There was an amazing post yesterday on the pitfalls of “mysticism” and pop occultism, by the always enlightening human rights attorney Scott Horton. It’s on his always worthwhile “No Comment” blog at the Harpers magazine site.
It makes points that ought to give many Quaker aficionados of that “mystic” path pause, an occasion to take off their fog-tinted spectacles and see the phenomenon more plainly in the light of history and social context.
Horton’s usual topic is torture and accountability. But he’s also done much legal work in central Asia, in the many former Soviet republics about which Americans (including me) know almost nothing.
Today’s post was about a new biography by British writer James Palmer, of a strangely remarkable (and abhorrent) Baltic nobleman-mystic by the name of Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, who led something of a “Lawrence-of-Arabia”-like struggle of the Mongolians against the Chinese at the time if the Russian Revolution.
Never mind the war and all that. Horton’s key exchange with author Palmer concern’s Ungern’s strange (but in many ways familiar) religious attitudes. Here it is:
Horton: You describe Ungern-Sternberg as a religious mystic who could be just as much at home in his native Lutheranism, in the Russian Orthodox church, or in Mongol-Tibetan Buddhism, but who was nonetheless a flaming anti-Semite. What produced these seemingly contradictory attitudes?
Palmer: Religious mysticism has never been incompatible with ethnic or religious hatred; the Byzantine eremites and stylites [desert hermit monks], for instance, would often spout the vilest anti-Semitic bilge from their caves and pillars. It’s a little like the Tom Lehrer lines from National Brotherhood Week–
“the Catholics hate the Protestants,
and the Protestants hate the Catholics,
and the Hindus hate the Muslims,
and everybody hates the Jews.”
There wasn’t, of course, any native tradition of anti-Semitism in the Asian religions that fascinated Ungern, but he saw them through the lens of the European occult heritage, which has a long and ugly streak of anti-Semitism in it; it’s all over Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley, for instance. This is partially the common-or-garden[variety] prejudice of Europe, at the time, and partially because of the obsession with conspiracies and secret powers, which lent itself well to anti-Jewish paranoia and fantasies of ritual murder, especially when you had material like the “Protocols” being produced. If you look at the popularity of The Da Vinci Code today, it’s the same phenomenon, only with Catholicism swapped out for Judaism (tapping on a very old and nasty legacy of fantasies about Catholicism in Protestant countries, but that’s another issue.)
The occult tradition also misappropriated several Jewish traditions, like qabala, and so, I think, there was some kind of need to discredit the people they’d stolen from. Then there’s that peculiar alliance between occultism and the right, because the right at the time was all about elitism, about the need for a small group that could control the wild masses, and that slotted in very well with occult thinking, which was all about special powers and secret groups of initiates. It’s not occult if everybody knows about it, after all. >>
Mysticism? For War?
Mysticism and ethnic/religious hatred? Mysticism and war? Mysticism anti-Semitism? Mysticism and an affinity for the authoritarian right?
But– but — how could this be connected in any way to our many fond memories of Jones & Brinton & Kelly & all the rest?
Well, when a closer, unsentimental look is taken, there’s lots to be learned here that will be as unsettling as some of the things US Quakers have recently had the chance to learn about the holes in our vaunted (mainly by us) “progressive” record on racial issues.
[Sigh.] Yes. It’s time, Friends, to wake up and smell the history.
Mysticism doesn’t have to be a ticket to the crazy right. But it’s no guarantee of anything forward-looking once the devotees emerge from their ecstasies.