Category: People

J.K. Rowling On People’s Intolerance of Alternative Viewpoints

At the PEN America Literary Gala & Free Expression Awards, J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, received the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. Embedded in her acceptance speech is some timeless wisdom on tolerance and acceptance:

Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me, a moderate and a liberal, most uncomfortable. Only last year, we saw an online petition to ban Donald Trump from entry to the U.K. It garnered half a million signatures.

Just a moment.

I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine. Unless we take that absolute position without caveats or apologies, we have set foot upon a road with only one destination. If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral ground on which to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification.

Too often we look at the world through our own eyes and fail to acknowledge the eyes of others. In so doing we often lose touch with reality.

The quick reaction our brains have to people who disagree with us is often that they are idiots. They shouldn’t be allowed to talk or have a platform. They should lose.

This reminds me of Kathryn Schulz’s insightful view on what we do when someone disagrees with us.

As a result we dismiss the views of others, failing to even consider that our view of the world might be wrong.

It’s easy to be dismissive and intolerant of others. It’s easy to say they’re idiots and wish they didn’t have the same rights you have. It’s harder to map that to the very freedoms we enjoy and relate it to the world we want to live in.

Warren Berger’s Three-Part Method for More Creativity

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”
— Charles “Boss” Kettering


The whole scientific method is built on a very simple structure: If I do this, then what will happen? That’s the basic question on which more complicated, intricate, and targeted lines of inquiry are built, across a wide variety of subjects. This simple form helps us push deeper and deeper into knowledge of the world. (On a sidenote, science has become such a loaded, political word that this basic truth of how it works frequently seems to be lost!)

Individuals learn this way too. From the time you were a child, you were asking why (maybe even too much), trying to figure out all the right questions to ask to get better information about how the world works and what to do about it.

Because question-asking is such an integral part of how we know things about the world, both institutionally and individually, it seems worthy to understand how creative inquiry works, no? If we want to do things that haven’t been done or learn things that have never been learned — in short, be more creative — we must learn to ask the right questions, ones so good that they’re half-answered in the asking. And to do that, it might help to understand the process, no?

Warren Berger proposes a simple method in his book A More Beautiful Questionan interesting three-part system to help (partially) solve the problem of inquiry. He calls it The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning, and reminds us why it’s worth learning about.

Each stage of the problem solving process has distinct challenges and issues–requiring a different mind-set, along with different types of questions. Expertise is helpful at certain points, not so helpful at others; wide-open, unfettered divergent thinking is critical at one stage, discipline and focus is called for at another. By thinking of questioning and problem solving in a more structured way, we can remind ourselves to shift approaches, change tools, and adjust our questions according to which stage we’re entering.

Three-Part Method for More Creativity


It starts with the Why?

A good Why? seeks true understanding. Why are things the way they are currently? Why do we do it that way? Why do we believe what we believe?

This start is essential because it gives us permission to continue down a line of inquiry fully equipped. Although we may think we have a brilliant idea in our heads for a new product, or a new answer to an old question, or a new way of doing an old thing, unless we understand why things are the way they are, we’re not yet on solid ground. We never want to operate from a position of ignorance, wasting our time on an idea that hasn’t been pushed and fleshed out. Before we say “I already know” the answer, maybe we need to step back and look for the truth.

At the same time, starting with a strong Why also opens up the idea that the current way (whether it’s our way or someone else’s) might be wrong, or at least inefficient. Let’s say a friend proposes you go to the same restaurant you’ve been to a thousand times. It might be a little agitating, but a simple “Why do we always go there?” allows two things to happen:

A. Your friend can explain why, and this gives him/her a legitimate chance at persuasion. (If you’re open minded.)

B. The two of you may agree you only go there out of habit, and might like to go somewhere else.

This whole Why? business is the realm of contrarian thinking, which not everyone enjoys doing. But Berger cites the case of George Lois:

George Lois, the renowned designer of iconic magazine covers and celebrated advertising campaigns, was also known for being a disruptive force in business meetings. It wasn’t just that he was passionate in arguing for his ideas; the real issue, Lois recalls, was that often he was the only person in the meeting willing to ask why. The gathered business executives would be anxious to proceed on a course of action assumed to be sensible. While everyone else nodded in agreement, “I would be the only guy raising his hand to say, ‘Wait a minute, this thing you want to do doesn’t make any sense. Why the hell are you doing it this way?”

