Friday, January 05, 2007

Saving Eric Hoffer from Althouse

Law Blogress Ann Althouse recently attended a Liberty Fund colloquium, an event that is still sending ripples through the claustrophobia-inducing echo-chamber of the blogosphere. (Full disclosure: I regularly direct Liberty Fund colloquia.) I won't comment on her alleged behavior at the conference because I wasn't there. I do want to say a word or two about something she said on her blog afterwards:
I am struck -- you may think it is absurd for me to be suddenly struck by this -- but I am struck by how deeply and seriously libertarians and conservatives believe in their ideas. I'm used to the way lefties and liberals take themselves seriously and how deeply they believe. Me, I find true believers strange and -- if they have power -- frightening. [Emphasis added.]
She may or may not know this, but the phrase "true believer" gained its currency in our culture as the title of Eric Hoffer's brilliant book, The True Believer (New York: Harper, 1951), which we should all re-read every decade or so. The way she is using -- I mean, mis-using it here reflects a widespread misconception. Someone has got to rescue Hoffer from this kind of abuse! By this phrase, he did not mean to refer to people who "deeply and seriously ... believe in their ideas."

The subtitle of Hoffer's book is "Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements." Hoffer is one of my favorite people, ever, and a remarkable man by anyone's standards. Wandering about California as a migrant worker in the thirties, he was struck by the strong appeal of Facscism and Communism. Unlike most intellectuals at the time, he did not think of these things as opposites. He was much more struck be their similarities, and especially by the similarities among the botched and mangled souls that found these movements attractive. As he read more and more widely (he used to say that he had a library card for every town in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Valleys) he was struck by the similarity of these movements to others in the past, especially religious ones.

Hoffer never actually explained the title of his book, but it's clear that "true believer" did not mean somebody who truly believes something. Rather it meant people who find meaning in their lives by clumping together, handing their belief system over the operation of a charismatic leader, and stigmatizing, hating, and coercing the false believer. The mark of the Hofferian True Believer is not belief but intolerance of the Evil Other. As Hoffer said, "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil." (TB, sect. 65.)

The True Believer is "ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, disputatious, petty and rude." Hoffer describes his antipode, not as the skeptic, but rather as "the autonomous man." (TB, sect. 117.)

I don't think Eric Hoffer would have found it "strange" and "frightening" that there are people out there who deeply believe in their ideas. In fact, I like to think he would find it "strange" and "frightening" that some people are so prone to finding others' beliefs "strange" and "frightening." Come to think if it, isn't that one of the traits of the Hofferian true believer?

[My thanks to Deborah Katz Hunt for suggesting this last point to me.]

No comments: