If you've been following the previous three posts, we've been looking at what our so-called elites won't discuss, the underpinnings of political action, the responsiblity of the citizen, the causes of events -- big subjects, but each a previously ignored elephant in the national living room. Here's another:
When the writer was a high school student, part of his boyish naivete was exploded when his teacher, a brilliant, eccentric character who was an exact twin (physically, including the straight bourbon & Camels voice) of the late actor Lee Marvin, responded to my proud claim of having Cotton Mather in the one WASP string of my heritage by slamming a hammy fist on his paper-strewn desk. The ash flew off his cigarette; another butt, still smoking, fell to the rug unnoticed. Then he stood up, leaned so close I began to get high on his breath, and shouted “that son of a bitch burned one of my ancestors!” Turned out he was right. As the WASP string fades in all Americans (I’m barely a WASParoon myself), this probably strikes many as an amusing anecdote of a lost world. Really….
Then what is that smoke coming from the living room? Why does it smell like that piece of steak you forgot to take off the grill an hour ago? Why was it preceded by screams, and by so many chanting voices? Is there any coincidence in the fact that it’s three in the afternoon?
At this hour we all might be anyone,
It is only our victim who is without a wish,
Who knows already (that is what
We cannot forgive. If he knows the answers,
Then, why are we here, why is there even dust?),
Knows already that, in fact, our prayers are heard,
That not one of us will slip up,
That the machinery of our world will function
Without a hitch, that today, for once,
There will be no squabbling on Mt. Olympus,
No Chthonian mutters of unrest,
But no other miracle, knows that by sundown
We shall have had a good Friday….
from “Terce,” Horae Canonica, W.H. Auden
Smell that burnt fat aroma yet? It’s easy to discuss this if the subject is, say, Germany between 1933 and 1945, or Russia from 1917 to the death of Stalin. Many Americans still purse their lips and look away when the subject is the American Bureau of Indian Affairs, if not the activities of the Klan. It gets a lot harder for us, though, to respond when the subject is a national leader in 1973, 1978, 1998, 2008, or now. Why? We’re all partisans. Some of us want to burn the Witch. Some of us want to worship Her. The context itself is perverse. There’s no choice to opt out, to say "hey, there's some good with the bad." It’s worse than polarization. Hey, we have that all the time. It’s much, much worse.
It’s the transmutation of an ordinary citizen’s duty, assessment of leaders at each level, into a uniquely American Black Mass. The object isn’t assessment, but to choose between salvation and condemnation. By the time this begins to break out, as in late 1972, again in mid-1998, or again after the shock of the 9/11/2001 bombings had worn off, or yet again now, the Great Man We Have Chosen is put on trial in a witness stand built on a stack of straw and firewood. Initially, the Great One’s partisans, other elected officials, friends in other high places, the press, hold back the crowd. They’re the ones you heard chanting, the ones hoisting torches and waving shotguns and pitchforks, the ones shouting down with him; down with him; down with him! I'll bet some of you are there. Don't get burnt fingers!
In our effort at getting elephants out of the living room, historical and contextual awareness is an obvious objective of this great work. Only a halfwit, or a member of a crowd, is unaware of the fact that the best a Chief Executive can do is to set a tone for what other people do, and how they do it. It is not only true of great and good leader, but of a monster as well. In the assessment of guilt for a vast crime, as the murder of millions of Jews in World War Two, you can’t, as popular historians often do, stop with Uncle Adolf and let everybody else off without penalty. As Raoul Hilberg demonstrated, at least as responsible is the railroad clerk who, knowing full well that his signature to pass a train on to Birkenau would condemn ten thousand people to death, still attached his signature to a form thirty other people had seen and signed, fulfilling his bureaucratic responsibilities (the train is on time; the train is working; the train is safe to operate) at the expense of his moral obligations to his fellow human beings.
The example is horrifying, but let's calm down a bit. In our entire history, despite some near misses (some fortunately assassinated just in time, such as Huey Long), we have never had a monster like Hitler or Stalin in the White House. There have been some small-timers in industry, the military, and private contractors, and the occasional federal official, but nothing that could bear even an ironic comparison to one of those. However, to drive the crowd’s chanting, rhetoric is required that does precisely that, the pitch and fervor raised until individuals coalesce into one beast with a million eyes. Worse, there’s a dirty secret. What could it be?
Let’s discuss one on a somewhat different, but related subject, combat in war. A great journalist, poet, essayist, and daily columnist once sent the writer, after much begging, a package of his poems about the war. They were harrowing, eyewitness stuff, with the quality of strobelit photography, and, the late writer lamented, if you were paying attention, you could read a terrible truth. In combat, despite the horror that sickened the rest of his being, and what he often wrote about with great conviction and truth, there was a boyish warrior’s glee at violent fighting, shedding blood, and the witness of an opponent’s death. He was right; it was there, and because of that the poems were almost held back from publication until a friend said you have to put them out there. The author told me that he had been ashamed of that feeling for his entire life, and had tried to compensate for it with every act toward family and friend. “We were a Cub Scout troop with heavy weapons,” he said. Replace the boys in the woods with cap guns with boys in the woods with M-1 carbines and bazookas – you get the picture. There’s a reason so many movies are dishonest about war; wars almost invariably are fought by schoolchildren. Most crowds are comprised of adults who act like little kids in a schoolyard.
