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August 15, 2004
The True Believer (Hoffer)

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?

Posted by AnneZook at 09:16 AM


"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."

It seems to me people also need an outlet for the agresssion they sometimes feel. I think most people have some latent agression in them, and they need avenues to express it. For intellectuals that channel might simply be engaging in debate with others, but for some it takes the form of belonging to a group and expressing aggression against anyone outside that group. A mass movement can offer people a healthy place to channel their agression, especially if its for a good cause (though a good cause is, of course, in the eye of the beholder). Even a non-violent movement like the one that Martin Luther King organized helps to channel aggression - what might otherwise come out as random violence instead comes out as something productive. I got mugged on Friday, two black guys beat the stuffing out of me, and I've spent the weekend on painkillers and, when not asleep, I've been thinking about this issue of agression. The cops who investigated the crime decided that robbery wasn't a motive, since the two guys who attacked me could have easily taken my laptop computer, my cell phone, or my wallet, but instead took nothing. One cop said the motive was probably a desire to "mess with whitey." The two men who attacked me are, of course, extreme cases, but I suspect that all of us have some aggression in us, and that aggression needs healthy channels to come out, or comes out in unhealthy ways.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at August 15, 2004 12:23 PM

Lawrence: Hope your recovery goes smoothly. I would suggest, however, that aggression is just one expression of a form of, for want of a good word "energy desiring to get something done" and that non-violent movements transform aggressive energy into productive moral force. Conservation of energy, but not form, if you will.

Anne: Actually, a superhero with real water-powers would have power over every living thing: we are mostly water, after all. Don't give up hope.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at August 15, 2004 02:38 PM

Jonathan: I think that is what I was saying, that non-violent movements transform aggression into something positive. Other forms of mass movements, nazism for instance, transform aggression into something much more lethal, much more focused, much more determined.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at August 15, 2004 02:42 PM

"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"

I disagree with the connection she makes between equal rights and the loss of community. The argument she makes seems on par with the argument "feminism was bad for women because now men don't have to marry them" or whatever variation on that theme you want to follow. Mostly I disagree with the timing that is implied by her statement - that blacks got equal rights and then they lost their community. A careful reading of history will show that African-American communities were being destroyed in the late 50s, and that this to a large extent necessitated and made urgent the fight for equal rights. In the South, at least, African-American communities were mostly agricultural, at a time when the family farm was dying in America. Abernathy, Martin Luther King's right-hand man, once said "The civil rights movement is in a race with the tractors." Meaning that the mechanization of agriculture (tractors) was driving blacks off their land, and leaving them jobless, thus the cause of equal rights was made even more urgent by the need of blacks to find non-agricultural jobs.

Barbara Ehrenreich has made the same argument about the timing of feminism and male sexual freedom. Responding to the argument that feminism left men free to sleep around, Ehrenreich points out that the 50s were the time men started to break away from their traditional roles as breadwinners for a family, and stuff like Playboy and the Rat Pack were expressions of the new culture, and feminism was in some sense a needed response to that.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at August 15, 2004 02:51 PM

Lawrence - I'm so sorry to hear about your experience. I hope you're feeling a lot better today.

As you and Jonathan are already discussing the incident in terms of "movements" let me add that I agree with both of you. Sort of.

Hoffer cites "frustration" as one of the primary impulses behind joining of a mass movement. Very "frustrated" people can be ripe to join a movement and (I suppose) a frustration that shows itself in anger is equally likely to lead someone to a movement.

You're right in that people sometimes need an outlet for aggression but there are different kinds of aggression. I'd suggest that frustration that's already transmuted into anger is close to being an end in itself and that the longer it exists, the less likely it is that any nondestructive action will satisfy it. (In other words, any "leader" coming along later and hoping to make use of that frustrated anger will have to provide a physical outlet for the anger. You can't "transform" an emotion when it's that fixed, you have to catch it before then if you want to transmute it.)

Actually, I find myself wondering if you could make any non-violent, non-destructive use of a group whose mass frustration has already jelled into years-long anger.

Posted by: Anne at August 16, 2004 08:34 AM

And then, ten seconds later, it occurs to me that a "movement" with violence at its very heart has already solved that problem.

People who are angry and have long been so at what they perceive as personal injustices could be the types who join today's neo-Nazi movements or "survivalist" groups or "militia" organizations. They're channeling their anger both in action (I understand there's a lot of playing soldier in those groups) and in rhetoric, spewing hate against whatever group or organization they're focused on.

Posted by: Anne at August 16, 2004 08:37 AM

Lawrence - You said:

I disagree with the connection she makes between equal rights and the loss of community.

You make some good points. I've been puzzling over what she said since I first heard it, thinking that surely the "loss of community" she was discussing wasn't an inevitable byproduct of the Civil Rights movement.

In fact, in broader terms, the explosion of the "youth culture" and the "car culture" into the 50s and 60s caused a lot of changes in our society. There's a community of family and location (small towns) as well as ethnicity, and a lot of those communities have suffered a kind of unraveling.

I've sometimes wondered if that particular woman wasn't framing the loss in terms of race because that's the way she's inclined to frame things, but that a broader look at society would prove that minority populations suffered no more from a loss in "community identify" than other communities. Or that, at least, it was not the minority cultures alone that suffered.

The fact that today's inner cities are largely composed of minority populations puzzles me as to whether or not it might be a lack of coping skills for those groups. Or, more likely, they have the same skills as any other group, but that a displaced and dispossessed white person can step into any city in this country and be likely to find people to bond with, while it's more difficult for a minority to do so?

Posted by: Anne at August 16, 2004 08:45 AM

I think the equal rights/community thing is understandable, but short-sighted. The value of equal rights is that communities can be chosen freely, rather than forced upon people as the only option. Community of oppression is comforting, but limiting: I have a similar problem with Jews who center their identity on the Holocaust and continuing anti-semitism, rather than on several millenia of ethical and theological and cultural heritage.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at August 16, 2004 08:22 PM

Also a good point, Jonathan, but I find myself increasingly concerned that communities be there for those who want them while not being a trap people can't get out of.

Not an easy line to walk.

Posted by: Anne at August 16, 2004 08:53 PM