Others in the room saw Lois to be slowing the meeting and stopping the group from moving forward. But Lois understood that the group was apt to be operating on habit–trotting out an idea or approach similar to what had been done in similar situations before, without questioning whether it was the best idea or the right approach in this instance. The group needed to be challenged to “step back” by someone like Lois–who had a healthy enough ego to withstand being the lone questioner in the room.

The truth is that a really good Why? type question tends to be threatening. That’s also what makes it useful. It challenges us to step back and stop thinking on autopilot. It also requires what Berger calls a step back from knowing — that recognizable feeling of knowing something but not knowing how you know it. This forced perspective is, of course, as valuable a thing as you can do.

Berger describes a valuable exercise that’s sometimes used to force perspective on people who think they already have a complete answer. After showing a drawing of a large square (seemingly) divided into 16 smaller squares, the questioner asks the audience “How many squares do you see?”

The easy answer is sixteen. But the more observant people in the group are apt to notice–especially after Srinivas allows them to have a second, longer, look–that you can find additional squares by configuring them differently. In addition to the sixteen single squares, there are nine two-by-two squares, four three-by-three squares, and one large four-by-four square, which brings the total to thirty squares.

“The squares were always there, but you didn’t find them until you looked for them.”

Point being, until you step back, re-examine, and look a little harder, you might not have seen all the damn squares yet!

What If?

The second part is where a good questioner, after using Why? to understand as deeply as possible and open a new line of inquiry, proposes a new type of solution, usually an audacious one — all great ideas tend to be, almost by definition — by asking What If…?

Berger illustrates this one well with the story of Pandora Music. The founder Tim Westergren wanted to know why good music wasn’t making it out to the masses. His search didn’t lead to a satisfactory answer, so he eventually asked himself, What if we could map the DNA of music? The result has been pretty darn good, with something close to 80 million listeners at present:

The Pandora story, like many stories of inquiry-driven startups, started with someone’s wondering about an unmet need. It concluded with the questioner, Westergren, figuring out how to bring a fully realized version of the answer into the world.

But what happened in between? That’s when the lightning struck. In Westergren’s case, ideas and influences began to come together; he combined what he knew about music with what he was learning about technology. Inspiration was drawn from a magazine article, and from a seemingly unrelated world (biology). A vision of the new possibility began to form in the mind. It all resulted in an audacious hypothetical question that might or might not have been feasible–but was exciting enough to rally people to the challenge of trying to make it work.

The What If stage is the blue-sky moment of questioning, when anything is possible. Those possibilities may not survive the more practical How stage; but it’s critical to innovation that there be time for wild, improbable ideas to surface and to inspire.

If the word Why has penetrative power, enabling the questioner to get past assumptions and dig deep into problems, the words What if have a more expansive effect–allowing us to think without limits or constraints, firing the imagination.

Clearly, Westergren had engaged in serious combinatorial creativity pulling from multiple disciplines, which led him to ask the right kind of questions. This seems to be a pretty common feature at this stage of the game, and an extremely common feature of all new ideas:

Smart recombinations are all around us. Pandora, for example, is a combination of a radio station and search engine; it also takes the biological method of genetic coding and transfers it to the domain of music […] In today’s tech world, many of the most successful products–Apple’s iPhone being just one notable example–are hybrids, melding functions and features in new ways.

Companies, too, can be smart recombinations. Netflix was started as a video-rental business that operated like a monthly membership health club (and how it has added “TV production studio” to the mix). Airbnb is a combination of an online travel agency, a social media platform, and a good old-fashioned bed-and-breakfast (the B&B itself is a smart combination from way back.)

It may be that the Why? –> What if? line of inquiry is common to all types of innovative thinking because it engages the part of our brain that starts turning over old ideas in new ways by combining them with other unrelated ideas, much of them previously sitting idle in our subconscious. That churning is where new ideas really arise.

The idea then has to be “reality-tested”, and that’s where the last major question comes in.


Once we think we’ve hit on a brilliant new idea, it’s time to see if the thing actually works. Usually and most frequently, the answer is no. But enough times to make it worth our while, we discover that the new idea has legs.

The most common problem here is that we try to perfect a new idea all at once, leading to stagnation and paralysis. That’s usually the wrong approach.

