Sunday, March 07, 2010


Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm-- but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
-- T. S. ELiot(The Cocktail Party)

Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer makes an irrefutable point in saying that an essential aspect of any mass movement (e.g., Islamism, fascism, communism, socialism etc. etc.) is that it spreads by encouraging utopian fantasies and promises of future societal bliss. In order to succeed, all such movements must have followers who are "true believers" through and through; and, as the annointed ones, they are eager and willing to sacrifice themselves (and often many others) for the sake of their cause.

As people become unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives, they become succeptible to anyone or any group who makes vague promises of the "hope and change" kind.

From a psychological perspective, all such movements are particularly attractive to any individuals who happen to have significant defects in their own sense of self to begin with. Belonging to a "glorious cause" (and such causes are certainly not exclusive to one side of the political spectrum or the other)and immersing one's defective self in the "collective", offers an opportunity to create a "new" self; one that is usually quite imaginary, but gives you much more of a sense of your own importance.

Of course, not all members of such movements are "true believers"--only those who persistently refuse to face reality --and to consider all the unpleasant truths about both the movement and themselves.

It is even true that many mass movements offer the potential for individual healing and are even productive from a social standpoint. Most people have some cracks in their individual identity, and the need to belong--to a greater or lesser degree-- to something beyond our narrow selves is quite healthy (see my series on Narcissism and Society for a more in-depth discussion of this). But when true believers slip into what I have termed "narcissistic awe" or narcissistic idealism"; they begin to believe they that they know better how to run your life than you do; and when the cracks in the self can only be filled by exerting power over others, then they become absorbed in what T.S. Eliot calls "the endless struggle to think well of themselves."

They may not mean to do harm, but they do. The history of the last century is littered with millions of dead people who were the objects of the true believers' good intentions.

In 2003, on the 20th anniversary of the death of Hoffer, Thomas Sowell noted that:
Among Hoffer's insights about mass movements was that they are an outlet for people whose individual significance is meager in the eyes of the world and -- more important -- in their own eyes. He pointed out that the leaders of the Nazi movement were men whose artistic and intellectual aspirations were wholly frustrated.

Hoffer said: "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."

People who are fulfilled in their own lives and careers are not the ones attracted to mass movements: "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding," Hoffer said. "When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."

What Hoffer was describing was the political busybody, the zealot for a cause -- the "true believer," who filled the ranks of ideological movements that created the totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century.

And, Sowell noticed back in 2008 that many of the followers of Barack Obama were 'true believers' who had attached themselves to the ultimate "political busybody" who was going to--by force of his incredible personality--heal the planet; bring hope to the hopeless; and change to the world, leading us into a glorious future.

And, speaking of political busybodies; you should ask yourself, are the Democrats "true believers" in Obama and Obamacare? Are they willing to fall on the sword that Obama and Pelosi and Reid are so cleverly holding out to them? Do they really believe that Obama is the new messiah? Are they willing to sacrifice themselves in order to pass a wildly unpopular bill that will forever alter the relationship between Americans and their government (and not in a very good way)?

Mark Steyn thinks that they are:
So there was President Obama, giving his bazillionth speech on health care, droning yet again that "now is the hour when we must seize the moment," the same moment he's been seizing every day of the week for the past year, only this time his genius photo-op guys thought it would look good to have him surrounded by men in white coats.

Why is he doing this? Why let "health" "care" "reform" stagger on like the rotting husk in a low-grade creature feature who refuses to stay dead no matter how many stakes you pound through his chest?

Because it's worth it. Big time. I've been saying in this space for two years that the governmentalization of health care is the fastest way to a permanent left-of-center political culture. It redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state in fundamental ways that make limited government all but impossible. In most of the rest of the Western world, there are still nominally "conservative" parties, and they even win elections occasionally, but not to any great effect (Let's not forget that Jacques Chirac was, in French terms, a "conservative").

The result is a kind of two-party one-party state: Right-of-center parties will once in a while be in office, but never in power, merely presiding over vast left-wing bureaucracies that cruise on regardless.

Republicans seem to have difficulty grasping this basic dynamic. Less than three months ago, they were stunned at the way the Democrats managed to get 60 senators to vote for the health bill. Then Scott Brown took them back down to 59, and Republicans were again stunned to find the Dems talking about ramming this thing into law through the parliamentary device of "reconciliation." And, when polls showed an ever larger number of Americans ever more opposed to Obamacare (by margins approaching three-to-one), Republicans were further stunned to discover that, in order to advance "reconciliation," Democrat reconsiglieres had apparently been offering (illegally) various cosy Big Government sinecures to swing-state congressmen in order to induce them to climb into the cockpit for the kamikaze raid to push the bill through.

True Believers? You better believe that many of them are, baby.

Obama understands the necessary psychological dynamic very well--in fact, he's counting on it. Why else does he continue to offer himself up in these ridiculous photo-ops and repetitive speeches--none of which actually say anything of significance or clarify anything about the 2000+ page monstronsity in question.

Hoffer wrote in The True Believer that
The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.

Now, there are situations where the 'singlehanded defiance of the world' is not at all a bad thing. But you need to be careful about that defiance; and make sure that when you take such an uncompromising stand that you are consistent with reality.

The problem is that a true believer is completely uninterested in, and indifferent to, reality.

As Steyn says, "...government health care is not about health care, it's about government. Once you look at it that way, what the Dems are doing makes perfect sense. For them."

And, it will definitely make them feel important in the grandiose style that is characteristic of political busybodies. Unfortunately for the rest of us, what they are doing is utter nonsense--and not a little fanatical.

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