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."