I've spent a fair amount of time the last decade or so attacking attempts to scare the hell out of the American people. For the next little bit, however, I'm going to ask you to consider a world of dense human population, dwindling resources, and decreasing economic stability; a world of rising fundamentalist movements, typically religious movements with nationalistic undertones: Likudniks in Israel, US fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Hindus — a difficult concept there! — in India, and, more visible of late, Wahhabi and Salafi and others Muslim sectarians working hard for their versions of Sunni or Shia purity and the promotion of their faith in and beyond the vast dar al-Islam.
In addition, economic fundamentalists will come out of the woodwork and foundation think tanks in large numbers if, as is definitely possible, The Great Recession of 2008 f. takes a late double-dip and returns as World Depression II.
We are ripe for — and with a Sunni/Shia civil war may be moving into — another age of fanaticism like the early and middle portions of the 20th century, and over that prospect you should be afraid, you should be very afraid.
So I want to talk about fanaticism and recommend a flawed and dated book by a flawed man who eventually became a bit of a fanatic himself: Eric Hoffer's always-relevant long essay from 1951, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
First, though, I have a story or two or three on how a guy with a degree in Shakespeare (me, I) came to teach a book marketed as Sociology, how a man of the Left continued teaching off and on for forty years a book generally loved by conservatives — by an author who became something of a tame intellectual for Lyndon Johnson — and how a fellow-traveller with the Civil Rights Movement and member of the Peace Movement (still me) came to encourage every serious citizen to read a book with very harsh things to say about all mass movements.
In the mid-1960s, I returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana from Cornell because the U of I was willing to pay me to teach and Cornell really wasn't. I had gone to Cornell on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, which paid for my first year, and had a Danforth Graduate Fellowship that would've supported me (modestly) through my PhD. The Danforth people, however, asked its Graduate Fellows to apply for teaching assistantships where possible, to free up money for other students.
I thought that was a legitimate request, and really sensible for me. With the exception of summer jobs doing gastroenterology and (more so) microbiology lab work, I'd been pretty much "studenting" since I was five, and I wanted to try teaching for a bit. Also, I really wanted to know if I liked teaching since it looked like the Vietnam War was going to go on indefinitely and teaching was an attractive career option for me.
My other career options were helping develop new and improved militarized anthrax or bubonic plague at Fort Detrick in Maryland or — far more likely as things turned out — an "MOS" of sorts if not exactly a career as tunnel rat with the US Army in Vietnam, helping to fight a war of which I did not approve.
For my other alternative, I could see what jobs were available in the Greater Toronto area (i.e., go into exile) or, if I were really courageous, go to prison for resisting the draft.
I had applied to the U of T and like Toronto, but I was and am an American and didn't like the idea of exile. The prison option was a morally admirable choice, but I had this thing about avoiding rape. The folklore at the time was that anti-war activists were targeted to be raped in US Federal prisons, and at 5'2" tall and some 140 pounds, I qualified as fairly easy rape-bait. Long after the war, I heard of studies indicating that anti-war activists were, if anything, raped rather less frequently than other young prisoners; and it is quite possible that the rape threat was exaggerated as part of some propaganda operation to discourage war resisting and other anti-war/anti-government activities by young American men. In any event, I strongly disliked the idea of making protective friends by literally sucking up to large felons, or —small person's Plan B strategy — demonstrating that I would freak out and tolerate severe pain myself to hurt anyone who threatened me.
(No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but there are people out there willing to use the threat of rape to keep in line boys and men as well as girls and women. Except maybe that line should be addressed to Virgil, not Virginia, since it was feminist activists who did the most to bring to light and resist the use of rape and the threat of rape for social control.)
Anyway, in the mid-1960s my options were what they were because of the continuing war — the Vietnam War will be a motif here — and because the United States enforced at the time military conscription on the principle of "Universal Obligation with Selective Service" (i.e., universal for young males). As General Lewis B. Hershey, the Director of Selective Service explained with admirable directness that burned into my memory, it would be well for the US if more young men went into teaching and, quoting from memory, «We'll make them good teachers or good soldiers.» Even as during World War II draftable American males were encouraged to become or remain machinists to serve the war effort better than as soldiers, even so, privileged young American males in the Vietnam era were offered the chance to teach or have our asses drafted, or thrown into prison.
So I got to choose among exile, teacher, tunnel rat, or "punk," and I thought teaching would probably be best bet — although I've now been to Vietnam, as a tourist, and found I could physically have handled the tunnels: my shoulders were a tight fit, but I could have done it. Physically. Without immediate claustrophobia. The only problem would have been the constant fear of sudden, or lingering, death. Or maiming. Or actually getting killed, wounded, or maimed, or going mad from the tight spaces and fear.
