There was a remarkable moment at this year's Miami Book Fair that was caught on C-Span. David Reiff, a journalist who had just published a book on humanitarianism, was sitting at a table with Christopher Hitchens, a journalist who is one mugging away from full-bore conservatism. The very liberal crowd kept coming tot he microphone during the Q and A and making speeches comparing George Bush and the Republicans to the Nazis. Finally, Reiff could take it no more. I remember, almost exactly, what he said in a slow, pained voice: "Those of you who applaud when someone compares George Bush or John Ashcroft tot he Nazis need to regain your equilibrium. It's an obscene comparison. Go home and read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."
I took Reiff up on his offer. I had read large chunks of William Shirer's classic history of Nazi German, but never straight through. When I did I was absolutely stunned by how relevant Nazi analogies are today - that is, as applied to the utopian left, which was my home before I returned to the Roman Catholic Church.
Most people forget that Hitler got his start in the German Workers Party, a socialist organization of only a handful of members. Among them were Gottfried Feder, an engineer and crackpot in the area of economics. Feder's big project was to abolish interest, or what he called "speculative" capitol. He was joined by Anton Dexler, a man Shirer describes as having "an independent but narrow and confused mind." Another was Ernst Roehm, a stocky man who had part of his nose shot off in World War I. Shirer describes Roehm as "a tough, ruthless, driving man." (Shirer also makes the unfortunate gaffe of noting that Roehm "was, like so many of the early Nazis, a homosexual." Of course, Hitler murdered thousands if not millions of gays when he came to power.) Roehm was the one responsible for the "terror and intimidation" of the early movement. Another character was Dietrich Eckart, a bohemian poet, journalist and morphine addict. Shirer sums up: "murderers, pimps.drug addicts or just plain rowdies were all the same to [Hitler] if they served his purposes.
It also sound like the kind of folks I used to hang out with during my own bohemian days in the 1980s. I was a hard-core leftists, atheist and self-styled bohemian. Like all totalitarians I was a utopian - I knew that things would get better if we could only get rid of certain people. In my case those people were Christians and Republicans. In the meantime, of course, there were ways to snatch a foretaste of Nirvana - through drugs and sex - although I should say that my drug of choice was always alcohol by the wagonload; pot made me vomit and cocaine gave me panic attacks.
It's important to note here that my belief, like today's angry utopians, did not mean a had an eye toward seeing heaven after I was gone. My religion, like so many of the misguided before me, was to create that heaven here on earth. Of course, such a thing is not possible, and I'll never forget the night I began to understand that. It was the middle of the winter and I had been out all day at a protest against one of President Reagan's policies (like so many young radicals, I was so spoiled and mad at the world anything would have done.) Then I had gone to a bar, gotten drunk and high, and was sitting there ruing the terrible unfairness of the world when I felt a tap on the shoulder.
It was a man I'll call John, a friend I had known since we were in high school. We had gone to an all boys Catholic school in Maryland together. He was home in Washington on break from college. We had a beer together, and I began to notice something - he wasn't angry. Moreover, he didn't take me seriously. Like all my buddies from that school - bless them - they thought my detour into the left was something of a joke. They new me as the guy who loved rock and roll and girls and wouldn't hurt a cockroach. Whenever I was around them and would get on my soapbox the eyes would start to roll and I would be cut down with a quick one liner. There was one guy who would only speak Latin when I started making a speech. Another asked me how many other anarchists were afraid of their girlfriend. (There was one time, however, that I was met with stone silence: the time while on a beach vacation I quoted Anton LaVay of the Church of Satan. My fathomless stupidity and blasphemy make me embarrassed to this day.)
In short, these ignorant, jocular Catholic boys who knew nothing about nothing knew me better than I knew myself - and knew more about human nature and grace and enjoying life besides. Their mirth was not silly or superficial, but. Like the wit of Chesterton, grounded in wisdom at the limits of being human.
The more John l laughed at my prolix, left-wing logorrhea, the angrier - and the drunker - I got. Eventually it was time to leave and he insisted I leave my car there and spend this night at his house. When we got back there his father was still up. We sat around the kitchen table talking. I started giving another speech when his father asked me something. "Tell me, Mark," he said, "what is your idea of a perfect world?"
I just looked at him. "What?"
"You're God," he said. "You can do anything you want. Tell me what you would do."
I just sat there. He had me. Here I had a chance to create that earthly paradise I dreamed of, yet I couldn't figure out how to do it without eliminating those people who stood in my way. I would have to wipe out human freedom.
I didn't realize all of that right away. I just knew that for the first time in a while, I didn't have an answer. It has taken me more than ten years to realize what I moment of grace I was experiencing, how unspeakably blessed I was to have a decent Christian man like John as a friend. I was drunk, bitter and full of sin, and he had taken me in.
I now understand that I was a totalitarian, and that, like most atheists I didn't disbelieve in God but hated Him. I hated Him because I refused to accept that in the very weaknesses of my human nature was the key to freedom - that the suffering and stupidity of the world was to be experienced as a sharing of the passion of Christ, and turned into something good - and that in that transformation lied a high the likes of which no drink or joint had ever given me.
I recently came across something written by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the most brilliant fathers of the Roman Catholic Church. It pierced my heart with its beauty and wisdom and opened a window onto my misguided radical youth. In his book Turning Point for Europe Cardinal Ratzinger draws a link between terrorism and drugs:
"Terrorism point of departure is closely related to that of drugs: here, too, we find at the outset a protest against the world as it is and the desire for a better world. On the basis of its roots, terrorism is a moralism, albeit a misdirected one, that becomes the brutal parody of the true aims and paths of morality. It is not by chance that terrorism had its beginning in the universities, and here once again in the milieu of modern theology, in young people who at the outset were strongly influenced by religion. Terrorism was at first a religious enthusiasm that had been redirected to the earthly realm, a messianic expectation transposed into political fanaticism. Faith in life after death had broken down, or at least had become irrelevant, but the criterion of heavenly expectation was not abandoned: rather, it was now applied to the present world. Disgust at the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of our society, yearning for what is completely different, the claim to unconditional salvation without restrictions and without limits - this is the religious component in the phenomenon of terrorism."
Ratzinger then notes that "what is superficially called Islamic fundamentalism found no difficulty is associating itself with socialist ideas of liberation: Islam is presented as the true bearer of the struggle of oppressed peoples for freedom." This is the lie of every brand of utopianism, whether left or right. I just thank God I escaped.