Thursday, January 12, 2006

An Hoffer I couldn't refute.

I used to have a copy of The True Believer on a shelf somewhere...had it since college days [the late 60s] but it appears to have been shoved aside by all the Java and Unix manuals. Eric Hoffer wrote a few of the oh so many books I never got around to reading. Some vague and meandering intellectual itch prompted me to peruse his writings recently. OMG! I should have read his books! I have been channeling Hoffer and didn't know it. I flatter myself to think such things and yet..., some of his concerns and the quotes I have surely echoed:

"Language was invented to ask questions. Answers may be given by grunts and gestures, but questions must be spoken. Humanness came of age when man asked the first question. Social stagnation results not from a lack of answers but from the absence of the impulse to ask questions."

"Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves."

"Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self."

"The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than of deep conviction. The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without."

"The compulsion to take ourselves seriously is in inverse proportion to our creative capacity. When the creative flow dries up, all we have left is our importance."

"The devil personifies not the nature that is around us but the nature that is within us- the infinitely ferocious and cunning prehuman creature that is still within us, sealed in the subconscious cellars of the psyche."

Timothy Madigan found in Hoffer's True Believer, a timely and apt analysis of the fundamentalism that powered not just Bin Laden's attacks but the responses to those attacks. I share their perception that fundamentalism and fascism are different flowers growing from the same stunted psychological roots. In that 2001 essay, he cited Hoffer's insights into the very similar moral dead ends reached by all leaders who use hatreds, and fears to solidfy their power. But far more important, Hoffer had an understanding of the crowds that lend themselves to the enterprises of these primitive and loathsome leaders. I had my own words for this and this blog has been littered with my attempts to put the matter clearly but Madigan and Hoffer speak well enough for themselves [my emphasis]:
The weakness of the West, and its moral decay, were frequent themes of Osama Bin Laden’s recent video sermons. Ironically, views not dissimilar were expressed by the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson just days after the bombings, when the former stated that secularism, homosexuality, abortion and feminism had weakened the moral fiber of the nation and made it vulnerable to attack, as well as to God’s wrath. As Hoffer so well understood, True Believers think alike, regardless of the content of their thoughts.

True Believers of all kinds share certain characteristics, including contempt for those who don’t have a holy cause themselves, and respect for fellow fanatics. Hitler and Stalin, for instance, each admired the techniques the other had used to gain and maintain absolute power, and both expressed contempt for the democratic leaders Churchill and Roosevelt. Most of all, Hoffer writes, "A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrines and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence." The less control people feel they have over their lives, the more attractive the message of mass movements will be.

How then does one combat True Believers? Can one make a love of democracy and the advocacy of individualism a holy cause itself? "Though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense," Hoffer warns, "it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend."
I imagine Madigan would not feel a need to correct or change one one word of his essay in light of the course on which Bush and his coterie of cryptofascists have led our nation. Hoffer, like me, would be sadly shaking his head....and speaking out. Don'e one you, dear readers, sit quiet hoping this madness will just pass. From a lifetime of hard experience, Hoffer digested the ruin and rancor of the world in the 30's and 40' to write his book in the 50's. What has changed since then?

The soul that sees itself as powerless will often fuse itself to the powerful...when has it ever been otherwise?

"Power to the people" then, is not so much a cry for the blood of some ruling class as it is a formula to keep the course of history sane and humane. Power comes from the muzzle of a gun only if too many people misplace their innate power to resist nonsense.

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