Another, often better, way is to try the idea quickly and start getting feedback. As much as possible. In the book, Berger describes a fun little experiment that drives home the point, and serves as a fairly useful business metaphor besides:

A software designer shared a story about an interesting experiment in which the organizers brought together a group of kindergarten children who were divided into small teams and given a challenge: Using uncooked spaghetti sticks, string, tape, and a marshmallow, they had to assemble the tallest structure they could, within a time limit (the marshmallow was supposed to be placed on top of the completed structure.)

Then, in a second phase of the experiment, the organizers added a new wrinkle. They brought in teams of Harvard MBA grad students to compete in the challenge against the kindergartners. The grad students, I’m told, took it seriously. They brought a highly analytical approach to the challenge, debating among themselves about how best to combine the sticks, the string, and the tape to achieve maximum altitude.

Perhaps you’ll have guessed this already, but the MBA students were no match for the kindergartners. For all their planning and discussion, the structures they carefully conceived invariably fell apart–and then they were out of time before they could get in more attempts.

The kids used their time much more efficiently by constructing right away. They tried one way of building, and if it didn’t work, they quickly tried another. They got in a lot more tries. They learned from their mistakes as they went along, instead of attempting to figure out everything in advance.

This little experiment gets run in the real world all the time by startups looking to outcompete ponderous old bureaucracies. They simply substitute velocity for scale and see what happens — it often works well.

The point is to move along the axis of Why?–>What If–>How? without too much self-censoring in the last phase. Being afraid to fail can often mean a great What If? proposition gets stuck there forever. Analysis paralysis, as it’s sometimes called. But if you can instead enter the testing of the How? stage quickly, even by showing that an idea won’t work, then you can start the loop over again, either asking a new Why? or proposing a new What If? to an existing Why?

Thus moving your creative engine forward.


Berger’s point is that there is an intense practical end to understanding productive inquiry. Just like “If I do this, then what will happen?” is a basic structure on which all manner of complex scientific questioning and testing is built, so can a simple Why, What If, and How structure catalyze a litany of new ideas.

Still Interested? Check out the book, or check out some related posts: Steve Jobs on CreativitySeneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity, or for some fun with question-asking, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

Atul Gawande and the Mistrust of Science

Continuing on with Commencement Season, Atul Gawande gave an address to the students of Cal Tech last Friday, delivering a message to future scientists, but one that applies equally to all of us as thinkers:

“Even more than what you think, how you think matters.”

Gawande addresses the current growing mistrust of “scientific authority” — the thought that because science creaks along one mistake at a time, that it isn’t to be trusted. The misunderstanding of what scientific thinking is and how it works is at the root of much problematic ideology, and it’s up to those who do understand it to promote its virtues.

It’s important to realize that scientists, singular, are as fallible as the rest of us. Thinking otherwise only sets you up for a disappointment. The point of science is the collective, the forward advance of the hive, not the bee. It’s sort of a sausage-making factory when seen up close, but when you pull back the view, it looks like a beautifully humming engine, steadily giving us more and more information about ourselves and the world around us. Science is, above all, a method of thought. A way of figuring out what’s true and what we’re just fooling ourselves about.

So explains Gawande:

Few working scientists can give a ground-up explanation of the phenomenon they study; they rely on information and techniques borrowed from other scientists. Knowledge and the virtues of the scientific orientation live far more in the community than the individual. When we talk of a “scientific community,” we are pointing to something critical: that advanced science is a social enterprise, characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor. Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility. (Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time.) But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

He echoes Steven Pinker in the thought that science, traditionally left to the realm of discovering “physical” reality, is now making great inroads into what might have previously been considered philosophy, by exploring why and how our minds work the way they do. This can only be accomplished by deep critical thinking across a broad range of disciplines, and by the dual attack of specialists uncovering highly specific nuggets and great synthesizers able to suss out meaning from the big pile of facts.

The whole speech is worth a read and reflection, but Gawande’s conclusion is particularly poignant for an educated individual in a Republic:

The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.

Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.

Still Interested? Read the rest, and read a few other of this year’s commencements by Nassim Taleb and Gary Taubes. Or read about E.O. Wilson, the great Harvard biologist, and what he thought it took to become a great scientist. (Hint: The same stuff it takes for anyone to become a great critical thinker.)

Eric Hoffer and the Creation of Fanatical Mass Movements

What is the nature of a true mass movement? In 1951, the American philosopher Eric Hoffer attempted to answer this, and published his first and most well-known work: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

The True Believer became a hit because it was released on the heels of World War II and at the outset of the US/Soviet Cold War, and hoped to explain the nature of the “mass movements” that created widespread devastation: Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism among them. Most people were still hungry for answers. (Heck, many people all over the world were still hungry, period.)

