Hoffer’s Conclusions

Part IV of The True Believer is entitled Beginning and End, but mainly discusses the role of men of words in starting mass movements:

To sum up, the militant man of words prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement: 1) by discrediting prevailing creeds and institutions and detaching from them the allegiance of the people; 2) by indirectly creating a hunger for faith in the hearts of those who cannot live without it, so that when the new faith is preached it finds an eager response among the disillusioned masses; 3) by furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith; 4) by undermining the convictions of the “better people” those who can get along without faith-so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it. They see no sense in dying for convictions and principles, and yield to the new order without a fight.

Thus when the irreverent intellectual has done his work:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand,
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The stage is now set for the fanatics.

I certainly couldn’t resist this quote from Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” but, more importantly, this makes me wonder what will be the long-term effect of Fox News and Right-Wing talk-show hosts. Many of them would certainly seem to fit all four criteria or, at least, seem to be trying desperately to do so.

I doubt that “writers” have nearly the influence today that they did when Hoffer wrote his book in 1951, but television commentators and radio show hosts have seemed more than reading to fill the vacuum left when newspapers and magazines seemed to lose their influence:

The preliminary work of undermining existing institutions, of familiarizing the masses with the idea of change, and of creating a receptivity to a new faith, can be done only by men who are, first and foremost, talkers or writers and are recognized as such by all. As long as the existing order functions in a more or less orderly fashion, the masses remain basically conservative. They can think of reform but not of total innovation. The fanatical extremist, no matter how eloquent, strikes them as dangerous, traitorous, impractical or even insane.

Things are different in the case of the typical man of words. The masses listen to him because they know that his words, however urgent, cannot have immediate results. The authorities either ignore him or use mild methods to muzzle him. Thus imperceptibly the man of words undermines established institutions, discredits those in power, weakens prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and sets the stage for the rise of a mass movement.

Hoffer’s assertion seems to be supported by popular writers who try to run for office based on their popularity but fail abysmally, as illustrated by Pat Buchanan whose campaign for President quickly collapsed despite his popularity as a conservative writer and news commentator.

Considering his own status as a “man of words” Hoffer seems surprisingly harsh in his judgement of them:

However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal. His pity is usually hatched out of his hatred for the powers that be. “It is only a few rare and exceptional men who have that kind of love toward mankind at large that makes them unable to endure patiently the general mass of evil and suffering, regardless of any relation it may have to their own lives.” Thoreau states the fact with fierce extravagance: “I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted… and he will forsake his generous companions without apology.” When his superior status is suitably acknowledged by those in power, the man of words usually finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak.

No wonder Hoffer “did not consider himself an “intellectual”, and scorned the term as descriptive of the allegedly anti-American academics of the West. He believed academics craved power but were denied it in the democratic countries of the West (though not in totalitarian countries, which Hoffer understood to be an intellectual’s dream). Instead, Hoffer believed academics chose to bite the hand that fed them in their quest for power and influence”

Hoffer suggests that even when they’re “right,” these men of words cannot cure the problem they define:

When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point. Thus by denigrating prevailing beliefs and loyalties, the militant man of words unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for faith. For the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication, or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves. Thus, in spite of himself, the scoffing man-of words becomes the precursor of a new faith.

The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.

Men of words can undermine the current power structure but cannot provide the kind of leadership needed to actually carry out a mass movement. Of course, it’s not clear how much faith Hoffer has in the “faith-hungry masses,” who are unmoved by the intellectual’s appeal to reason and “invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ.”

I must admit, though, that I’m not quite sure how to react to the ending of the work when Hoffer says:

It is probably better for a country that when its government begins to show signs of chronic incompetence it should be overthrown by a mighty mass upheaval-even though such overthrow involves a considerable waste of life and wealth-than that it should be allowed to fall and crumble of itself. A genuine popular upheaval is often an invigorating, renovating and integrating process. Where governments are allowed to die a lingering death, the result is often stagnation and decay-perhaps irremediable decay. And since men of words usually play a crucial role in the rise of mass movements, it is obvious that the presence of an educated and articulate minority is probably indispensable for the continued vigor of a social body. It is necessary, of course, that the men of words should not be in intimate alliance with the established government.

Considering that most of the book has shown the dangers of mass movements and true believers, this seems like a strange way to end it. The reader might be forgiven if he wonders if the Hoffer’s work isn’t “more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith” and if Hoffer “can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself.”

One thought on “Hoffer’s Conclusions”

  1. “what will be the long-term effect of Fox News and Right-Wing talk-show hosts….?” It is tempting to ask that question when you watch the fluff and hear the chatter that surrounds these lightweight boys from the rightfield bleachers. But that’s what they are: noisy guys with cheap tickets. They came to hear themselves, not to watch the game. Real “militant men of words” are more like Osama bin Laden. They evoke loyalty by invoking both hatred of the oppressor and a sense of pending justice. The guys you mention (from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh to Hannity) are all like party favors. Their lack of substance gives them away. The trouble with TV punditry is that it’s worth less than we pay for it, which is why we like it. It’s all reaction, no thought. So I would not concern my self much with the long term effect they have. It’s not a long term medium. The long term effect, if any, will be to wear out even their worshippers. This forces them to become more shrill or hysterical (the way Pat Robertson periodically does to get some attention.) The ones to worry about are not so obvious, but are more likely to position themselves as political types have always done–as Bill Clinton did–somewhere right of sensible and therefore plausible to those disenchanted with the current administration, but not so far off the chart that moderates get nauseous hearing their speeches.
    That’s how you get elected. The rest is just a lo-cal subsitute for thinking…before we switch to our favorite sitcom. It might be helpful to think of Hannity, Colmes and Limbaugh as clumsy competitors on Dancing with the Stars. They’re amusing for a while, but they’ll be voted out by better dancers in the end.

Comments are closed.