Saturday, March 15, 2008


I was about to tell a reader I don’t normally visit political blogs or any sort of political web site until I realized that was not strictly true because politics pollutes nearly everything, even blogs that are putatively literary. The reason, of course, is that politics as practiced is a species of religion -- a debased religion, rooted in discontent and self-righteousness, but one that offers the solace of a self-contained, self-consistent understanding of the world, one that elevates the believer and heaps abuse on apostates. This accounts for the ubiquity of anger and incivility, especially when writers are emboldened online by the safety of anonymity.

In his first book, The True Believer (1951), Eric Hoffer wrote of the mass movements that had recently savaged the world – Nazism and Communism – and of course he presciently described the metastatic growth of radical Islam, which Theodore Dalrymple rightly termed “Marxism’s successor.”

On a deeper level Hoffer was not writing about politics at all but about human nature and its bottomless capacity for general nastiness. This is where political pollution and online fanaticism come together. In Chapter XV, “Men of Words,” Hoffer diagnoses Angry Blogger Syndrome:

“What ever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity…There is apparently an irremediable insecurity at the core of every intellectual, be he noncreative or creative. Even the most gifted and prolific seem to live a life of eternal self-doubting and have to prove their worth anew each day.”

That hits close to home. Vigorous self-policing is unpleasant and exhausting, and self-deception is as human as the opposable thumb. Read the following passage from Hoffer and count off the people you know, online or down the hall, whom it describes:

“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.”

I find no references to Samuel Johnson in Hoffer’s work. Hoffer was an enthusiastic autodidact, widely read but with surprising gaps in his reading. The last passage quoted recalls what Johnson wrote in his 1774 pamphlet “The Patriot”:

"...But the greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the publick; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent."


whoarethey said...

I really have to take issue with your dismissal of politics. There is a reason why Shakespeare, and other poets before him, focused on the princes and kings of the day and their political wranglings. There is also a reason why history, the chronicling of those wranglings, is one of the muses.

For Shakespeare, it was primarily and perhaps exclusively men in power who fully instantiated the most interesting and compelling passions, ambitions, and dilemmas that serve as the great themes of literature. Indeed, one of the great literary debates, and reason why many initially rejected the novel, was the belief that art and literature would shrivel up and die if confined to the realm of private life and its narrower concerns.

This of course does not even scratch the surface of the issues. My point is that despite the tawdriness and silliness of politics -- and isn't there a lot of that in literary circles or the subjects of literature -- our political life and the great experiment of democratic politics presents some profound issues. I would think that it would enrich your reading of literature, and experience of life as a person and citizen, to explore these issues -- including your repugnance to them -- rather than adopt such a dismissive attitude. Whatever your attitude, you cannot escape them.

Wasn't it Emerson who said that to the poet, philosopher, and saint that all things are friendly, holy, and divine?

philip walling said...

'The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.'
Politicians are the children of this world and your opposition to them must mean that you are a child of light.
Where this takes us, I have no idea, but for what it's worth I am with you. The last comment was from a child of this world. Politicians will drain you to exhaustion - better keep away from them unless they come to you.

Jeff Mauvais said...

I read Hoffer's "The True Believer" in the mid-sixties. While I was attracted to his language and longshoreman-philosopher persona, I found his analysis of the pathopsychology of mass movements unsatisfying.

Coincident with my reading of Hoffer, the black civil rights movement was reaching its apogee, culiminating in the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as many other federal, state, and local statutes protecting basic citizen rights. This was surely one of the most important mass movements in the country's history.

Though Hoffer's thesis undoubtedly explained the motivations of some participants in this movement, it seemed to me at the time (as now) that it failed as a framework for understanding the full complexity of that example of citizen action.

Far more important than mass psychology in determining the consequences of any mass movement -- political, religious, or cultural -- are the ethics of the prime movers. A good recent example is the African Nation Congress in South Africa, which has been pulled back from extremism numerous times by the example of Nelson Mandela.

A related issue: I recently posted a comment as "anonymous" in response to your piece about voting. This was no attempt to hide behind the veil of anonymity; I simply didn't know how "sign" a comment. I thought I needed to provide a name and URL (do I even have one of those?). Other sneaky anonymous postings have included an appreiation of your introduction to Lamb's essays and a reminiscence of my brief role as informal biology tutor for Howard Nemerov. Incendiary material, that.

jeff mauvais said...

Oops! I wrote "pathopsychology" when I meant "psychopathology". Must have been an attack of lexicopathology brought on by shedding my anonymity.

Diana said...

It seems politics is treacherous yet important and in some ways unavoidable. We enter into politics whenever we try to persuade others. I feel strongly about curriculum; should I say silent if schools are buying up all sorts of packages that have little to do with learning? If I don't speak up, I'll have to follow an approach that goes against my grain, gut, and knowledge.

Also, by stating my opinion, I am likely to find my way to people who agree with me (or who disagree in ways that get me to think and read). Would I know about these people if I (or they) had stayed silent?

Of course there are dangers to politics--anyone can go past the tipping point into selfishness and abuse. If I am saying the same thing over and over again or neglecting the things that this is all supposed to serve, then I know it's time to pull back a bit. I would not want to make politics more important than literature, friendship, music, education. It is there to defend those things, not to replace them.

What's fascinating about politics is that it is so petty and grand at once--it not only brings out our best and worst, but shows the ambiguity of the two.