Tag Archives: recent history

“The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer

This book was published in 1951, when the world was struggling to understand what had led to World War II and the Holocaust. The “true believers” Hoffer analyzed were Nazis and Fascists, with some discussion of early Christians and other movements. He believed all mass movements shared a definable set of characteristics.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read this book! I attended two 2-hour seminars on it, sponsored by my husband’s alma mater, and I read ABOUT the book and the author.

A subtext to our discussion was the election of Donald Trump. We’ve all suffered from shock. What does this mean about our country? Are we headed towards fascist type authoritarianism? Who voted for Trump, and why? As far as I know, the fourteen people (total) who attended the two seminars did not vote for Trump.

We decided that Trump’s supporters were not “true believers” in the same sense as Nazis and Fascists. There’s no reason to believe they would die for Donald Trump.

Hoffer believes certain segments of a population are vulnerable to demagogic leadership, namely those who feel angry and powerless. He speaks of spoiled or damaged lives, and mentions “failed artists”. I can’t parse that category.

Our discussion veered to other groups that offer up their lives. Suicide bombers. The Arab Spring protester who burned himself to death. Kamikazi pilots.

Though often described as a philosopher, Hoffer was not an academic. Wikipedia lists his occupations as “author and longshoreman”. He may not have graduated from high school. He was fluently literate in both English and German, and read voraciously. The US military refused to enlist him due to medical condition and possibly his age – he was 40 at the start of WW II. How he managed to publish “The True Believer” while laboring as a dockworker in San Francisco puzzles me.

A great deal of Hoffer’s writing was never published, but is available to scholars. I hope more of it will be extracted for publication. Now is the time for public dialog on the issues he studied.

“The Bremer Detail – Protecting the Most Threatened Man In the World” by Frank Gallagher and John M. Del Vecchio

Let me make two things clear from the start. I think the Iraq War was a tragic mistake, and I think Presidential Envoy L Paul Bremer made some very bad decisions during his management of the occupation of Iraq.

I read this book because of its scale.

I’ve thought a good deal about scale lately. Some things scale up or down well. I could give technological examples. But sticking to books, some topics are too big (the meaning of life) and some are too small (what I ate for lunch today).

The nature of WAR is something I want to understand, but the topic is too big. This book is about one small aspect of war, one man’s experience in a particular time and place. At this scale, I can learn something.

Gallagher was a bodyguard, responsible for the personal safety of Bremer in Iraq after the invasion and before a new civil government was installed. Iraq was unstable and violent, growing worse as the months passed. Gallagher worked for the now infamous contracting company, Blackwater.

The use of contractors to do “military” tasks is a relatively new wrinkle, presumably a result of the switch to an all volunteer military. It seems unlikely that any money is saved by the use of contractors, but a different labor pool is activated. Contractors are disparaged by many (especially in the military) for being “mercenaries”. Their relationships to military and government are often strained.

Gallagher was hired by Blackwater solely to protect Bremer, originally for a period of just 30 days. He is by no means an apologist for Blackwater. By his standards, the Blackwater managers stateside had no idea what was going on in Iraq or how to protect Bremer. Eventually Gallagher managed a team of three dozen specialists (many formerly in the military) to protect Bremer 24 hours a day.

Any notion that the “private sector” always does things better than government is certainly dispelled by this book. Blackwater had its share of pointy headed bureaucrats and sometimes made very strange decisions.

Bremer was not an easy man to protect. He left the safety of Baghdad’s “green zone” almost every day, meeting with Iraqi leaders in many different settings. His schedule couldn’t be known accurately in advance. Most of the time, he worked 16 hours a day. As his tenure in Iraq progressed, he was targeted for assassination, and the Iraqi insurgents got better and better at making bombs and organizing attacks. As the man closest to Bremer in public, Gallagher was also an identified target.

By dint of very hard work and a certain amount of luck, Gallagher and his team managed to keep Bremer alive, AND avoided any injury or death of civilians.

What did I learn from this book? Some people are adrenaline junkies, and the rest of us should be grateful (in most cases) for the work they do. Armed conflict brings out both the best and worst in people. Our governments policies are implemented in ways that can astonish and sometimes disappoint us as citizens.

War is hell.

