We Americans now live with an entirely reasonable fear of war and terror. Indeed, there is precious little doubt that our country will become a recurrent victim of new attacks by those who openly seek the genocidal destruction of “infidels.” Try as we must to prevent such attacks, we also know that we are engaged in a long and difficult struggle against a resurgent “medievalism” and its attendant forms of barbarism. Such truth is surely uncomfortable for us to contemplate, but it is, nonetheless, truth.
There are other existential problems, less immediately apocalyptic perhaps, but still substantial. I refer to the incessant and ongoing disappearance of “individualism” in America. Man, we learn from Psalm 8:5, is “a little lower than the Divine” and a little higher than the beasts. Today, as an entire nation drifts with the latest waves of conformance and fear, there is little evidence of individual Americans striving to rise meaningfully. A general resignation prevails to being part of the “Mass”. Understandably, perhaps, given the lack of tangible incentives, not many Americans now seek to be part of the “Few”.
Charles Dickens, during his first visit to America in 1842, uttered prophetically: “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.” Today, we Americans have successfully maintained our freedom from tyranny and oppression – even amidst the urgent need to combat monstrous enemies who wish us grave harm – but we have also surrendered our liberty to become authentic persons. Deploring a life of real meaning and purpose, we typically confuse wealth with success and noise with happiness. The end of all this delirium is to keep us from remembering G-d.
“The most radical division,” said the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties, and those who demand nothing special of themselves.” In 1965, the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel offered an almost identical argument. Lamenting that “the emancipated man is yet to emerge,” Heschel then asked all human beings to ask themselves the following: “What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”
An indebtedness to become Few is, for Abraham Joshua Heschel, a sacred responsibility. Living at yet another moment of extraordinary peril – especially for Jews – it is time that camouflage and concealment in the Mass yield to what Heschel called “being-challenged-in-the-world.” Courageous individuals who will risk disapproval for the sake of resisting Mass offers America the only republic worth saving.
Unlike previous periods in our national history, when elements of the Mass sometimes sought to become Few, the situation is now turned on its head. Instead of looking to the Few as an exemplary standard of aspiration, the Mass wants very much to remain Mass. Now, a good portion of the Few even wish to be blended with the Mass. In essence, authentic excellence in America has become something to be shunned, an embarrassment, a naive and archaic goal that stands annoyingly in the way of “progress.”
To form the Few, each interested American must first wish to separate him or herself from the demeaning idea that academic test scores measure intellectual achievement and that personal importance is determined by imitation and consumption. Gorged with bad food and enchanted by bad taste, Americans now literally amuse themselves to death. Living in a society where reading serious books is taken as an expression of arrogance and where universities are more comfortable with “branding” than with thought, Americans have generally forgotten Abraham Joshua Heschel’s valuable injunction to hold themselves sacred. Not surprisingly, when our citizenry has lost all sense of awe in the world, the public typically not only avoids “mindful” authenticity – it positively loathes it.
This division of American society into the Few and the Mass is not an elitist division into social classes – rich and poor, educated and uneducated, native and foreigner – but a far more purposeful separation of those who are spectators from those who seek growth. Today, in the increasingly absurd theatre of these United States – where individuals are strikingly undifferentiated from other individuals – there are no longer any declared protagonists. There are some actors, to be sure, but the play is almost entirely chorus.
“The mass,” said Jose Ortega y Gasset, “crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.” Today, in craven deference to the Mass, the intellectually and culturally un-ambitious not only celebrate the commonplace (which they have been strictly taught to do), they openly proclaim and spread our American ethos of mediocrity as the most enviable form of democracy. While the unparalleled danger of our time palpitates under the miming masses that wish to be “democratic,” the dignified grace of the Few is harder and harder to discover.
This is not an argument for monarchy or social aristocracy. It is not a call for hierarchic separations based upon considerations of wealth or birth; not at all. It is, rather, a plaintive cry that we now demand more of ourselves, as Americans, as persons, as thinkers, and as people of belief.
The Mass makes the American imagination thoroughly reproductive. Feeding off familiar images of pleasure and contentment, this anonymous collectivity – by its persistent forfeiture of individuality – subordinates all serious thought to a frenzy of mimicry. In such an America, which routinely blocks access to more genuine images of meaning and self-worth offered by the Few, the sinister caress of the Mass manifests itself in everything – from vulgar politics and profligacy to widespread gluttony, irreverence and random violence.
The Mass, of course, can never become Few, but certain individual members of the Mass can make the transformation. Moreover, just as more and more individual Americans must now accept the perilous challenges of survival in the world, those who are already part of the Few must maintain their essential stance against the Mass. Aware that they comprise an indispensable barrier to America’s spiritual, cultural and intellectual disintegration, these select few amongst the Few must understand, soon, that staying the more difficult course of personal challenge and self-renewal is the only decent option. With their minds now fixed on what is truly precious, the Few will brood and dream at the edges of our material world, consciously separating themselves from those who must always epitomize cowardice, compromise and servility. With the market for individual meaning removed from the sweating palms of the mass, these Few Americans will steadfastly refuse the disfigurement that comes with “fitting in.”
For now, the many still rule in America. This can change only when an expanding number of Americans distance themselves from an anesthetized society of strong appetites but little taste, of surface confidence but limited ideals, of great zeal but no genuine virtue or aspiration. Once this distancing can actually come to pass, and individual meaning in America is created from the “inside,” the destructive propositions of the Mass will collapse. In the final analysis, such an essential collapse is just as important to our survival as the physical protection of these United States from Iran and North Korea, from war and terrorism.
Copyright, The Jewish Press, November 24, 2006. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books that deal with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military columnist for The Jewish Press.