Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fanatactics in Control

If the daily headlines have you all shook up and wondering how to make sense of a world controlled by fanatics of various persuasions, read on.

While perusing my book shelves in a moment of boredom, I came across Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which was popular back in my college days. Hoffer’s book is a great resource as you try to make sense of current events.

The late Hoffer never had a day of formal schooling, though he did instruct at college level on occasion. He authored 10 books, most of them having to do with social analysis, many newspaper columns and appeared on Public Television at times. He was born of German immigrant parents, and as a very young boy, for some mysterious reason, he went blind. Since he couldn’t see and didn’t speak English, his parents didn’t bother sending him to school.

As a teenager, his sight returned as mysteriously as it had left, and he learned to read and write. He was self-educated. While working as a migrant farm worker, following harvests in California, he acquired library cards from every town in which he worked and became a voracious reader. In time, he worked and retired as a longshoreman.

 He published his first book, The True Believer, in 1951. In it he examines mass movements and the fanatics that make them happen.

He does not espouse a viewpoint, so you don’t know whether Hoffer is a conservative or liberal, religious or secular, fundamentalist or atheist, communist or capitalist or which of these positions he considers good or bad. He simply explores the dynamics behind the true believers who swear allegiance to the various ideas. It is a good read if you want to understand these movements, if you are a part of one as a true believer, or if you hope to start a mass movement or avoid becoming a part of one.

I first read the book in the mid-60s and just reread it. One of the many ideas he explores has stayed with me since I first read it. He claims the fanatics we often think of as holding opposite positions are not really opposites. As such, it is not unusual to see true believers switch from one extreme position to the other. I could create a rather long list of people I am aware of who have switched from Christian to atheist or vice versa, from liberal to conservative or vice versa, from socialist to capitalist or vice versa. As true believers, they are psychologically and emotionally cut from the same cloth.

Hoffer says the opposite of the fanatic or the extremist is the moderate, the person in the middle. Will someone please tell Rush Limbaugh this as he frequently berates moderates for being people without enough conviction to take a stand.

Hoffer says you don’t convince true believers, you convert them, because true believers are not really thinkers. “The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not with their minds.”

I have come to believe that being a conservative or a liberal is really a right brain, left brain function. I have also come to believe that most of our decisions, especially important ones, are made emotionally. It is only after we have made a decision emotionally that we begin to build a rational for it, in which case it is not surprising that people would switch from one seeming extreme to another.

He talks about mass movements finding their beginnings with men of words whose ideas others then use. “A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action.”

He says that “Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.” I agree, and have said the same thing for years.

Would Jesus be part of a modern church? Catholic Priest Joseph F. Girzone explores this in his novel Joshua: A Parable for Today; another great read. How often do mass movements truly honor the ideas and intents of the people of words they champion or even understand them?

Other interesting Hoffer observations: “Charlatanism of some degree is indispensable in effective leadership. There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of fact. To borrow a riddle heard frequently in my days as a car salesman: how do you tell if a used car salesman (change to politician) is lying? Ans.: If his lips are moving.

After reading an Associated Press report, a generally left leaning news service, on its fact checking of President Barack Obama’s recent state of the union speech, one could conclude he apparently understands the role misrepresentation plays in leadership. The true believers on the right will agree and the true believers on the left will deny the report.

Of course gullible followers then become essential to the equation. “‘Not to question why’ is considered by all mass movements the mark of a strong and generous spirit.”

“The exaltation of the true believer does not flow from reserves of strength and wisdom but from a sense of deliverance: he has been delivered from the meaningless burdens of autonomous existence. … The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.”
So, enough quotes to give you a feel for the book. If you want to make sense of our world controlled by true believers or fanatics, get a copy and read it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

College Education for Everyone. Really!

                One advantage to writing a column or blog over a period of years is that the same populist, though foolish, political ideas resurface and can be addressed by simply pulling out a previous column. Receiving the honor this time is Obama’s promise of free community college tuition for everyone. Yes, it was John Edwards who tried to buy popularity with that promise in his try for the presidency before his chances flew south over philandering. This column can be found in my published collection of columns on education, “Education: A Contrarian View,” found in the Kindle Store for 99 cents.

Presidential candidate Jonathan Edwards says if he is elected, he will push for legislation to create a program he calls "College for Everyone."  Government funded education for all of us.  Sounds good!  Who could possibly be against it?  College professors, for one, might consider opposing it.  The unintended consequences might be hazardous to the health of higher education.
(I read in today's paper that some professors fear the ideas will take significant funds away from four year institutions, though that is not my concern.)
       In a previous column, I discussed the sad effect compulsory education has had on our secondary schools.  The intention was good.  Well meaning people wanted to get children out of the work force and they chose compulsory education as a way to achieve it.  However, they did not take into account the corrosive effect of having people in the classroom who have no interest in learning.  Students with no interest in learning dilute education and at times make it nearly impossible for a teacher to teach. 