Book Source – Recent History (Mine!)

I just recognized an important category of books for me! These are books about the “history” of my lifetime.

Insight: Just because I lived through something, that doesn’t mean I understand it in any depth. Yes, I may have memories, but they are fragmentary and I should be careful of using them as a basis for conclusions. I was a child in the fifties, a teenager and college student in the sixties, etc.

This insight was triggered by reading Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides, about the manhunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King in 1968. I’ll post a review shortly, with some comments on my (personal) memories of that terrible event.

Here are some reviews in this blog that cover history I “experienced” first hand:

  • “The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America” by James Peterson. Blog post dated June 3, 2013. Current commentators treat the sixties as some kind of joke! But serious things happened.
  • The John F Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, in which I saw the exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that scared me half to death. Blog post dated January 1, 2014
  • “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel and “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer (posts dated November 15 and November 21, 2013). I’m trying to understand the wars we have been (and are) fighting in the Middle East.

Now that I’ve recognized this need, I will be watching for books that explain the world I lived in, and which (for better or worse) I leave to my children.

“A Fierce Green Fire” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 2)

Another friend got into the discussion (also very slightly edited):

I won’t argue with Kant or Chomsky (since I haven’t studied them in great depth) but I see a few problems with your hypothesis for the lack of engagement in activism, namely the Sierra Club, among the young. The brain may not lack an organizing capacity for historical reflection. Just because we’re “hard wired” as it were for immediacy doesn’t mean we aren’t also predisposed for reflection; we just shouldn’t try to do it all the time like when we’re escaping predators. But historical reflection will allow us to cut down on encountering predators.

I’m not sure if you mean the perceived lack of engagement is for the local chapter of the Sierra Club or if they are having a national crisis for membership. I can see alternative explanations for either case. Let me address your points more directly.

1. “Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.”

Our recent history has not been bland. Our students are well aware of economic depression, since 2008 they have lived during one. They have also lived through three different US wars in the Middle East, two of them lasting almost their entire lifetime. The impact of natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and more recently Sandy also affects them. They are also concerned with other global issues such as genocides in Darfur, wars in Georgia, Syria, and now Ukraine.

2. “A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.”

This sounds like the charge Socrates made against the youth of Athens. There have always been distractions from what other people consider important. So let’s look at what today’s youth considers important. It’s not always entertainment as your hypothesis claims. Locally, I know our students have a great concern for employment. They seem genuinely disinterested in anything I have to say until I connect it to them getting a job. This isn’t unreasonable since they have just started on their careers during the worst depression the US has seen since the 1930s. They don’t come from affluent families so the current trend in higher education of graduating students with a crushing debt is an ever present worry for them. They are also the first ones in their family to go to college. For many, especially the women, this is in itself is a form of activism. They are fighting a cause more dear to their hearts than the environment — class struggle and freedom of education. 

The media outlets you bemoan are not the problem in and of themselves. It’s who else is using those media outlets. Most news sources and networking sites inundate youth with worrying messages about their future in terms of jobs and debt. The environment is drowned out as a long term worry while economics is presented as an immediate problem; this triggers the part of the brain that deals with “escaping the predator.” What does an 18-22 care about the earth dying in the next 100 years if he has no idea where he will live or how he will eat when he turns 23?

Many environmental organizations do use these digital and social media outlets to get their message across and the youth do respond. I think the 5th point of the movie, globalization, underscores this. Perhaps the lack of interest isn’t about the environment but just the Sierra Club. Youth may be looking for more global platforms. How does youth membership in Green Peace and World Wildlife Fund compare to Sierra Club? Or other types of political activism such as Amnesty International? 

3. You used the phrase “my generation.” An important point to keep in mind is that in terms of just numbers, your generation and the baby boomers simply outnumber Generation Y and the Millenials (today’s youth). So what may be perceived as a drop off because people aren’t engaged may just be a drop in young people even existing. Can’t engage what doesn’t exist. 

You really want to engage the youth in political and environmental activism, connect it to them earning a living. Occupy Wall Street is a good example. Many young people are starting non-profit corporations that target environmental issues (such as installing solar panels at low cost) rather than joining huge public protest movements. Perhaps your perception of what constitutes political/environmental activism needs to change.