Suffocating In Mass Society: The bloodless death of individual dignity in America (Second of Two Parts)Friday, October 1st, 2004
“The mass,” said the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.” Today, in deference to the Many, the intellectually and culturally unambitious mass not only celebrates the commonplace (which it has been taught to do), it openly proclaims and spreads our American epoch of engineered mediocrity as an enviable form of democracy. While the unparalleled danger of our apocalyptic time palpitates under the miming masses who wish merely to “succeed,” 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.
Ortega y Gasset reminds us that “…the most radical division ….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, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.”
In 1965, the Jewish philosopher Abraham J. Heschel offered an almost identical argument. Lamenting that “The emancipated man is yet to emerge,” Heschel asked all human beings to raise the following questions: “What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”
Indebtedness – an indebtedness to become Few – is, for Heschel, given with our very being in the universe. Living at a moment in history when it is almost impossible to think of collective human behavior without anguish and disgust – especially for Jews – it is required that camouflage and concealment in the Many give way to what Heschel calls “being-challenged-in-the-world,” to becoming and sustaining the Few. Resisting the luring flushes of creature comfort that always accompany mass, a courageous individual who risks disapproval for the sake of becoming. Few now offers America the only real republic worth preserving.
The Many make the American imagination thoroughly reproductive. Feeding off familiar images of contrived pleasure and contentment, this anonymous mass – by its persistent forfeiture of individuality – routinely subordinates all intellectual life to a ritual of mimicry. In this America, which routinely blocks access to more genuine images of meaning and self-worth offered by the Few, the sinister caress of the crowd manifests itself in everything – from an insufferably vulgar politics and cheap entertainments to widespread gluttony, dehumanized public schools and random violence.
The Many, 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 the world, those who are already part of the Few must maintain their essential stance against mass. Aware that they comprise a last barrier to America’s spiritual, cultural, intellectual and political disintegration, these select few amongst the Few must understand, soon, that staying the more difficult course of personal challenge and 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 crowd, these Few Americans will steadfastly refuse the inhuman disfigurement that comes with “fitting in.”
For now, the Many still rule uncontested in America. Joined at the hip with this pattern of rule, the upcoming presidential election will change nothing of ultimate importance to our lives. True change can happen only when expanding numbers of Americans begin to distance themselves from an anesthetized society of strong appetites but little taste, of surface confidence but limited ideals, of great zeal but no aspiration, of democratic politics but no ascertainable wisdom. Once this distancing can come to pass, the destructive propositions of the Many will collapse. Then, and only then, will we Americans be able ward off the laughable conceit that we have been “successful.” Only then – no longer shorn of all dignity and reverence – will we reasonably expect not to suffocate in a despairingly lonely crowd.
(c) The Jewish Press, 2004, all rights reserved.
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.