“The crowd,” observed the Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” In every land, capable governance and personal success are finely nurtured by individuality. Today, the crowd-man or crowd-woman rules unopposed, supreme and unchallenged, in America.
There are accessible reasons. Our democracy now rests on the sovereignty of unqualified persons. A retrograde authority, these crowd-men and crowd-women have “slipped back,” in the words of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, “through the wings, and on to the age-old stage of civilization.”
This incremental and largely unnoticed “slippage” into the mass – a phenomenon also recognized by the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel – has tangible consequences. Most plainly, no country so fearful of independent thought, so fervidly torn between its deafening public proclamations of exceptionalism and the twisting estrangements of its people, can take itself seriously as a still-advancing civilization. Nor can it realistically aspire, at least without certain proper and prior reversals of personal growth, to restore a dignified grace upon itself.
Once upon a time in America, every barely-attentive adult could recite at least some Spenglerian theory of decline. Today, at a very different historical moment, at an acquiescent national juncture when the whole riddle of human destiny has been reduced to vulgar and degrading entertainments – when the Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo have casually supplanted the Western Canon – virtually no one can recognize The Decline of the West.
Deeply frightened and repelled by the demanding expectations of genuine learning, we Americans proceed blindly, in stubbornly reassuring lockstep with entire legions of others who lack vision, and who, like us, are exhausted from the ascendant rhythms of personal forfeiture.
Now fully accustomed to surrender as persons, we eagerly devour our once enviable convictions, not from any genuine hunger for learning or virtue but from a viscerally crude and utterly basic instinct. This primal inclination is not comparable to any mythic or heroic human struggles for redemption. Rather, it can be likened to what animates the legendary worm in the fruit.
No society, even “exceptional” ones, can coexist with a “crowd” that masquerades as a democracy. Unless we should finally become willing to oppose the shrill mass, a living solvent of conformance and mediocrity, we Americans will continue to find too little air to breathe.
For now, confusing the statutory right to vote with a real democracy, we Americans shrivel helplessly into an ever more joyless and lonely crowd. Within this abjectly hapless “bundling” of souls, a term used by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, our citizens will seek further comfort and consolation, not in any worthwhile patterns of growth but in a shamelessly aggressive and deliriously common illiteracy.
Every mass society, we may learn insightfully from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, loves to chant in chorus. Unsurprisingly, “we the people” continue to seek a comforting resonance in banal slogans, raw commerce, and blatantly empty witticisms. Oddly enough, this always-boisterous search for an elusive happiness, amid convulsive shrieking and stark imitation, would be less perilous, if it did not proceed, at its very heart, from a bewildering ailment.
What is this malady? In other words, what is our true pathology?
At the most critical “illness” levels of national despair, politics and government have become pretty much beside the point.
In this battered land of clichéd wisdom, copycat violence, “knockout games,” and dreary profanity, there remains, at bottom, a recalcitrant and metastasizing sickness of the soul. Ironically, our national debility of personal surrender to multitudes lurks unhidden, most notably in its conspicuous hatreds of intellect, individualism, and learning.
“Alas,” observed T.S. Eliot, in a still-unheeded warning, “Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless.”