Crowds, Conventions and the Slow Death of Individualism in America
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.
No nation can be “first” that does not hold the individual sacred. 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, 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 conventions might be regarded, in part, as a sort of adrenalized eulogy for the western literary canon, a pair of humiliating venues in which the rabblement of desperate political lemmings chose to enthusiastically hurl themselves from manufactured cliffs of plastic and foam.
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.
comments powered by Disqus
Stacey Ellan Harris - 9/15/2008
Having both a background in classical studies and having been in the technology/computer industry for about 10 years, I'd like to say, without any particular resource to proof at this point, that the rapid pace at which the technological industry has grown and flourished can be partly held to blame for the encouragement of the this mass mentality if which you speak. It is no coincidence that the orchestration of modern political campaigns almost entirely relies on the power of the internet communities, giving them the appearance of grass roots evolution, instead of what they actually are, viral marketing schemes.
Let me just talk about few things. Let's start with "truth" and "coolness". Todays young people, as well as the young people who were once so when I started out in this business, had absolutely zero interest in truth, in the classical sense, unless you were talking about truth tables (and even then, not so interesting unless you were writing C++ code). What is immediately fascinating and awe inspiring today is not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of whatever is coolest. I know some people in the industry - very wealthy, very powerful , supposedly very smart , whose measure of goodness is the cool factor. I cringe every time I hear it: "Is it cool?", "That's not really cool, I don't think we should go with that."
Well, what is cool? It is what is popular or will be - something everyone will buy into and pay alot of money for. It is also something that gives the participant a kind of skill or piece of knowledge (or at least contact with someone who has one or both). A device for example that makes people feel they are operating on the cutting edge of human ingenuity is going to sell big time, despite how inane it may appear or how much it actually makes their lives less fulfilling. I have literally had arguments with colleagues about certain decisions made in the industry and their most powerful argument is that the choice made more money and suckered in more people. That's it. What else matters? This is what our world has become and it will only get worse. The sad fact of the matter is that no one cares about the welfare of the people living now and no one seems to care about our futures, OR if anyone does, their position won't help sell anything, except maybe a few books.
The most powerful corporations in the world have no interest in encouraging thought or truth. But they do have an interest in encouraging the creation and evolution of mass mentalities on the eternal pursuit of what is cool. Once a cool campaign begins, then, like the virus it is, it doesn't stop growing. The choice to adapt to the product because a choice to be part of something big or not be a part of it - to be on the outside or to be on the inside. The presidential campaigns without shock to me are orchestrated by the same PR outfits that big companies use to sell their goods. How transparent this has become is alarming...
I'd love to say more, but I gotta get back to work to make more cool stuff...
Maarja Krusten - 9/14/2008
Sorry if the part where I discuss Dr. Kutler's lawsuit comes across as confusing. The central issue was whether the Nixon tapes, especially the portion revealing "the full truth" about Watergate, were ready to be released to the public. My former boss and I argued that they were. Internal government documents supported our testimony.
The Department of Justice argued that the tapes should not yet be released. Nixon was a party in the lawsuit, as he entered it as Intervenor. In Dr. Kutler's lawsuit, DOJ's arguments often echoed Nixon's although it ostensibly was representing the National Archives. My testimony was fact-based, not ideological. I focused on factual data and the law, in a nonpartisan fashion, as Archives employees are supposed to, not on my personal views. My job had required me to assess historical data objectively, and I had.
At the time I testified, in September 1992, I had voted straight Republican in every Presidential election in which I had been eligible to vote up to then (1972 to 1988). However, I became an Independent in 1989 and have remained one ever since. My job as a federal archivist called on me to uphold the public trust in assessing records in my care and that was what I always sought to do.
Sorry I have a typo in the name of the present U.S. Archivist, he is Allen Weinstein, of course.
