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Intellectual Tyrants Beget True Believers
The Essential Book for Times of Madness
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INTELLECTUAL TYRANTS BEGET TRUE BELIEVERS:
The Essential Book for Times of Madness
This month, the terrorist group, Hamas, visited unspeakable, deliberate, one-on-one violence on thousands of Israeli civilians and, to an unprecedented extent, proudly advertised its brutality to the world. In America and Europe, disturbingly large numbers of academicians, students, activists, and politicians—mostly on the political left—openly celebrate, rationalize, minimize, sidestep, or ignore the atrocities. In the streets and on university campuses, mobs threaten and deliver bodily harm and property destruction upon those who oppose their agenda. In New York City, police advise Jews to remain inside during pro-Hamas demonstrations. At New York’s Cooper Union, Jewish—not just Israeli—students were locked in the school’s library for their protection while pro-Hamas marchers pounded on doors and windows.
Paradoxically, many of the pro-Hamas enthusiasts are members of the very demographic groups whom the objects of their adulation have openly sworn, in writing and deed, to murder. None of this is inexplicable or even surprising, if one has read a small but unfathomably deep book, published in 1951, by one of the most profound thinkers of the past century. That book is The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer.
Hoffer wrote The True Believer in an attempt to understand how the barbarities of Nazism and Communism could have arisen in a supposedly enlightened world. Though published nearly three-quarters of a century ago, it reads as if written last year—or last week. Reading it at a normal pace is a three-hour journey into the dark recesses of the collective soul.
Hoffer was the unlikeliest of philosophers—a humble laborer and ascetic, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Supposedly born in 1902, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983—three months before he died. He had also been the Oval Office guest of President Lyndon Johnson in October 1967, just weeks after a blockbuster CBS News interview with Eric Sevareid (repeated that November by popular demand). President Dwight Eisenhower said Hoffer was his favorite philosopher. In 1964, he became an adjunct professor at the University of California—Berkeley. For two decades prior to that, he had worked as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco, loading and unloading ships by day. Each day, after leaving the docks, he went home to a spare, monastic Chinatown apartment that lacked even a telephone. And there, he wrote a dozen or so philosophical tracts in solitude.
Heading backwards in time from The True Believer, Hoffer, the man, fades into a riddle in a haze. No written records of Hoffer’s existence precede his name in the 1940 Census. The first oral accounts place him in California migrant worker camps in the 1930s. Before that, he claimed, he was a Skid Row wanderer who contemplated suicide. He said he went completely blind at 7 and that his sight miraculously returned when he was 15. At that point, he said, he became a voracious reader out of fear that his blindness would return. From Wikipedia:
“In his 2012 book, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, journalist Tom Bethell revealed doubts about Hoffer's account of his early life. Although Hoffer claimed his parents were from Alsace-Lorraine, Hoffer himself spoke with a pronounced Bavarian accent. He claimed to have been born and raised in the Bronx but had no Bronx accent. His lover and executor Lili Fabilli stated that she always thought Hoffer was an immigrant. Her son, Eric Fabilli, said that Hoffer's life might have been comparable to that of B. Traven and considered hiring a genealogist to investigate Hoffer's early life, to which Hoffer reportedly replied, ‘Are you sure you want to know?’ Pescadero land-owner Joe Gladstone, a family friend of the Fabillis who also knew Hoffer, said of Hoffer's account of his early life: ‘I don't believe a word of it.’ To this day, no one ever has claimed to have known Hoffer in his youth, and no records apparently exist of his parents, nor indeed of Hoffer himself until he was about forty, when his name appeared in a census.”
A likely theory is that Hoffer was from Bavaria and entered the United States illegally during a period of tight immigration restrictions. It is also likely that we will never know his origins with any certainty. What seems certain is that he was self-taught. And what is absolutely certain is that his insights were fermented on the docks and on the streets—not in the rarified chambers of the Ivory Tower.
Before delving into The True Believer, here is a quick introduction to Hoffer’s charm and the essence of his philosophy. While Hoffer had been well-known to a broad span of readers since The True Believer was published in 1951, his interview with Eric Sevareid on September 19, 1967 made him a household name across America. For several years afterward, he had a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers across the country. The hourlong Sevareid interview can be seen in a series of YouTube videos (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V), and they show a powerful, burly, wildly gregarious, German-accented storyteller.
In the following four-minute excerpt, Hoffer asserts that, more than any other group, intellectuals have a tendency toward corrupt megalomania. Though spoken 56 years ago, his words apply in 2023 to the corrosive illiberalism in America’s rotting universities—and in the broad range of institutions influenced by those universities. In the lead-up to this clip, Hoffer describes a shift in the American psyche, leaving behind an admiration for quotidien business and gravitating toward a devotion to intellectuals. In other words, abandoning doers for thinkers.
Here is the central message of this clip and a window into Hoffer’s mind:
“ERIC SEVAREID: Mr. Hoffer, you seem to have a fear about the rise of intellectuals in political life and power. Why are you so frightened of them.