Hoffer took the analysis a bit further. What did all mass movements seem to have in common? He didn’t stop with modern political movements, but thought also about religious movements, reformations, and nationalist movements throughout history, featuring heavy commentary on Christianity and Islam in particular.

The book is a series of loosely connected cogitations on the nature of fanatically organized mass movements, the kind that can lead to mass murder and starvation as in the cases above, but that have also led to movements we generally look fondly upon like the Catholic Reformation, the American Revolution, and the Indian Independence Movement.

Like any good book, it’s impossible to summarize without losing a tremendous amount of understanding. But Hoffer does offer a loose framework for how mass movements start and move into completion, and his insights here are worth studying, for they give us a great window into humanity and history. This will be a longer one, but it’s worth the ride.

The Intellectual Underpinning of Revolution

Hoffer makes it clear that the nature of a true mass movement is one of unified struggle. It comes at a time of disillusionment with the state of affairs. It’s not necessarily and not even usually desperation, though: People who can barely feed themselves do not tend to revolt, for they do not have the time, interest, or energy. Revolt tends to happen in a society of intellectual discourse and, counter-intuitively, a certain amount of freedom.

But when conditions are right and people are sufficiently whipped into a fervor, a mass movement can arise among a frustrated group. Hoffer outlines the basic definition of a mass movement by emphasizing the call for self-sacrifice as a central element:

The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and the means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice. To know the processes by which such a facility is engendered is to grasp the inner logic of most of the characteristic attitudes and practices of an active mass movement.

With few exceptions, any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities—both noble and base—of a mass movement. On the other hand, a mass movement is bound to lose much which distinguishes it from other types of organization when it relaxes its collective compactness and begins to countenance self-interest as a legitimate motive of activity. In times of peace and prosperity, a democratic nation is an institutionalized association of more or less free individuals. On the other hand, in time of crisis, when the nation’s existence is threatened, and it tries to reinforce its unity and generate in its people a readiness for self-sacrifice, it almost always assumes in some degree the character of a mass movement. The same is true of religious and revolutionary organizations: whether or not they develop into mass movements depends less on the doctrine they preach and the program they project than on the degree of their preoccupation with unity and the readiness for self- degree of their preoccupation with unity and the readiness for self-sacrifice.

The essential nature, then, of a fanatical mass movement is one where a group of loyal followers can be made to believe, or simply nudged into indulging a prior belief that their own life is less important than a greater cause. A willingness to lose their own identity for the “greater good,” however defined, seems a necessary element.

In order for this to happen, a population must obviously be given something to believe — a cause strong enough to subsume them. And in order to do that, the cause must be all-encompassing. The reason Hoffer titles the book True Believer is that a strong mass movement only works when it purports to provide a solution that can be turned to for all the essential answers: The Bible, the Qur’an, Liberty, Freedom, Communism, Equality, Lebensraum, the State, the Nation…all-encompassing narratives which would become the central dogma of a mass movement, to be enacted and upheld by force. (These narratives would become a central element of Yuval Harari’s wonderful book Sapiens about 50 years later. He called them the human myths.)

The process is kicked off by a radical intellectual, or what Hoffer calls a Man of Words.

The Man of Words

As Hoffer describes it, the process begins with a thinker or a group of thinkers with a strong set of ideas that offer a solution to a proposed societal problem. Karl Marx. Jesus Christ. Thomas Paine. Martin Luther. The German philosophers. The French philosophers.

These intellectuals “prepare the ground” for the movements to come, by providing the central dogmas of the revolution which begin to get the populace on board by giving them an alternative to the present. A new future. And without these forceful new ideas, the momentum will eventually die.

Generally, this only works in a society where the intellectuals are not already part of the establishment: There has to be a certain disaffected nature to their work. If they don’t hate the powers that be, why bother inciting Revolution — intentionally or not? Hoffer makes the point that in societies where the intellectuals are the ruling class, or participate heavily in the ruling class, there’s not much of a tendency towards a true mass movement.

In one passage, he describes the outline of this beginning period:

The men of letters of eighteenth-century France are the most familiar example of intellectuals pioneering a mass movement. A somewhat similar pattern may be detected in the periods preceding the rise of most movements. The ground for the Reformation was prepared by the men who satirized and denounced the clergy in popular pamphlets, and by men of letters like Johann Reuchlin, who fought and discredited the Roman curia. The rapid spread of Christianity in the Roman world was partly due to the fact that the pagan cults it sought to supplant were already thoroughly discredited. The discrediting was done, before and after the birth of Christianity, by the Greek philosophers who were bored with the puerility of the cults and denounced and ridiculed them in schools and city streets.

