Eric Hoffer had his number decades ago.
Here’s a quiz that may appear some day on history tests:
Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in November 2009, was:
a) Part of a terror network that had planned attacks on the United States since the 1990s;
b) A deranged psychotic who snapped under the pressure of treating soldiers returning from Iraq and who happened to be a Muslim;
c) A prime example of “The True Believer,” the lonely, frustrated individual who attaches himself to an overarching cause as a way of compensating for personal failures.
The answer, of course, is “c,” the true believer. There is no sense in searching his computer for ties to al Qaeda, or combing the psychology textbooks for a diagnosis, or listening to the journalistic sages such as Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, who says he “cringed” to discover that such an obvious lunatic as Major Hasan also happened to be a Muslim. The text for understanding Major Hasan’s actions is Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic, The True Believer, written as an explanation of the appeal of secular religions in the 20th century. Hoffer’s book also explains why there will be many, many more Major Hasans.
Almost completely forgotten now and rarely encountered in the college curriculum, The True Believer was a dazzling explanation of why 20th century totalitarian creeds appealed to so many seemingly ordinary and non-descript individuals, particularly among the intelligentsia. A self-educated migrant worker who spent many years living on skid row, Hoffer had been endowed with a love of reading after losing his eyesight temporarily as a child and then regaining it again as a teenager. It was only after spending a winter cooped up in a mountain cabin with a copy of Montaigne’s Essays while prospecting for gold in Alaska, however, that he became convinced he could write. Hoffer eventually settled in as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks, publishing The True Believer at age 49 and following with several more classics. A blue-collar worker all his life, Hoffer was probably the original Reagan Democrat — and indeed was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan in 1983.
Writing just as Americans were trying to fathom the causes of the Cold War, Hoffer provided an astute, sometimes brutal, explanation of why millennial sects of communism and fascism appealed to seemingly ordinary individuals:
A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.… Their innermost craving is for a new life — a rebirth — or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.… To the frustrated, a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.
To Hoffer, this dissatisfaction with the personal life was the only thing that could lead to the level of self-renunciation —and even self-destruction — that mass movements often required of their followers:
All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action: all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.
Mass movements taught people to aspire a perfect world rather than the profane one around them, a glorious future rather than the sordid present, an ideal and perfect community rather than the uncertain company of their fellow men. In many ways they resembled religions — and indeed, Hoffer said all the major religions were mass movement in their earliest stages. “Though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious,” he noted. And while the secular religions of communism and fascism had disposed of God, they certainly had not abandoned the Devil. Unbridled hatred of an enemy, real or imagined, was the core of every fanatical creed.
Mass movements thrived amidst unanticipated poverty and in the disruptions of war, Hoffer wrote. But their core appeal was to the personal failings of individuals. Moreover, “a proselytizing mass movement deliberately fosters in its adherents a frustrated state of mind,” disrupting wherever it could the ordinary satisfactions of normal life:
Almost all our contemporary movements showed in their early stages a hostile attitude toward the family, and did all they could to discredit and disrupt it. They did it by undermine the authority of the parents; by facilitating divorce; by taking over the responsibility for feeding, education and entertaining the children; and by fostering illegitimacy. [Any resemblance to the contemporary Democratic Party’s social agenda, by the way, is purely coincidental.]
The core of mass movement, then, was a hatred of the present. And of course Western democratic societies, which had succeeded in raising the comforts and conveniences of everyday life to the highest levels in history, were always the object of the greatest scorn:
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