The November 29 issue of The New Yorker is an intriguing juxtaposition of our tendency to demonize and canonize both the undeserving and the unsuspecting. "Far-Flung Correspondent" Lauren Collins reports on economist Raj Patel's dismayed reaction to his identification by fanatics and/or practical jokers as "Maitreya the World-Teacher," the messianic personage whose public appearance has been prophesied for decades by Benjamin Creme, one of our time's more persistent crackpots. You've probably seen some of his literature left in libraries, or some of his ads in The Nation or other magazines. It's a phenomenon of our decentralized info age that Creme himself did not anoint the unwitting and unwilling Patel. Instead, he was tagged by "MarcLA13," a YouTube poster who heard him talk on the Democracy Now! radio show. Creme himself remains ambivalent, even after meeting Patel, who elsewhere described the prophet as "bonkers" but harmless.
Collins's piece came after a "Talk of the Town" lead article by editor Hendrik Hertzberg defending George Soros from slurs cast by Glenn Beck, who recently portrayed the billionaire patron of liberal causes as a would-be world ruler and Jewish anti-Semite. From Hertzberg's ironically outraged perspective, it was Beck who revealed himself as the barely-veiled anti-Semite. Apparently, to accuse any Jew, even one also accused of being a self-hater (and enemy of Israel) of seeking to rule the world, is anti-Semitic. I don't buy this. I also don't doubt that Beck smeared Soros (though for now I can only take Hertzberg's word for it), but the anti-Semitism charge smears Beck.
Beck isn't the only person with a paranoid obsession with Soros. I don't think the obsession is inherently anti-Semitic, though I can see how hatred of Soros could become a kind of displaced, socially acceptable anti-Semitism for Americans who don't identify the state of Israel with the folk stereotypes of Jews. In the longer view, Soros is simply the latest person to play the role of the master oppressor, the man of wealth and power who simultaneously grinds the little guy under his heel as a greedy capitalist and also plots to retain power in times of revolutionary change by co-opting the revolution or instigating it in the first place, on his own terms. Beck, for instance, credits Soros not only with funding the Democratic party but with supporting uprisings throughout Eastern Europe. People need demon figures like Soros to help explain why so many revolutions end up oppressing ordinary people as badly as the systems the people revolted against. If people are going to be oppressed under both capitalism and communism, it may be natural for some people to assume that there must be a constant oppressor, an embodiment of evil dedicated to oppression as a way of life. Paranoids have felt the same way about the Rockefeller family; David Rockefeller still figures in conspiracy theories as an alleged advocate of forced population-reduction. Marxists might take solace from this persistent fantasy, since it seems to show that some people are willing to blame the crimes of communism on the rich, but it also tends to distort critical attitudes toward capitalism, blaming its crimes on a secret cabal committed to power rather than profit. It's a simplistic impulse to blame injustice on people rather than structure, just as the messianic fantasies cultivated by people like Benjamin Creme encourage people to depend on extraordinary leaders or "world teachers" instead of long-term structural change. The New Yorker's exposure of messianic and paranoiac outbreaks in November 2010, its proofs of our continued search for messiahs and antichrists, tells us either that we still have a long way to go toward civilization or, worse, that we're slipping back from our point of furthest progress.