The same unintended consequences will follow a program of government funded college for everyone.  There are really only two reasons to go to college: because your chosen career path requires it, or because you really enjoy learning.  But there are two other groups of students found on college campuses: those who are there because their families expect them to be there and those who see it as a way of staying off the job market for another four years.  As the affluence of our culture has grown and as government programs for funding higher education have increased, so has the growth on campus of these latter two groups.  Government funded college for everyone will only further bloat colleges with students from these two groups.

While students in these groups are not forced to be there, their interest in learning is minimal.  Professors complain about students showing up on campus in need of remedial instruction, incapable of doing college work, or unwilling to strive for academic excellence.  When given assignments worthy of college level work, these students complain or simply enroll in courses taught by less demanding professors. In times past, a professor could tell those not interested in learning to leave.  However, colleges are in the business of selling credits and administrators need every dollar they can get to pay for their country club campuses, so professors are encourage to accommodate these low performers.  So, the education becomes diluted.  It doesn't really matter whether those not really interested in learning are there by force or by choice; their presence will have the same corrosive effect.

Not only should the government not pay for a college education for everyone, neither should parents automatically shell out the funds for their children to go to college.  Many parents who failed to get a college degree and have had to work hard to move up the ladder of success see college as a way for their children to avoid the same struggles.  One time I got in a squabble with my editor and quit before I had a new job lined up.  Out of necessity, I took a job in the roaster department of a zinc plant.  I was a college graduate among a group of factory workers.  I soon realized the workers were uneasy with my being there.  They had all pinned their hopes for their children not having to work there on their getting that coveted college degree; my presence took away from that hope.  I might add, though, that I got paid more doing that unskilled labor than I did using my college degree.

However, unless a student falls in one of the first two categories mentioned above, a college education might be a setback.  Let's take two kids graduating from high school at the same time.  Tom loves automobiles and gets a job at a big dealership as a parts runner right after graduation.  He's a hard worker, dependable, and because he is curious, he is always learning and takes advantage of all the training classes the company has to offer.

Henry, however, goes to college because his family expects it, but he really doesn't want to be there.  He has no sense of direction so he just barely scrapes by grade wise, taking easy classes and getting a liberal arts degree.  He manages to graduate, but can’t find a good job, so he takes a job as a lot boy at the same agency that hired Tom four years earlier.  Tom has now been through several promotions, has a decent income for a 22 year old and is buying a house of his own.   He has earned a reasonable income over the last four years and his future looks bright.

Henry, on the other hand, has an entry level job, is receiving minimum pay, and is making payments on a $50,000 student loan for a degree he didn't really want and which will do him little good in his aimless pursuit of a career.

The college benefited financially because it got to sell him all his credits and collect all those athletic fees.  Unfortunately, the professors had too many students like Henry.  They were called on the carpet for flunking too many as the college needed to sell all the credits they could, so they begrudgingly modified their syllabi to make it a little easier on students like Henry.

College for everybody and paid for by the government sounds good at first, but my sense is that the unintended consequences will ruin our schools of higher learning.  In fact I would guess it is already happening to some degree just from the government funding now available.  College is not a smart choice for everyone.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Satire and Free Speech

In my previous blog, I mentioned I had no sympathy for Sony in the hacking of its computers and said though they had the freedom to make the movie they made, they didn’t have to do it. The same can be said for the recent terrorist attack of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in France.

Certainly Charlie Hebdo had the free speech right to publish cartoons about Muhammad, but they didn’t have to do so. I am going to be accused of blaming the victim, but the only thing I blame the victim for is stupidity. As any farm boy knows, if you are going to poke sticks in a hornets’ nest, you should have some plan for dealing with mad hornets.

The Charlie Hebdo workers kept poking sticks in the hornets’ nest, but apparently were not prepared to deal with mad hornets. They should have worked in a fortified environment with loaded automatic weapons at each desk and trained employees on how to use them.

An editorial in the Austin American Statesman this morning (1/13/15) raised the issue of having to defend freedom of speech but at the same time not condoning the tasteless speech of so many of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo.

     Many of the pundits seemed to excuse Charlie Hebdo’s tastelessness on the basis that it was satire, as if satire is a holy category that should not be criticized. Hustler magazine once publish a satirical cartoon in which evangelist Jerry Falwell supposedly had his first sexual experience with his mother on an outhouse toilet. It was certainly more tasteless than anything Charlie Hebdo published about Mohammed.

     Falwell filed and lost a defamation suit against the magazine. Hustler argued in wasn’t libelous because it was satire and hence everyone knew it was not published as truth. Truth or satire, it was libelous, but the ruling added to the idea that satire is somehow sacred.

Hustler also knew that poking sticks at butterflies does not carry the same risks as poking sticks at hornets’ nest.

Satirists have the same free speech rights as the rest of us, but I certainly have a right to withhold my sympathies where I well. They are with one protestor at an Austin rally held to express sympathy with Charlie Hebdo. He said he was there in sympathy for the Muslim police officer killed in the line of duty while protecting Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech.

When exercising your right to free speech, if you are going to poke sticks at hornets’ nests, have a plan for dealing with nasty, angry hornets.