In my last blog I talked about an author, Eric Hoffer, whose ideas from seven decades ago inform the present. In True Believers, Hoffer wrote about the hearts and minds of those who become involved in mass movements. He writes that whether the ideology embraced is politically left or right, religious or agnostic, or conspiracy based, the “believer” is much the same. Such followers are people who have lives that lack meaning. Belonging to a movement gives them purpose.
Hoffer’s ideas translate directly to issues that face democracies today. Citizenship in a democracy places a burden on the individual. Active participation in choosing leaders, at a minimum to cast a vote, is work. Some find it attractive to give away their identity, their freedom, their choices to a powerful person or movement, and thus be unburdened of the demands of citizen participation.
True Believers echoes the work of an earlier writer, Ambrose Bierce, Civil War Union soldier. No one has written, before or after Bierce, with greater clarity of the everyday experience of men in war. Bierce wrote of the horror of war, and of the attraction of men to engage in it. In What I Saw of Shiloh, Bierce writes of the call of the “wizard youth” who would pull him back to soldiering. He compares favorably the rewards of the life of the soldier to the “ugliness of the longer and tamer life” beyond the battlefield.
Hoffer writes that men recently discharged from military service are often prime recruits for mass movements. They leave a time of their life where everything was scripted. A hierarchy of authority freed them from the burden or organizing their lives. Back in the civilian world, they seek structure, belonging, someone to organize things.
I believe the ideas of Bierce and Hoffer inform much that is happening in the US today. Some grow tired of the demands of participatory democracy and find refuge in groups like militias, authoritarian leaders, and the pull toward other processes that would establish a more simple authority in their lives.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.