The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements (by Eric Hoffer)
I've decided to start my own cult. It's handy that I just finished a book that offers step-by-step instructions, isn't it? (Well, sort of.)
I've rather given up on the whole superhero/sekrit identity thing, by the way. All the good superpowers are already taken. At one point, concerned about the ongoing Colorado drought, I did dabble with a plan for enforcing water conservation until supplies were replenished (Reservoir Girl to the rescue!) but a friend happened to mention that water-themed superheroes are really lame, so I abandoned the idea.
Besides, it started to rain.
More seriously, it's always interesting to read a book that confirms your own private prejudices, isn't it? (This, the author explain on page 105, is because propaganda "articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.")
Almost any kind of persuasive speaking is a form of propaganda, so that means I found the book interesting and "educational" because it "taught" me what I already believed.
There's something charmingly circular about that, isn't there?
I'm tempted to digress a bit and ponder the "success" or otherwise of advertising campaigns in light of this idea, but I won't. (Hold onto the thought, though. I may return to it later.)
It's even cooler (we're back to True Believer now) when a book articulates your own unarticulated beliefs and then uses them to explain things that previously mystified you.
I mean, why did a substantial portion of the UsofA population turn their back on Bush so relatively soon after 9/11? (It's too long to go into now but it's a all around the Bush Administration having no idea of how to respond to a mass movement and their complete contempt for the actual voters in this country that constantly leads them to behave as if we're the enemy.)
Why do so many of the "working poor" vote against the traditional labor party of Democrats? It's the "conservatism of the destitute." When you are utterly without power, change is terrifying. Balanced on the high wire of destitution, any change pushes you toward disaster.)
What is the continuing hold organized religion has on some people's minds? (The desire for immortality, to be part of something "mighty, glorious, and indestructible." It's the same impulse that drives patriotism, support for your local sports team, and generous donations to your alma mater.)
Why do some Southerners persist in holding on to the fiction of their glorious "Lost Cause"?*
Okay, that last one is why I bought the book. It's one of the handful I picked up to help me understand that whole situation, but the book turned out to be interesting on a lot more fronts than I'd expected. Published in 1951, the book doesn't claim to predict the future, but the author's thoughts on the future of China, Japan, and Communism (the issues of his day) are surprisingly prophetic in some ways.
(* For what it's worth, the fervent belief in a mythical "lost" South is probably a substitute for their lost faith in themselves.)
From the excesses of the French Revolution to the motivations of "suicide bombers", the book explains the psychology of mass movements in terms of the individuals attracted to them
What makes a fanatic? What draws someone to a radical movement? What pushes someone over that edge, from frustrated individual to radical activist?
(I think the psychology is valid even for those groups not involved in a "mass" movement involving large numbers of people. Any group, no matter how small, if sufficiently insular can give its members the illusion of being caught up in a "movement" with the resulting benefits.
That probably explains why it felt to me as if so many of the neocons' self-deceptions were being described as tactics adopted by members of mass movements.
It might also explain how I wound up with so many pages flagged with post-it flags and the name "Bush" attached. Organized religion itself being a mass movement offering ultimate self-renunciation and identification with a glorious and eternal "cause," well, I wasn't surprised to find Bush 12-stepping through the pages of the book.)
Along with discussions of dissatisfactions that draw people to mass movements, there was plenty about the positive, inspirational aspects of mass movements as well. A mass movement, as a concept, is neither good nor bad. What's interesting are things like the similarities between different "movements" when you lay aside moral judgments and values. Psychologically, the Reformation and the rise of Nazism in Germany have some amazing similarities.
There are a lot of factors and the author touches on all of them.
There's the abdication of personal responsibility so desired by the failures and the misfits. The role of boredom, the need for a purpose or a cause to draw people away from the barren trap they've made of their own lives.
There's the role of "hope" in altering people's responses to a situation.
What makes the difference? Why do some situations flame into mass movements while at other times, people just endure misery or injustice beyond all reason?
The key is hope. People who glimpse, or are promised hope of change, those are the people who break through the barrier to rebuild the world.
"Those who would transform a nation or the world . . . must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.
Hoffer discusses the interchangeability of movements. A personality ripe for joining will choose one or another, sometimes almost by chance. Someone who views themselves and their life as a failure can be desperately in search of something outside themselves to cling to - a greater cause or purpose they can lay aside personal responsibility (and the struggle for individual 'success') in favor of.
There's more in the book than the ostensible title topic. For instance, why do so-called "Third World" of "developing" countries resist the world's efforts to "modernize" them?
The author argues that it's not our patronization (my word) that inflames developing countries when we try to "help" them; it's the contemporary Western emphasis on individualism.
Those unaccustomed to the idea of "standing on their own two feet" and socialized to share burdens and responsibilities with an extended family or tribe resent the necessity of "going it alone."
Hoffer also has interesting things to say about the importance of tribes in "developing" countries successfully. (It's a pity the international community didn't consider such things when redrawing much of the developing world map in the early 20th century.)
I remember posting some time back on an NPR interview where an older African-American woman mourned that in gaining "equal rights," she felt that African-Americans had lost a valuable sense of community and identity. Her point was that whatever economic gains some individuals had made in the past 40 years weren't worth the price "the community" had paid by its loss of a cohesive identity.
A minority which preserves its identity is inevitably a compact whole which shelters the individual, gives him a sense of belonging and immunizes him against frustration.
Hoffer goes on to argue that members of minority groups (racial, ethnic, or religious, he makes no distinction) are more content when in the embrace of their community, even if that means segregation from the larger population.
Race and religion aren't actually things I've ever thought about much - not in terms of an individual's "identity." (Racially I'm sort of a mongrel; religiously I was largely indifferent until GWBush started getting on my nerves.) Now I find myself wondering if there's some kind of "assimilation" compatible with both real equality and preservation of "community" or "culture."
None of which has anything to do with mass movements, but the book make me think about a lot of things. The good ones do, don't they?