January 7th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Subculture Engineering (1 of 3): Dream Nazis

Twice now I've referred to a set of terms that I was taught long ago in the Society for Creative Anachronism. There, these terms were coined to describe a built-in tension in SCA politics. At any given time, three different kinds of people were struggling for the soul of the organization, to determine what kind of a club the local branch of the Society was going to be. Were we going to be primarily a role-players' club? Were we going to be primarily an educational and research organization? Were we going to primarily be a social group? But what I've come to understand since, and failed to make clear the last two times I used these analogies, is that I've come to understand that this is a useful division of roles for any volunteer-run, or even volunteer-dominated organization, subculture, political party, interest group, church, temple, or any other kind of organization that must recruit, fund-raise from, and labor with volunteers. Whether we're talking about any political party (whether major or fringe, whether at the local, state, or national level); whether we're talking about any church or temple (from the smallest basement coven to the First Whatever-denomination Church of Someplace-or-other), or any subculture (whether science fiction fandom, bikers, or even artistic movements), they all must have at least some Dream Nazis, Authenticity Police, and Fun Mavens. Here, let me prove it to you, one group at a time.

What is a Dream Nazi? A dream nazi is someone to whom the group is important because of a vision that it represents. A dream nazi thinks not only about what he wants to do with his little group or subculture, but how he's going to change society with it. As Eric Hoffer documented in The True Believer (a book on the short list of perhaps half a dozen or so books that I'm going to keep hyping until everyone has read it), all thriving mass movements really do have these themes in common:
  1. Once, things were better than they are now, a lost Golden Age, a world in which people like us were more successful and better appreciated.
  2. People who aren't like us changed the world without our permission, to one where most of the people like us aren't so successful or appreciated.
  3. If we could only change society to our particular dream, our particular vision, then the world would be a better place.
When put that baldly (and non-specifically), it sounds as scary as it sometimes is. I never knew why of the three factions this one got the most insulting name, but when it comes down to it a dream nazi can be a very frightening person. To a hardcore dream nazi, nothing in the current "real world" matters, because the "real world" is crap. To a hardcore dream nazi, no historical or scientific fact matters, if it conflicts with their dream. To a hardcore dream nazi, no individual or individual's needs matter; only the dream matters, because if the dream can be implemented, then life will automatically be better for (the surviving) individuals.

You don't think that it's really that simple, do you? Lets look at a few visions, a few dreams, shall we?
  • Republican: Once, in the late 1800s, there was a wonderful time when the invisible hand of free market capitalism was turned loose, and hard-nosed capitalists made America a wealthy nation; then, greedy and covetous liberals saddled those capitalists with regulation and robbed them with taxes; someday we'll conquer those liberals and capitalists (like us) will be free to make America wealthy and powerful again.
  • Democratic: Once, there was a Progressive Era where a wise nation taxed people only what they could easily afford, and used that money to improve the lives of everyone; then greedy Reaganites conquered the nation through trickery, and set up a society where only the wealthy matter; some day, we'll win back control of society and a Place Called Hope will flourish again.
  • Fundamentalist: Once, there was a wonderful Puritan Experiment, and nearly everyone in America worshiped the true God of the Bible and His literal word, and in exchange God made America a free and wealthy and powerful nation; then evil secular humanists threw God out of the public square, and those of us who believe in God's word were no longer able to protect the nation's values; someday our Biblical values will triumph again and God will once again make America a wealthy and powerful nation.
  • Feminist: Once, there was a wonderful matriarchal (or at least matrifocal) goddess-worshiping society where both genders were respected, liberty and equality reigned, and all life was sacred in a peaceful world; then the evil patriarchal Kurgans rode down from the steppes and imposed their brutal warrior patriarchy on the world, and all women knuckle under to it in submission or else are punished; some day, our feminist values will triumph and the world will again be a peaceful, free, happy place.
  • Science Fiction Fandom: Once, there was a genre of literature that celebrated ideas, and whose heroes were those who solved great problems, and that encouraged people to study the sciences and engineering and other arts that improve the world; but people who didn't appreciate it oppressed it and then greedy media companies watered it down into unscientific pap; if we keep promoting the good science fiction then maybe the people who don't yet "get" it will open their eyes and see that our technocratic literature can make the world a better place.
  • Biker: Once, the greatest Americans of all times, the explorers and then the cowboys roamed free across the unfettered, unfenced plains, and after WWII, those great free men traded their horses for beautiful and powerful iron horses, the greatest symbol of freedom ever made by the hand of men; but small-minded cops and weak-minded milksops hate freedom, and oppress the motorcycle clubs; some day, we'll be so big and so organized and we'll have done so many good deeds for them that even they will come to respect our freedom-loving ways, and the world will be a better place.
  • Pagan: Once the world worshiped many gods, and so no priest or government could claim that god was on their side and their side alone, and the people lived closer to the earth, and lived more emotionally honest lives, lives that valued all kinds of human beings and all kinds of human ideals; then the evil monotheists of the Inquisition and so on marched across the world with sword and noose and burning stake and imposed their so-called One God on the whole world, and as a result the earth suffers and so does nearly all life; if we can show people that old, better way of living and they throw off the chains of monotheism, the world will be a better place.
  • SCA and Renaissance Faire: Once the world was a magical place, where leaders and followers understood that their obligations to each other were mutual, not only from the bottom to the top, and it was a beautiful colorful and romantic world; then drab industrialists and Puritans dyed the world and everything in it machine-gray and imposed wage slavery more brutal than feudalism ever was; if we live up to the Feudal Ideal and show the world our beautiful and romantic way of life, we can brighten the world and make it a better place for everyone.
I could go on, but by now you know how to construct one of these; any more would just be a waste of time. Were you going to object that not everybody in any one of those subcultures agrees with all of that? You'd be right. But every one of those subcultures has a large and visible subgroup who do believe things like that, and it is those people I call the dream nazis.

