Thomas Sowell

"There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life."

This is just one of the pungent insights of Eric Hoffer, who died twenty years ago. This particular quote is from his book of short sayings called The Passionate State of Mind. In another such book, Before the Sabbath, he saw the "Nixon tragedy" as that of an "opportunist who missed his greatest opportunity."

Some of Hoffer's books are collections of short, sharp insights, while others -- The True Believer, The Ordeal of Change, and The Temper of Our Times, for example -- offer more extended discussions of particular issues.

Although Eric Hoffer was perhaps at his zenith during the 1960s, he was completely at odds with the pious cant and slippery evasions of that rhetoric-ridden decade, whose tragic consequences are still with us today.

When a black man declared his "rage," Eric Hoffer shot back: "Mister, it is easy to be full of rage. It is not easy to go to work and build something." For this, he was accused of "racism" for not rolling over and playing dead at the sound of one of the buzzwords of the times -- and, unfortunately, of our times as well.

Hoffer was convinced that the black leadership was taking the wrong approach, if they wanted to advance the people in whose name they spoke. Only achievement would win the respect of the larger society and -- more important -- their own self-respect. And no one else can give you achievement.

Hoffer's strongest words were for the intellectuals -- or rather, against the intellectuals. "Intellectuals," he said, "cannot operate at room temperature." Hype, moral melodrama, and sweeping visions were the way that intellectuals approached the problems of the world.

But that was not the way progress was usually achieved in America. "Nothing so offends the doctrinaire intellectual as our ability to achieve the momentous in a matter-of-fact way, unblessed by words."

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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