Jean Stimmell, a retired stonemason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.
“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while scholars find themselves beautifully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.” –Eric Hoffer
I became a fan of Eric Hoffer after reading his bestseller, The true believer. At the time, I was a young man recently returned from Vietnam working in union building and going to college when I could afford it.
I had a particular attraction for Hoffer, a longshoreman from San Francisco because he was unionized like me. I savored how he destroyed the stereotype of an intellectual as a frail creature cloistered in an ivy tower. He was the exact opposite.
Self-taught and down-to-earth, a blue-collar worker. The college does a great job of training a person how to color inside the lines, sometimes at the expense of being blind to the exciting new worlds that dwell outside those lines. Look at these famous artists who were known for innovating, perhaps because they never went to art school – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh come to mind.
Another commonality is that I do my research in the same unorthodox way as Hoffer, although I now do it online and on Kindle. From notes I took in the last century, here is his take on the subject:
“I go to the library, I take things that interest me, I use everything that comes to hand. And I believe that if you have a good theory, the things you need will come to you. You will be lucky. (The Independent Researcher’s HandbookRonald Gross.)
I revisit The true believer now, a book written over 70 years ago, because its analysis of mass movements is so accurate. It is amazing how accurately his reflections on the nature of fascism, Nazism and post-World War II communism predict the resurgence of authoritarianism today.
In my view, the power of Hoffer’s analysis comes from the fact that he is a worker, understanding in his gut that at their core such movements are not ideological or political but personal and psychological.
Hoffer’s book shows why people are drawn to mass movements, be it Nazism or Trumpism. It is when their personal advancement is blocked and they feel devalued by society. For these true believers, Hoffer writes, “Their deepest desire is for a new life – a rebirth – or, failing that, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by identification with a holy cause. An active mass movement provides them with opportunities for both.
Trump supporters complain that white Americans are being replaced by minorities and prevented from advancing in society by an educated elite who view them as “deplorables”. Hoffer shows how such grievances engender “passionate hatred” which, in a psychological sense, gives meaning to their lives.
“Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus, people haunted by the lack of purpose in their lives try to find new content not only by devoting themselves to a holy cause but also by harboring a fanatical grievance. A mass movement gives them unlimited opportunities for both.
Hoffer makes a crucial point about how to move forward, whether we are on the right or the left. “Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by creating and controlling discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of planned changes or by compelling people to adopt a new way of life. They must know how to ignite and kindle an extravagant hope.
Trump, the ultimate reality TV host, promised extravagant hope with his galvanizing rhetoric on Make America Great Again, promising to return people – especially white men – to a state of maximum power in a fantasy world. which never really existed. It was perhaps no coincidence that he would have kept a copy of Adolf Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. Meanwhile, Democrats talk about mind-numbing policy proposals that put people to sleep or get them drunk.
Liberals need to wake up. We must proclaim our outlandish hopes of building a better world for all of us because, as Hoffer understood, “the differences between conservatives and radicals seem to stem primarily from their attitude toward the future. Fear of the future makes us lean on and cling to the present, while faith in the future makes us receptive to change.
Let’s listen to Eric Hoffer! It’s time to rekindle and stoke our wild hopes of creating positive change, before it’s too late.