What Happens to an Organization without Dream Nazis? "Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Prov 29:18a) George H.W. Bush was asked what his vision for America was, and he was scornfully dismissive of "the vision thing." Then he ran for re-election against the man who famously "still believes in a place called Hope" -- and got his butt handed to him on a platter. OK, other things went wrong for him, too, but the fact remains. If you don't have dream nazis, you don't have a mass movement. By inspiring people with a vision, dream nazis tell your potential recruits, donors, and volunteers that what they're doing matters. If you don't have dream nazis out there fervently preaching their vision of how to make a better society, then people find something more interesting to do with their time, effort, and money, something that will matter. You can start a movement without any dream nazis, but if you try it, you'll find that it never gets out of the coffee house you're in, if it even gets out of your basement.

What Happens to an Organization of Only Dream Nazis? Nothing. Ever. Well, that's not true. There's nothing incompatible about being a dream nazi and possessing great artistic, literary, or rhetorical talent. Dream nazis who do have one or more of those talents leave behind some beautiful poetry, some emotionally moving images, some stirring manifestos, some inspiring books. But where you stumble across these powerful manifestos, great artworks, and moving speeches that nothing ever came of, it's because the dream nazis that created them lacked authenticity police and fun mavens to bring that dream into reality.

The Apprenticeship of a Dream Nazi: Take a young man or woman who's vaguely dissatisfied with the world, who wishes the world was a better place. Now gather them in to a supportive environment of dream nazis. Then comes the singing of folk songs. There's nearly always folk singing involved. ("Q: How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? A: 4. One to change the light bulb, and three to sing about how much better the old light bulb was.") Often Kipling is involved.

Fill them with haunting visions of a better yesterday and a better tomorrow ... and sing those visions in unison so that the young dreamer can feel what its like to believe that "everyone" agrees with the vision. Keep the tunes so simple that anyone can learn and that even the guitar player can spare enough attention to sing perfectly well. When they've sung enough of these songs in unison, they'll want to sing these songs for other people, as well. If they possess talent, or can be persuaded to think that they possess talent, they'll write poems, manifestos, more folk songs, and nearly-incoherent jargon-filled letters to the editor. They'll stand up in coffeehouses and recite poetry meant to stir hearts, or else declaim their vision to a rapt (or captive) audience in fiery speeches over beer or cappuccino. And oh my oh my, will they write about it online!

All in all, a sufficiently fired-up dream nazi can drive anybody else batshit nuts. But those other people will read the manifestos and the poems and the Internet web pages and still find inspiration in them, and when all the work is done they enjoy listening to the singing, and sometimes singing along, just as much as the dream nazis do. And so if that young man or woman learns to sing sufficiently inspiring songs, to write sufficiently stirring manifestos, and as a result the others have plenty of manpower and money to do their work, then the others will grudgingly admit that that young person certainly did grow up to be a fine, masterful dream nazi.

Where Should You Keep Your Dream Nazis? In front of the public ... and away from the money and the work. Keep your dream nazis creating art and music and literature. Put them in front of crowds, internal and external, to speak. But never put them in a position of supreme authority unless that position of supreme authority is largely symbolic, and there's a well organized and equally powerful and genuinely independent bureaucracy to make sure that the work gets done, and to moderate and calm down those who get dangerously enthusiastic about the dreamer's vision.

Raging Monster Dream Nazis: What is it that some dream nazis do that gives all of them such an awful nickname, that creates so much tension with the rest of the organization? It's quite simple. To a raging monster dream nazi, everything and I mean everything is judged by only one standard, namely, whether or not the person or group behind it is sufficiently loyal to the dream nazis' vision. To a raging monster dream nazi, it doesn't matter how much volunteer effort or external legitimacy an authenticity cop brings to the group; if that authenticity cop isn't entirely motivated by The Dream, then they're no good as a person, no good to the group, and so their work for the group is no good. And raging monster dream nazis hate the fun mavens most of all. Why? Because fun mavens don't hate the present. They don't automatically assume that the past golden age was better or the future golden age will be better. Even if they do think so, they don't seem to a raging monster dream nazi to be as motivated as they should be, because while the dream nazi is "suffering the persecution of those who changed the world against us," the fun mavens are still managing to have a good time. Authenticity Police can sometimes be too serious, but only a buzz-killing raving monster dream nazi can take a fun hobby, a healthy club or church, a lively subculture, or a thriving movement and make it so deathly grim.