Friday, June 9, 2006

Friday Reflection: Hoffer on Fanaticism

So will the death of Al-Zarqawi lead to greater progress and safety in Iraq? Or will such a high-profile death be perceived as an inspirational martyrdom that will only incite further mayhem and tragedy in a land already broken with suffering? Will it only increase the pace and number of flag-draped bodybags being sneaked home in the dead of night to America?

I'm not sure anyone can answer these questions, but we have available to us a well of insight on fanaticism and mass movements such as we see colliding in the Middle East today. For our Friday reflection, I offer a quote from Eric Hoffer's classic, The True Believer, which I think should be on everyone's summer reading list this year. Though it was written more than half a century ago, it could not be more topical than it is at this moment in history. Buy a copy, read it, and then read it again. Presidents such as Eisenhower and Kennedy have benefited from its crystalline insight, and diplomats such as Arthur Schlesinger have appreciated what a treasure we received from this humble longshoreman from California. I will quote from Section 61, "Factors Promoting Self-Sacrifice".

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources—out of his rejected self—but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. And he is ready to sacrifice his life to demonstrate to himself and others that such indeed is his role. He sacrifices his life to prove his worth.

It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal—a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause.

The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached.

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