Anyway, I was going to teach, so it would be good to try it, and I applied for an assistantship at Cornell and received one, and was offered a $1900 stipend for the year, which I could've lived on. Except that the Cornell graduate school was and remains private, and they wanted me to pay out of that stipend tuition and fees, for $1875. I pointed out that that worked out to $25 cash money for two semesters of teaching, and the dean or deanling I was talking to said that he understood the arithmetic, but they of the Grad School knew I had a Danforth fellowship and wanted the Danforth Foundation to pay me.
I pointed out that part of the point of my applying for the assistantship was to free up that Danforth money for someone else — and, besides, I like to be paid by the people I work for.
Illinois offered me a much better deal — back then, public universities were appropriated a fair amount of public money — and I sadly left beautiful, if incredibly rural and isolated Ithaca, New York, and returned to a marginally better program in my field, a significantly better library collection in said field, access to civilization, and, for the time, almost a living wage. (I was contractually forbidden from moonlighting for money, but I tutored for two meals a day and lived fairly well.)
Illinois gave me a full fellowship, but with a teaching option, for extra money: which, for the reasons given above, I leapt at.
The problem — the War and the draft and civil rights/civil liberties struggles aside — was that the English Department schedulers weren't sure which semester I'd teach until the Friday before the Monday they wanted me teaching.
So Friday before classes began, I was anointed a Teaching Fellow in English, assigned a Rhetoric 101 section, and loaded up with a stack of books, none of which I had ever read (or, in some cases, seen before).
Fortunately, I had been an undergraduate at the U of Illinois, and more fortunately I remembered tales of a mildly delusional sociology professor who consistently insisted that his classes were extraordinarily popular and that the bookstores should order a large number of books — many of which were never sold.
Rhetoric 101 classes were capped at 20 (I told you this was back when public schools had money), and there were more than enough extras of a book I'd read the previous year, Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.
Rhetoric 101 was basically basic College Comp., and it wasn't content free but was largely what I called "content irrelevant," in the sense that it didn't matter much what the students wrote about; what counted was that they wrote, wrote regularly, and got good feedback on their writing.
The True Believer was good to write about, and is itself well written; so it was good to teach that first time out, and good for me to teach that first class, as I've said, pretty regularly for the next forty years.
Why this book is important for a large audience to read — an audience of academics, students, and world citizens generally — is the topic of Part II.
There were also nonpersonal, more philosophically respectable reasons for my interest in "True Belief," though an important one comes with another story, which I'll try to keep decorously light, if not exactly brief.
As mentioned, I'd received a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship (and had "DF" after my name on their mailings until I told a Foundation administrator about the delight of my colleagues that I'd formally incorporated into my title "DF," which at the time stood for "Dumb F*ck"). Anyway, as a DGF — the revised abbreviation — I got to attend conferences of my fellow fellows, including one winter in the late 1960s at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Contradicting the stereotype of hyper-organized Jesuits — which is OK since the school was founded by another Order — the conference staff wasn't ready for us. Reinforcing a stereotype of Notre Dame, we were fed with just tuna salad and crackers — but given to drink a lot of booze, and we got talking current events, politics, and philosophy.
In one conversation, a guy got around to asking me how I felt about working with "The Movement" — the Anti-War Movement directly, tangentially the Civil Rights Movement — at the University of Illinois; and I said the Movement was good, though I was troubled a little by one thing. A definite minority, but a fair number of my comrades in the Movement seemed to be always in earnest, not much into laughing.
He responded — slur a word or two here when reading the dialog aloud — he responded, "I can't tell you why you're troubled, but I can tell you why you should be." He shifted gears into good Socratic mode and asked me if I'd accept that the source of laughter is incongruity, things not going together. I allowed that a source of laughter, probably the most important, is incongruity. He then asked if, short of the subatomic level or something equally exotic, there were things or events that aren't at least potentially incongruous. And I said, no; we don't encounter things literally identical. He responded that there were certainly things that we should not laugh at, that it would be cruel and indecent to laugh at, but, if all things are potentially incongruous, then all things in one situation or other are potentially funny. And I said OK, and he went on and asked what — esoteric physics still aside — would be potentially unlaughable, always congruous with everything. And I said, "It would have to be something like the ground of being." And he asked, "And what, in the West, do we call 'the ground of being?"; and I said "God." And he said, OK, I'll give you a rule of thumb: That at which you can not — no matter what, in no context, not even potentially — laugh at: that is your god. And if it is anything less than God; if it's the Movement or your family or your country or the Church or an ideology — then you're involved in a strange and dangerous form of idolatry."
