Friday, April 1, 2011

The Looking Glass

In "Raise Your Glass," the singly-named singer Pink identifies everyone she's willing to party with.

In addition to the "dancey," the "gangsta," the "underdogs," the "panty-snatchers," and the "nitty gritty dirty little freaks," she also includes those who are "too school for cool."

This is nice.  As someone who has a tendency to be both "dancey" and "too school for cool," I have often felt left out when the Pinks of the world announce that I should "raise my glass" because "it is so fuckin' on right now."

I've been researching Eric Hoffer.  Although much of his work seems to have fallen out of sight, Hoffer was a prominent, self-educated thinker who wrote about the psychology and philosophy of mass movements.

Unlike most intellectuals, Hoffer chose to live a life of relative poverty: after living on the road as a migrant farmer for years, he became a longshoreman.  He wrote extensively from the 1950's until his death in 1983.

In particular, it was Hoffer's first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), that made him famous.  Hoffer was fascinated--and concerned--with a species of what psychologist Irving Janis would later term "Groupthink"--that is, the tendency of otherwise rational, independent individuals to allow themselves to be subsumed within a collective mentality.

Whereas Janis' concept of Groupthink looks at the phenomenon from the perspective of leadership, Hoffer is interested in the frustrated individual him- or herself, because he believes that mass movements tap into that frustration in order to achieve their own ends.

According to Hoffer, "We all have private ails. The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails."

This is something I have wondered about for a while now.  I have regularly encountered people who want to "bring down Wall Street" and have listened to their (seemingly endless) rants about fiscal responsibility and excessive taxation.

Don't get me wrong.  I think GE should be jolted into the tax-paying reality that the rest of us are forced to live in, and Obama should be held accountable for appointing Jeff Immelt to chair a committee on reducing joblessness in the US.

I mean, really. Come on.

But I also thought George W. Bush should have been held accountable for the fact that there weren't any Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and for the fact that his administration repeatedly and flagrantly violated the Endangered Species Act.

And yet, that ship sailed on by, unnoticed, while we heard all about how Cheney accidentally fired a load of buckshot into his long-time hunting-buddy--but they were still friends, and how George W. almost choked to death on a pretzel.

When someone goes on at great lengths about the economic crisis and I see that they have an overpriced suburban home (purchased during the hey-day of Bush), maxed out credit cards, designer clothes, a habit of "going out" every weekend, and a luxury car (or two), I begin to wonder whether they're really looking for--or even expecting-- a public cure for their own private ails.

As Hoffer notes, "Our quarrel with the world is an echo of the endless quarrel proceeding within us."

I often hear people referencing Thoreau and civil disobedience.

Thoreau wouldn't have been caught dead leasing a luxury car or purchasing the regular services of Lawn Doctor.

Instead, Thoreau would be the first to tell you that, if you don't want to pay taxes, you shouldn't own anything.  He would also tell you that if you really don't want to pay taxes, you shouldn't.

But he'd also tell you that when you go to jail for tax evasion, you should be okay with that too, since it's what you believe in.

He'd tell you that if you really want to "bring down Wall Street," you should immediately liquidate your 401A and K and your 403B, taking any and all losses and cheerfully accepting any and all penalties.  He'd also say that you should have never bought the big house in the suburbs in the first place, or accepted a job you don't really enjoy.

There is evidence to suggest that Thoreau may have died a virgin.

I don't quarrel so much with the ideas I hear expressed on a daily basis, but I do quarrel with the current modes of expression and the assumptions upon which they operate.

As Hoffer argues, "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."

When we're strong, we don't need to scream at other people.  We think, act, and do--quietly, and with integrity.  It doesn't matter if others see it or appreciate us and join in.

I think Hoffer has a point when he suggests that  "The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than of deep conviction."

So many of the people I hear yelling strike me as lacking the courage of their own convictions.  If they had it, they wouldn't care whether the rest of us are listening to them.

I think they crave the endorsement of the group as a means of shoring up their own uncertainties and alleviating their own individual frustrations.

Raise your glass.  It's on.

Hoffer notes, "Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us."   If we know we're right, we don't necessarily need to constantly proclaim it and seek to impose it on everyone else.

We just live so that others can live with us.

According to Hoffer, "The capacity for getting along with our neighbor depends to a large extent on the capacity for getting along with ourselves."

So look in the mirror before you raise your glass.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."