Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The real problem with Boko Haram is that they already have what they want – just read Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”

And so the search for rational motives has started. Who are Boko Haram? What have we in the West done to anger them? What sort of society do they seek to create? What beliefs have prompted their enslavement and rape of schoolgirls? What sort of Danegeld would make them go away? Shouldn’t we be talking to them in order to understand them?

And blah blah blah.

The sort of young men who join extremist, fascistic religious or political movements such as Boko Haram are confused, unhappy, bored, inadequate human beings who hate their lives and are ashamed of themselves. The last thing they want is freedom or self-determination or even personal success. What they want is to lose an identity which disgusts them and to become a small part of a larger organism which will remove from their shoulders the burden of making choices – because they’ve made choices in the past, they haven’t worked out, and now they just want to be told what to do.

What the long-term goal of this larger entity might be doesn’t matter in the least, because it is never achievable – in fact the more ridiculously unachievable the goal, the better. There is no point in arguing with these fanatics rationally (as liberals are always so keen for us to do). They haven’t adopted their new belief system because it makes any sort of sense – the nuttier it is, the better. Pointing out that what they’re doing is vile and evil and inhuman won’t make any difference either – following vile, evil and inhuman orders merely offers them further opportunities to disassociate themselves from their hated past selves.

These insights are obviously too astute to be my own. What underpins Boko Haram, and every mad, ghastly, deranged, freedom-loathing, humanity-hating, totalitarian cult in history was explained quite brilliantly by the self-taught San Francisco longshoreman Eric Hoffer in his astonishing 1951 classic work, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (available at Amazon, here, a snip at £2.99).

Hoffer’s book – which, instead of examining the belief systems of various movements, looks at the psychology of those who join them, especially in their early stages - became an American bestseller after Dwight Eisenhower referred to it during one of his earliest televised presidential press conferences. I may not have quite such a large audience as Ike did, but I can’t recommend Hoffer's book highly enough: I just wish all the politicians and pundits pontificating about Boko Haram’s grotesque actions had read the damned thing.

When I read a work of non-fiction on my Kindle, I can usually tell how interesting, stimulating or well-written I found it by the number of sections I've digitally underline. I see that in a work of just 199 pages, I have underlined no less than 132 passages. Let me whet your appetite with just a few of them:
There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. 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.
When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need for something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.
Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves. Thus when the frustrated congregate in a mass movement, the air is heavy-laden with suspicion. There is prying and spying, tense watching and a sense of being watched. The surprising thing is that this pathological mistrust within the ranks leads not to dissension but to strict conformity. Knowing themselves continually watched, the faithful strive to escape suspicion by adhering zealously to prescribed behaviour and opinion. Strict orthodoxy is as much the result of mutual suspicion as of ardent faith.
Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable - it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual existence that is dour, hard, repressive and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral.
All the advantages brought by the West are ineffectual substitutes for the sheltering and soothing anonymity of a communal existence.
Such diverse phenomena as a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible, and many others which crowd the minds of the intensely frustrated are…unifying agents and prompters of recklessness.
I’ll end with what – given the horrors currently unfolding in Nigeria – is probably the most relevant quotation:
There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with the individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom – freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse. Herein undoubtedly lies part of the attractiveness of a mass movement. We find there the “right to dishonour,” which according to Dostoevsky has an irresistible fascination. 
We really must stop treating these pathetic wretches as if they had achievable goals which we can go part-way to meeting - or rational beliefs which we could argue them out of round a conference table. 


  1. Well, you have at least one convert. I am about half-way through Hoffer's book and it is full of insights expressed in clear and concise prose. I am looking forward to arriving at his solutions. Excellent recommendation.

    Kindle and "digitally underline". What's all this, then?

    1. Glad you're enjoying it.

      If a passage you're reading on Kindle takes your fancy, you can underline it (or simply "boomark" the whole page) digitally. If you try to underline the passage physically on the screen, using a pen or pencil, you will have to buy a new Kindle. This is the meaning of digital underlining. When you have finished the book or article, you can then find all your underlined and bookmarked and underlined passages in the "Notes & Marks" section. Very useful feature.

  2. Thanks for this update. I'd always wondered what happened to Boko Harum. A Whiter Shade of Pale is a classic, if lyrically pretentious, and went to the top of the charts in the 60s. Then the hits dried up. That would have been disappointing for them. However, it is no excuse for their abandoning the world of ponderous, organ-heavy prog rock for one of violent Islamic fundamentalism.

    1. Their follow-up record "Homburg" did okay, reaching No. 6 on the UK charts, but their double-sided third single - "Educating Chicks is Like So Uncool/Slaughtering Innocent People Will Get You into Heaven" - suprisingly failed to reach the Top 40 (except in some Middle East markets). I blame the record company for giving them bad advice.