I returned with this theory written out in pencil on a paper plate and used it in my teaching of The True Believer, and retained it in the back of my mind, reinforcing for decades my intention to teach Hoffer's book whenever it fit into my courses.
And to recommend it often: There were blessedly few fanatics in the American movements in the second half of the 20th century, but far too many Americans lack a mature sense of proportion and perspective, far too many Americans are unable to laugh at themselves and at least chuckle over the incongruities of their sacred beliefs and causes.
In the opening decades of the 21st century, we're again getting dangerously large numbers of people, "full of passionate intensity," zealously in earnest about sacred causes; again, though in different and arguably less hopeful ways — the initial Russian Revolution was a good idea — it begins to look like "the centre cannot hold."
The Center is a crucial issue here, and too many people nowadays misunderstand what the Center is and where it is located.
We usually talk about "the political spectrum," but Hoffer implies something more like a political horseshoe or, and better, like the Greek letter omega (Ω).
At the rounded top of the omega in this image are those who are more or less reconciled with the present: from strong conservatives on the Right through liberals, social democrats, socialists, and even a fair number of radicals on the Left. People may sing, "We can change the world — / Re-arrange the world," but from an anthropological or long-range-historical perspective, most of us, most of the time want to make relatively moderate changes, changes that can be made
During the 1960s, people on the far Left were right in saying "A liberal is a conservative with brains," or as Edmund Burke put it in 1790, reflecting on the Revolution in France, "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation." OK, from its title on, The True Believer is an exercise in typology, innocent of statistics and better at historical analysis than sociological. It's a temptation to go from the type "The True Believer" to a stereotype — a strongly negative stereotype — and Hoffer pretty much succumbs to the temptation. Still, there are people who are fanatics, and fanatics necessarily want to make drastic changes even at the cost of great damage to the present world. Fanatics often have a myth of past glory and a dream of a magnificent future — and between such a past and future the present can be crushed and (almost) any sacrifice now can be justified to restore the glorious past and/or gain the glorious future.
What is crucial in such an analysis and classification is a willingness to sacrifice one's self for the better world — exalting and desiring "self-sacrifice" is crucial for Hoffer's True Believer — and with this a willingness to sacrifice a lot of other people, property, institutions, and lives. In the large swath of people in the center, there is little desire for self-sacrifice and radically radical change: change not only from the roots but achieved by tearing up the roots. There has to be a more-or-less extremist movement for Hoffer's True Believer; exactly which one can vary. There is only a spark gap, so to speak, separating extremists on Right and Left and other axes. "A Saul turning into Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle" according to Hoffer (The True Believer III.14). Saul was zealous for the Lord as an activist agent for Jewish orthodoxy and then became zealous for the Lord Jesus as an apostle (Acts 9.1-19). Saul the agent of the High Priest doesn't become Paul the baker and religious moderate; he became St. Paul, a martyr for the Church he helped to create.
When pundits today talk about the loss of the Center, they are usually overstating the case. Still, the political spectrum world-wide is deforming in too many places into a Hofferian omega, and it sometimes seems like we've distilled from The True Believer a checklist for producing fanatics and are steadily moving down the list to produce people all-too-willing to sacrifice themselves and the present for a cause, and take down a whole lot of people as well.
Most people, for most of history, haven't been much involved in large-scale politics, and they have usually acquiesced in their lots, if far from embracing them, so long as the village and tribe and social networks held — and their betters left things be. Our "betters"— that One Percent and their helpers: the movers and shakers — are very successfully pushing another period of modernization and globalization, and this is both hopeful and highly dangerous.
As the alleged Russian joke has it, "Everything Marx told us about communism was false; unfortunately, everything he told us about capitalism was true." And Marx and Engels were very explicit on what it means for traditional cultures to get their corporate asses modernized and rationalized into the world capitalist system:
And for many people the "real conditions of life" without traditional social networks and support, without a defined role in life and status — can pretty much suck. The brave new world of Modernity, individuality, testing, and achievement (or not) can be rewarding, but even for the winners material goods may not be enough to balance the pain of alienation; and if times go bad, the material goods and their attendant status can "melt into air."Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. ("Manifesto of the Communist Party," 1848, ch. 1)
Such a pattern is obvious in the 20th century, but we were hardly unique, and Hoffer finds instructive parallels in earlier, even pre-capitalist periods.
So let's return for a moment I've mentioned elsewhere to Saul of Tarsus's famously (among educated Christians) becoming St. Paul, and the subsequent rise of Christianity as a major religion.
