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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Crowds, Conventions and the Slow Death Of Individualism in America

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

 ”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.

The Terror Outside And The Terror Within

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

My readers in The Jewish Press are accustomed to reading my articles on timely strategic and jurisprudential issues. For the most part, these columns have explored various dangers of terrorism, war and genocide. But sometimes we are imperiled by a very different sort of terror. There is, of course, the “usual” threat of terror violence (the terror “outside”), but there is also a serious specter of interior terror that arises from our willful abandonment of individuality (the terror “within”).

Let me explain. We Americans – both Jews and Gentiles – now live with an entirely reasonable fear of terror-violence. Indeed, we sometimes even worry too little about this particular species of threat, believing it to be some sort of political contrivance rather than an authentic problem. At the same time, we appear to express altogether little apprehension about the evident disappearance of “self,” a significant peril that arises not from al-Qaeda or Iran, but from inside. Today, while an entire nation does worry more or less dutifully about the nature and direction of future attacks on the American homeland with bullets, bombs or microbes, there is precious little evidence that we are seriously concerned about becoming mass.

Why should such a complex philosophical concern be related to matters of national survival and national security? Once upon a time in America, each person’s declared objective was clear: To become an individual. Even long after the formal philosophical reign of Emerson, Thoreau and the American Transcendentalists – a reign that had certain prominent (but rarely acknowledged) roots in classic Jewish texts – an ethos of “rugged individualism” remained an integral part of the culture.

Young people, especially, strove to rise meaningfully, not as the viscerally obedient servants of raw commerce, but as authentic owners of their own discrete futures. Now, sadly, perhaps by default, and in some manifestly vulgar sense at least, submission to multitudes has become a sort of overriding state “religion.” Among both Jews and Gentiles, a pervasive and general resignation now prevails in America, a far-reaching surrender of personhood that augurs badly for democratic institutions, national survival and individual dignity. Further, from a specifically Jewish point of view, this cowardly surrender is at variance with many of our most basic traditions, teachings, norms and expectations.

Let us be candid. Mass defiles all that falls under its spell. 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.” Currently, we Americans have successfully maintained our political freedom from tyranny and oppression – even amid the urgent need to combat terrorists who wish us grave harm – but we have also surrendered our liberty to become true persons. Openly deploring a life of 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 ourselves and therefore also 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, “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?” These questions may sound mundane; they are actually quite subtle and profound.

An indebtedness to become few was, for Abraham Joshua Heschel, a sacred responsibility. Living at yet another moment of existential peril, 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 now offer America the only Republic worth saving. As Jews, we especially need to take note – both for our own sakes and for that of the greater Republic.

Unlike previous periods in our national history, when elements of the mass sometimes sought to become few, the situation has been turned on its head. Instead of looking to the few as an exemplary standard of aspiration, the mass wants very much to remain mass. A good portion of the few now even wishes to be blended with the mass. In essence, genuine excellence in America (not the endlessly silly accomplishments demanded by our schools) has become something to be shunned, an embarrassment, and 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 himself/herself from the demeaning idea that intellectual achievement is measured by academic test scores and that personal importance is strongly determined by frank imitation and unbridled 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 books is taken as arrogance and where universities are more comfortable with “branding” than with independent thought, we have generally forgotten Abraham Joshua Heschel’s injunction to hold ourselves sacred. Not surprisingly, when any 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 vain polarities – rich and poor, educated and uneducated, black and white, native and foreigner – but a more purposeful separation of those who are spectators from those who seek involvement. In the absurd theatre of these United States – where individuals are so cheerfully undifferentiated from other individuals – there are no longer declared protagonists. There are some actors, to be sure, but the play nowadays is almost always about 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 ambience of mediocrity as the most enviable form of democracy. While the outside dangers of our time palpitate under the miming masses that wish to be “democratic,” the dignified grace of the few is harder and harder to discover.

None of this is an argument for monarchy or aristocracy. It is certainly not a call for hierarchic separations based upon considerations of wealth or birth. Not at all; it is, instead, a plaintive cry that we now demand more of ourselves, as Americans, as Jews, as persons, as thinkers, and as a singular people of serious understandings.

The mass now makes the American imagination thoroughly reproductive. Feeding off familiar and often tasteless images of pleasure and contentment, this anonymous collectivity – by its persistent forfeiture of individuality – subordinates all meaningful thought to an outright frenzy of mimicry. In this vulgarized 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 absolutely everything – from clichéd politics and profligacy to widespread gluttony, abuse 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 outside, those who are already part of the few must maintain their essential stance against mass. Aware that they comprise an indispensable barrier to America’s spiritual, cultural and intellectual disintegration, these select few amongst the few must acknowledge, soon, that staying the more difficult course of personal challenge and self-renewal is the only decent option.

With their minds fixed on what is truly precious, the few will brood and dream at the edges of our material world, consciously separating themselves from all 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 crude disfigurement that always comes with “fitting in.” As Jews, it is now time for us to pay especially careful heed to Heschel’s enduring wisdom concerning individual responsibility, and begin – once again – to become few.

The terror outside and the terror within are always interpenetrating and interdependent. Hence, once we are better prepared, as both Americans and as Jews, to deal with the terror inside, we shall also be far more fit to deal with the external terror of violence, war and intended genocide.

Copyright ©The Jewish Press, March 14, 2008. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENÉ 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.

Suffocating In Mass Society: The Bloodless Death Of Individual Dignity In America (First of Two Parts)

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2004

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.

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