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.