ERIC HOFFER: First of all, I ought to tell you that I have no grievance against the intellectual. All I know about the intellectual is what I read in history and how I saw them perform in our time. And I’m convinced that the intellectual—as a type, as a group—they are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting, Mr. Sevareid, to realize that businessmen, generals even, soldiers, men of action are not corrupted by power like intellectuals. … You take a conventional man of action. He’s satisfied if you obey, huh? But not the intellectual. He doesn’t want you just obeying. He wants you to get down on your knees and pray to the one who makes you love what you hate and hate what you love. In other words, whenever intellectuals are in power, there is total raping going on.”
And this month, October 2023, the figurative raping of which Hoffer spoke spews forth from America’s universities in frenzied devotion to literal raping—along with torture, murder, beheading, kidnapping, and livestreaming the whole affair. October’s Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll asked Americans whether they side with Israel or Hamas in the ongoing conflict. (Israel versus Hamas, not Israel versus Palestinians.) According to the poll, 84% favor Israel and only 16% side with Hamas. However, among 18-to-24-year-olds the split is 52% for Israel and 48% for Hamas. In other words, if your child is in college and you want to guess his or her stance on Hamas, simply toss a coin; you’ll have close to a 50-50 chance of getting the correct answer. At Harvard, 30 student groups declared Israel “entirely responsible” for the attacks.
I’ll speculate that the percentages would be even more disturbing among their professors. A Cornell professor described Hamas’s bestiality as “exhilarating” and “energizing.”
One can use The True Believer to plumb the depths of terrorists’ and tyrants’ minds and motivations. There was, in fact, an upsurge in interest in Hoffer’s book after the attacks of 9/11. But the book is also an indispensable tool for understanding their camp followers, such as those silencing, maligning, assaulting, threatening, and encircling Jewish students on American campuses this month—while university administrators issue tepid tsk-tsks, if that.
Hoffer maps out the necessary elements for a fanatical movement, including whom it recruits, how it recruits them, and how it holds them. In short, a fanatical movement seeks bored underachievers, offers purpose for their aimless lives, and discourages questioning. In many ways, an alarming proportion of Generation Z, which includes today’s college cohort, has been primed since infancy for such recruitment—by professors, by K-12 teachers, and by their parents.
TARGETS FOR RECRUITMENT: Whom does a mass movement seek to recruit? Hoffer writes:
“The great general knows how to conjure an audience out of the sands of the desert and the waves of the ocean.”
“There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed.”
“[Followers] must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap.”
“The rule seems to be that those who find no difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others. They are easily persuaded and led.”
“Bored, discontented, inexperienced, persuadable, and well-to-do” could easily be the motto of a sizable percentage of Generation Z. They send texts in lieu of personal friendships. They play video games instead of creating their own activities. They are restricted to their homes and yards. Their teachers and professors indoctrinate them and discourage critical thinking. Their activities are planned and tightly supervised by adults. They demand and are granted “safe spaces.” They are trained to search for and howl about “microaggressions.” All of this shelter absolves them of any need to work out differences with others and to develop a tolerance for differing opinions. Their putative educators instill in them a hatred of dissent and a predilection for shaming those who stray from received doctrine. In the name of “equity” and other assorted buzzwords, professors train these perpetual tabulæ rasæ to despise others on the basis of immutable characteristics—race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion. They are involuntarily celibate and view marriage and family as unreachable (and perhaps undesirable) goals. Their aimless mediocrity is fueled by the vast financial resources of their parents and of taxpayers.
In a recent essay, “Whence Fall Snowflakes?” I asserted that, “A toxic fragility has settled in over America’s universities.” I described a colleague’s experience in a prestigious graduate program as akin to “a dreary Maoist struggle session,” in which, “[s]tudents dutifully climbed to their particular rungs on the intersectional ladder and admitted the sins that indelibly stain those on their particular rungs.”
Not all members of Generation Z and not all their educators and parents fit the above descriptions. But enough do to begin extinguishing the principles of the Enlightenment.
MEANS OF RECRUITMENT: Once the mass movement identifies its targets, what does it offer them as means of recruitment? Again, from Hoffer:
“Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable—it deliberately makes it so. … It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral.
“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.”
“A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”
“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless.”
“Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility,”
The professoriate portrays all things undesired as existential threats to mankind and mankind itself as an existential threat to earth. An endless list of issues—climate, COVID, gas stoves, firearms, immigration, population, GMOs, automobiles, and on and on—are presented in terms of impending doom and scientific certainty. Free speech is despised and censorship imposed.
A substantial percentage of college students today incur vast debts in pursuit of college educations that provide them with few marketable skills and strip them of the capacity for critical thinking. For many who secure employment, this prior regimentation is reinforced and preserved in amber by armies of bureaucrats, administrators, consultants, and human resources apparatchiks. Hence the loud squeals from the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity (DEI) clerisy whenever some illiberal manifestation is challenged or exposed.
