"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 24, 2014

The True Believer–Life In The Fast Lane Of Progressive Causes

A lot has been written on conspiracy theories and why so many people subscribe to them.  The Freudian school sees ego and superego conflicts ending in external resolution (aliens, Armageddon).  Social psychologists feel that the resort to unproven and improvable theories is a result of alienation, a lack of empowerment, and the loss of a sense of entitlement. Cognitive theorists suggest that those who believe in strange, improbable happenings simply have loose wiring in their hippocampus; and behaviorists predicate a loss of lack of reason on repeated illogical reinforcement.



While all these theories are reasonable, there has been no effective treatment for what is distinct type of mental disorder. What hope is there for people who believe that the Soviets are behind the universal fluoridation of American drinking water because fluoride has a mind-addling quality that increases receptivity to Marxist-Leninism? Is there anyone who doubts that the one-in-seven Americans who believe that Armageddon is coming within our lifetime belong in the loony bin? Or that those who believe that President Obama is a Muslim Black Nationalist brainwashed by the International Zionist Conspiracy and the Trilateral Commission to destroy the United States from within shouldn’t be shipped to a Siberian institutional gulag?  We simply have to live with these lunatics, roll our eyes as one cockamamie theory after another rolls through the Internet, and take the dark side of American exceptionalism along with the light.



Babbidge Holmes was not a conspiracist but a true believer in reasonable causes. He was an ardent environmentalist who tirelessly fought for clean water, clean air, and a nuclear-free environment.  He believed that women had enough ‘bumps on the noggin’ after so much banging the glass ceiling and joined women’s groups, academic caucuses, feminist associations, and the progressive wing of the Chamber of Commerce. 



He was for equal-pay-for-equal-work, taking Walmart, Target, and other big box stores to task for their meager benefits and pitiful wages; became an officer of Save Our Parks, a non-profit agency dedicated to the return of national parkland to the wild, and for the reestablishment of wolves, grizzlies, and even wolverines throughout Yellowstone and Yosemite. The decline of rockfish and local oysters in the Chesapeake Bay was a tragedy that must be stopped.  As far as the granddaddy of social causes – Global Warming – he was as committed and tireless as Rachel Carson.


As reasonable and popular as these causes might be, if one were to look at Babbidge Holmes through the various cognitive, behavioral, and Freudian lenses referred to above, he would be no different than any conspiracy theorist. When disaggregated into composite pieces, each cause itself was an expression of an American can-do idealism and a belief in progress and secular salvation.  Adherence to any one of the many social movements popular today would be no more than a happy confluence of humanism, idealistic illogic, and irrational exuberance. No harm done.

Taken as a whole, however, Babbidge Holmes’ activism was unhinged.  He had no time for his friends, family, or church.  There was no balance in his life; no proportionality.

Most social activists have chosen to work under a big tent, understanding as they do the principles of economies of scale and efficient management. Since global warming is a result of predatory capitalism; materialism, and venal self-interest; and since such self-serving institutions will ultimately bring the whole house down , all causes are welcome.  Fighting against global warming as an integrated whole means that all progressive vendettas can be carried out under one aegis. If there were more women in power to keep male egos kept in check, the country would adopt a more nurturing and caring view of the planet.  If capitalism could be tamed and reformulated into a ‘dynamic socialism’ which tended to the poor and needy while harnessing the energy of small, family-owned enterprises. If Christian faith-based community action groups could be brought even more fully into the mainstream, then the fundamental generosity of Jesus Christ would finally be realized on earth.


In other words, one size fits all. Raise the banner of Global Warming and everyone will enter the tent of Women’s Rights, Fair Housing, and good benefits for all.

Babbidge Holmes never was tempted by the progressive big tent. He wanted no part of universal suffrage, no grab bag of environmental and social party favors.  He wanted an undiluted, mainstreamed, full-bore charge of energy and decisiveness for each and every cause that he espoused; and because of this quasi-religious zeal, went around the bend.

Babbidge of course had met Bob Harkins, one of the most respected leaders of the progressive movement in America and the one to whom all comers turned to for advice, counsel, and support.  He was a Big Tenter par excellence and devised ingenious financial instruments to centralize donor funds. Everyone with a gripe, whether it be against the One Percent, Wall Street, Walmart, or the XL Pipeline, contributed the The Global Warming Fund of America.  Harkins was a PR genius who understood the wisdom of what he called ‘idea collectivization’. By identifying and stressing the links between the many and variegated progressive causes in America and proudly raising the Global Warming banner overall, he made millions. He was the best carny barker that America had ever produced.  “Come one, come all”, he shouted and pointed at the great multicolored circus tent behind him.  “Its all inside, my brothers and sisters.  Salvation for you and the world.”


Harkins, calculating how he could harness the indefatigable energy of Babbidge Holmes and send him out with his forward legions into America, invited him to the corporate headquarters of the Global Warming Fund. It was a ten-story warren of individual action committees, so numerous that an annotated Building Directory, complete with electronic interface capability was installed in the lobby.  Everyone was reaching out to their constituencies but sharing facilities and benefitting from common photocopying operations, accounting services, and HR support.  Under Bob Harkins’ management, the Fund not only made millions for each group, but millions more in overhead and profit for the mother company.  Similarly, the stable of lawyers on the tenth floor developed and monitored sophisticated tax firewalls while the investment counselors on the ninth worked with Wall Street to confection the latest in financial instruments.  It was a goldmine.


Babbidge was a stubborn boy as a child, his mother often complained, and he was a pigheaded fool as an adult.  Even the promise of easy millions and the concerted efforts of thousands for all his causes could not convince him.

But Babbidge Holmes was neither reasonable nor unethical.  Every social and psychological force exerted irresistible pressure on him to be a true believer, a laborer in the vineyards, a soldier in a crusading army.  He had to be a whirling dervish of social causes, not a bureaucrat.  Also he was not into bilking people out of their money, and Bob Harkins’ late-night TV appeals were exploitative and immoral.  If a tarpaper shack black family in the Piedmont of North Carolina was willing to give him ten dollars after they had heard his personal, tearful, and honest appeal, there was no foul.  But in the hands of the master snake-oil salesman Bob Harkins, money given was simply money taken.

The moral of this story is that social causes are good for the mind, soul, and pocketbook.  History has amply shown that the world does not progress, that one execrable human event is always followed by another; one depredation of resources and wealth is always followed by another even more callous and ingenious.  Wars follow wars, deprivation follows plenty, floods follow drought, and the engine of human nature never loses steam.

If the evidence is so clear – that human activity hasn’t made the world a better place after ten millennia – then it isn’t likely to any time soon.  Investment in social causes, then, is counter-intuitive. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky’s Devil had the right idea – the expression of human will is the only possible validation of existence in a meaningless world.  In other words, stop going to Save the Bay meetings, and have some fun.  Or as importantly focus on your own spiritual evolution before it is too late.

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