The New Zealand Shooting and the Great-Man Theory of Misery

tags: racism, fascism, New Zealand, shooting

Jelani Cobb has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2012, and became a staff writer in 2015. He writes frequently about race, politics, history, and culture. His most recent book is “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.” He won the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, for his columns on race, the police, and injustice. He teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The macabre harvest of innocents, this time claiming fifty lives in two mosques, in Christchurch, New Zealand, is a double-edged form of madness. It is both the product of an absence of human empathy and a drain on the reserves of those who possess it: decency these days requires the ability to stare barbarism in the face, repeatedly, randomly, intensely, without ever becoming inured to the ugliness of its features. Terrorism hopes to inspire fear and confusion, but its most pernicious impact begins the moment that people no longer feel either of those things but, rather, simply a grudging acknowledgment that this is the way we now live.

We have seen so many of these atrocities that they can be put into subcategories. The attack in Christchurch exists in the company of other attacks on houses of worship: the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012; the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, in Charleston, in 2015; the Islamic Cultural Center, in Quebec City, in 2017; the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh. Live like this for long enough and you end up with a sample size sufficient to discern patterns among the antagonists: the circular reasoning of their rationales and the shared sense of themselves as vectors of great change.

In 1840, Thomas Carlyle declared that the course of history was set by humanity’s great men, and, for a great while, that view of the past held sway. But, as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, the influence of Marxism and other strands of social history inverted that narrative: it was the mass of people and their collective interests, not the whims of a small number of extraordinary individuals, which drove history. Still, recent years have seen something of a resurgence of the belief in the supreme role of great men—of heroes—and it seems to have taken a particular, perverse hold among zealots, notably those of the white-nationalist persuasion.

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