Ravaged by excess – of consumption and commodities rather than of understanding – America now lives anxiously in crowds. This is naturally pleasing to politicians of all persuasions, for whom herding the people together where they cannot think is always “good.” Impresarios of a meticulously banal discourse, our candidates continuously provide whatever entertainment is necessary to keep the audience attentive. Above all, the mutually demeaning cross-fertilization between Washington and Hollywood effectively ensures that our citizens can never really become true persons.
To be sure, we laugh, as often as possible, but it is often a transparent laughter, the pretend-reflex of a society erupting at the margins of happiness. Our sporting events and presidential election campaigns are merely two sides of the same coin. Drawing upon crowds which keep us from experiencing even an occasional moment of reverence and solitude, both are the interconnected product of a conspicuously shallow social world. Forced to endure between public ardor and foreign terror, we remain in soulless captivity, chained to the relentless world of competitive materialism and empty work.
Clinging with observable desperation to our cell phones, we Americans now fear loneliness more than any other emotion, more even than the loss of individual dignity or the wrath of punishment. Ignoring the soundless dialogue that should take place meaningfully within ourselves, the wholly indispensable conversations of authentic thought, we Americans speak proudly of achievement, but our actions often reveal something very different. Although it is good to send video cameras to Jupiter and Mars, it would be far better to make the souls of our citizens better right here on Earth.
To be sure, America’s greatness is legitimately endangered from the “outside,” primarily from war and terror, but some true hazards stem more from our own willful abandonment of individual dignity and faith than from any particular weaknesses of power. Charles Dickens, during his first visit to this country in 1842, anticipated – perhaps prophetically – what was yet to come to these United States: “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, in America, we have successfully maintained our freedom from tyranny and oppression, but we have also surrendered our related liberty to become persons. Meekly accepting that both our leaders and our schools do not want us to question too much or to reflect too deeply, we generally agree to remain collectively distant from the one place in which we might have constructed a genuine life of meaning and purpose. This place of real consciousness is “inside,” within the sacred Self, aptly reverent and largely incorruptible.
Our American civilization now imposes on us all the breathless rhythm of an accelerating machine. Struggling to keep up with the mad mechanics of “progress,” we confuse wealth with success, and noise with happiness. The end of all this delirium can only be to prevent an entire society from remembering G-d.
Unlike previous periods in our national history, when elements of the Many 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 Many want very much to remain Mass. A good portion of the Few now even wish to be blended with the Many. In essence, real excellence in America has become something to be shunned, an embarrassment, a naive and archaic goal that stands annoyingly in the way of “getting ahead.”
To form the Few, each interested American must first wish to separate himself or herself from the convenient ideas that intellectual achievement is measured by academic test scores and that personal importance is determined by frenzied imitation and consumption. Gorged with bad food and enchanted by bad taste, we Americans now literally amuse ourselves to death. Living in a society where reading difficult literature is taken as effrontery and where publicly prescribed meanings seethe with equivocations, our citizens have generally forgotten Ralph Waldo Emerson’s valuable injunction to hold themselves sacred. Not surprisingly, at a moment when our people seem to have lost all sense of awe in the world, the adult public seeks mind-numbing circus distraction in child-level amusements and in the disturbingly adolescent gibberish of presidential candidates.
The vital division of American society into the Few and the Many is not an elitist division into social classes – rich and poor, educated and uneducated, native and foreigner – but a far more important separation of those who are spectators from those who seek growth. Today, in the stunningly absurd theater of these United States, there are no longer declared protagonists. There are some serious actors in this perplexed theater, to be sure, but the play is largely chorus.
(c) The Jewish Press, 2004. All rights reserved.
(To be continued)
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.