Martin Luther, Nader, Early Christians and Other Reformers

After watching (sort of, I was multitasking) the PBS special on Martin Luther, I developed a theory about causes: every cause believes it is led by another Martin Luther. Most of the time, they are wrong.

What makes Martin Luther so remarkable is that he was a man of principles who was also immensely popular. I'm not sure I believe (nor did the scholars on the program) that his posting of the 95 Theses was quite as unplanned as Martin Luther later claimed, but I do believe that he didn't anticipate (any more than Galileo or for that matter, Socrates) the fall-out. He was just speaking his mind, what was everyone freaking out for?

Frederick the Wise of the German states (Saxony) protected Martin Luther, mostly, as far as I can tell, to tick off the pope. And then everyone got in on the act. Martin Luther's works were published alongside engravings which made it possible for non-(Latin)-educated people to get the gist. When he journeyed to appear before Emperor Charles V, he was greeted along the way by everyday folk who thought Martin Luther was on the right track (or just didn't like the Borgia popes—well, who did?).

And I think that most reformers or cause-mongers think that this will happen to them. Like when Philip of Spain was going to force England back into the Catholic fold with the help of all those English Catholics. Except it turned out that English Catholics still preferred a heretic English king to a Catholic Spanish one. And Marx and his followers preached for years that the proletariat would rise in disgust at their awful capitalist masters, and that never happened. Yet every dreadful Hollywood movie about a U.S. President has postulated that a liberal president would be ever so popular in exactly this same way: as soon as FOX News stops lying to everyone, the American people will rise up and demand, I say DEMAND, universal health care.

And I think these hopeful reformers miss a basic point, which is that Martin Luther was far more Rush Limbaugh than Ralph Nader. That is, Martin Luther wasn't preaching some new fangled way of looking at the world which, if only everyone could grasp (or be educated properly to believe), would bring about a new order. Martin Luther was preaching what a bunch of people already thought. More importantly, he was preaching the conclusions that he had come to by reading the scriptures; they were his ideas, it didn't matter to him whether people agreed with him or not, he still would think he was right. (Kind of like Socrates which is why, as my brother Joe would point out, these guys end up getting killed. Institutions can only take so much in-your-face individualism before they snap and start burning people.)

In other words, real reformers don't spend a lot of time remarking on how popular they should be. It seems to me that a cause (or a religion) is like a train. If you're on the train, you're on the train. You're writing down your thoughts or bouncing over rough ground to be questioned before a tribunal or holed up in a tower thinking the devil is coming to get you or annoying despots, but whatever you're doing, you're so busy being on the train, you have little time to notice much more than that the train is moving and occasionally, where the train is moving towards.

But pseudo reformers spend a lot of time hopping off and on the train and trying to generate applause and critiquing the train and telling other people how thoroughly marvelous it all is and how oppressed they are for being on the train in the first place. And saying silly things like, "Well, it might not run or look good but when it reaches its destination, it'll be great" which is what a Marxist tried to tell me in college. That is, they are entirely wrapped up in the idea of the cause, the idea of being able to generate a sudden gust of praise and support. Like environmentalists who print thousands and thousands and thousands of pamphlets to tell you how important it is for you to conserve paper. What attracts them is less the matter of fact business of, well, in Luther's case, saving his eternal soul but rather the idea that other people might, should, will agree with them. (Even disagreement is okay since it means they are MAKING A DIFFERENCE and HAVING IMPACT and GETTING THE WORD OUT THERE, but it is still all about reaction, not about content.)

Pragmatists, early Christians, capitalists and the founding fathers believed this ground swell of agreement would never, ever happen and even if it did, it shouldn't. They believed that people are motivated, mostly, by self-interest. Madison believed this so much, he postulated that America has to be very, very big to avoid being ruled by small, self-important groups (he was right). When the first Christian apostles did preach about being virtuous and looking at the world a new way, they followed up their preaching by saying things like, "Oh, and by the way, believing this will get you killed. Not everyone wants to hear this." And they didn't see this admission as wrong-headed or even cynical. The early Christians believed it inevitable that "many are called but few are chosen," and the founding fathers considered self-interest an excellent quality. They thought it a positive that the average American citizen would not be swayed--comme ci, comme ├ža--by the latest call for reform (although Americans are remarkably well-adept at taking on changing mores and customs).

And I think sometimes that a failure to understand the positives of self-interest is why the Democratic/Liberal party has trouble in elections (with the exception of Clinton who understood self-interest very well); they keep waiting for this magical ground swell, and it doesn't happen. That is, Ralph Nader really does think that people want to support him, they LOVE him, they just, I don't know, forgot to go to the polls. (Contrast this to the Libertarians who are positively cavalier about their chances of success: Hey, we lost again. Of course, we did!) This is why the Democrats/Liberals are so sure that any loss must be the result of media corruption; it's the only thing that can explain the lack of ground swell. The people want to rise, they just . . . got busy voting on American Idol. Evil media. (I should note that all this doesn't mean Democrats and Liberals aren't self-interested; believe me, they are; but they think that if they say they aren't, then they aren't and that people who admit to being self-interested are distasteful; it's all very British stiff-up-lipish.)

Lesson: if you want to reach people's hearts, tell them what they already think. If you want to save their souls, stop caring whether they will agree. Most of them won't anyway.

CATEGORY: HISTORY & LEARNING

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