Maarja Krusten - 9/14/2008
Many thanks, you are so very, very kind! I'm not an anthropologist but I am very interested in how people interact and have done some reading on it on my own. My training is in history. I am employed as an historian at an agency of the U.S. federal government. I've been in that position for 18 years. Before joining my current agency, I worked as an employee of the U.S. National Archives for 14 years and prior to that for 3 years at what then was the U.S. Customs Service for 3 years.
At the Archives, my job was to listen to the secret recordings that Richard Nixon had made of his meetings and conversations at the White House and to decide what could be released to the public. I also did similar disclosure screening of White House files. Over the course of my career, I listened to some 2,000 hours of the total 3,700 hours of Nixon's tapes.
My work led me to develop an interest in how people interact, especially when they work in positions that require contact with power players, but where they can be fired at will. Acting effectively in such an environment requires very different skill sets than those which a professor develops in the classroom. You’re not addressing students whose work you will assess and grade, but people, such as the President of the United States, who can fire or punish you if they so wish. (That can happen in the academic environment also, of course). I became interested in how that plays out. How does information flow upwards and downwards? How are briefing papers staffed and worded? Does the man at the top make it hard or easy for subordinates to convey bad news to him? Over time, on my own, I started reading books on management and communication after I had left the Archives. (I worked there from 1976 to 1990).
Other experiences heightened my interest in what people do to each other and why. In 1992, I was called to testify in Professor Stanley Kutler's Nixon tapes lawsuit. Dr. Kutler sought access to historical materials while Nixon still was alive, which placed the Archives, an executive agency whose head is a Presidential appointee, in a difficult position. (Dr. Kutler is a plaintiff in a new lawsuit that was filed last week against Archivist Allen Weintein and the White House regarding preservation and records management of Vice President's Cheney's records. See
The testimony by various witnesses in Dr. Kutler's 1992 lawsuit revealed a lot of internal turmoil at the Archives as it faced the challenge of implementing a statute which called for early release from Nixon’s records of "the full truth" about Watergate. Some of us testified under difficult circumstances. DOJ ostensibly defends present and former Archives employees in such lawsuits but in reality, it seems most focused on protecting presidential prerogatives rather than federal employees. Although the Department of Justice failed to defend my Archives boss during the Kutler lawsuit, I did offer a robust defense of him and the work of his staff.
All of that intensified my interest in studying how people interact, what encourages or hinders internal debate in an institution, what causes people to share professional concerns with managers or to clam up, what leads employees to bond together and defend each other, why bosses do best if they can win the “hearts and minds” of their subordinates, and so forth. Some of the same issues seem to come up in web forums and affect how candid people are in their postings. Since I’m not affiliated with either political party (I’ve been an Independent since about 1989), I try to look at issues of communication and loyalty and status through a nonpartisan lens. People, and how they meet various challenges as they deal with each other, just interest me very, very much, I suppose.
Thanks again for your very kind words!
Raul A Garcia - 9/14/2008
Good analysis, I would guess that you are or have been in the field of anthropology? Among my teacher colleagues there is an almost tacit acceptance that one is a liberal, but this is hardly the case. As a teacher of history myself, and only now enrolled in a master's program, I find some pressures against our discipline- a couple of years ago our governor in Florida signed into law an education bill and in one area basically stated that history is "not a construction"- the rest of the lettering implied that you don't need to do any interpretation or revision which really bothered and continues to bother me, as I enjoin my students to use both primary and secondary sources and do interpretation/ crtical thinking and "do history" so to speak. On this site I have gleaned many useful perspectives and knowledge, but there is often what I consider cliche or well-worn arguments from the right/left political spectrum, without any real fresh argument. Your analysis made me think quite a bit- thank you!
Maarja Krusten - 9/13/2008
While I’m not going to comment on conventions, this essay did trigger a whole bunch of thoughts on individualism and conformity. I'm fascinated by how people interact. So, I believe web forums will provide future scholars of human interaction some interesting data to study.