Hoffer asks the obvious question of why Christianity succeeded among the competing cults in the waning of the Hellenistic-Roman world. Initially, at least, the Church's intellectual offerings couldn't compete with even Roman let alone Greek philosophy, and the Christian promise of immortality was no better than that of the (other) mystery cults. What the Church did have to offer from fairly early on was a Way and a community. The churches were as communal as the synagog, and more so, and even more all-embracing and welcoming: in congregations following Paul, nonJews didn't have to follow the dietary code of Kashrut nor, for guys, undergo circumcision. And so forth.
The Way the Church offered was more flexible than Torah — far more flexible — but a Way: not some lifestyle but a plan for living and, by the time the Roman Empire imploded, a theory and mythos that encompassed everything: from the Genesis of all things to the Apocalypse that ends our universe. Life was hard for most people, as always, and getting worse for those who'd been well off under the more capable emperors, but the Church offered hope for life everlasting in the future and the experience of immediate community now in the community of Christ's warm embrace.
In our now, in the early 21st century, we are in the midst of at least two Great Awakenings and counting down to a clash of movements that could range from Christian Dominionism to Ayn Randian hyper-individualists (although hyper-individualistic Libertarians should be difficult to organize) to Likudniks with nuclear weapons to revived nationalist zeal in Russia, China, and the neighbors they challenge.
One prime contender, though, is the one whose potential danger is trivialized by bigots. Especially if met by a revived Russian and Chinese nationalism, especially if demonized by zealots in a Great-Awakening Christendom, a revivalist, fundamentalist Islam could make an incredibly impressive mass movement, possibly unequalled since, well, unequalled since the last time Islam was on the move, spreading out of the Arabian peninsula to Spain in the west and (by the 1200s) Indonesia in the east.
Again, Hoffer overstates, but he is right to see active and effective mass movements attempting to dwarf the present between a glorious past and a glorious future. The Nazis had to pretty much make up a glorious Teutonic past; Islam has a great past. And given the extent and resources of the dar al-Islam, Islam can have a great future. Islam offers a Way; the mosques offer community; and Islamic tradition strongly respects self-sacrifice, martyrdom. Add a unifying leader with the skills of a Saladin, provide the movement with enemies to demonize and be demonized by, and Islam could again vie for power in much of the world.
With large populations of unemployed and underemployed young men — many highly schooled — the Muslim world has its potential Saladins and lieutenants for a Saladin, and an ample supply of those Hoffer calls "Men of Words" to prepare the way for a unifying leader (section XV). With infidels in the heart of the dar al-Islam and US infidel soldiers still in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is plenty to talk about: continuing humiliation to be avenged.
And the world economy continues to integrate economically more people, with many good results including undermining "ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions," but with the cost in lessened community and inevitable alienation. And for many people a slowing world economy is not providing jobs to provide the goods and status that might balance such alienation.
So The True Believer remains a handy book for College Comp courses and an important book, period. Check out Part 2 on "The Potential Converts" and our rapid production thereof. Note the importance for fanatics of demonizing enemies — in both senses of that phrase. Note the celebration of "heart" over head, the denigration of facts: "All active mass movements strive […] to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. […] To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason" (section 56). Note the uses of propaganda (§ 83-84) and the usefulness of terror (§85), faith (§99), hatred (§65), the centrality of fear and suspicion (§100).
The great tagline of David Cronenberg's The Fly says, "Be afraid. Be very afraid"; we should be afraid of True Believers, of fanaticism — but rationally afraid.
We can read Hoffer's flawed, provocative, insightful True Believer for a checklist of things to be avoided and things to be done. For sure, more people need to read the book so "the centre" can hold a bit better, the world can be made marginally safer, and needed changes can come with minimal violence and blood. To start with, American politicians and agitators whipping up xenophobia and Islamophobia and encouraging American extremists can knock it off. American Christian and Jewish nationalist extremists — and some Ayn-Randy atheists as well — are, in a politically symbiotic relationship with Islamist extremists, participating in a highly vicious and dangerous cycle. If, nothing else, if Islamist extremism might become a major threat, America will need alliances with Russian-Orthodox Russia, secular Europe, and Confucian/Communist Authoritarian/Capitalist China; so people of influence in the non-stop American political cycle, stop already with the American exceptionalism and hyping normal competition with other great powers — great powers we need as friends — into chauvinistic hostility.
Large-scale slaughters of human beings have had a number of causes, but from the destruction of Jericho to the murder of Hypatia, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the Terrors under Robespierre and Stalin and Pol Pot — fanaticism has a strong record as a source of butchery. So far in our time, from the likes of the Taliban and al Qaeda and still-small cults, the body counts have been relatively low. Hoffer's True Believer remains a reminder to all literate people to act cautiously to prevent a spiral into horrors.