Crowds and the slow death of America
By Louis René Beres
“The crowd is untruth.” –Soren Kierkegaard
Sometimes, seeing requires distance. Now, suffocating daily in political and economic rants from both the Right and the Left, we Americans must promptly confront a critical need to look beyond the historical moment, to seek both meaning and truth behind the news. There, suitably distant from the endlessly adrenalized jumble of current fears and concerns, we could finally understand the timeless struggle of individual against mass, of the beleaguered singular person against the “crowd.”
The crowd, recognized the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, any crowd, is “untruth.” Whatever side one takes in the current American culture wars, there is assuredly never any palpable reward for “rugged individualism.” Rather, contrary to the stock reassurances of our high school and university history textbooks, this nation routinely smiles upon visceral conformance and cliché, while disapproving, and even crushing, any dint of critical questioning, or any hint of independent thought.
Our most insidious enemy is an unphilosophical spirit that knows nothing, and seeks to know nothing, of truth. Now, facing an unprecedented and staggering economic crisis, we Americans still feel most comfortable when we can chant in chorus. “We’re number one; we’re number one,” we shout reflexively, even as our capacity to project global power withers visibly, and even as the stark national separation of rich and poor has come to mimic the most depressed and downtrodden nations on earth.
Always uncomfortable with intellect or real learning (in contrast to vocational or “practical” training), America is utterly bored or annoyed with difficult concepts and complex ideas. After all, it is much easier to fashion our personal judgments and opinions on the basis of a pre-formed political discourse.
Now, Americans are sharply polarized not only by race, ethnicity and class, but also by inclination to consider serious thought. For most of this broken country, shallow entertainments remain the only expected (and affordable) compensation for a shallow life of tedious obligation and meaningless work. This huge portion of the populace, kept distant from any true personal growth by every imaginable social and economic obstacle, desperately seeks some residual compensations in silly slogans, status-bearing affiliations, and, of course, the manifestly empty witticisms of politics.
As Americans, we must soon understand that no nation can ever be “first” that does not hold the individual sacred. At one time in our collective history, after Emerson and Thoreau, a spirit of personal accomplishment did earn high marks in this land. Young people, especially, strove to rise interestingly, not as the embarrassingly obedient servants of crude power and raw commerce, but as distinctly proud owners of a unique and personal Self.
Alas, today, this Self lives in lines of traffic and on the cell phone. Whether we Americans would prefer to become more secular, or more reverent, to grant government more authority over our lives, or less, a willing submission to multitudes has become our unifying national religion.
Such crowd-like sentiments have a long and diversified planetary history. We are, to be fair, hardly the first people to surrender to crowds.
The contemporary crowd-man or woman is, in fact, a primitive and universal being, one who has “slipped back,” in the words of the great Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, “through the wings, on to the age-old stage of civilization.”
This grotesque stage is littered with the corpses of dead civilizations. Left-wing or Right-wing, tea-party or no-party, college educated or high school graduates, the crowd indiscriminately defiles all that is most gracious and still-promising in American society. Charles Dickens, during his first visit to America, had already observed in 1842: “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country in the failure of its example to the earth.”
To our credit, we Americans have successfully maintained our political freedom from traditional political tyranny and oppression, but we have also cravenly surrendered our corollary liberty to become authentic persons. Openly deploring a life of meaning and sincerity, we stubbornly confuse wealth with success, and blurt out rhythmic chants of patriotic celebration even as our cheerless democracy vanishes into meaninglessness and wider suffering.
Whatever its origin, there is an identifiable reason behind this carefully synchronized delirium. Such babble seeks to protect us all from a terrifying and unbearable loneliness. In the end, however, it is a contrived and inevitably lethal solution.
The courageous American who still seeks escape from the crowd, who opts heroically for disciplined individual thought over effortless conformance, must feel deeply alone. “The most radical division,” asserted José Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity…. those who make great demands on themselves…and those who demand nothing special of themselves…” In 1965, the Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, offered an almost identical argument. Lamenting, “The emancipated man is yet to emerge,” Heschel then asked each one to inquire: “What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”
It is time for camouflage and concealment in the pitiful American crowd to yield to what Heschel had called “being-challenged-in-the-world.” Individuals who dare to read books for more than transient entertainment, and who are willing to risk social and material disapproval in exchange for exiting the crowd, offer America its only real and lasting hope. To be sure, these rare souls can seldom be found in politics, in universities, in corporate boardrooms, or anywhere on radio, television or in the movies. Always, their critical inner strength lies not in elegant oratory, in catchy phrases, or in large accumulations of personal wealth, but in the considerably more ample powers of genuineness, reason and thought.
Not even the flimsiest ghost of intellectual originality still haunts our public discussions of politics and economics. Now that our self-deceiving citizenry has lost all sense of awe in the world, this American public not only avoids authenticity, it positively loathes it. Indeed, in a nation that has lost all regard for even the Western literary canon, our American crowds shamelessly seek comfort and fraternity in a common and conveniently shared illiteracy.
The division of American society into few and mass represents a useful separation of those who are imitators from those who would initiate real understanding. “The mass,” said Jose Ortega y Gasset, “crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.” Today, in deference to this mass, the intellectually un-ambitious American not only wallows lazily in nonsensical political and cultural phrases, he or she also dutifully applauds a manifestly shallow ethos of personal surrender and social mediocrity.
By definition, the mass, or crowd, can never become few. Yet, some individual members of the mass can make the difficult transformation. Those who are already part of the few must announce and maintain their determined stance. “One must become accustomed to living on mountains,” says Nietzsche, “to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egotism beneath one.”
Aware that they comprise a core barrier to America’s spiritual, cultural, intellectual and political disintegration, these resolute opponents of the crowd will knowingly refuse to chant in chorus. Ultimately, they will remind us of something very important: Individually and collectively, staying the lonely course of self-actualization and self-renewal–a course of consciousness rather than delusion–is the only honest and purposeful option for our imperiled country.
Today, unhindered in their misguided work, our national cheerleaders in all walks of life draw feverishly upon the sovereignty of the unqualified crowd. This mass depends for its very breath of life on the relentless withering of personal dignity, and on the continued servitude of any independent consciousness. Oddly, still unaware of this parasitism, we the people are passively converted into fuel to feed the omnivorous machine of “democracy,” a system of governance in which the American citizenry is certainly permitted to speak and interact freely, but which is now also an undisguised and anti-human plutocracy.
The crowd is untruth.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Read his previous OUPblog posts here.
For further reading, we recommend Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs by Soren Kierkegaard.
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