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.

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