How to cure a fanatic

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amosoz1A friend passed on a neat little book entitled, How to Cure a Fanatic by the Jewish novelist and political activist, Amos Oz. I highly recommend it. It only takes about 30-40 minutes to read and contains two essays, originally delivered as lectures:  “Between Right and Right” and “How to Cure a Fanatic.”

In the first essay, “Between Right and Right,” he argues that both parties in the Palestinian/Israeli dispute are “right”: both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate claim to the land, and the sooner they both see each other as at least partially right, the sooner real peace might be possible. As Oz notes, both Palestinians and Israelis view the land as the only place in the world they can legitimately call their own. Indeed, Palestinians and Israelis ironically are more alike than different because both are “hysterical refugees and survivors, haunted by dreadful nightmares.” Neither party has anywhere to go because they have been already chased out of everywhere else.   Consequently, Oz argues that the solution to the Palestinian/Israeli crisis is relatively simple, but very difficult to swallow. Using the metaphor of a divorce, he says, 

[This] is going to be a very peculiar divorce, because the two divorcing parents are definitely staying in the same apartment. No one is moving out. And the apartment being very small, it will be necessary to decide who gets bedroom A and who gets bedroom B and how about the living room; and the apartment being so small, some special arrangement has to be made about the bathroom and the kitchen. Very inconvenient. But better than the kind of living hell that everyone is going through now in this beloved country. (19)

Beyond the illuminating discussion of the Palestinian/Israeli question, the most important contribution Oz makes in this essay is his terribly important insight upon the word “compromise.” As he explains,

The word ‘compromise’ has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word ‘compromise’ means life. And the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need to compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. . . [and] I should tell you that this compromise will be very painful. (8)

In the 60’s, peace activists proudly declared, “Make love, not war.” Resisting the uncompromising idealism of this slogan, Oz instead offers the slogan,  “Make peace, not love.” In the context of the Middle East,  Oz is unconvinced that what Palestinians and Israelis need (as most liberal democratic idealist ‘outsiders’ think) are “greater understanding” of each other.  “A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after” (7). Thus, Oz is convinced that combatants don’t simply need to go for coffee more often until they “understand” each other, nor will any amount of “dialogue” solve the problem. On the contrary, any distant or faint hope of them “loving” one another will require them to settle the claim–as painful as it is–and partition out the apartment for the sake of a compromised peace settlement. Then, and only then, he says, might there be a chance that some might be willing to “hop over the partition for a cup of coffee together.” (20) In short, Oz argues that peace does not come about through dialogue, but dialogue only is made possible once peace has been established. And peace necessarily means compromise instead of holding fast to ideological convictions that can never be attained in the real world. (In this regard, Oz seems to sound a lot like the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr who also resisted ideological forms of pacificism in favour of concrete solutions in the here and now.)

As far as this first essay goes, I can only follow Oz half-way, even if I  follow him half-way whole-heartedly. I can only follow him half-way because I think he confuses the idea of “peace” with the important concept of “compromise” that he argues for (and which I particularly like). In this sense, I see Oz’s concept of compromise as parallel to the biblical idea of “forgiveness” (rather than peace) which means, “clearing the obstacles to peace and reconciliation.” For Oz, peace means the absence of war and conflict, though that, I believe, is only the “half-shalom/peace” of which Scripture speaks. For peace, in Scripture, means harmony and fecundity, not simply the absence of conflict. But nevertheless,  I applaud Oz’s ordering: Reconciliation (or what I would call a true biblical sense of peace/shalom) must start with compromise–with agreeing to draw the boundaries and stop the fighting so that, eventually, we might begin to see the possibility to “go for coffee” and perhaps begin to see signs of true peace and reconciliation emerge.

The second essay, “How to Cure a Fanatic,” I think, is even better and easier to summarize. Oz observes that the “essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change.” (57) And though he doesn’t come right out and say it in so many words, I couldn’t help but notice that fanaticism is therefore inherently paradoxical in that the very value or ideal for which the fanatic fights also becomes a tool in his or her hand to force that change upon the other. For example, “Do I know the anti-smokers who wil burn you alive for lighting a cigarette near them! Do I know the vegetarians that will eat you alive for eating meat.” And, we might add, “Do I know the pro-choice fanatics who will do everything to take away the choice of a child to live. And do I know the pro-lifers who will kill an abortionist to keep him from killing.” 

So what is the solution to fantacism? Oz refuses to dictate the solution, lest he fall into a fanatical stance himself, but he does suggest two things: 1) Humour; and 2) Reading good (though not all) literature. Why these two? In light of his suggestion that humour is a first line of defense against fanaticism, Oz says,

“I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor. . . [but] humor is the ability to see yourself as others may see you, humor is the capacity to realize that no matter how righteous you are and how terribly wronged you have been, there is a certain side to life that is always a bit funny. The more right you are, the funnier you become.” (65)

As for the importance of reading (good) literature (and I suppose that qualifier “good” begs the question of how to sort out the “good” from the “bad”), Oz points out that literature “contains  an antidote to fanaticism by injecting imagination into its readers. . . [Though literature] cannot work miracles, it can help. Shakespeare can help a great deal. Every extremism, every uncompromising crusade, every form of fanaticism in Shakespeare ends up either in a tragedy or in a comedy. The fanatic is never happier or more satisfied in the end; either he is dead or he becomes a joke. This is good inoculation.” (62-3)

If in fact Oz is right (and I have a gut feeling that he is on to some pretty important things here), I would suggest that Christians might profit from reading their Bible as the divinely inspired “literary comedy” that it is. For after all, what is the Bible but a book that shows the lunacy of human hubris and fanaticism in the light of God’s gracious overflow of joy? (In this regard, see Psalm 2). And though I believe the Bible is more than just literature, it is certainly not less than good literature.

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3 thoughts on “How to cure a fanatic

  1. This is an incredibly interesting summary and an enlightening review of Oz’s book. I can see the glimmers of practical wisdom in Oz’s points and yet through your differentiations between peace and forgiveness or compromise can see the godly wisdom that yet eludes his “cure”.

    Incidentally, while perhaps not as demanding on one’s own imagination as “good” literature, I have found “good” film to be an excellent antidote to “fanatacism” (or hyper-elitist religiosity, i.e. hypocrisy) in my own life. the imagination is triggered to see the world through another’s eyes, and empathy is raised. in the case of outright wrong this empathy shouldn’t justify wrong, or become a cop-out from seeking confrontation opportunities, but can help us understand how a person gets where they are, and enables an approach that is humble and empathetic even in what will ultimately likely require speaking the truth in love for the hopeful sake of peace. in the meantime, such empathy raised also enables forbearance, and self-awareness, and so on.

    And humour: “The more right you are, the funnier you become.” That’s a great line.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking review!

  2. Wow, David, great post. Thank you for writing. “Humor is the ability to see yourself as others see you.” What a thin line between being right and being self-righteous!

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