Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How Brooks Makes Paragraphs

Conrad Veidt in Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Doktor Caligari (1920). Image via WolfInAGorillaSuit.

Shorter David Brooks, "How ISIS Makes Radicals", New York Times, December 8 2015:
The crucial issue in the terror attack in San Bernardino is really, how is it possible for an Islamic State headquartered in some stranded desert post in Syria to radicalize a couple in the Inland Empire of southern California, what "technology of persuasion" flings its influence all the way from there to here?
(1) The best place to look for an answer is still Eric Hoffer's 1951 book, The True Believer, because although it doesn't perhaps have anything to say about winning hearts and minds by remote control, it certainly provides us with stuff I can spin out for ten paragraphs worth of paraphrase and direct quote;
(2) Probably they use the Internet.
I have a strong feeling I know how he got to the celebrated longshoreman philosopher of the 1950s, Eric Hoffer, to find out that he was the "best source of wisdom" on the radicalization issue, which is namely the autogooglotic technique, or self-googling. Because the last time he published an explanation of how people get radicalized, in February, John Huckans at Book Source Magazine picked up on it in his own piece on, precisely, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, in reference to a quote from Hoffer:
“Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery... a grievance is most poignant when almost redressed.” ¹   (In other words, people don't become fanatics or terrorists because of lack of economic opportunity, jobs programs, good schools, and other social benefits.  In a recent opinion piece , syndicated columnist David Brooks noted ‘On Thursday, Mona El-Naggar of The Times profiled a young Egyptian man, named Islam Yaken, who grew up in a private school but ended up fighting for the Islamic State and kneeling proudly by a beheaded corpse in Syria.’)
Making a point dear to Brooks (and true for that matter), that terrorists don't necessarily, or even often, come from underprivilege. The essay also mentions Montaigne, a character Brooks too is fond of mentioning, and I'm betting he was tooling around looking for somebody authoritative who agrees with him, as in the first and most epic time I caught him doing this, in early 2013. This Eric Hoffer who had evidently supported Brooks's ideas before Brooks himself was born must be the right sort, no?

Hoffer was, I think, if not precisely a good philosopher, a pretty good writer on philosophical topics. It strikes me now in a way it wouldn't have done when I was vaguely aware of him as a pseudo-intellectual kid in the 1970s that he was not just a combatant but a bit of a tool in the Cold War, as if he'd been selected and run like the Partisan Review, representing through his biography how our working class is better than their working class, in spite of capitalism—the mass movements critically examined in the 1951 book consist mainly of the international Communist conspiracy, along with the religious movements of the past for balance, and he himself was famous for his lack of a professional academic background, for working on the waterfront and elaborating his thoughts on the job, in a series of notebooks (now in the possession of the Hoover Institution at Stanford). He definitely wasn't a professional philosopher, and I hope it's clear that that is no more accusation than it is praise, maybe even a bit more on the praise side.

That said, it's surprising how cool he reads at the moment, how 1950s liberal (an atheist but not an aggressive one, not a religion-hater) and how pungent as an aphorist he was, if somewhat repetitive, in The True Believer, as far as I can judge from chasing the individual sentences of Brooks's column for their sources.

Certainly most of the column is a collage of clippings from the book, mostly from chapters of particular interest to Brooks, V ("The Poor") and XIII ("Opportunities for Self-Sacrifice") with some vocabulary substitutions to make it not absolute plagiarism, and of course turning Hoffer's tight but compounded sentences into fatigued simplex flab, e.g.:

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. (II §7)
Hoffer distinguished between practical organizations and mass movements. The former, like a company or a school, offer opportunities for self-advancement. The central preoccupation of a mass movement, on the other hand, is self-sacrifice. The purpose of an organization like ISIS is to get people to negate themselves for a larger cause.
The cause of revolution in a totalitarian society is usually a weakening of the totalitarian framework rather than resentment against oppression and distress. (V §31)
Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves. (II §8)
the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and... frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer... (Preface)
By renouncing individual will, judgment and ambition, and dedicating all their powers to the service of an eternal cause, they are at last lifted off the endless treadmill which can never lead them to fulfillment. (VI §37) 
There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. (X §41)
The people who serve mass movements are not revolting against oppression. They are driven primarily by frustration. Their personal ambitions are unfulfilled. They have lost faith in their own abilities to realize their dreams. They sometimes live with an unrelieved boredom.
The funniest moments are perhaps the bits of pure Brooksery without a Hoffer source, snuck in among the quotes and calques, especially the first sentence here:
Freedom aggravates their sense of frustration because they have no one to blame but themselves for their perceived mediocrity. Fanatics, the French philosopher Ernest Renan argued, fear liberty more than they fear persecution.
where Hoffer has written,
The important point is that in forgetting or postponing individual liberty, the active mass movement does not run counter to the inclinations of a zealous following. Fanatics, says Renan, fear liberty more than they fear persecution. (V §27)
David, you're projecting again. (Very funny, by the way, how he tries to suggest that he pulled that Renan quote out of his own personal repertoire, but clearly has no idea who Renan was, an anticlerical fulminator who, when he spoke of liberty-fearing fanatics, basically meant "Catholics".)

For those who care enough, I've collated all of the column's Hoffer-extracted passages with passages from the original and posted them in a David Brooks Plagiarism Watch dossier. It was awful work.

At the end, after briefly noting, as a kind of afterthought, what that "technology of persuasion" really was—
You can follow it online and participate remotely
—he goes beyond Hoffer in a particularly bizarre way, with his typical list of ways in which "we" can cope with the remote-controlled mass movement of our time:
The correct response is still the same, however. First, try to heal the social disintegration that is the seedbed of these movements. Second, offer positive inspiring causes to replace the suicidal ones. Third, mass movements are conquered when their charisma is destroyed, when they are defeated militarily and humiliated. Then they can no longer offer hope, inspiration or a plausible way out for the disaffected.
Hoffer doesn't provide any prescriptions at all. I imagine radicalized Christians didn't seem in those days like the kind of threat they are now, in any case, but he doesn't offer any thoughts on discouraging people from radicalized Marxism either.

I'm pretty sure the end of Communism as an international conspiracy didn't work by healing social disintegration or an offer of non-suicidal causes to the potential victims, though, and I'm positive no military force defeated the Warsaw Pact, except of course for the Afghans, who are not commonly thought of as having won the Cold War. In opening his discussion up to the questions that animated his predecessors sixty-odd years ago, he shows how completely nonsensical, context-free and bubble-headed, his usual nostrums are. Let's heal social disintegration! That's show those terrorists!

Also, as Hoffer wrote on the subject of military defeat,
should the avenues of action be thoroughly blocked by a severe depression or defeat in war the resulting frustration is likely to be so intense that almost any proselytizing mass movement would find the situation ready-made for its propagation. (XIV §99)
So there's that. Kind of what happened when the utterly humiliating self-annihilation of the Soviet Union prepared the way for the personality cult of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Or with an immensely destructive war on large parts of the Muslim world a few years back, with a certain New York Times columnist cheering them on. I understand there's an inevitable military element to coping with the Da'esh but I'm not sure "we" want to go back there and try the total defeat-and-humiliation again.


Driftglass makes the helpful point that the fanatical mass movement as described by Eric Hoffer has an awful lot in common with, um, Republicans of 2015.

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