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2005-09-09

On the buffoon system 

Norm Geras discusses interesting questions in a post titled "Following the absurd". He starts from remarks about Hitler, who can seem 'absurd' or 'inspire laughter' at a personal level - how did it happen that so many people willingly followed such a figure into the abyss of Nazi rule? But Geras's main concern is to apply this problem to our time:
It's possible there are political leaders of such manifest intelligence, dignity and other admirable qualities that they couldn't possibly appear as absurd - buffoons - within any framework of belief. I'm not sure. However, given what we know about how much systems of human belief have accommodated that is utterly preposterous (in light of available evidence, that sort of thing), there seems no great obstacle in the way of absorbing the fact that a figure of absurd appearance within one framework of belief should appear within another as someone to be followed, even worshipped. Belief systems that can clothe absurdities in the garb of unquestionable truth will surely have no more difficulty in presenting otherwise laughable figures as the representatives or incarnations of that truth.

One doesn't need to refer to the past, or to one of the most atrocious episodes in the historical record, to see this. Consider how many people there are worldwide right now looking towards a would-be religious leader who on any basis of testable knowledge appears grotesque - looking to him as a heroic, inspiring figure. And for all those who are his followers or supporters, there are others who are excusers, since between things of definite colour there will always be shades of accommodation and indulgence. On a lesser scale, we have today in this country a politician possessing many of the qualities of a buffoon - to speak only of those - and there were enough people willing to campaign and vote for this man at the last general election to secure him a seat in parliament at the expense of a better, non-buffoon, candidate. There were even, at the time, voices from the centre-left telling us that his victory was something to be celebrated.

To my mind, the thing in need of explanation is not how buffoons can appear as leaders worthy of being followed, but what the conditions are (if these can be theorized in general terms) that encourage absurd belief on a wide scale.
I think I can identify enough such 'buffoons' on a smaller scale in the Austrian political system, and across party-lines. Their relative success puzzles me. The best explanation I have is that these people manage to build a mutual relationship with a relatively large group of supporters, such as party-members, who appreciate the buffoon due to a certain - often irrational - belief the supporters hold or a personality feature they share, to which the buffoon caters. Starting from humble beginnings, the volatile and attention-craving buffon recognises that he receives positive feedback on a certain point, and over time he adapts his behaviour and becomes conditioned to act in a way so that more and more of this positive feedback will flow in his direction. In turn, his initially disparate audience comes to recognise in him a perfect representative of its cause. At this point, his personal absurdity makes him only more remarkable. The presence of a pure representation yields credence to the cause, and a group of followers rally around the buffoon. The process will work most effectively for causes that are ultimately undefendable in rational discourse, and the buffon system will end up removing its central cause from that domain and become self-contained and immune to argument.

To prevent a late catastrophic outcome when the buffoon comes to power and fails, his peers at early stages must try to stop him as soon as possible, when he is still vulnerable.


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