, Salem, MA


October 20, 2012

Watson: Fanaticism is blind to tolerance and compromise

Fanaticism has been on full display recently. A month ago, after the YouTube video mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammed was seen by conservative Muslims, they demonstrated in the streets, attacked American embassies, called for death to the filmmaker, and generally condemned Western cultural norms.

One week ago, Pakistani Taliban boarded a school bus to assassinate Malala Yousufzai, a well-known 14-year-old schoolgirl who had been speaking out against the oppression and unreasonable rigidity of the stricter interpretations and applications of Islamic law.

These are fanaticisms carried to their worst extremes. But there are lesser fanaticisms and fundamentalisms at play all around our troubled world.

I just watched the current movie, “The Master,” which is a timely depiction of one man’s small-bore fanaticism. This movie won’t be for everyone — it is unrelentingly grim and depressing, and the characters in it are repugnant.

The main character — the fanatic “master” — has developed a philosophy and theories with which to explain our dysfunctions and unhappiness. Only if we open up to all of our experiences, fears, repressed desires, and past lives, will we transcend our limitations and achieve something like nirvana, wholeness, freedom, and joy, he says.

He has written a book titled “The Cause” (of course), which loyal followers should read to understand “the one true path.” The book deliberately does not answer all of the followers’ questions, because the master must reserve some mystery, knowledge, and power for himself. Later in the movie, he publishes a second book, in which he reveals hitherto secret knowledge. He says that he can be generous with his insights.

The master travels from city to city with a small entourage and lectures to quiet groups in living rooms or small public spaces. His influence is very limited.

Parallel to this story — and sort of tenuously woven into it — is the story of an alcoholic bum who blows into and out of the fanatic’s entourage. The bum is mentally damaged, often violent, and absolutely irremediable.

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