Overcoming the Travesty of Belief

Eric Hoffer in the Oval Office--During Lyndon Johnson's presidency
Eric Hoffer in the Oval Office–During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency

The outrages foisted on the United States by a belligerent minority defy belief. Nothing we’ve experienced prepared us for what is happening now.

Though the above was said, pre-Trump, by the right, it is we in the real, inclusive majority (a majority that, unfortunately, doesn’t cohere as Trump’s new  Republicans do) who are facing the tyranny of belief today.

And we don’t know what to do about it.

We should, for we’ve been warned. Sinclair Lewis, in It Can’t Happen Here, wrote, “if you did tell the truth to a Nazi, it would still be a lie.” That’s the predicament we are in today. 85 years haven’t been enough for us to untangle that conundrum.  Nor have we heeded George Orwell, whose 1984 contains this: “You think there’s no other way of saving yourself, and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.” That basic selfishness at the core of much of human existence, a kind of selfishness that can be warped, as it is in Orwell’s novel, and even extolled, as it is in Ayn Rand, has been ignored, addressed only through repression, a repression through well-meaning laws that became a pressure cooker destined to explode.

And we should have known it.

We were warned, too, by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements and by Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as well as his 1964 Harper’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

But we paid no attention, blithely imagining that our own social engineering wasn’t as coercive as anything we fought. We have yet to accept our own responsibility for the travesty before us, both through in action and, yes, our own acts of repression. We have rested safe, we believed, in our assumptions–and still do, for the most part, as the United States crumbles about us. The rule of law, which we thought could build a greater tomorrow, has been subverted, nigh on destroyed, by a man with no regard for it representing a body of people who feel repressed by it.

As Hoffer writes, “religious and nationalist movements… can be vehicles of change.” Trump knows this and has harnessed the evangelical and the jingoistic into service of his preening. He has no goal beyond himself, beyond a change in the world towards his adoration. But he knows how to raise passion to hatred and feels he might as well make use of his skill.

We have been reading Hoffer for generations (my own father introduced me to him some fifty years ago) but we seem to have learned nothing. We have refused to recognize danger of hope when the perceived direction of society seems astray;

it does not seem to make any difference who it is that is seized with a wild hope–whether it be an enthusiastic intellectual,  a land-hungry farmer, a get-rich-quick speculator, a sober merchant or industrialist, a plain workingman or a noble lord–they all proceed recklessly with the present, wreck it if necessary, and created a new world.

Though we have seen the perversion of hope over centuries of revolution, we have yet to come to terms with it, have yet to learn to recognize its germination or address its strength and the moves to pervert it to other ends.

When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the actions which follow them.

Hope, quite simply, can lead to totalitarianism, especially when manipulated by the unscrupulous. We know this happens; we have seen this happen. Yet none of us of the liberal ascendancy now falling apart around us has considered the power of hope in those we conquered, those who have felt, rightly or wrongly, pushed from the greatness they should be enjoying.

Just as we have ignored the hopes of all, focusing only on certain groups among the downtrodden (treading over others in our own fanaticism), we have elided the importance  of faith–and not just religious faith, another great power easily subverted:

The fiercest fanatics are often selfish people who were forced, by innate shortcomings or external circumstances, to lose faith in their own selves. They separate the excellent instrument of their selfishness from their ineffectual selves and attach it to the service of some holy cause. And though it be a faith of love and humility they adopt, they can be neither  loving nor humble.

We say we know this, but we have never respected it nor have we examined how our own actions drive people into this perversion.

We may have read Hoffer, but we’ve learned little from him.

The same is true of Hofstadter, who I always approach with some distaste (I find him extremely elitist, for one thing) though with enormous respect. In his Harper’s article, he wrote:

the modern right wing… feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

That we not of the right ignored this is our own fault. We have no business feeling the high dudgeon of self-righteousness in the face of a movement that grew to power right before our eyes. When our liberal cohort was in power, as it really was, from 1933 until 2017, we allowed the feelings of those who were growing to believe themselves more and more dispossessed to fester.

It does nothing to simply blame, to stamp our own feet in frustration just the way others did in the past. Nor should we react as they have, subverting the American political system for success in its binary. Instead, we need to reach out to equals, not to the wrong or as the wronged, but simply as fellow human beings.

Only then can the scaffolding of hate that the unscrupulous have erected around us all begin to fall.


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