Christianity made little headway against Judaism because the Jewish religion had the ardent allegiance of the Jewish men of words. The rabbis and their disciples enjoyed an exalted status in Jewish life of that day, where the school and the book supplanted the temple and the fatherland. In any social order where the reign of men of words is so supreme, no opposition can develop within and no foreign mass movement can gain a foothold. The mass movements of modern time, whether socialist or nationalist, were invariably pioneered by poets, writers, historians, scholars, philosophers and the like. The connection between intellectual theoreticians and revolutionary movements needs no emphasis.

But it is equally true that all nationalist movements— from the cult of la patrie in revolutionary France to the latest nationalist rising in Indonesia—were conceived not by men of action but by fault-finding intellectuals. The generals, industrialists, landowners and businessmen who are considered pillars of patriotism are latecomers who join the movement after it has become a going concern. The most strenuous part of the early phase of every nationalist movement consists in convincing and winning over these future pillars of patriotism. The Czech historian Palacky said that if the ceiling of a room in which he and a handful of friends were dining one night had collapsed, there would have been no Czech nationalist movement.

Such handfuls of impractical men of words were at the beginning of all nationalist movements. German intellectuals were the originators of German nationalism, just as Jewish intellectuals were the originators of Zionism. It is the deep-seated craving of the man of words for an exalted status which makes him oversensitive to any humiliation imposed on the class or community (racial, lingual or religious) to which he belongs however loosely. It was Napoleon’s humiliation of the Germans, particularly the Prussians, which drove Fichte and the German intellectuals to call on the German masses to unite into a mighty nation which would dominate Europe. Theodore Herzl and the Jewish intellectuals were driven to Zionism by the humiliations heaped upon millions of Jews in Russia, and by the calumnies to which the Jews in the rest of continental Europe were subjected toward the end of the nineteenth century. To a degree the nationalist movement which forced the British rulers out of India had its inception in the humiliation of a scrawny and bespectacled Indian man of words in South Africa

Of course, the Man of Words is simply an intellectual forbear. Although it has happened, it’s rare that he or she is the actual leader of the movement. As Hoffer points out, Christ was not a Christian and Marx was not a Marxist. The movements came as a result of their anti-establishment thought-work, but there’s a crucial difference between the Man of Words and the Fanatic which will begin catalyzing the movement: the Man of Words may be a lot more intellectually flexible than the true believers who follow in their footsteps:

The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.


The reason for the tragic fate which almost always overtakes the intellectual midwives of a mass movement is that, no matter how much they preach and glorify the united effort, they remain essentially individualists. They believe in the possibility of individual happiness and the validity of individual opinion and initiative. But once a movement gets rolling, power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual. And the reason they prevail is not so much that their disregard of the individual gives them a capacity for ruthlessness, but that their attitude is in full accord with the ruling passion of the masses.

The next steps, the corralling of the people, is often carried out by a Fanatic.

Fanatics of a Revolution

When the moment is ripe, only the fanatic can hatch a genuine mass movement. Without him the disaffection engendered by militant men of words remains undirected and can vent itself only in pointless and easily suppressed disorders. Without him the initiated reforms, even when drastic, leave the old way of life unchanged, and any change in government usually amounts to no more than a transfer of power from one set of men of action to another. Without him there can perhaps be no new beginning.

This may be a bit of historical curve-fitting, but Hoffer thinks that a frustrated creative intellectual makes a pretty good Fanatic, and points to specific examples of where that held — Hitler, Robespierre and Lenin among them. Whether or not that is true matters less than the fact that the Fanatic is responsible for galvanizing the movement and pushing it to a point of no return.

But the Fanatic is not really a good leader or manager in a long-term sense, simply because of the nature of their fanaticism: They believe too strongly in their dogmas, and their intellectual blindness pushes them to blunder. Hitler and Mussolini would be excellent examples. Their fanaticism got them a long way, but ultimately it sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

If it is to be a sustainable movement, then the Men of Action, as Hoffer names them, will have to do the hard work.

