Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.
Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, New York, 2003, 210 pp., $12.95
Reviewed by: Rev. Walter Debold, Seton Hall University
Perhaps we could agree that a review of a serious book ought to answer four questions:
- Who is the author?
- What does he/she have to say?
- What does he/she mean?
- Is he/she persuasive?
For readers of the Cultic Studies Review there is hardly need to introduce Robert Jay Lifton. After a long and distinguished career in academe he is now a visiting professor at Harvard. In 1963 he authored the book that became most fundamental for our understanding of modern manipulative cults, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Later he gave us The Nazi Doctors and, more recently, Who Owns Death, the analysis of Aum Shinrikyo, the group which spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subway.
This latest book assesses what its jacket describes as “America’s apocalyptic confrontation with the world.” Anyone who has read Lifton before will see in this work both progress and consistency in his grasp of the intellectual virus which he labels “totalism.”
Those who may be apprehensive about what is evolving in modern society can, at least, be grateful that Lifton makes us aware of what is happening. He raises our consciousness and, maybe our conscience.
A quarter of a century ago a journalist, John Lukas, used the word, “totalitarian” to describe what he called the theme of the twentieth century. But long before that, Lifton, Louis Jolyon West and Margaret Singer had worked with recovered prisoners from the Korean War and observed the techniques by which their captors managed to turn their minds. Now, as we begin the twenty first century, Lifton adds the word “apocalyptic” to our vocabulary as he warns, “the apocalyptic imagination has spawned a new kind of violence.” (p. 1) Such a mentality attempts to offer us a “future” after the “end” and the author is warning us that “America finds itself at the epicenter of the apocalyptic contagion” (p. 8) and that “beneath its belligerence, I believe the country is enmeshed in a landscape of fear.” (xii)
The war which we have undertaken against terrorism is a manifestation of what Lifton is convinced is a “superpower syndrome,” a medical metaphor meant to suggest “aberrant behavior that is not just random but part of a more general psychological and political constellation.” (xii)
We have seen examples of this mentality in Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Osama Bin Laden, and Shoko Asahara, the leader of Aum Shinrikyo. All of them projected a new beginning after the annihilation of everything-even if that meant the death of all mankind. (p. 24). The Nazis came to “epitomize the principle of killing to heal, of destroying vast numbers of human beings as therapy for the world.” (p. 29)
We Americans are disturbed to see ourselves absorbed in a philosophy that Lifton calls “nuclearism” which enables us to perceive our atomic bomb as a “source of transcendent power, of life-sustaining security and peace-potentially life-saving as well as life-destroying…the bomb was to save the world from itself.” (p. 41)
The Maoist thought reform had “the apocalyptic aim of nothing less than the ownership of truth and reality-that is, the ownership of the mind and thus, inseparable from the ownership of death.” (p. 51)
If we see that word, “ownership” as one of Lifton’s favorite words it is because of the fact that he is fundamentally concerned with power, its use and abuse… Early in this book he had perceived our “cosmic ambition” which seeks not only to dominate history but to control it. (p. 3 and 122)
Ironically we are haunted by a fear of weakness. The wounded giant of “9/11” had attracted the sympathy of the world but that compassion under went a turnabout when we decided on a unilateral response. As Lifton says, “Our fear of being out of control can lead to the most aggressive efforts at total control of everyone else.” (p. 178)
We are meaning-hungry people as Lifton sees us and thus, he assists us by holding up a mirror for us to see ourselves against the background of the times and the contamination that surrounds us. He is hopeful: “I wrote this book in a spirit of hope, hope which is always bound up with the rush of imagination.” He is hopeful that we can step out of the superpower syndrome and thus cease being a nation ruled by fear. (p. 190)
That step will necessitate our surrender of the claim of certainty, of the ownership of truth and reality. (p. 196)
The author warns us that “the war on terrorism has no clear end.” (p.112) He sees a danger in the concept of a former CIA director that we are already in a fourth world war. (p. 114) No paragraph is more ominous than this one:
The Bush administration’s projection of American power extends not only over planet Earth, but through the militarization of Space over the heavens as well. Its strategists dream of deciding the outcome of significant world events everywhere. We may call this an empire of fluid world control and theirs is nothing less than an inclusive claim to the ownership of history. It is a claim never made before because never before has technology permitted the imagining of such an enterprise, however illusory, on the part of a head of state and his inner circle. (p. 175)
We are warned that the administration’s radicalism takes the form of aggressively re-making the world in an American image (p. 176) and that the hazards of this are compounded by our presumption that it is our mission to bring about what is ultimately God’s plan not ours. (p. 122)
Is Lifton persuasive? Yes, this reviewer is completely won by the book and its message. The author draws a deeper lesson from Lord Acton’s famous phrase in which he told us that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely: here we are persuaded that the very quest for and claim to absolute power is beginning of the corruption. (p. 190) Moreover, it becomes even more threatening when the Christian fundamentalist mindset blends with and intensifies our military fundamentalism.
In our defensiveness, sometimes, we can grow to resemble the worst aspects of the thing we oppose. As a result when we follow a leader with a sense of mission that empowers him to say, “I am in the Lord’s hands” and “there is a reason why I am here,” we may not appear very different from some of the worst of Islamic fundamentalists. (p. 119)
I am persuaded by a book that concludes with this counsel: “Were Americans to reject a superpower syndrome, they would also reject a claim to an exclusive American power over life and death. We could rejoin the world as fellow mortals and, in the process rediscover our all too fallible and fragmentary humanity for the precious gift it is.” (p. 199)