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Why fundamentalism often sounds the same regardless of ideological underpinnings

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In a recent issue of Granta Magazine, which is published in the UK, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, a New York playwright, writes about growing up with two parents who were members of the Socialist Workers Party. These are the people you see handing out The Militant in front of grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods.

It's a great story, very well written and sensitive. The guy has a right be be angry at his upbringing, but he approaches the subject with admirable restraint and care, perhaps in itself as a larger act of rebellion against his otherwise without-restraint parents.

One passage struck me as profoundly interesting, where he expounds on how his father approaches and understands the ideology beneath his socialism.

‘Have you read The History of the Russian Revolution?’ my father asks me.

‘I haven’t read that, Pop.’

‘Trotsky write about how the revolution began with the seamstresses. Do you have a copy? Next time I’ll bring you a copy. Don’t start with chapter one. Start with chapter six.’ And as if reciting poetry, he says, ‘The struggles of the seamstress are like rising suns for the world to see.’

My father knows nothing about the history of seamstresses, of course. He’s never read a book about them, or seen a film, or gone to the library to look up an article. He just knows implicitly. Lack of knowledge, however, is not a deterrent for him. My father will often hold forth on the largest of subjects: the social evolution of human beings since Homo habilis, the materialist underpinnings of ancient civilization, the French Revolution. The subjects he chooses are so vast, so breathtaking, that you could fail to realize how hollow the information is that he imparts. Try mentioning, for instance, the artificial divisions imposed on the Arab world after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and he will stare at you blankly. But he can speak about imperialist oppression of the Middle East in general terms with great verve and for many hours. It’s his job. He is a socialist missionary among proletariat savages and every discussion presents itself as a possible opportunity for conversion. It doesn’t matter if he himself knows the intimate details of the topics he expounds upon, his concern is with truth. He has heard things said by comrades about the seamstresses who have heard things said by other comrades, and he can understand that they are more than likely correct, that they do now demand a major reordering of the world as he perceives it. Beyond this hearsay, though, he has never ventured independently. Such exploration would be redundant and a waste of time.

My mother’s bookcase did indeed contain a copy of The History of the Russian Revolution. I never read it though. There were also books by Lenin, Marx and Engels, as well as by leading members of the Socialist Workers Party, Farrell Dobbs, James P. Cannon, Jack Barnes. Those I never read either […] I would, however, look at the titles when I played with my toys on the floor and wonder what they meant and what was inside. When I opened them to see if there might be pictures to entertain me, I discovered that the covers, the spines, the pages were still stiff and fresh. The books had never been opened by my mother. The titles were all you needed to know.

I love this idea of breathtaking subjects, astonishing and wide-scoped, full of so much breadth that you don't realize how little depth they posess. I think it's what characterizes fundamentalism in various forms. It's the allure of sweeping generalizations, how comforting they are, the comfort of the quasi-religious pursuit that is so singular in purpose, it need not be concerned with "intimate details" and complex realities that slow it down. This is always reckless. It's a pursuit of Truth that isn't much concerned with truth.


    Anonymous bob 

    Hi, interesting piece. Somethings bothering me though. If all these fanatical types are shallow and not very sensible, how come all we more intelligent reasonable types can't run rings around them, and have to resort to crude bullying tactics?

    Anonymous Anne 

    Bob's got a point.

    Great post, Blake--I haven't read Granta in a while & you're making me hungry to.

    There's a very funny-tragic bit in Orwell's _the Road to Wigan Pier_ on a related topic: the irritating know-it-all know-nothing-ness of unemployed men who spend all their days reading newspapers. I think about that sometimes when I hear myself, after a day home writing, spouting off about NPR and the NYT.....

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  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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