In the Jim Crow South of the ’50s and ’60s, one of the traditional compliments of the white upper class, I’ve been told, was to say with nodding approval “that’s mighty white of ya.” That phrase has become a sort of sick joke for those who have fled the haunted culture of segregation that still rattles around the modern South like a deranging nightmare. And it certainly applies to the current occupant of the White House, the great birther in chief, who recently championed the racists of the Unite the Right movement who screamed anti-Semitic epithets at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mighty white of them. But, of course, this is no joking matter.
Nor is it a surprise that the resident of the White House doubled down on being a racist once again, trying to imply somehow that neo-Nazi terrorists were on an equal moral footing with those who protest hatred against Jewish people and African Americans, or any one else. Then he contradicted himself in a prepared speech condemning racists, a speech prepared not by him, and then “liberated” himself in another statement by revealing his loyalty to his white supremacist supporters on the dirty right. The mere thought of that is so repugnant that I hate to even write the sentence. A shameless racist in the White House!
The Charlottesville Nazi rally with its swastikas and Heil Trump salutes, was not, obviously, about preventing the loss of “beautiful” Confederate statuary, as the President wanted us to believe. That’s a typical Trumpian white wash. His personal unwillingness to condemn the rabid anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, KKK thugs of “white culture” at the Charlottesville rally is too disgusting to comprehend. And no matter what the Republican party does, no matter how “outraged” some of its members profess to be by Trump’s embracing of the Racist Right, the whole Republican establishment, especially Trump’s zombies in Congress who never distanced themselves from the President, are associated with him now like a plague of fleas they can’t shake off.
When you listen to tapes of the Fuhrer Right in Charlottesville, calls to “kill the Jews,” and the constant use of the “N” word and “commies” in the same breath, the abusive, vile taunts and sneers, you know that Unite the Right forces came to Charlottesville for no other reason than “to hurt people” and they did, as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has said. The murderous vehicle assault on those brave souls who opposed the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville — killing one woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 other people — was an act of right wing terrorism worthy of ISIS.
How is it possible to make sense of any of this? How is it possible for the Nazis to become “a natural model for white-supremacist movements in the United States,” as historian Marjorie Feld told The Atlantic recently? How can a mass movement like that take off with such lethal vehemence in a country where some 300,000 Americans soldiers died in Europe during WWII fighting the Nazis and where hundreds of thousands of American families still mourn their losses?
Flummoxed, I found myself this week returning for some clarity to the work of Eric Hoffer, the down-to-earth longshoreman philosopher popular in the 1950s and 1960s. His books “The True Believer,” “The Ordeal of Change” and “The Passionate State of Mind” analyze the psychological make up of those who join mass movements.
There’s a lot of Hoffer’s work that doesn’t resonate with me. But he’s more a philosopher you think with than a philosopher you agree or disagree with.
Hoffer views members of mass movements as exhibiting not the corruption of power but the corruption of weakness. “Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the fruits of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from a sense of their inadequacy and oppression.” He continues in “The Ordeal of Change” saying, “Rudeness luxuriates in the absence of self-respect.” And in “The True Believer” that, “passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life.”
He observes of the Nazis, “Unless a man has talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. … We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ “Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self,” Hoffer says in “The Passionate State of Mind.” “The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than of a deep conviction. The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without.”
One of Hoffer’s recurring themes is expressed like this: “When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride — the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in crises of individual self-esteem, and the great endeavor in which the masses most readily unite is basically a search for pride. … There is fear and intolerance in pride; it is sensitive and uncompromising. The less promise and potency in the self, the more imperative is the need for pride. The core of pride is self-rejection.”
Two of Hoffer’s more memorable remarks again employ his method of reversing opposites. “A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.” He must have taken a delight in writing these sentences: “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”
Hoffer tends to look at mass movements as interchangeable. He’s more interested in the psychological dynamic — compensation for self-hatred — than in the content. Content, of course, is not interchangeable. Is it true that the same sociopathic proclivities operate in all mass movements that stimulate genocide, for instance? Does it matter who is doing the hating and killing and who is being hated or killed? Is “radical white supremacy” interchangeable with “radical Islam” and the form it takes in ISIS? Is an automobile used as a weapon in the hands of a neo-Nazi or in the hands of jihadist a different kind of weapon?
It must also be true that some kinds of “content,” some faiths, belief systems, philosophies, worldviews are more prone to violence and bigotry than others. Ideas do matter. Psychological pressure cookers driven by neuroses are not the only reason why violence heats up and explodes. Mob mentality isn’t a sufficient answer either. Certain doctrines and ideologies are constructed around animosities and prejudices and “enemies,” while others are constructed around constellations of compassion and empathy. Ideas and beliefs that foster hate are hateful and never, never to be trusted or pursued. And I’m of a mind to think that anyone can tell the difference between a hateful and a helpful view of the world and of right conduct. Perhaps a vortex of neuroses and sociopathologies can blind and delude people into being sucked into hateful views and morbid formulas of behavior. But using social conditions and psychological impediments to excuse people who fall into hateful ideas and behaviors, and harm others to satisfy their own perceived self-interest, is a denial of responsibility worthy of the Nazi psyche.
Aren’t the vast majority of people who suffer injustices, poverty, exclusion, even vile prejudice and enslavement, free of ideologies of hate and violence, free of malice and self-pity, free of chronic resentment and blame casting? Of course. Conditions do not create nor determine personality. There are people in the world, though, — the Himmlers and Hitlers — whose personalities allow them to rank theories over human lives, who enjoy applying the power of hate and its enabling ideas against those they despise for not being like they are. Is there any excuse for them? Am I being hopelessly violent and judgmental to think there is not? What is the right way — the humane way — to think about these matters? Isn’t there a meaningful difference between aggressive hate and defensive aversion? Perhaps that’s good place to start. But I am sure we’ll have to start over and over many times again.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image from Daniel Lobo)