What’s the dirty secret about crowds? I’ve seen it myself at basketball games, "high school fascism" I once observed, to the great distress of a coach. When the beautiful teeny boppers start to scream in unison about killing somebody, they mean it. And the more of them there are, the more their conviction and passion grows. While innocent in a controlled environment like a basketball court in the United States, it leads to murder and riot in European soccer games. Crowds, to be frank, are crazy. And so, in a sense, the Burning Witch invited what’s happening. By appealing to the crowd, and drawing their interest, the leader attracts every aspect of a crowd, including its blind, ravenous will to murder in the cause of the crowd’s satisfaction – never its self-interest. If a crowd acted with genuine self-interest, they would be polite, discuss each other’s favorite players with amusement and irony, buy each other beer and dogs, and be happy to meet each other in the street after the game. But, crowds don’t care. Why?
Crowds strip the executive function from human intelligence. When we dissolve into a crowd, we move as surely on the most irrational response as on any other. How we feel matters; who cares what anybody thinks? We’re the crowd. We can trample you to death. We can push aside the rational discussion of witnesses, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, castrate the judge and hang him from a balcony, throw gasoline under the defendant’s table, and throw a match. We can all throw the matches. Who will stop us now or ever?
The writer participated in crowds during the Mobilization Against the War in the early 1970s, as well as in the general mobilization against Richard Nixon at the same time. Recalling what that felt like, the absolute exhilaration that nobody could shut us up in our demands to get rid of the warmakers, kill Nixon, whatever, even as tear gas and riot batons came near, can make me leap out of bed in the middle of the night, in part ready to go, in part shocked that I participated in that. Okay, no real crimes were committed. A few careers were ruined, perhaps the nation endangered. But we all grew up, didn’t we?
But I saw other sides of the crowd and its wish for witches to burn, as in a march through a western New York town, a lot of faculty members and students, no chanting or signs, just, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, a “witness to injustice,” in this case the open exclusion of African-American kids from a school district. On the sidewalks, there were no friendly faces, no familiar faces, no mothers and fathers, instead row upon row of young, tattooed men with belts wrapped around their fists, alcohol-driven rage burning their faces, the crowd that we, such a reasonable crowd, had not expected. Most of the lightly armed sidewalk watchers waited for someone to act. Someone did – was it a provocateur? Did anyone ever ask? Crowds on any side are stupid by nature. Fists flew, and then the bottles and eggs. Our line scattered, falling considerably short of that great line at the bridge in Selma as we ran under a bombardment that lasted for twenty minutes until we had escaped. What we had seen most did not acknowledge, ourselves with another opinion, willing to cut in on somebody’s march to express it, unwilling to submit to any standards of decency, civic order, or law. We had no march permit; we did nothing to negotiate with the people behind the rough crowd on the sidewalks, considering anyone on that side of town too ignorant for rational discussion; each side entered with its prejudices; both crowds ended up looking either naïve or incredibly ignorant. (The issue was later resolved when a committee of faculty, local town officials, a judge in an unofficial capacity, and neighborhood leaders sat down over a week or two of sphaghetti and chianti dinners to bring the town into the world of Brown vs. Education, by then already 14 years in the past.)
But the crowd approach is tempting. It’s like the well-observed neurosis of an otherwise sensible women attracted to gangsters. Their bad guy shows up with blood on his fist, and a smoking gun in his pocket, and she can't resist him. So beautiful and young, with perfect skin, an elegance afoot akin to a gazelle’s, and despite the truck driver diction, he's more charming to her than Robert Redford in a movie about redwoods and ponies. From the evidence, there are far more of us, perhaps a majority, who find the thought of trying and burning a presumed witch more beautiful than a rose in a lover’s hand.
Well, this makes hash out of the reasonable man idea, an Enlightenment conception that’s been bashed awfully hard for the last, say, century of war, Holocaust, Gulag, Kampuchea killing fields – take your pick. “It is one sin offering,” said Auden a little later in his great poem of the early fifties. How to get this bitch of an elephant out of the room?
It’s not unlike the transition the old anthropologist observed (read “The Golden Bough”) between tribal superstitions, which are utterly binding on behavior and expression, and modern Christianity, Judaism, some forms of Islam, Buddhism, Shinto, etc. You have to give up certainty for discussion of theological points. You have to consciously consider issues in terms of morality and practicality, politics and society, past and future, the Lord’s word and our interpretations, what Karl Jung, the great proto-psychologist of the human mind, described as the “greatest human project, to become self-conscious, to become truly aware.” Wow, big job to get this big mammal out of the living room, eh?
Maybe not. Think of the difficulty of a parent confronted by a child. What do you have to do to succeed with this frequently raving little maniac? You have to become conscious of yourself, which allows you to be aware of the little one, who has no experience, no background, little awareness beyond your loving eyes or breast. By gaining consciousness of yourself, you can work with the little ignoramus until he begins to act almost as lovably as he looks. It’s the same process. Translate it into an equally important task. Banish the Burning Witch. She and her terrible Black Mass never existed anywhere except in our imagination, an invisible elephant only too happy, at a moment’s notice, to draw us into such foolish acts as lighting matches we cannot extinguish.