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November 26, 2014 / 4 Kislev, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Joshua Heschel’

As Important As The Threats From Iran And North Korea, Is Countering The Triumphant Mass In American Life

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

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.

Resisting Personhood: The Loneliness Of Cell Phone Addiction

Wednesday, April 7th, 2004

One wonders, what are they talking ABOUT? With WHOM are they talking? WHY are they compelled to be SEEN on the phone? And why are they so undeniably eager that others overhear their conversation?

The growing phenomenon I describe could well be called a “cell phone addiction.” This techno-condition represents much more than an ordinary social or commercial need to remain connected. When one looks closely at these communications, an incontestable message is delivered: Talking on a cell phone makes the caller feel more important, more valuable, less alone, less lonely. At a time when “rugged individualism” has become a pathetic cliche in America, and when “fitting in” is our supreme national expectation, being witnessed in conversation with another – ANY other – is increasingly vital to feelings of self-worth.

In this connection, the nature or urgency of the particular phone conversation underway is utterly irrelevant. In a great many observable cases, the exchange consists of indisputably meaningless blather punctuated by monosyllabic grunts. There is no vital content here; certainly nothing to resemble a serious reflex of thought or feeling. All that really matters, it seems, is that one is seen talking with another human being and that the conversation pushes away emptiness and anxiety.

How sad, how sad it all is. The known universe is said to be about 68 billion light years across, and yet here, in the present day United States, individuals are now openly terrified to become persons. For millions of Americans, being seen on the phone – preferably while walking briskly with rapt inattention to one’s immediate surroundings (including life- threatening car traffic) – is a desperate cry to every other passerby: “I am here; I have human connections; I count for something; I am not unpopular; I am not alone.” The cell phone, of course, has not CAUSED people to display such feelings; rather, it is merely a convenient instrument that expresses what might otherwise lie dormant in a society of dreadful conformance and passionless automatism, a lonely crowd driven by a ringing fear and trembling.

There exists, as Freud understood, a universal wish to remain unaware of oneself, and this wish generally leads individuals away from personhood and toward mass society. Hiding what might reveal an incapacity to belong, to be a good “member,” the anxious American soon learns that authentic uniqueness goes unrewarded and that affirmations of true self will likely be unpardonable. Humans often fear ostracism and exclusion more acutely even than death, a personal calculus that is largely responsible for war, terrorism and genocide. It is a small wonder, then, that something as harmless as a cell phone should now become a proud shiny badge of group standing.

The inner fear of loneliness expressed by cell phone addiction gives rise to a very serious and far-reaching social problem. Nothing important, in science or industry or art or music or literature or medicine or philosophy can ever take place without loneliness. To be able to exist apart from the mass – from what Freud called the reconstituted “primal horde” or Nietzsche the “herd” or Kierkegaard the “crowd” – is notably indispensable to intellectual development and creative inquiry. Indeed, to achieve any sense of spirituality in life, one must also be willing to endure loneliness. All of our great sages sought essential meanings “inside,” in seclusion, deep within themselves.

I BELONG. THEREFORE I AM. This is the unheroic credo expressed by cell phone addiction, a not-so-stirring manifesto that social acceptance is vitally immanent to survival and that real happiness is solely the privilege of mediocrity. One can be inconsequential anywhere, to be sure, but personal sadness in present-day America seems to grow more intense where communication is difficult and where fears are incommunicable. In one sense, therefore, what I have called “cell phone addiction” is seemingly less an illness than an imagined therapy. Ultimately, in a society filled with devotees of a pretended happiness, it is presumably an electronic link to redemption.

But the presumption is all wrong. Trying, even desperately, to fill some vacancy within themselves, the compulsive cell phone users should now remind us of a revealing image from T.S. Eliot: “They are the hollow men, they are the stuffed men.” Leaning together they experience painful feelings of powerlessness. More than anything else, they now fear finding themselves alone, and so they cannot find themselves at all.

We live on “borrowed notions,” says Abraham Joshua Heschel, and our relentless reverence for acceptance by others prevents the possibility of quiet insight. It also interferes with an essential awareness of the transcendent meaning of one’s own actions, an interference that inevitably causes us to forget G-d and to ignore the true marvel and mystery of being-in-the-world. The soul must be perpetually in quest of celebration, not an outward ceremony and public demonstration, but rather a deeply inward appreciation that lends spiritual form to everyday acts. “Its essence,” we learn from Heschel, “is to call attention to the sublime or solemn aspects of living, to rise above the confines of consumption.”

The noisy and shallow material world has infested our solitude; upon all of us the predictable traces of herd life have now become indelible. Facing an indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse, we Americans seek both meaning and ecstasy in techno-connections, but discover that the way is blocked by insipid mimicry and endless apprehension. Do we dare, shall we ever dare to disturb the universe, or must we continue to die slowly, prudently, always in responsible increments, without ever taking the chance of becoming fully born?

One usually forgets that life is always death’s prisoner. But once we can finally come to grips with this idea, we can begin to take our numbered moments with more intense pleasure and with true confidence in ourselves as unique persons. For now only our self-doubt is inexhaustible, but this is because we routinely look to others to define who we are and because we despair when we do not measure up to these manufactured definitions.

In a sense, the attraction of the cell phone machine is derivative from our own machine-like existence, a push-button metaphysics wherein every decision and every passion follows a standardized and uniformly common pathway. We believe that we are the creators of all machines, and strictly speaking, of course, this is correct. But there is also an unrecognized reciprocity here between creator and creation, an elaborate pantomime between user and used. Increasingly our constructions are making a machine out of Man. In an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it now even appears that we have been created in the image of the machine.

Cell phone addiction is not a disease; it is merely the very visible symptom of a pervasive pathology. The underlying disease is a social order built upon nonsense, a literally mindless network of advertised meanings and ready-made ideas that deplores individuality and substitutes slogans for thought. Spawned by a system of education that foolishly identifies excellence with what can be measured on standardized tests, our American society has already lost all sense of awe in the world.

Cell phones in hand, we talk on and on because we would rather not think, and we would rather not think because there is no apparent emotional or material payoff for serious understanding. Holding fast to our cell phones, our fondest wish is that we should soon become interchangeable, but it is a wish that – once fulfilled – would turn into an endless sorrow.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) 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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/louis-bene-beres/resisting-personhood-the-loneliness-of-cell-phone-addiction/2004/04/07/

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