Men of Action: Holding Down the Fort

Hoffer continues by describing the final phase of the beginning of a Movement: Leadership by a practical actor with less devotion to pure fanaticism and a healthier dose of order (ideally):

The chief preoccupation of a man of action when he takes over an “arrived” movement is to fix and perpetuate its unity and readiness for self-sacrifice. His ideal is a compact, invincible whole that functions automatically. To achieve this he cannot rely on enthusiasm, for enthusiasm is ephemeral. Persuasion, too, is unpredictable. He inclines, therefore, to rely mainly on drill and coercion. He finds the assertion that all men are cowards less debatable than that all men are fools, and, in the words of Sir John Maynard, inclines to found the new order on the “necks of the people rather than in their hearts.” The genuine man of action is not a man of faith but a man of law.

Still, he cannot help being awed by the tremendous achievements of faith and spontaneity in the early days of the movement when a mighty instrument of power was conjured out of the void. The memory of it is still extremely vivid. He takes, therefore, great care to preserve in the new institutions an impressive façade of faith, and maintains an incessant vow of fervent propaganda, though he relies mainly on the persuasiveness of force. His orders are worded in pious vocabulary, and the old formulas and slogans are continually on his lips. The symbols of faith are carried high and given reverence. The men of words and the fanatics of the early period are canonized.

Though the steel fingers of coercion make themselves felt everywhere and great emphasis is placed on mechanical drill, the pious phrases and the fervent propaganda give to coercion a semblance of persuasion, and to habit a semblance of spontaneity. No effort is spared to present the new order as the glorious consummation of the hopes and struggles of the early days.

It is, of course, true that the categories often overlap. Joseph Stalin was both a practical leader and a man of deep fanaticism, as was Hitler. The leaders of the American Revolution certainly carried both traits, as did Gandhi in leading the Indian Independence. The balance between the fanaticism necessary to catalyze real change and the practical sense needed to sustain a cohesive movement probably affords some measure of success or failure as time goes on. (Nazism collapsed, at least partially, due to fanaticism outstripping reality.)

From there, the new movement, no longer a minority but the dominant power, must find a way to stabilize, and it often does this by patching together a structure from many other institutions:

Stalin’s Russia was a patchwork of bolshevism, czarism, nationalism, pan-Slavism, dictatorship and borrowings from Hitler, and monopolistic capitalism. Hitler’s Third Reich was a conglomerate of nationalism, racialism, Prussianism, dictatorship and borrowings from fascism, bolshevism, Shintoism, Catholicism and the ancient Hebrews. Christianity, too, when after the conflicts and dissensions of the first few centuries it crystallized into an authoritarian church, was a patchwork of old and new and of borrowings from friend and foe. It patterned its hierarchy after the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire, adopted portions of the antique ritual, developed the institution of an absolute leader and used every means to absorb all existent elements of life and power.


Thus we have an outline for the True Believer style mass social movement: It starts by creating an ideology, a set of dogmas around which a fanatical leader or group can create a following. From there, it must find a way to sustain itself as reality creeps in on ideology — structure is introduced or the whole thing will collapse. In almost all cases, there is tremendous violence, although in certain (rare) circumstances, it can be bloodless. Even the rise of religions or nations that promote peace came with tremendous bloodshed.

In the end, mass movements likely take many forms, but Hoffer gives us as good a framework as any to start thinking about the way they are constructed.

Still Interested? Check out the whole book, it’s a very interesting read.

Lee Kuan Yew on the Proper Balance Between Competitiveness and Equality

Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and the one responsible for its rise from third world to first in only a generation, is a great source of wisdom.

In this excerpt from, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, he talks about the necessary balance between competitiveness and equality.

To be successful, society must maintain a balance between nurturing excellence and encouraging the average to improve. There must be both cooperation and competition between people in the same society.

If everybody gets the same rewards, as they do under communism with their iron rice bowl, nobody strives to excel; society will not prosper, and progress will be minimal. That led to the collapse of the communist system. On the other hand, in a highly competitive society where winners get big prizes and losers paltry ones, there will be a great disparity between the top and the bottom layers of society, as in America. … At the end of the day, the basic problem of fairness in society will need to be solved. But first, we have to create the wealth. To do that, we must be competitive and have a good dose of the “yang.” If we have too much of the “yin” and over- redistribute the incomes of the successful, then we will blunt their drive to excel and succeed, and may lose too many of our able, who will move to other countries where they are not so heavily taxed. On the other hand, if too many at the lower end feel left out, then our society will become divisive and fractious, and cohesiveness will be lost. Communism has failed. The welfare state of Western democracies has also failed.

