Let's face it: there is a certain perverse fascination in watching a group of unfeeling, self-absorbed fanatics fawning uncritically over an automaton-like, hyper-narcissistic leader with grandiose messianic pretensions. But that's enough about the last political convention. I'm actually talking about the hit TV series The Following. The series chronicles the dogged and arguably obsessive pursuit by former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) of a band of sociopathic serial killers led by their sociopath-in-chief and former American-lit professor / Poe scholar Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). The series, only slightly less violent and bloodthirsty than a typical Tarantino movie, is an extended cautionary tale of the dangers we always court when we abdicate our individual critical judgment in favor of blind faith and deliberately cultivated moral illiteracy. We would do well to consider it as such and to unpack its implications.
Without a single exception, Joe Carroll's followers are people who, though uniformly young and often affluent, are stuck with pathologically stunted and impaired personalities. (Think "Jim Jones / Jonestown / Guyana / Kool-Aid" here.) They are essentially younger versions of the "Duck Dynasty" people, only wearing Prada and driving Beemers. But on the great Freeway Of Life, they themselves are '73 Chevy Vegas running on fumes. Joe has a preternaturally unerring ability to find the chinks in his followers' existential armor, and to use these cracks as leverage to further Joe's overall strategic plan ... which seems to be to use as many of his followers as possible as agents to slaughter as many victims as possible as randomly as possible in as conspicuously violent a manner as possible. (One reasonable speculation is that Joe was blackballed from Hamas because of excessive terrorist propensities.) Joe accomplishes this bending of people to his will by (1) telling them that their various social- and psychopathologies are, in reality, badges of honor and martyrdom which may be used to (2) achieve Joe's great master plan of the liberation of the downtrodden ... through indiscriminate mayhem. So Joe goes Jesus one better: the last shall be first and the first shall be slaughtered, the only modest requirement being instant, unquestioning, and unconditional obedience to Joe.
The series is new, in fact, only in its second season, but the story is old -- in fact, archetypal.
- Hitler promises lebensraum, prosperity, liberation from the Treaty of Versailles, and a thousand-year Reich in return for instant and unconditional obedience to him.
- Muslim jihadist leaders promise their disciples Paradise in exchange for absolute obedience up to and including wearing and detonating a dynamite vest or flying airplanes into skyscrapers.
- God promises descendants the stars of heaven to a sterile couple who yearn for a son ... provided that submit to being tested, up to and including sacrificing their first born son (Genesis 22)
- Marx promised the liberation of the workers and a classless society that would grow out of participation in a worldwide revolution.
- Jesus promised intimacy with the long-awaited Messiah -- Himself -- in return for obedience: "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15:14).
One of the great archetypal motifs of the human condition is humans' perennial -- and perennially futile -- attempt to escape the responsibility of independent moral judgment by "outsourcing" ethical discourse and abdicating critical reasoning to Some Great And Infallible Outside Authority. Instead of grappling with moral issues for ourselves, we will -- so we tell ourselves -- swear fealty to the Authority, who will then make those decisions for us, and exalt us along with Her / Him / It in whatever apotheosis the Authority has planned -- we think ... because ... well ... gosh ... that's what we were told ... and, of course, the Authority would never lie to us ... right? ... right? ... right? The Authority may be Joe Carroll, God, Jesus, Chairman Mao, the Pope, the Fuehrer, the Dear Leader, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Oberman, the materialist dialectic of history, PETA, supply-side economics, or the ayatollah or televangelist du jour. Doesn't matter. Because it never works. Never. Oz the Great And Powerful always turns out to be a mousey little man behind a curtain speaking into a PA system, or a slick preacher in a $5,000 suit soliciting prostitutes on a dark street under an assumed name -- and so we always end up having to find our own way back to Kansas.
Thus we discover -- repeatedly -- that abdicating critical moral judgment by deferral to any -- repeat: any -- Authority merely renders morality itself impossible. Our determination to govern society "ethically" with reference to "biblical principles" merely ensures that we will "ethically" slaughter each other over whose version of "biblical principles" is right. Joe Carroll's fictional followers will willy-nilly discover this also -- the few that survive, that is -- and they will have that lesson in common with their real-life counterparts. We have eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and though the taste of the fruit is bitter, it is far too late to spit out the bite. We are on our own.
The young preacher once threw his Bible to the floor and yelled at his associates, "Too many people are looking at this instead of looking at me!" -- Jim Jones Time Magazine, December 4, 1978
Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana
James R. Cowles