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August 19th, 2017

Insight

'The True Believer' is relevant again

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published March 14, 2017

'The True Believer' is relevant again

Remember Eric Hoffer? His time has come -- again.

The late and still great Eric Hoffer's classic study of mass man, mass movements, and the mass mind ("The True Believer") appeared in 1951, and it remains just as perceptive in this first year of the Age of Trump; it could have been published yesterday. If you seek evidence for that assertion, just pick up a copy, or take a look at the protesters who threaten to shut down some of this country's oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities -- from Ivy League schools in the east to their counterparts on the other side of the continent. All too often this motley crew may be appeased by craven administrators. But not this time, and not at Stanford, where a former provost named John Etchemendy recently addressed the school's board of trustees in terms as vigorous as they remain relevant.

"Over the years," as the valiant Mr. Etchemendy told Stanford's board, "I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country -- not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines -- there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for....

"The university is not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view, and when it does it violates a core mission. Universities must remain open forums for contentious debate, and they cannot do so while officially espousing one side of that debate.


"But we must do more," he continued. "We need to encourage real diversity of thought in the professoriate, and that will be even harder to achieve. It is hard for anyone to acknowledge high-quality work when that work is at odds, perhaps opposed, to one's own deeply held beliefs. But we all need worthy opponents to challenge us in our search for truth."

Amen. For whoever learned that much from his admirers? It is our critics that oblige us to think our ideas through, and so strengthen us.

Eric Hoffer could have seen all this to-do coming and did. As he put it in "The True Believer": "The fact that both the French and Russian revolutions turned into nationalist movements seems to indicate that in modern times nationalism is the most copious and durable source of mass enthusiasm, and that nationalist fervor must be tapped if the drastic changes projected and initiated by revolutionary enthusiasm are to be consummated."

Sound familiar? It should. For the views expressed in Eric Hoffer's slim little book could stand as a compendium of all the cheap tricks used to distract We the People from responsibility for our own condition. Here are some other choice selections from Eric Hoffer's guide to politics and its discontents:

"The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. 'If anything ail a man,' says Thoreau, 'so that he does not perform his functions, if he has a pain in his bowels even ... he forthwith sets about reforming -- the world.' "

"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."

"A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed."

"Those who clamor loudest for freedom are often the least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. Actually their innermost desire is for an end to the 'free for all.' They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society."

Agree or disagree with Eric Hoffer's percipient observations, they are still worthwhile. And worth analyzing. For "The True Believer" is not to be devoured in a single setting. One by one they have ripened over the years till they are again in season.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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