There is a continual need to balance between a successful, competitive society, and a cohesive, compassionate one. That requires judgment, to strike a bargain or social contract. Each society must arrive at that optimum point for itself. Between the two ends, the highly competitive and the excessively equal, lies a golden mean. This point will move with time and changing values.

I can best explain the need for balance between individual competition and group solidarity by using the metaphor of the oriental yin and yang symbol. … The more yang (male) competitiveness in society, the higher the total performance. If winner takes all, competition will be keen, but group solidarity will be weak. The more yin (female) solidarity, with rewards evenly distributed, the greater the group solidarity, but the weaker the total performance because of reduced competition…. We have arranged help, but in such a way that only those who have no other choice will seek it. This is the opposite of attitudes in the West, where liberals actively encourage people to demand entitlements with no sense of shame, causing an explosion of welfare costs.

George Washington’s Practical Self-Education

Our first President and Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, is not known as an intellectual, the way Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and some of his other Revolutionary counterparts were. Washington had little formal education — he was not a university man and he did not occupy the intellectual circles when was young. He didn’t hope to make any contribution to political philosophy or the scientific understanding.

Washington grew up in Virginia into a landowning family, and his education didn’t continue beyond the equivalent of elementary school. He developed a trade — surveying — and would eventually inherit his family’s land and become a farmer and plantation owner. Washington couldn’t speak or read any language but English, living in a time when it was considered necessary and desirable to know French and Latin, at a minimum. (Ben Franklin learned English, Italian, Spanish, Latin, French, and German.) Unlike others we’ve written about before, Washington wasn’t very bookish.

“Washington was a practical reader. He clearly valued useful knowledge that made many of his tasks easier. He was and still is the quintessential American success story because he applied his mind to achieving success. He was relentless in pursuing his goals, and his reading is an applied demonstration of it.”

— Adrienne Harrison

And yet, this poorly educated man with seemingly little interest in literature, classics, or reading at all, became one of the seminal leaders in American history, and as Adrienne Harrison details in her book A Powerful Mind, he did it in large part by reading. Even a man with little interest in high-brow intellect, a man with very little time to spare, felt that sitting on his ass with a book was a useful thing indeed. He was a lifelong learner.

Practical Self-Education

As judged by the library he left behind, his diaries, and the investigations into his life, Washington did not carry much interest in theoretical or classical reading or learning. It seems unlikely that he read for pleasure. But Washington used reading as a means to an end — he wanted to know how to farm better, how to lead an army, how to lead a country, how to conduct himself civilly. There wasn’t any other way but to read and combine it with his direct experience.

Says Harrison in her book:

Washington was a practical reader … While the purpose of this book is not to remake Washington’s image into a sort of closeted scholar, it does argue that reading was a key component behind Washington’s success. The real contribution that this volume makes is that it takes one step closer to understanding how Washington’s mind worked. While his self-directed reading was not anywhere near that of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, Washington outshone them all by combining the knowledge he gained from his reading with his natural talent for leadership into a masterful performance.

Washington’s lack of education and culture certainly bothered him as a youngster. He was ambitious — he wanted to serve as a high-level British military officer and operate in government. He wanted to be a somebody. But he knew his formal education was going to be lacking, and he knew it wouldn’t all happen by accident. So he set out to do some of the hard work.

In a story that eventually became well-known, Washington first spent time as a teenager copying over a French manual for conducting yourself in high circles:

As his younger brothers Samuel and John Augustine still lay sleeping nearby and the first of the sun’s rays stretched through the neatly curtained windows and across the small table, the future father of his country busily copied word for word a translation of an old guidebook for princely behavior that a French Jesuit priest wrote called The Rules of Civility. 

Such a project was no small undertaking for the boy, but little by little he was determined to press on to the end; so he kept scratching at the paper with his quill, careful to keep his ink-stained fingers off the paper. By the time he was finished, young Washington’s manuscript consisted of 110 rules for how to properly conduct himself as a respectable member of society. He took pride in his work, for he would rely on these maxims to guide him throughout a long career in the public light.

This tells you a lot of Washington: He was a climber, he had discipline, and he could apply himself when needed. Even in the 18th century, not too many wealthy southern teenagers would have taken on that kind of task.

Learning the rules of civilized social behavior in this way, Washington started a pattern he’d carry on his entire life: Gaining knowledge from books that he couldn’t get through experience, or that he needed before he had the right experience. He did it again when he was put in charge of the Virginia Regiment, the first dedicated military unit in the colonies.

