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Thoughts from Linda:

The True Believer

Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

By Eric Hoffer

As I write this introduction, we are on the cusp of the 2020 Presidential Election in the U.S. in a very divided country, and emotions are high. Our books selected for this month of November both focus on the issue of ‘world views’ and explore them from two perspectives. This first book, by Eric Hoffer, was written in the 1950s and is certainly a ‘theory of the case’ document. It is as relevant today as it was then, reflecting his thinking after WWII and looking at the world as it existed then, which seems in some ways quaint today, but in many ways eerily familiar.

The second book, The Righteous Mind, subtitled, ‘Why good people are divided by politics and religion’ is a terrific modern, science-oriented extension of the theory of the case and intersects with Hoffer’s work in some very interesting ways. That would be a great topic for a lengthy paper in a graduate class!

We want to simply highlight both of these, as there are now in the United States numerous attempts to organize ‘movements,’ and of course, very few people want to venture into the topics of politics and/ or religion around the Thanksgiving table, be it in-person or virtual this year. 

Even more significantly, there are now some 940 ‘Hate Groups’ identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center operating in the U.S. These domestic hate groups now have the internet as their vehicle and we are seeing a rise of activity, especially with heavily militarized groups. It is time for all Americans to pay attention to what is going on with groups such as the Oath Keepers, for example. (As noted by the SPLC “The Oath Keepers, which claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members, is one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today. While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.”)

NPR just released a podcast of an interview with Mike Giglio, who has written an article for the November issue of The Atlantic, where he profiles this group based on two years of research. You can also Google the November issue of The Atlantic and it is on-line for free right now.

Both of these books provide insights into our current situation and give room for pause and reflection, as we all are in this together.

First, The True Believer

As Eric Hoffer states after his Preface, “the reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this …book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored. But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions.” He quotes: “To illustrate a principle, says Bagehot, ‘you must exaggerate much, and you must omit much.’”

And so, as I read the book, I found myself much distracted by his generalizations and exaggerations as he made his arguments. However, I think the reading of this short book is quite worthwhile and helpful in framing a historical perspective of mass movements, especially in the early phases of the movements.

The book is mainly focused on the active, what Hoffer calls ‘revivalist’ phase of mass movements, where the domination of ‘true believers’ – in his terms—fanatically faithful individuals ready to sacrifice their lives for a ‘holy’ cause are most significant. He offers his thesis and then, goes into depths of an argument to make his own case for the conclusions he has reached. I especially appreciated his conversational style and politically incorrect approach, which he acknowledged as his tendencies. He covers everything from Christianity, to the Nazis, including explorations of Russian and Asian examples. It is wide-ranging and will stimulate your thinking and definitely helped me develop both a broader frame on the nature of mass movements themselves and also a narrower, but deeper understanding, of the nature of the individual leader and his role in the entire process of ‘mass movements.’ 

The book consists of a preface and 125 sections, which are divided into 18 chapters. In it, Hoffer analyzes the phenomenon of "mass movements," a general term that he applies to revolutionary parties, nationalistic movements, and religious movements. He summarizes his thesis as "A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of actions." 

As interesting as the book itself, is the story of Eric Hoffer. The story as he told it was that his parents emigrated to America from Germany and he lost both of them at an early age. He at one point lost his eyesight but regained it and from that point forward, read voraciously, he would say, just in case that ever happened again. He essentially left the East Coast on a bus and travelled to L.A. when he was a teenager. He ended up literally on the 50-block site named Skid Row, the section of downtown L.A. that has since the 1930s been one of the largest stable sites of homeless in the country, housing some 4,000 to 8,000 people. He drifted during his youth, working as a migrant laborer, a gold prospector and ultimately as a dock worker.

He wrote 10 books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 and has been recognized as one of America’s finest moral and social philosophers.

Harvard historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said of The True Believer: "This brilliant and original inquiry into the nature of mass movements is a genuine contribution to our social thought."

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