Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Ordeal of Change

While I think about my next crime post, here's a quotation from Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman/philosopher, whom I discovered through the good offices of Seana Graham.

Any number of passages from Hoffer's 1963 book The Ordeal of Change are relevant to world history, and all are delivered with a plain-spokenness one might expect from a longshoreman (and migrant crop picker)/ philosopher, but I chose the following for its special relevance to, oh, just about everything.
"The simple fact that we can never be fit and ready for that which is wholly new has some peculiar results. It means that a population undergoing drastic change is a population of misfits, and misfits live and breathe in an atmosphere of passion."

Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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22 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

It's funny, but I was reading an article in the Atlantic today. James Fallows made the same point about assuming the presidency.

February 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hoffer was thinking primarily of the rise of Asia, which has obvious relevance today. But his remarks hit even closer to home for those of us who work for newspapers.

February 16, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

Hoffer has been a longtime favorite of mine. Have you read his _True Believer_? It reads as though he wrote it recently.

February 17, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hoffer got that right. That's why revolutions end up doing a great deal of damage in order to promote an ideal.

February 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I have "True Believer" lined up to be read, probably after "Thinking and Working on the Waterfront." The latter might be better consulted at leisure than read cover-to-cover, though.

Its discussion of upheaval and fanaticism do seem awfully contemporary.

February 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Hoffer has much to say on the subject of revolutions, who leads them, who follows them, what happens to the leaders and, most important, the different ways potentially revolutionary ferment is channelled.

February 17, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

The simple fact that we can never be fit and ready for that which is wholly new has some peculiar results. It means that a population undergoing drastic change is a population of misfits, and misfits live and breathe in an atmosphere of passion

What a load of shite, Peter. Nothing but rotten abstractions and lousy generalities. As far as I can tell, Hoffer was an extreme conservative who believed that any form of concerted action to remedy social problems derived from personal frustration. People who were skillful at what they did and had self-esteem saw society as good and were happy to keep it just as it was. The anti-slavery movement, the suffragets, George Washington, were they all misfits?

Back to the Hoffer quote:

fit and ready: what does that mean? you get down to your fighting weight and keep lots of bottled water handy?

that which is wholly new: as in what? the latest coldplay album? or dan brown's new novel?

drastic change: too much liposuction, perhaps, or an excessive number of breast implants

population of misfits: name me a population of misfits.

atmosphere of passion: those who have just fallen in love? or those watching the latest barcelona v real madrid game?

Here's another Hoffer quote:

It is drastic change which sets the stage for revolution...Where things have not changed at all, there is the least likihood of revolution.

Think of the Arab Spring, or the collapse of communist Eastern Europe or the Iranian revolution and it would be far easier to make the case that it was the lack of change and the lack of reform that caused long simmering tensions to boil over.

BTW, I think your new robot protection system will keep out more than robots

February 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He was an anti-Communist when that mattered, which means that a conservative foundation in America now has possession of his collected papers, but hardly a conservative. Beyond that, I suggest context to be gained by reading the essay in question would help you understand better what Hoffer meant by "misfits." His enumeration of effective labor unions as a tool for maintaining independence of labor from management is hardly what we would call conservative today.

I agree that Blogger's new protection system could use a bit of tinkering. It's hard to tell what it will keep out these days.

February 17, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Hoffer was not a conservative, except in the true sense, something foreign to the term today, as least as used by Republicans.

He was, like Nelson Algren, an advocate of the working man. For a time he worked on the docks. He was against causes of any kind, which is what the true believer is all about.

As he aged, he became spiritual without becoming religious. Peter's interpretation here is absolutely right on. Corporate speak and corporate policy was shared across America and probably across the globe, a policy to get rid of the unions and dismantle the regulated state.

And speaking of corporate-speak, you should see Norman Solomon's brilliant THE POWER OF BABBLE, a book of definitions to rival Ambrose Bierce's THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY.

Example:

Class warfare - aggravated class conflict. Roundly denounced by many a politician who actually supports it, as long as it is being waged from the top down.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Oh, and by the way. In THE TRUE BELIEVER, Hoffer gets it right about how individuals who feel worthless due to rapid change of self or for other reasons, identify with the cause and thus lose there individuality in the group. But he doesn't go far enough.

If you want to see the psychology behind Hoffer's observations in THE TRUE BELIEVER, read Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, THE DENIAL OF DEATH.

All wars become holy wars because of the fear of death.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, I groaned when I saw that Hoffer's papers were held by the Hoover Foundation and that he had been awarded the Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. I thought that here were two examples of "conservatives" in the contemporary American sense highjacking a righteous man for tendentious, public-relations purposes.

It seems to be that Republicans these last few decades have given a bad name to worthwhile virtues exemplified by someone like Hoffer.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re corporate-speak, I groaned the first time a journalist-turned-manager at my paper used "impact" as a verb. IN re Eric Hoffer's work on the docks, I read "Working and Thinking on the Waterfront" last week,

February 21, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I don't think my dad would have been as into Hoffer as he was if he'd pegged him as a conservative.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, "conservative" really means one thing these days: anything that Barack Obama is not. I'm sure someone has traced the evolution of the word's meaning in America. I wouldn't mind reading such an analysis.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Actually, the Wikipedia article looks pretty thorough on the history of the idea here.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That article looks interesting. I'll have to see if it explores the oddity of one word's being applied to so many different ideas.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I only skimmed it, but I think it would say there is a thread running through all the different ideas.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Buckley was pretty coherent, though I'm not sure what he meant by "organic moral order."

February 21, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Like a lot of liberals, my dad used to watch Firing Line with interest, and found Buckley intelligent but wrong.

I never could stand the guy.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I used to watch Firing Line occasionally and found Buckley's manner insufferable. I remember taking great delight when Michael Kinsley said something that that shut Buckley right up and put him at a loss for words, possibly for the only time in his life.

Buckley wrote a moving piece when his mother died, and he waqs surprisingly upbeat about the advent of e-mail. It would being writing back into fashion, he said. In fact, Buckley was better on the page, where one did not have to put up with his insufferably affected manner.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I think my dad used to watch just for those moments when Buckley might be bested

I don't mind some provocateurs, but there are others, like Buckley, who seem to feel it their duty to be condescending and usually it doesn't mean that they are more right more of the time than any of the rest of us. A little of that stuff goes a long way with me.

February 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If Buckley were here to answer your accusation that he was condescending, he'd raise his chin, half-close his eyes, look down his nose, say "Of course I am," insult your opinion, then cut to a commercial before you could reply.

February 21, 2012  

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