Not long after it was reported that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright blames “them Jews” for his estrangement from President Obama, a gunman opened fire in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
As if to prove August Bebel’s maxim that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” the suspect in the museum shooting created a Web site for his rantings against “Illuminati,” bankers, “JEWS-NEOCONS-BILL O’REILLY” — it’s all a conspiracy, you see.
Whereas the standard-issue socialist rants again capitalism, “greed” and “corporate America,” the anti-Semite concentrates his resentment more specifically. Like the socialist, the conspiracy-minded anti-Semite seeks an ironclad theory that explains what is to him otherwise inexplicable, most especially including his own insignificance or failure. It isn’t merely about disliking Jews; rather, it is about externalizing blame.
Externalizing blame is a natural psychological defense mechanism by which the ego protects itself from the negative feedback that psychologists describe as cognitive dissonance. We all wish to think well of ourselves, but for most of us, this positive self-image is regularly challenged by evidence that (a) we aren’t as wonderful as we might like to think, and (b) others hold us in lower esteem than we would wish.
A healthy mind responds to this cognitive dissonance by accepting personal responsibility for failure and taking positive measures toward self-improvement. Yet the pathological temptation — to deny our shortcomings, shield our self-image from negative feedback, and externalize blame on some scapegoat — is always present.
In its basic psychological motivation, then, anti-Semitism resembles the attitude of the whining ungrateful child who blames his own unhappiness or failure on a sibling, a parent, a classmate or a teacher. The brat steadfastly refuses to accept responsibility for his own actions and the consequences of those actions, no matter how patiently the true situation is explained to him.
By the same token, the man who imagines that “the Jews” are to blame for society’s ills cannot be persuaded by any contrary argument. The stubborn irrationality of the belief testifies to the important psychological function of the fallacy.
Both the Rev. Wright and the museum shooting suspect represent extreme examples of this. For the Rev. Wright, no amount of evidence can disprove his irrational belief that the 9-11 attacks were “chickens coming home to roost” — the necessary payback for America’s alliance with Israel. For Jim Von Brunn, belief in a sinister Jewish-Illuminati banking cabal was sufficient that he attempted to take hostage the Federal Reserve in 1981 and, if initial reports of today’s attack are correct, shot three people at the Holocaust Museum.
As media commentators and Internet pundits rush to assign blame for the museum shooting — Michelle Malkin has a round-up of the finger-pointing — it is important to understand what really caused this irrational violence. Von Brunn was no more a “right-wing” critic of U.S. monetary policy than the Rev. Wright is a “left-wing” critic of U.S. foreign policy. Their irrational beliefs transcend any ordinary policy criticism, instead representing the pathological result of extreme mental weakness.
That pathological temptation must always be resisted, and so whenever I seek the source of my own disappointments, the true scapegoat stares back from my mirror. It’s all my fault — because I suck.
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