Occupy, the Tea Party, and the danger of true believers

Radical mass movements are hijacking the American political process. For many, politics have become a religion. Sixty years ago, philosopher Eric Hoffer explained why. Photo: Pepper-sprayed Occupy protestor Dorli Rainey, 84 (Associated Press)

FLORIDA, May 4, 2012 — Since the mid-1960s, American politics have been subject to the creeping tide of fundamentalist mass movements. During the last decade, this tide accelerated to crashing levels.

In January I wrote about the United States’s most dangerous new religion. It is not Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or something else, but nonetheless has membership totals ranging in the tens of millions. Since, to my knowledge, nobody gave this a formal name beforehand, I dubbed it the “Church of Politics.”

The Church’s creed entails many different doctrines. However, its core principles boil down to the tendency to treat every debate, discussion, or forum in an absolutist, black-or-white manner. This, of course, is done across the political spectrum. There can be no middle ground, no room for equal consideration. Either something is right or it is wrong. An individual’s perception of objective truth becomes the ultimate truth for everyone, regardless of their respective personal beliefs. The indisputably present grey area between the extremes of black and white becomes a domain beholden to unthinkable, let alone unmentionable, heresy. Any person daring to go there is not only an apostate, but a heathen deserving of severe punishment.

Long before anything was said about the Church of Politics, though, autodidactic philosopher Eric Hoffer essentially described its underlying causes in The True Believer, his 1951 masterpiece of social psychology. There, he wrote about the unique personal conditions which allow potentially, if not quintessentially, dangerous populist uprisings to form. At a time such as the present, when Occupy and the Tea Party flood the streets with radically dissimilar, yet in certain instances uncomfortably alike, messages, and longstanding economic relief is nowhere in sight, his book should be regarded as essential reading.

Perhaps most interesting about Hoffer’s work is that it stands as totally reflective of his life experience, rather than floating abstractions acquired from the halls of academia. “I had no schooling,” he once wrote. “I was practically blind up to the age of fifteen. When my eyesight came back, I was seized with an enormous hunger for the printed word. I read indiscriminately everything within reach — English and German.” A native New Yorker, he would choose to move out west and became a gold prospector and migrant worker. Facing tremendous hardships during the Great Depression, he nonetheless continued to read and write with a passion.

In the early 1940s, Hoffer opted to make a permanent home in San Francisco. The City by the Bay was better to him than most other places were, and he managed to build a sustainable career as a longshoreman. Even after he gained notoriety, which included a single-day professorship at the University of California, Berkeley and a nationally televised miniseries of sorts, he continued to live a simple but intellectually fascinating life. In February of 1983, Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom; this came not a moment too soon as Hoffer would die just a few months later.  

Veteran CBS News correspondent Eric Sevareid delivered the eulogy at Hoffer’s funeral, in which he said the following: “America meant freedom and what is freedom? To Hoffer it is the capacity to feel like oneself. He felt like Eric Hoffer; sometimes like Eric Hoffer, working man. It could be said, I believe, that he as the first important American writer, working class born, who remained working class-in his habits, associations, environment. I cannot think of another. Therefore, he was a national resource. The only one of its kind in the nation’s possession.”

Indeed. Today, we should not only take note of our individualism in the sort of rational way that Hoffer taught about, but be wary of the true believer wherever he or she might be lurking. Full of these people as the Church of Politics is, before chastising or judging a single one, we should look inside ourselves and ask if, perhaps unknowingly, we are dues-paying clergy members. If so, will any changes be made? Or are we happy functioning as simple pawns on the complex chess board of life?

Whatever it might be, the answer lies within each of us. Here is hoping that it errs on the side of reason, and through that, respect for the legally inalienable rights of others; especially those with whom we disagree. After all, if freedom is not about mutual respect and tolerance, then it is deprived of liberty. Without that, is freedom really free? I cannot see how.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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