Thursday, 14 November 2013

Madness is Rare in Individuals

Book Review: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010)

Blurb: A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer –the first and most famous of his books – became a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest televised press conferences. Completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today, The True Believer is a visionary, provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.

The author: Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) was self-educated and lived the life of a drifter through the 1930s. After Pearl Harbor, he worked as a longshoreman in San Francisco for twenty-five years. He is the author of ten books, including The Passionate State of Mind, The Ordeal of Change, and The Temper of Our Time. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 and died later that year.

This book first came to my attention in 2010, after the failed IPCC summit on climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009, followed by the “climategate” emails of the preceding months, had all of a sudden cast doubt on what was arguably the most significant mass movement of the age. The scare was not quite what is had been hyped up to be, but certain people, even to this day, still cling doggedly to the belief that the world is warming up and mankind is primarily to blame, especially through our emission of carbon dioxide. Back in 2010, I noticed that such people were being labelled as “true believers”, and the purport was that such people’s faith never wavered in the slightest, regardless of the ever-emerging cracks or even overwhelming evidence that what they had called for and advocated no longer held up under scrutiny.  For further details, one had to read Eric Hoffer’s book, which was first published in 1951.

In previous blog posts, it has been pointed out the truth is not something that everyone is sincerely seeking, and the proof is that the majority of humanity lives and dies upon other than Islam. Therefore, demonstrating that something is undoubtedly true is not always enough to convince someone, because it is not minds and intellects that are diseased; it is hearts. Furthermore, this book was first mentioned on this blog in relation to a post about the religiosity of the AGW movement, and the lady who appears in the debate with Viscount Monckton would fit the description of the “true believer” perfectly. Again, one can see that the truth is not the primary motivator.

Eric Hoffer begins explaining this phenomenon by discussing the desire for change. Yes, it is indeed an oft-repeated slogan, and as Professor Thomas Sowell pointsout, to be attracted and drawn to the call for “change” without any qualification or clarification means that things must be so bad that any change would be positive. Hoffer explains that for a movement to take root, people have to be severely dissatisfied but not utterly pessimistic:

‘For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they 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 men who started the French Revolution were wholly without political experience. The same is true of the Bolsheviks, Nazis and the revolutionaries in Asia. The experienced man of affairs is a latecomer. He enters the movement when it is already a going concern. It is perhaps the Englishman’s political experience that keeps him shy of mass movements.’[1]

The second matter is the desire for substitutes. Hoffer explains that the difference between a mass movement and a practical organisation is that the latter offers opportunities for self-advancement while the former satisfies the passion for self-renunciation. This a is constant theme throughout the book, which is that mass movements appeal to the fear of an autonomous existence, an existence in which one has to think for oneself, and of course, this dovetails nicely with the objectives of compulsory schools as expounded by John Taylor Gatto in Dumbing Us Down, namely the inculcation of intellectual and emotional dependence. It’s as if schools set up individuals perfectly for the traps of jingoism, and if that fails then there are Greenpeace and other environmental/political movements and for Muslims there is a whole host of groups, cults, movements and “ūfīarīqahs that one can be enticed by and drawn into. After initiation, the “shaykh”, leader, guru, amīr or whatever will make your decisions for you and absolve you of any personal responsibility with regards to your faith.

If one is incapable of telling oneself what to do and what to think, maintaining an autonomous existence is a rather arduous task. One has no option but to be distracted by the affairs of others:

‘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 minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal national, and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbour’s shoulder or fly at his throat.’[2]

Later on the author states:

‘The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached.’[3]

Hoffer also touches on the narcissistic side of mass movement adherents:

‘The burning conviction that we have a holy duty towards 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. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centred for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.’[4]

As Ludwig von Mises points out in his work Bureaucracy, it is those who have nothing to offer their fellow men (by way of goods or services) that inevitably seek to control them.[5] The mass movement, especially a political one, grants an opportunity to useless people to feel special and important, and this is the major flaw of the democratic system, in that political parties provide the perfect route for the unproductive, parasitic classes to control and regulate the activities of the productive classes.[6]

