The True Believer
by Joe Palmer
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Some public personalities of high achievement get along without proper schooling. One such was the renowned television personality, columnist, author, and consulting professor at Berkeley, Eric Hoffer, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. He wrote a book you have to read, a tiny book the size of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and just as important. Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer will set you on your rear and twirl you around, and when you stop you will see critically how things work in this world of ours. You might become a libertarian, questioning the outcome of all social projects and institutions.
Eric Hoffer (1902-84) was an ordinary workingman, a lifter, a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks who did not go to school because his parents died and he became blind. He was blind between ages seven and 15. Then he was a manual laborer and field hand by choice, and he spent his free time at public libraries. He said the rich and the poor amuse themselves with toys and drugs like children while the grown-ups work. Hoffer does not proselytize, persuade, or argue. He does not sell religion or politics. He merely relates ideas through observation and generalization, not at length but through aphorisms. He gets to the point in his several books.
Hoffer owes nothing to any school of thought, except that his sceptical view of knowledge places him as a sort of reincarnation of Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), who seems to doubt everything but religious faith. Hoffer thought for himself about the mass panic attacks that had brought us WWII. How could the Germans, of all people the best educated, the cultural leaders of the West, go all together crazy for the Nazis? Used to be you had to read German to know what was going on in the arts and sciences. For instance, as a graduate student I had to pass a test proving I could read German, that’s how old I am and how important the German language used to be!
According to Hoffer, by understanding the nature of a mass movement (like An Inconvenient Truth, Al-Qaida, environmentalism, developmentalism, Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy, Scientology, Mormonism, La Revolución Cubana) or any political frenzy, we free ourselves from it. In my case, I wanted to be free to get away from mass movements. I did not ever want to be free from freedom. That’s where Eric Hoffer came in.
When I was a teenager like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in The Rye, I thought everybody was a phony, that everyone was counterfeit or fake. I was not big enough of spirit to see people as themselves and let them be who they were. I did not know who I was, and so I could not respect others. I thought they were all hypocrites - teachers, preachers, politicians, entertainers, my relatives and friends… Everybody I knew and knew about had to be faking it, pretending to be something they were not. How could anyone in his right mind be a Catholic, Baptist, Nazi, Ku Kluxer, Fascist, Communist, Republican, or anything beginning with a capital letter? I did not understand that belonging to a group, being a recognized and beloved part of a family, community, clique, tribe, clan, or nation is natural and necessary. It makes us comfortable. That’s what we most care about.
Unbearable as I was, I had to repeat high school. I was last in my class. My grades were barely passing. I was such a poor student they sent me off to teachers college to learn what I was supposed to have learned in high school. Then I was last in my class again after four more years of playing scholar. I hated school. I never wanted to be “socialized.” I’m not alone. Yale professor Harold Bloom barely made it through high school too. Then he took the Regents, the leaving exam required in New York. He scored so high they gave him a scholarship to Cornell University. Hoffer and Bloom’s experiences with schooling make me doubt the necessity of public education whose goal is to produce happy, cooperative, productive citizens rather than knowledge. What Jonathan Kozol calls the "American Dream", public schools giving every individual an equal chance and thereby solving our social problems, has been shelved by popular demand. Our schools reflect a society segregated by race, class, and money, and that’s the way we want it.
Myself, after teaching in country schools for four years I got a scholarship to get a masters degree at the University of Michigan. There they required the Miller Analogies Test of all graduate students. I scored 96%. The examiner called me in. How did I do it? Do what? Score in the 99th percentile. I looked at my test. I did not know how to tell bias from selvage, and I thought George Washington was more like Simon Bolivar than Thaddeus Kosciusco or Oom Paul Kruger. I admitted my ignorance.
But how did you do it?
I read and remembered what I read.
I am blind in one eye and was a sickly kid. The third dimension of the world is not so apparent to me at first. To me everything is flat. Yet I am an eagle scout, a doctor of philosophy, and a professor emeritus. That’s not much of a series of accomplishments compared to many. But we have to remember that it is all a lottery. Each of us is blessed and cursed. We all have some luck, good and bad.
When I was young and foolish, I needed someone to set me straight, to help me see that other people were having just as hard a time coming to terms with the world as I was. I did not know how to sort things out until in 1951 I read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, his thoughts on fanaticism and mass movements. The book is more pertinent to our situation than ever before: we all need to know what Hoffer has to say about the evil of enthusiasm, the menace of zeal, the danger of fervor, the peril of dogmatism, passion, bigotry, and militantism. Eric Hoffer’s bestseller revealed my own identity to me, the identity I had been searching for as a contrary, post-intellectual Bartleby full of despair at the hypocrisy and materialism around me.
First of all, I learned from Hoffer that people do not agree on much of anything, and they cannot all be right. In fact, none of them are right except that they have might, power, money, and control. Those who command the army are as right as it is possible to be.
People don’t want freedom. They want to be told what to do and think and feel. People are basically selfish. Their motives are purely mean and narrow. It is by joining with like-minded others that they hide their pettiness. In any case, if people had ignored Hitler, something different would have happened, maybe, but not because there was or was not that Füaut;hrer. He was merely an apple on the tree of madness. We live in a Cuckoo’s Nest on one branch.
Intellectuals are fascists in disguise. They have a plan, each and every one of them. The Neo-Cons in Washington, in spite of their leader, are a gaggle of eggheads, and the Soviet Union, for example, was an intellectual’s paradise. The intellectual’s self-esteem depends on his having a scheme up his sleeve for making us do what he wants, like attending schools, prisons for children where they are trained to be good employees.
Well, what if you don’t want to be collectivized and sent to pull weeds out of the onions or sent to live in a ticky-tacky house in the suburbs and to pay for it with a boring job?
When Eric Hoffer wrote, "To some, freedom means the opportunity to do what they want to do; to most it means not to do what they do not want to do,” he resembled Isaiah Berlin (1907-97), the Oxford philosopher. “Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or human happiness or a quiet conscience,” he wrote.
Those who have ever valued liberty for its own sake believed that to be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.
But to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you-the-social-reformers see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.
- Isaiah Berlin
The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do.
People unfit for freedom - who cannot do much with it - are hungry for power. The desire for freedom is an attribute of a "have" type of self. It says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realize my capacities. The desire for power is basically an attribute of a "have not" type of self.
- Eric Hoffer
Read Hoffer. There is no escape. Be comforted, somehow.