Dr. Jekyll, Meet Mr. Hyde: What Can Happen To a Gentle Person Under the Spell of Nationalism, Ideology, or Religion?

Andrew Sprung, at the Daily Dish today, has written what I would regard as an exceptionally important—and even seminal—little blog post reflecting on the Iranian Revolution (“Gentle mullahs transformed”). In it, he simply offers two quotes and a bit of commentary that concisely lay out how nationalism, ideology, and religion can very, very quickly—under the right pressures—turn otherwise gentle people into icy authoritarians of the spirit. Perhaps in accord with Robert Wright’s thesis, it doesn’t seem to be nationalism qua nationalism, or ideology qua ideology, or religion qua religion that are necessarily problems—every one of us adopts some sort of worldview and makes affiliations—but the feverish hysteria that can so abruptly overtake them. And it’s the true believer’s Jekyll and Hyde quality that is truly sobering.

It’s not every day that a blog post startles like this. It’s chilling to read, and a warning about our own political and religious culture. Money quote:

The uncanniness of this experience — watching gentle or at least ordinary people become murderous thugs — reminded me of a scene in Eric Maria Remarque’s Arc[h] of Triumph, set in Paris on the eve of World War II.  An American woman turns up in Paris, having just divorced her Austrian husband and left Vienna. Her debriefing:

     “It’s good to be back,” she said. “Vienna has become a military barracks. Disconsolate. The Germans have trampled it down. And with them the Austrians. The Austrians too, Ravic. I thought that would be a contradiction of nature: an Austrian Nazi. But I’ve seen them.”

     “That is not surprising, Kate. Power is the most contagious disease.”

     “Yes. And the most deforming. That’s why I asked for a divorce. This charming idler whom I married two years ago suddenly became a shouting stormtroop leader who made old Professor Bernstein wash the streets while he stood by and laughed. Bernstein who, a year ago, had cured him of an inflammation of tee kidneys. Pretending that the fee had been too high.”

There are many testimonials of that all-too-common experience of watching one’s neighbors or loved ones become butchers and thugs when greater thugs take over a country. And no country is immune.

Andrew Sprung’s association makes me think of one of my own: Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1997). But go read Sprung’s full post. It really is worth your time.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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