Teachers demand that elementary school children publicly confess their “white privilege.” School curricula vilify the “white-adjacency” of Jews and Asians. “Colonialism” is reduced from a legitimate topic of historical research to a blood libel. A Stanford lecturer last week dismissed the Holocaust and demanded that Jewish students retreat into a corner to instill in them the notion that oppression of others is baked into their DNA.
Students who lack training to perform any useful service thus seek meaning in off-the-rack activism handed them by the intellectuals whom Hoffer feared.
MEANS OF RETENTION: And finally, once a mass movement has its recruits, how does it hold on to them? Hoffer writes:
“[A]ll of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.”
“What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any effective doctrine: it must be ‘contrary to nature, to common sense and to pleasure.’”
“If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable.”
“We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.”
“To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation.”
When the alarms change suddenly from, say, global cooling to global warming or from masks-are-stupid to masks-are-essential-when-you-are-driving-alone-in-your-car, one must not question the change. It is Science™, and to ask questions is proof of stupidity or wickedness. Training students to accept such shifts carte blanche is a process akin to breaking mustangs or training poodles.
The end result was described remarkably well by Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor under President Barack Obama. It was, I suspect, a Kinsleyan Gaffe—i.e., an occasion when a politician accidentally tells the truth. In explaining the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, Rhodes (whose brother was then president of CBS News) attributed their success to having constructed an “echo chamber” of gullible journalists:
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
As described by the Washington Post:
“Rhodes set up a team of staffers who were focused on promoting the deal, which apparently included the feeding of talking points at useful times in the news cycle to foreign policy experts who were favorably disposed toward it. ‘We created an echo chamber,’ he told the magazine. ‘They [the seemingly independent experts] were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.’”
Rhodes, of course, was describing journalists and experts whose professional mission is supposed to be providing accurate information, written from a background of knowledge. And yet, Rhodes says, in effect, that journalists are merly credulous sock puppets and policy experts are nothing more than ventriloquist’s dummies.
Now consider what all this might suggest about the journalists’ and experts’ younger siblings on American college campuses. Filter those observations through Hoffer’s The True Believer, and you begin to understand the appalling and otherwise inexplicable behavior occurring on campuses, in the streets, and across the internet this month.
I have a fascination with people like Eric Hoffer—geniuses whose origins are shrouded in mystery and contradiction. For those who share that interest, let me offer two works on two other 20th century ciphers: B. Traven and Vivian Maier. Like Hoffer, who they were, exactly, and whether they were born in America or abroad was hotly debated, with answers resistant to certainty.
The Secret of Sierra Madre: The Man Who Was B. Traven
B. Traven was a writer whose most famous work was his novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—later a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt and directed by Huston’s son John Huston. In the essay above, Eric Fabilli, son of Hoffer’s lover/executor Lili, compared Hoffer to Traven in terms of his uncertain provenance. At times, Traven was purported to be a pseudonym for individuals named Berick Traven Torsvan and Hal Croves—neither of whom clearly existed, though “Croves” showed up on the set of Huston’s film to make editorial demands. At other times, Traven was believed to be either Ret Marut, a Bavarian anarchist and official of the brief-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, or the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then again, some suspected he was really the long-missing Ambrose Bierce (who would have been far too old to be Traven) or Jack London (who had already died) or maybe a consortium of writers. Some believed Traven was a pseudonym for Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos—whose sister did, in fact, work as a publicist for Traven. (López Mateos issued a public denial that he was Traven.) Then there was the suggestion that Traven was Otto Feige, an obscure drifter born in Schwiebus, Germany (now Świebodzin, Poland).
Additionally, despite the worldwide fame of his books, no one is entirely sure which language they were originally written in—German, English, or Spanish. There are many books probing the mystery of Traven’s identity. I highly recommend The Secret of Sierra Madre: The Man Who Was B. Traven, by BBC journalist Will Wyatt. It’s well-written, the author had unprecedented access to crucial documentation at a unique moment in history. From what I know, Wyatt devises the most compelling case as to who Traven really was.
For those interested in Traven’s works, check out The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Death Ship. Also, one of my own recent Bastiat’s Window essays (“Old West Derivatives: Financial Engineering in the Mexican Wilderness”) was based on a Traven short story.
Finding Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier was a nanny who cared for a long sequence of children in Chicago—among them the children of TV personality Phil Donahue. Some of those she cared for remember her fondly, and others not-so-fondly. All seemed to agree that she was an oddball who cared much for locked doors and privacy from her employers. After her death, her possessions were found in an abandoned storage unit. The contents included perhaps 150,000 photographs which have since made her one of the most acclaimed street photographers of the 20th century. And yet, it may well be that she never showed any of her photos to anyone during her lifetime. She had something of an accent, and there was debate over whether she was American or French. (If I remember correctly, that question has been resolved, with some odd twists and turns along the way.)
Here’s a link to the website for a mesmerizing documentary on her life: Finding Vivian Maier. Below is a trailer for that video.