Washington hoped that leading this ragtag group of frontier soldiers against the French and the Natives would eventually lead to his becoming a full British military officer (which never happened). And although he was not actually part of the British military, as with his study of the Rules of Civility Washington took it upon himself to read the most influential book in British military circles, and instructed his officers to study it with him:

With specific regard to training, Washington was responsible for training not only raw recruits but also officers. Washington pushed his officers to study, particularly the latest in British military texts such as Humphrey Bland’s A Treatise on Military Discipline. Washington wrote that “having no opportunity to improve from example, let us read”; for he recognized that it was not possible for an ambitious officer to obtain the requisite expertise “without application, nor any merit or applause to be achieved without certain knowledge thereof.”

Bland’s Treatise was the fundamental textbook for all British officers. Known throughout the army as “the bible,” the 360-page manual spelled out everything a new officer needed to know about how to form and operate a regiment both in garrison and in the field. Bland outlined what an officer’s duties were and what officers could reasonably expect from their subordinates.

Studying for Success

Washington didn’t stop his self education upon completion of his duties as a frontier officer — he just changed course:

He therefore turned his attention to doing his duty to his country, Virginia, and shifted his focus to becoming a leader in that provincial society, which did actually appreciate his achievements…Washington abandoned his study of the military arts that he had begun some four years earlier, for that reading no longer served a practical purpose for him. He instead devoted his energies in the coming years to increasing his wealth and status in Virginia society.


To successfully mix in the best social circles, Washington had to learn more about the science of agriculture, history, politics, and religion, for he had to balance being a planter, a member of the House of Burgesses, and a parish vestryman. After he returned to Mount Vernon and began assembling a library, those subjects that had the practical purpose of advancing his social stature dominated his burgeoning collection.

Washington took it upon himself to delve deeply into agriculture, acquiring scores of books on how to improve the productivity of his farms and manage the soil more effectively. He read religious tracts to understand the mood of the people around him, and history books to understand the history of English people.

It’s important to note what Washington didn’t do. He didn’t try to achieve a classical education on his own. Some of his contemporaries were educated in England and became legal scholars, classicists, and composers of belles lettres. They wanted the mind of a European intellectual.

Washington didn’t do this — he wanted to learn things he could use, and given a limited amount of time, focused his attention where it was most profitable to him. (An opportunity cost problem which we hit on in our How to Read a Book course earlier this year.)

Having made his mental break with his Englishness after Lord Loudon harshly dealt him a very personal affront, Washington in that key moment was forced to confront his academic shortcomings. This realization, when coupled with his extreme sensitivity to criticism, drove Washington intellectually inward and toward the subjects that he felt most comfortable with and that, more important, could meet his immediate needs at the time. He was fortunate to have already made his public reputation in Virginia based on his natural propensities for physical bravery and on his leadership experience. Learning to read Latin or becoming an amateur scientist would not sustain that hard-won reputation in the planter-dominated high society; earning money and being a dedicated public servant would. Consequently, Washington focused his reading and intellectual pursuits accordingly, and reading remained an intensely private activity. For example, when in residence at Mount Vernon, he spent on average two hours in the morning and all afternoon alone in his library.

Washington would keep these habits the rest of his life, although during the Revolution and his presidency, he had a lot less time to devote to reading than at Mount Vernon. But he still did it, even in the midst of the great upheaval he led against the British:

With these military treatises and drill manuals that he acquired during the first two years of the Revolution, we see Washington applying the same diligent study method he had used previously with Duhamel’s Practical Treatise of Husbandry when he sought to make his plantations profitable. In other words, he read these military books for the sake of immediate practical problem solving. There is nothing philosophical or reflective about them. They are tactical field manuals, not massive theoretical tomes on the art of command as it evolved over the centuries.

This is not to recommend avoiding such reflective, theoretical tomes, if such reading interests you. But Washington does provide a good example to those who don’t take an inherent pleasure in deep reflection. The process of reading can be intensely practical as well as enjoyable for its own sake. Never think that reading is a mere luxury. Even the busiest man of the 18th century, who did not enjoy reading as an end itself, felt a duty to allocate his time to the written word. It was simply that important.


Still Interested? Check out the rest of Adrienne Harrison’s A Powerful Mind, or for a better and more thorough treatment, try the wonderful biography written by Ron Chernow, now the standard and most modern bio of the fascinating GW.