Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2001 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Field guide to fanatics -- IT happens every time ideologues turn violent. A great mystification descends. Who could have done this? What could they have hoped to accomplish? What were their reasons?

It is as if the crazed need reasons for what they do. They need only a wild belief, and a determination to destroy any competing belief, any alternate reality, any other way of life. Whether that way of life is represented by gleaming modern skyscrapers in the West or ancient Buddhas from the East, both must be reduced to rubble. For they represent the Other, the Great Satan, the Infidel, and must be obliterated by the faithful.

There's a name for this type: the True Believer. And it comes from Eric Hoffer's field guide to the fanatic, "The True Believer: Thoughts On the Nature of Mass Movements.'' .

First published in 1951, and inspired by the Nazi and Communist movements that had swept through the 20th Century like the Plague, Eric Hoffer's little book is now being reissued on its 50th anniversary -- just in time to explain the latest mass madness.

The book's author was a longshoreman and philosopher -- in that order. He'd been around and been kicked around for so long, worked at so many jobs and seen so many things in the America of the '30s and '40s, that he'd developed a healthy, saving respect for what worked and an understanding of what wouldn't. His country was his university, his times his teacher. What he brought to them was an unbiased mind and the habit, even compulsion, of analysis.

Over the years Eric Hoffer began to jot down his intermittent thoughts about the society around him. He was no airy thinker but a worker unafraid of a little heavy lifting. He never pretended to be anything else. Which may be why there is no such thing as Hofferism or a philosophic school of Hoffer, but rather this collection of epigrammatic observations. And they apply perfectly every few years, which is when another mass movement appears on the disorderly scene. For example:

  • "All mass movements strive to impose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.''

  • "Dying and killing are easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance or game. There is the need for make-believe in order to face death. It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle, a solemn, dramatic performance.''

  • "Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. There is less risk in being discredited when trying the impossible than when trying the possible.''

  • "The revulsion from an unwanted self and the impulse to forget it produce both a readiness to sacrifice the self and a willingness to dissolve individual distinctiveness in a compact collective whole.''

It is always an assurance and light to have this little book around, but in good times it grows dated, and not very pertinent. In unsteady times like these, when violence breaks loose and a somnolent world is shocked awake, Eric Hoffer is so relevant he's mighty near indispensable.

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"The True Believer'' is like a medical textbook that just sits on the shelf until the epidemic recurs. Then you open it, and while the disease may have a different name from time to time -- this year it's Jihad instead of Proletarian Revolution or Aryan Revival -- you realize it's the same plague.

Sometimes it seems as if Eric Hoffer could be writing today. Consider this passage from his "The Ordeal of Change,'' published in 1963, if you're curious about why True Believers are abundant in some times and not in others:

"When a population undergoing drastic change is without abundant opportunities for individual action and advancement, it develops a hunger for faith, pride and unity. It becomes receptive to all manner of proselytizing, and is eager to throw itself into collective undertakings, which aim at 'showing the world.' In other words, drastic change, under certain conditions, creates a proclivity for fanatical attitudes, united action and spectacular manifestations of flouting and defiance.''

This new crop of True Believers out of the Middle East is but one more symptom of Arabdom's inability to come to terms with modernity, or even with its own classical civilization, which was one of tolerance, learning, scientific advances and great literature.

In his life, Eric Hoffer had seen many take refuge in their favorite fantasies and turn into useless bores, or maybe a lot worse. What he may have valued most, beside the pleasure and freedom of thought itself, was the unspoken sense and joy of ordinary life, its stability and advance. In short, peace. But what fascinated him, and what he kept writing about in concise bursts of wisdom, were the various ways men fooled themselves.

Sometimes, he realized, men are tricked by their own desperation and longing, but more often by a deep sense of dissatisfaction with their place in the world. They get no respect. Especially from themselves. So they invent elaborate fantasies and ideologies, which they call social and economic or even religious theories, in order to explain why the world is so mistaken, so unappreciative of their unique talent and insight. They're the victim of some all-embracing, hidden conspiracy -- godless capitalism/communism, the West, the Jews, pick your demon.

With dismaying regularity, there comes across an editor's desk some scrawled manifesto, or these days an e-mailed one, claiming to unveil the secrets of the universe. But a certain organizational ability is necessary to turn a "Mein Kampf'' or a "Communist Manifesto'' into a movement. To attain critical mass, it's necessary to recruit True Believers.

The True Believer has a way of rising up like foam on beer whenever society is stirred up, and Eric Hoffer dissected the type's various incarnations: the frustrated artist who becomes a fuehrer, the bright schoolteacher who makes a Bolshevik revolution, and the deluded who follow them.

Now Eric Hoffer is relevant again, unfortunately. He offers a welcome corrective to those eager to explain terrorism to the rest of us the way the learned might explain the reasoning of the Typhus bacillus and how to meet its demands.

We are told again and again to look for the underlying causes of the attack on America and civilization Sept. 11. By remarkable coincidence, that Root Cause and how to fix it always fit perfectly into the Great Explainers' own politics or sociology or just underappreciated insights and theories. That is, prejudices.

The oh-so-sophisticated may not grasp the simplest of points: Terrorism comes from terrorists. It comes from True Believers who are so unhappy with reality they think they can ignore it, or better yet destroy it. Their nostrums and doctrines may differ in content from unruly time to unruly time, but not in violent spirit. Their demands are a pretext for their violence, not an explanation of it.

Of course terrorist manifestos need to be examined, the way the symptoms of any other infectious disease might be -- in order to eradicate it. When the Germans put Lenin in a sealed car and sent him back to a crumbling Russia during the First World War, they explained that they were waging a kind of germ warfare. It worked. But the infection not only destroyed Russia but spread far and wide over the years. Like death itself.

In his latest press release, proclamation, fatwa, grand proclamation, general outpouring, or whatever it was, a spokesman for Osama bin Laden warned that his followers love death the way the rest of us love life. In that case, we may have to oblige them -- if that is their True Belief.

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