For most of human existence, the great conflict was between ordered civilization and chaotic barbarism. The Bronze Age societies had to contend with barbarians from the north. The Greeks and Romans had to deal with various barbarian tribes to their north and east. Medieval Europe had to deal with the Viking raiders and the Mongol invaders from the east. Then there were the Muslim invasions from the South that threatened Christendom. The story of the West has been the story of fighting barbarians.
By the time the West reached the Enlightenment, barbarian invasion was a thing of the past. In fact, it was inconceivable. The Nordic people were just as settled as the rest of Europe. Their days of raiding and pillaging were over. The idea of Asian tribes crossing through Russian into Europe was equally ridiculous. Of course, the Muslims had been beaten back and were no longer a threat. In fact, it was the West that was now heading south into the Middle East and Africa. The barbarians were no longer an issue.
Instead of organizing to keep the barbarians from coming over the horizon, it was the West sailing over the horizon to conquer the barbarians. The thing is though, all those years of organizing to defend civilization from the barbarians, however one wants to define the terms, meant a degree of internal vigilance. There could be no tolerance of internal actors and actions that weakened the social and political structures. Civilization was a near run thing so anything that weakened the West internally could not be tolerated.
The Catholic Church gets a bad rap for being intolerant of science during the Middle Ages, but that’s mostly left-wing nonsense. In an age when dissent could pull the support posts out from society, intolerance of troublemakers made a lot of sense. Of course, from the perspective of the secular rulers, a theological consistency, one that supported the order atop which they presided, was seen as essential. Anything that threatened the internal logic of the social order, even unintentionally, had to be treated very seriously.
That meant an extreme intolerance of religious fanatics. The post the other day about the Flagellants is a good example. The Church and secular rulers suppressed the movement because their fanaticism threatened order, by questioning the legitimacy of the Church. After all, if God was punishing people with the plague, that implied the Church was not on good terms with the Almighty. Throw in the fact the Flagellants were preaching about a coming age of bliss and it is easy to see why the Church suppressed them.
The point is, the West was good at policing the ranks for fanatics, because they had no choice. The very real threat from beyond the borders coupled with the fragility of the feudal order meant anyone coloring outside the lines was a mortal threat. As the alien threats receded, the need to impose a uniform intellectual order receded with it. While it resulted in a great intellectual flourishing in the West, it also let all the fanatics off their leash. The result is the West has been convulsed by fanaticism since the Enlightenment.
That’s how you have to look at radical ideologies like Marxism. These theories defy observable reality and imagine something that has never existed. There’s simply no way for a sober minded person to accept the idea of the worker’s paradise. Only a true believer is willing to commit their life to something that has never existed on earth. It is the same cognitive tool set that allows someone to think they can appeal directly to God or conjure miracles, simply because they believe. The fanatic is the fuel of radicalism.
In The Inequality of Man, the great natural scientist J. B. S. Haldane argued that fanaticism was a Judaic-Christian invention. That’s most certainly wrong, but he was not wrong to think it had been a feature of mankind for a long time. It is the fuel that drives a people to build a great culture. As we saw in the last century and now in our present age, it is also the fuel of great raging destruction. Other than allowing the rage of the fanatics to run its course, no one has yet to come up with a way to meet the challenge of the true believer.
That really is the challenge of this age. Lacking anything resembling a unified religion, our overabundance of fanatics are free to indulge in whatever is handy. One minute they are threatening order if gays are not allowed to marry. The next minute they are tearing down the borders, inviting in the barbarians our ancestors pushed over the horizon. It’s as if some strange mind virus is sweeping our societies, turning the afflicted into berserkers, beyond the reach of reason. As a result we edge closer and closer to collapse.
What’s happening in America, at least, is a replay of what happened in the Pennsylvania colony at the founding. The eastern part of the state was home to many fanatics, convinced they were part a project to immanentize the eschaton. To the west were the borderland people, living in the hills as pre-settled people. In between was where the civilized people lived, just looking to live peaceful, orderly lives. Eventually the middle aligned with the east to keep the hillbillies in the west from overrunning the middle.
To a great degree, this was true for the country as a whole. The emotional energy of the crazies, mostly located in the northeast, fueled the expansion across the continent. The Indians never stood a chance, not because of technology, but because the pale face was driven by a sense of destiny. It powered the northern conquest of the South and the expansion of America into a global power. It came with a price. Just as Pennsylvania is still dominated by Philadelphia, America remains captive to the Northern crazies.
That said, geography kept the crazies on their leash into the 20th century, with the exception of the Northern invasion of the South. As technology made it possible for the fanatics to extend their reach into every corner of the country, the threat of nuclear annihilation forced a degree of discipline on the elites. With that gone, the fanatics were free to run wild, pulling at every support beam and cable they can find. That’s where we find ourselves today. There are no barbarians at the walls, just our own fanatics.
If the West in general and American in particular, is going to survive this age, it will mean coming up with a way to control the fanatic. Perhaps it will mean finding a DNA test to look for the lunacy gene or simply change the culture to fear fanaticism. We were once willing to do what had to be done to ward off the barbarian. Maybe we learn how to cull our herd in order to remove the crazies, no matter how unpleasant. Civilization lies between the barbarian and the fanatic. Both must be tamed if we are to survive.