in the face to every member, having compassion for an enemy’s child is to let evil into the ranks, not shouting yourself hoarse at the rally means you don’t really believe in the Cause. It’s all or nothing, and you MUST commit completely; to do anything else is akin to treachery. As Yuval Laor says, the group or relationship is viewed like a child; it is a very bad idea to suggest that there is anything imperfect about a child to the child’s parent.

Once the world is so vastly simplified, any action, no matter how horrible out of context, becomes acceptable, even laudable, when committed for the perceived good of the group. Civil rights are suppressed, and whole populations are relegated to sub-humanity. Extremist, Manichean thinking is a foundation of undue influence.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about Manichean thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Robert Örell’s TED Talk – A Way Out From Violent Extremism

In the wake of this latest wave of extremist violence, our Advisory Board member Robert Örell sent us this link to his excellent 2016 TEDx talk. In the talk, he discusses how those recruited into extremist groups are drawn in while seeking community, and how recruiters for these organizations seduce intelligent, idealistic people into leaving the larger community, and bolstered with increasingly polarised thinking, elitism, and a sense of ultimate purpose, are weaponized into deployable agents of terror. Robert leaves us with a sense of hope, however, as he details the efforts of his group, Fryheuset Sweden, and other organizations, as they reach out to these individuals with friendship and compassion, and without judgment. He reminds us that anyone can be drawn into an extremist group – and that all of us can also leave and reclaim our place in the society.

The Comedian and the Communist Cult – a Review of Alexei Sayle’s “Stalin Ate My Homework”

stalin ate my homework cover

Comedian Alexei Sayle grew up in a communist household – but in Liverpool. Many people – and I do include myself – think of Alexei Sayle as the founder of British “alternative” comedy and one of the great artists of his time.

On stage, he often riffed on his childhood – as the creator of the first “Marxist-Leninist funk band”, for instance – but in the first volume of his autobiography, Stalin Ate My Homework, we find out what childhood in a doctrinaire pro-Soviet household was like back in the 50s and 60s.

The book opens with a six-year-old Alexei desperate to join his chums at the tenth anniversary relaunch of Disney’s Bambi. He knew that his parents wouldn’t approve (they “compromised” by taking him to see Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky!).

The book shines a light on the problems of second generation members (or “born-ins”) in any group – whether the views of the group are better than the culture around or not, the child is separated from the values of the society and will inevitably feel different. Sayle turned this to his advantage, but it was a very bizarre childhood.

As well as communism, Sayle had a second set of values to deal with: his mother was Jewish, but afraid to tell her own father that she had married out of the faith, in case she was ostracized. Some orthodox Jews “sit shiva” for any member who fails to follow the restrictions of the faith. The shunned person is thenceforth considered dead.

Sayle’s father, Joe, had to conceal his membership of the Communist Party, by direction of the Kremlin, so that he could infiltrate the British Labour Party. As Sayle remarks, “Though everybody understood that here was a man who was dedicated to introducing a one-party state in which government terror was a central tool for ensuring the dictatorship of the proletariat I would hear people say, ‘You couldn’t meet a nicer bloke than Joe Sayle.'”

His mother was a true believer, too: “Like Fundamentalist Christians who have to believe that every word of the Bible is true and those holy words were written by people who had no human foibles, so it was with Marxists like my mother. They only wanted to listen to messages that confirmed the things they already believed in written by authors who were ideologically pure … While I could leave pornography or alcohol lying round my bedroom I was forced to hide my copy of Brideshead Revisited in a secret compartment at the back of the wardrobe.”

Stalin Ate My Homework is a fascinating and at times hilarious account of an alternative childhood in post-War Britain. Read it and laugh.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Stalin Ate My Homework? Do you have a story about growing up with a totalist worldview that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

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