Friday, September 6, 2019

True Believers

“The believer is happy, the doubter is wise.”
 —Hungarian proverb
“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”
 —Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)
When I write fiction, my ultimate aim is simply to tell a good story. To the extent that my own personal world view slips in—or my opinions of political or social issues—they are meant only to serve the story, not to proselytize. Nothing kills the artistic quality of a work quite as definitively as the obvious, crass spectacle of blatantly serving the aims of a particular government, political party, or public pressure group.

Still, it is impossible not to let a little social commentary slip in once in a while. In my latest novel, The Curse of Septimus Bridge, I showed such weakness in the nineteenth chapter, called “Cultists.” A pertinent excerpt:
Lola fought the urge to panic. “Who are they? Are they demons?”
 “No,” said Septimus, getting to his feet. “They are worse than demons. They are human beings—and the worst kind of human beings. They are cultists.”
 “Cultists? You mean, like the people who hang out at the airport?”
 “Not precisely. The Fiend preys on those with weak minds, and he has no trouble finding simple intellects who can be duped. There are always those who will happily follow the tenets of his false religion and become warriors and agents for a cause they do not understand. There is never a shortage of aimless souls willing to be recruited and follow blindly.”
Five pages later:
The demon hunter went from one cultist to another, kneeling by each one to whisper something in his ear. One by one, they each stood and plodded—or limped—away.
  “The one good thing about true believers is that they are, by nature, easily open to suggestion.”
This is, of course, a thinly-veiled potshot at people who buy into their religion or politics with a dull, unquestioning loyalty. One reader emailed me to say that, in his experience, an example of such cultists was Trump supporters. I am Trump supporters could read the very same passages from my book and conclude that the real cultists are the NeverTrumpers or some other group with which they disagree.

That is the thing about identifying people who we think are easily led or who are mindless followers. Those people are always someone else. None of us thinks that we are the unquestioning true believer. We know that we arrived at our opinions through reason, experience, and insight. It is that other fellow who is easily manipulated by propaganda and open to suggestions from demagogues.

It was not an accident that Septimus referred to his foes as “true believers.” That was my nod to Eric Hoffer, the philosopher and author who wrote one of the best explanations of fanaticism ever published: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, he clearly had in mind such movements as Nazism and Communism. Of such movements, he wrote chillingly, “[A]ll 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…”

Hoffer was a fascinating character. As a young teenager, I became familiar with him through a 1967 CBS News special in which he was interviewed by journalist Eric Sevareid and which was re-aired two months later by popular demand. Born in the Bronx in 1898 to immigrants from Alsace, he never lost his German accent. After the death of his parents, he wandered for years, worked odd jobs, lived on Skid Row, became a migrant farm worker in California, and also prospected for gold in the mountains. In his 40s, he got work as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. A voracious reader, he acquired a library card wherever he was living. He also wrote, and he came to public attention in 1951 with The True Believer. In his mid-60s, he left the docks to become an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley. He died in 1983.

Given the penchant these days to liken leaders whom one does not like to despots (both presidents Obama and Trump have been compared by their respective detractors to Hitler), it would be a great thing if more people read Hoffer to understand what fanatical movements are really like. If there is any optimism to be gleaned from the tribalistic rhetoric that increasingly fills our airwaves and social media, it is perhaps this observation by Hoffer regarding fanatical movements: “All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action.” Trumpers and NeverTrumpers are all certainly willing to troll and provoke, but are any of them actually willing to die for their beliefs? Probably not. But the danger may be that they inadvertently inspire and influence others who might be.

One final Hoffer quote that particularly intrigues me, from Reflections on the Human Condition (1973): “The Savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.”

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