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Crowds, Conventions and the Slow Death Of Individualism in America


Beres-Louis-Rene

 “The crowd is untruth.”
Soren Kierkegaard

 

“One must become accustomed to living on mountains, to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

 

My dear readers, let’s look for a few moments behind the news. As we may readily learn from the philosophers, every sham can have a patina. Unwittingly, to be sure, our two political conventions recently lay bare and even magnified the grotesque triumph of mass society in America. The perfectly choreographed events in Denver and St. Paul made perfectly clear that timeless observations by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche could still illuminate our social world. There can be no doubt: The crowd is always “untruth.” Our nation always rewards conformance and cliché, not “rugged individualism” and independent thought.

 

The conventions were microcosm. Like the delegates, noisily desperate for simple truths, Americans in general feel most comfortable when they can chant in chorus. Bored with intellect, and distrusting even a hint of real learning, this nation now seeks redemption in banal slogans and empty witticisms.  “Country first.” “America first.” Deutschland űber alles.

 

As Jews and as Americans, we must understand that no nation that does not hold the individual sacred can ever be “first.” Once, after Emerson and Thoreau, a spirit of personal accomplishment did earn high marks. Young people, especially, strove to rise meaningfully, not as the embarrassingly obedient servants of crude power and raw commerce, but as proud owners of a distinct Self.

 

The recent conventions were merely a symptom; not the underlying pathology. Whether America’s political parties and presidential aspirants would prefer that we the people now become more secular or more reverent, a submission to multitudes has already become our unifying state religion. Such sentiments have a long history (we Americans are hardly the first to surrender to crowds). The contemporary mass-man or woman is in fact a primitive being that has slipped back, said the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, “through the wings, on to the age-old stage of civilization.”

 

Mass defiles all that which is most gracious and promising in human society. Charles Dickens, during his first visit to America in 1842, observed:  “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.” We Americans have successfully maintained our political freedom from one kind of tyranny and oppression, but we have also given up our liberty to become authentic persons. Openly deploring a life of meaning and sincerity, we continue to confuse wealth with success and chants with happiness. The unmistakable purpose of all this synchronized delirium is to preserve us from a terrible loneliness.

 

The individual who chooses disciplined thought over effortless conformance must feel alone. Still, “The most radical division,” asserted 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?”

 

If we are lucky, it is time for camouflage and concealment in the mass to yield to what Heschel called “being-challenged-in-the-world.” Individuals who dare read serious books, and are willing to risk disapproval or exclusion now offer America its only real hope for a change to believe in. These rare souls can seldom be found at political conventions, in universities, in corporate boardrooms or anywhere on television. Their inner strength lies not in elegant oratory or even the enviable capacity to skin a moose, but in the far more ample power of genuineness and thought.

 

Not even the flimsiest ghost of originality now haunts American politics. Once a self-deceiving democratic citizenry has lost all sense of awe in the world, this public not only avoids authenticity, it positively loathes it. In a sense, the recent conventions might be regarded, at least in part, as a sort of adrenalized eulogy for the western literary canon, a pair of distinctly humiliating venues in which the attending mobs chose to reject altogether any expressions of commendable literacy or independent thought.

 

Ecstasy can be contrived; so, too, can wisdom. My division of American society into few and mass represents a separation of those who are imitators from those who seek 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 the mass, the intellectually un-ambitious American not only wallows in nonsensical political phrases, he or she also applauds an unmistakably shallow ethos of personal and political mediocrity.

 

By definition, the mass can never become few; yet, some individual members of the mass can make the transformation. Those who are already part of the few must announce and maintain their determined stance.  Aware that they comprise a core barrier to America’s spiritual, cultural, intellectual and political disintegration, these resolute few who knowingly refuse to chant in chorus will ultimately remind us of something important: Staying the lonely course of self-actualization and self-renewal is now the only honest and purposeful option for our country.

 

Today, our national cheerleaders draw feverishly upon the sovereignty of the unqualified crowd. Similarly, they depend on the withering of personal dignity, and on the continued servitude of independent consciousness. Unaware of this parasitism, we the people are converted into fuel to feed the omnivorous machine of “democracy.” This can change only when an expanding number of Americans finally recognize the mortal cost of submission to multitudes, and when we also learn to prefer a well-reasoned heresy of individualism to an impassioned mimicry of crowds.

 

The crowd is untruth.

 

Copyright © The Jewish Press, October 17, 2008. All rights reserved

 

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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