Hoffer discusses this further on in the book:

‘The successful businessman is often a failure as a communal leader because his mind is attuned to the “things that are” and his heart set on that which can be accomplished in “our time.” Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs. And it is perhaps fortunate that some proud natures when suffering defeat in the practical world do not feel crushed but are suddenly fired with the apparently absurd conviction that they are eminently competent to direct the fortunes of the community and the nation.’[7]

Hoffer concludes Part 1 by discussing the interchangeability of mass movements, in that someone who is ripe for one movement will be ripe for any movement, as it is not the doctrines of a given movement that matters but the sense of belonging to something.Part 2 then mentions the kinds of people who become fanatics, namely:

  1. the poor 
  2. misfits 
  3. outcasts  
  4. minorities 
  5. adolescent youth 
  6.  the ambitious (whether facing insurmountable obstacles or unlimited opportunities) 
  7.  those in the grip of some vice or obsession the impotent (in body or mind)
  8. the inordinately selfish  
  9. the bored  
  10. the sinners[8]

When discussing the poor, Hoffer states:

‘It is obvious that a proselytizing group mass movement must break down all existing group ties if it is to win a considerable following. The ideal potential convert is the individual who stands alone, who has no collective body he can blend with and lose himself in and so mask the pettiness, meaninglessness and shabbiness of his individual existence. Where a mass movement finds the corporate pattern of family, tribe, country, etcetera, in a state of disruption and decay, it moves in and gathers the harvest. Where it finds the corporate pattern in good repair, it must attack and disrupt.’

The above is a clear warning and piece of advice for parents who are worried about their children joining some strange cult or “sufi” ṭarīqah; the ties of kinship are paramount.

On the national level, which is discussed in Part 3: United Action and Self-sacrifice, Hoffer makes a very interesting point about Americans:

‘The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An American’s hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners. It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners whole-heartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.’

The last line is most pertinent indeed as it can be linked to the cultural insecurities currently being suffered by the French and other European nations, made patently manifest by laws against religious symbols and especially Islamic symbols, such as the headscarf and niqāb. What this obviously means is that the French and other Europeans are feeling insecure and doubtful about the supposed superiority of their culture and civilization.[9] When Moroccan and Algerian immigrants arrived in France several decades ago, any adherence to their home culture was tolerated because of the very fact that they were immigrants. Their children, on the other hand, were expected to blend seamlessly into French culture, for after being born and raised in France, attending French schools and being exposed completely to French culture, how could they possibly be anything but French? How could they be just as religious as their parents or even more so? Yet this is exactly what has happened.

Another interesting point to draw from this is the arrogance that the French (and others) exude with regards to their culture and civilization, which is the assumption and expectation that mere exposure to the culture and civilization will make a person a devoted adherent. Muslims, on the other hand, acknowledge that their faith will be rejected and that apostasy from it is a reality. See Al-Māʾidah 5:54 as one example. Thus, while seeing someone reject the faith or desert it may be a cause of sadness, it is not a cause of insecurity or doubt, because Allah and His Messenger, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, have told us several times that this happens and will continue to happen. Therefore, the very occurrence of rejection and apostasy should strengthen our faith, if anything, because it is a confirmation of what is found in the Revelation.

This is then linked to proselytizing. A new Muslim from Europe or North America will inevitably experience inquisitiveness, often leading to mockery, from family and friends. Their uneasiness at his/her conversion is far greater than his/her uneasiness about them not readily embracing Islam. Again, doubt creeps in regarding their culture and civilization. How could someone just like them reject it? Hoffer sheds some light:

‘Intensity of conviction is not the main factor which impels a movement to spread its faith to the four corners of the earth: “religions of great intensity often confine themselves to contemning, destroying, or at best pitying what is not themselves.”[10] Nor is the impulse to proselytize an expression of an overabundance of power which as Bacon has it “is like a great flood, that will be sure to overflow.”[11] The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the centre. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others. The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse.’[12]

Thus, the fact that the majority of humanity are not Jehovah’s Witnesses causes Jehovah’s Witnesses certain unease, and that’s why they knock on your door. But the same can be said of the French banning religious symbols and imposing secularism; the idea that someone can be fully exposed to French culture and civilization and then reject it is not to be countenanced. It causes far too much unease.

