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Breaking It All Up

Eric Hoffer was an unsettling figure, a provocateur — heroic and inventive to some, reckless and violent to others. And now, three decades after his death, he still pains critics and enlivens admirers. As Tom Shachtman says about the subject of his latest book, “American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer,” “My politics are not his politics, but that does not prevent me from assessing his views. And he was certainly an original.” From mean and disturbed beginnings, Hoffer, the son of immigrants, a barely educated migrant worker and then longshoreman, became a reader, a thinker, a spiky charmer, a writer and a terrific talker, traits that propelled him to stardom in some academic and political circles from the 1950s until his death in 1983. For Shachtman, this was a provocative and inventive man, tailored by his times. Early in his thinking life, Hoffer chided those intellectuals who saw the Communist Soviet Union and Fascist Germany as natural enemies. Backing the Soviets, they argued, stabilized Europe, holding the Fascists at bay and securing international peace. But Hoffer, in his readings, had come to see all mass movements as just alike, all derived from the same sources as he wrote in “The True Believer,” published in 1951, the first of his ten books. And when the two colluded, Hitler to invade Poland, and Stalin, Finland, in 1939, Hoffer figured he was on to something big. Of course some might say it’s not hard to see that the over-arching goals of two totalitarian regimes would find interests in common. At least for a time. But that was not the common view. And that is certainly not what Hoffer argued. He saw mass movements of all kinds, from religious to nationalist, as a haven for the disaffected, providing empty people with goals, hope, pride and “the illusion of might [that] fills their souls with grandeur.” Mass movement members “ask to be deceived,” Hoffer wrote. Their convictions are a comfort, a substitute for thinking, a sop. And this made mass movements contemptible, as he saw the peaceniks, the civil rights activists, and the student rebels who shattered the steel and calm of America’s establishment. Testifying to Congress in 1969, Hoffer assailed the student takeover at Columbia University: “I think it would have been a wonderful thing if [university president] Grayson Kirk got mad, grabbed a gun and gunned them down.” But consistency was a hobgoblin for this thinker. While he viewed mass movements as the occupation of needy and co-opted persons, his views on the labor movement were quite different. For this stevedore, unions provided members with a safe livelihood, he argued, and he saw agreements between labor and management as serving peace and progress. So sometimes Hoffer’s views were unpredictable. And sometimes they were simply absurd, as when he told an interviewer on TV that Americans were not violent, because it was a Jordanian, Sirhan Sirhan, not an American, who assassinated Robert Kennedy (heedless of the murders of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King). But this man’s bluster and inconsistencies and hardcore, blue collar patriotism charmed many. To meet President Johnson at the White House, Hoffer wore his usual working man’s garb and claimed later that the president was “one of us,” and that his detractors would end up “in the dustbin of history.” Shachtman, a self-possessed fellow who writes books and lives now in Salisbury after careers as a freelance documentary filmmaker and as a teacher and consultant, says the time seemed right for a book about Hoffer. He started this book before the Tea Party rose to influence and before the Wall Street demonstrations began. Now, unemployment, “and a culture that makes us want things,” prompts many to “look for easy answers,” Shachtman says,“and throw rocks.” Hoffer’s great contribution, he says, is to goad people into thinking deeply about what they believe. Tom Shachtman will be reading from “American Iconoclast” at Johnnycake Books on Academy Street in Salisbury from 3 to 5 p.m., Dec. 10. For information, call 860-435-6677. On Dec. 8, he will be discussing his book and answering questions at the Wolcott Library in Litchfield at 7 p.m. For information, call 860-567-8030.

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