I've spent a fair amount of time the last decade or so attacking attempts to scare the hell out of the American people. For the next little bit, however, I'm going to ask you to consider a world of dense human population, dwindling resources, and decreasing economic stability; a world of rising fundamentalist movements, typically religious movements with nationalistic undertones: Likudniks in Israel, US fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Hindus — a difficult concept there! — in India, and, more visible of late, Wahhabi and Salafi and others Muslim sectarians working hard for their versions of Sunni or Shia purity and the promotion of their faith in and beyond the vast dar al-Islam.
In addition, economic fundamentalists will come out of the woodwork and foundation think tanks in large numbers if, as is definitely possible The Great Recession of 2008 f. becomes World Depression II.
We are ripe for another age of fanaticism like, for the most relevant example, the early and middle portions of the 20th century, and over that prospect you should be afraid, you should be very afraid.
So I want to talk about fanaticism and recommend a flawed and dated book by a flawed man who eventually became a bit of a fanatic himself: Eric Hoffer's always-relevant long essay from 1951, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
First, though, I have a story or two or three on how a guy with a degree in Shakespeare (me, I) came to teach a book marketed as Sociology, how a man of the Left continued teaching off and on for forty years a book generally loved by conservatives — by an author who became something of a tame intellectual for Lyndon Johnson — and how a fellow-traveller with the Civil Rights Movement and member of the Peace Movement (still me) came to encourage every serious citizen to read a book with very harsh things to say about all mass movements.
In the mid-1960s, I returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana from Cornell because the U of I was willing to pay me to teach and Cornell really wasn't. I had gone to Cornell on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, which paid for my first year, and had a Danforth Graduate Fellowship that would've supported me (modestly) through my PhD. The Danforth people, however, asked its Graduate Fellows to apply for teaching assistantships where possible, to free up money for other students.
I thought that was a legitimate request, and really sensible for me. With the exception of summer jobs doing gastroenterology and (more so) microbiology lab work, I'd been pretty much "studenting" since I was five, and I wanted to try teaching for a bit. Also, I really wanted to know if I liked teaching since it looked like the Vietnam War was going to go on indefinitely and teaching was an attractive career option for me.
My other career options were helping develop new and improved militarized anthrax or bubonic plague at Fort Detrick in Maryland or — far more likely as things turned out — an "MOS" of sorts if not exactly a career as tunnel rat with the US Army in Vietnam, helping to fight a war of which I did not approve.
For my other alternative, I could see what jobs were available in the Greater Toronto area (i.e., go into exile) or, if I were really courageous, go to prison for resisting the draft.
I had applied to the U of T and like Toronto, but I was and am an American and didn't like the idea of exile. The prison option was a morally admirable choice, but I had this thing about avoiding rape. The folklore at the time was that anti-war activists were targeted to be raped in US Federal prisons, and at 5'2" tall and some 140 pounds, I qualified as fairly easy rape-bait. Long after the war, I heard of studies indicating that anti-war activists were, if anything, raped rather less frequently than other young prisoners; and it is quite possible that the rape threat was exaggerated as part of some propaganda operation to discourage war resisting and other anti-war/anti-government activities by young American men. In any event, I strongly disliked the idea of making protective friends by that literally sucking up to large felons, or —small person's Pan B strategy — demonstrating that I would freak out and tolerate severe pain myself to hurt anyone who threated me.
(No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but there are people out there willing to use the threat of rape to keep in line boys and men as well as girls and women. Except maybe that line should be addressed to Virgil, not Virginia, since it was feminist activists who did the most to bring to light and resist the use of rape and the threat of rape for social control.)
Anyway, in the mid-1960s my options were what they were because of the continuing war — the Vietnam War will be a motif here and in at least one follow-up blog — and because the United States enforced at the time military conscription on the principle of "Universal Obligation with Selective Service" (i.e., universal for young males). As General Lewis B. Hershey, the Director of Selective Service explained with admirable directness that burned into my memory, it would be well for the US if more young men went into teaching and, quoting from memory, «We'll make them good teachers or good soldiers.» Even as during World War II draftable American males were encouraged to become or remain machinists to serve the war effort better than as soldiers, even so, privileged young American males in the Vietnam era were offered the chance to teach or have our asses drafted, or thrown into prison.
So I got to choose among exile, teacher, tunnel rat, or "punk," and I thought teaching would probably be best bet — although I've now been to Vietnam, as a tourist, and found I could physically have handled the tunnels: my shoulders were a tight fit, but I could have done it. Physically. Without immediate claustrophobia. The only problem would have been the constant fear of sudden, or lingering, death. Or maiming. Or actually getting killed, wounded, or maimed, or going mad from the tight spaces and fear.
Anyway, I was going to teach, so it would be good to try it, and I applied for an assistantship at Cornell and received one, and was offered a $1900 stipend for the year, which I could've lived on. Except that the Cornell graduate school was and is private, and they wanted me to pay out of that stipend tuition and fees, for $1875. I pointed out that that worked out to $25 cash money for two semesters of teaching, and the dean or deanling I was talking to said that he understood the arithmetic, but they of the Grad School knew I had a Danforth fellowship and wanted the Danforth Foundation to pay me.
I pointed out that part of the point of my applying for the assistantship was to free up that Danforth money for someone else — and, besides, I liked to be paid by the people I worked for.
Illinois offered me a much better deal — back then, public universities were appropriated a fair amount of public money — and I sadly left beautiful, if incredibly rural and isolated Ithaca, New York, and returned to a marginally better program in my field, a significantly better library collection in said field, access to civilization, and, for the time, almost a living wage. (I was contractually forbidden from moonlighting for money, but I tutored for two meals a day and lived fairly well.)
Illinois gave me a full fellowship, but with a teaching option, for extra money: which, for the reasons given above, I leapt at.
The problem — the War and the draft and civil rights/civil liberties struggles aside — was that the English Department schedulers weren't sure which semester I'd teach until the Friday before the Monday they wanted me teaching.
So Friday before classes began, I was anointed a Teaching Fellow in English, assigned a Rhetoric 101 section, and loaded up with a stack of books, none of which I had ever read (or, in some cases, seen before).
Fortunately, I had been an undergraduate at the U of Illinois, and more fortunately I remembered tales of a mildly delusional sociology professor who consistently insisted that his classes were extraordinarily popular and that the bookstores should order a large number of books — many of which were never sold.
Rhetoric 101 classes were capped at 20 (I told you this was back when public schools had money), and there were more than enough extras of a book I'd read the previous year, Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.
Rhetoric 101 was basically basic College Comp., and it wasn't content free but was largely what I called "content irrelevant," in the sense that it didn't matter much what the students wrote about; what counted was that they wrote, wrote regularly, and got good feedback on their writing.
The True Believer was good to write about, and is itself well written; so it was good to teach that first time out, and good for me to teach, as I've said, pretty regularly for the next forty years.
Why this book is important for you to read is the topic of my next blog.