Orthodox Muslims carry the characteristics of being sagacious and thoughtful believers, always prepared to investigate and cross-reference.  Putting all our eggs in one basket, i.e. by joining a cult or ‘ṣūfī’ ṭarīqah and letting those in charge make all our decisions is not our way. Furthermore, we do not allow ourselves to be disturbed when our faith is rejected or deserted. Rather, it is an affirmation of what Allah has already told us, and Allah has already decreed who will be saved and who won’t, and thus we do not need to rush and be anxious when inviting others to Islam. Instead, we carry on with our duties of slavehood to Allah, by learning what He has revealed to us and passing it on, striving to improve in our worship and draw nearer to Him and being patient with that which is outside of our control, for all of it is under His control.

The True Believer is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

[1] p.11
[2] p.14
[3] p.86
[4] p.14-15
[5] The exact quote is: “He who is unfit to serve his fellow citizens wants to rule them.” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) p.92
[6] Please see Our Enemy, the State by Albert Jay Nock (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, 1950). This short discussion by Thomas Sowell is also helpful.
[7] p.77
[8] p.25
[9] As Mises said, “The socialists of Eastern Germany, the self-styled German Democratic Republic, spectacularly admitted the bankruptcy of the Marxian dreams when they built a wall to prevent their comrades from fleeing into the non-socialist part of Germany.”
[10] Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom (New York: Pantheon Books, 1943), p.129
[11] Francis Bacon, “Of Vicissitude of Things,” Bacon’s Essays, Everyman’s Library Edition (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1932) p.171
[12] p.110


Anonymous said...

Dear Mahdi, shukran for this. It is quite an apt description of my own state at the moment having become involved with a turkish group/tariqah. Any Ideas on how to break out and re-achieve an autonomous religious experience and life? when I try to look at alternatives they are scary and uncertain. So I'm tempted to join up, go do a course in a turkish institution and resign myself to a life of hizmet even though I know this does not satisfy me intellectually or spiritually.

I am also constantly plagued with doubts. For example the group sets up youth hostels all around the world where it takes in kids, converts them and gives them and provides a solid education in basic islamic teachings along with some sufi stuff. Now although I have seen and continue to see things like fanaticism, ghuloo in the sheikh etc. I start thinking maybe this is a way that God is using to spread his light which is eventually gonna be perfected. I'm in africa right, and I look at these kids who would otherwise be living destitute lives in societies plagued with alcoholism and all manner of vices and I think aren't these guys doing something good? Giving them a sound moral training, introducing and schooling them in deen, helping them achieve and excel academically...
Sorry if this is long but the post really spoke to me,
Thanks again
salaam alaykum

Mahdi Lock said...

Assalaam alaykum,

Jazakum Allah khayran for the message.

To answer your questions, I would have to say the following:

1) Righteousness and morality are not a proof or even an indication of correct belief or doctrine. There are plenty of churches that do charity work in sub-Saharan Africa but this is no proof that Christianity itself or the sect or denomination that those charitable people belong is upon the Truth. The same goes for cults and sects attributed to Muslims.

2) As for an autonomous religious experience, the first step is Arabic. Once you have access to original texts, whether it is the Qur'an, the Sunnah, books of fiqh, or whatever else, charlatans will not be able to take advantage of you.

I would also recommend that you have a look at the posts:

A Guide for New Believers
Allah is the First and the Last

And may Allah grant you success in your endeavours, ameen.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the responses.The missionary example is a good one,come to think of it my mum also made the analogy. Its just so hard to break the spell somehow.

Downloaded the book so i'm going to have a read and build some motivation inshallah.

I do have basic arabic comprehension but need to work on it and use it more inshallah. Had a look at the other post, some good links and resources shukran.

Remember a brother in your prayers,

PS: the group is the suleymanci of turkey. if you know anything about them that would help please let me know.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond