My list of 60 things to do while I’m 60 includes reading a book first published in 1951. Tammy just happened to have one in her collection: True Believer—Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer.
I was intrigued right off by the blurb on the back cover: “A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940’s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards.” Somehow a stevedore’s musings appeal to me more than a professor’s.
The book is loaded with quotable quotes. I started off turning down corners of pages, then using skinny sticky notes, then collecting quotes on my computer. After the first couple of chapters I gave all that up because I was essentially marking and quoting everything, which is the same as marking nothing.
It’s amazing to read something 60 years old and feel like I’m reading about the Arab Spring and the Tea Party. Hoffer doesn’t address any one kind of mass movement in particular. His examples come from all sorts of movements, from Christianity to Communism to Islam to Nazis. No matter how unique we feel our approach to be, in the end it follows a pattern.
So, a few especially memorable thoughts to whet your appetites, and then you’ll just have to read it for yourselves. But expect a slow slog—it wasn’t written at the 6th grade reading level so that today’s college graduates could understand it.
1. In order to have a mass movement, you don’t have to have a god to love, but you do have to have a devil to hate. Furthermore, that “devil” should be a foreigner to the group. I read that and thought, Wow! So is this why certain fundamentalist conservatives have to believe that President Obama was born abroad? Is this why they push that idea relentlessly even in the face of documented evidence to the contrary? And apparently hate is a stronger unifying force than love. With enough hate, you can get people to murder millions, all the while thinking they are advancing the common good. We always look for allies when we hate.
2. Fundamentalist radicals of different groups have more in common that any of them do with people who are not radicals. It is therefore easier to recruit a radical to your cause than a lukewarm individual who is not passionate about anything. I’ve had the hardest time understanding the fervent swings from one conservative GOP candidate to another in recent weeks, but this helps explain it. True believers of one thing switch to true believers in another thing without ever pausing to contemplate the contradictions. Right now there is a groundswell of support for Newt Gingrich, who pretty much represents everything radical fundamentalist christians don’t support.
3. Doctrine is critical. And here I just have to stick in some quotes:
“The readiness for self-sacrifice is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life… All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world…. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it…. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observations but from holy writ….To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason….It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible…. Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth….It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand…. The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds…. (At the root of the fanatic’s) cockiness is the conviction that life and the universe conform to a simple formula—his formula.”
I can’t help but think of the number of comments I’ve heard/read disparaging today’s intellectuals, as if being smart and articulate and nuanced are bad things. How many times have we heard that President Bush was preferable because he was a guy you’d like to sit and have a beer with? And how many times have conservatives mocked attempts to present a lengthier, nuanced perspective on complex issues? And how often have we based our whole viewpoint about an issue on a catchy phrase like “death panel” or “Obamacare” or “death tax” instead of trying to understand the realities behind those deliberately emotional labels?
4. Religiofication. “The mastery of the art of religiofication is an essential requirement in the leader of a democratic nation, even though the need to practice it might not arise.” Isn’t it interesting that candidate Bush needed Karl Rove to tell him that what he really needed to do was to sound more religious and appeal more to the evangelical church? Or that candidate McCain gained so much ground so quickly when Palin brought religious fervor to their side, even if it was calculated and full of inconsistencies?
So now I’m thinking about starting a mass movement, but I’m not quite sure what to focus on. I need to find something that people are feeling really unhappy about, then find someone to hate, then come up with a doctrine that I can present in a few emotional sound bites instead of long nuanced speeches (how about “9-9-9”? Oh, someone else got that one already), then scorn anyone who disagrees with “us”, then tie it to fundamentalist religious fears and fervor and voilá.
Oh…I know…I should jump into the presidential race. Within weeks I could be a front runner for a few days.
Sun, December 11, 2011
by Ron Snell filed under