I’m an Independent, not affiliated with any party. I don’t have to conform to any line of thinking. Over the years, in various forums, I’ve seen posters who strongly criticized a candidate during primaries, calling the candidate unsuitable and unacceptable. Only to pivot and fall in line, not only accepting but heaping praise on the same candidate in the run up to the general election. Did they suddenly forget how to perform critical analysis? No. But as perceived representatives of those who vote for the party, they feel they no longer can apply critical analysis to a nominee. Doubts they once felt free to express now must be suppressed to conform to party loyalty. (The earlier doubts still exist in their web captured earlier postings, captured in one electronic forum or another and maybe eventually in the Internet Archive.) But as good party soldiers, they fall into line.
Other posters choose sides but remain non-conformists. They may grump that they will vote for the party nominee but admit that the candidate has weaknesses. I saw this a few years ago on a site that I was observing. If the forum permits, they may show more individualism in their comments than those who feel they must pivot completely and suppress earlier doubts..
Party loyalists genuinely may feel that in siding with one party, they have shown superior abilities (including individualism) than those who chose the other party. In some cases, they may try to paint those who belong to another party as inferior. They may argue, “members of our side came to our beliefs through the application of positive characteristics, the other side through application of negatives ones, such as groupthink.” It even might cause cognitive dissonance to admit that that is not the case.
What factors generally affect the ability or lack of ability to display individualism in web forums? It’s worth studying. Sometimes, people have to suppress parts of their real selves and put on masks of conformity in public. Some web sites do better than others do in bringing people together and encouraging open discussion, even dropping of masks. In a moderated group, it may be the facilitative skill or lack of facilitative skill of the moderator or owner that makes or breaks the forum. In unmoderated groups, it comes down to the sense of fair play or the comfort levels and levels of confidence of the posters.
From my casual, unscientific observations, you are much more likely to see conformity and much less likely to see individualism in echo chamber forums than you are on neutral sites and on level playing fields. Some sites are so insular and so geared towards loyalty, they seem implicitly to demand groupthink. You even sometimes see people who belong to a political or professional “tribe” being flamed in echo chamber sites for insufficient orthodoxy.
Some professions simply seem more tribal than others. Members may talk to each other but fall silent, seemingly freezing up, if someone outside the tribe speaks up. Some of this may reflect atrophying of people skills that professional demands have led the discussants to stop developing. Perhaps some professions stress status more than others, as well. I’ve seen that on some listservs, for example.
Status apparently is very important to in some settings, in the virtual and in the real world. Next time you see a group of corporate or government officials on lunch break walking down a city sidewalk (“suits,” as they say), if they are all men, notice how often they walk three or four abreast, even if that blocks pedestrian traffic in the opposite direction. I’ve observed that so often in Washington over the years that I’ve come to believe that no one seems to want to risk being “a step back.” For the group, that seems more important than the fact that people walking the other way are inconvenienced.
In web terms, I suspect the more tribal the group, the more difficulty members have in accepting that someone in another discipline knows something they do not know. But people from other professions can be a great source of knowledge. That’s one of the great things about the web. I’m an historian but I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve learned a lot from some of Andrew Todd’s postings here on HNN. I believe from his postings that he is an engineer by training.
I sometimes wonder if people who are accustomed to dealing with their fellow adults as colleagues and team members or as clients and customers are less tribal and more comfortable talking to a variety of people than those whose professional training puts them in more insular positions. I’d love to study this after I’m retired, but I’d first have to learn more about linguistics, communication, and social interaction, areas in which I’ve just been a casual reader up to now.
Maarja Krusten - 9/13/2008
I don't see individualism in a group of soldiers at mid-19th century sharing the same skill. You describe people who all knew how to do the same thing because they grew up in similar circumstances in an agrarian society. And then you ask readers to shed a tear for the loss of individuality now because soldiers these days would have more varied skills and backgrounds. Doesn’t the fact that soldiers these days don’t all come from a similar background point to more, rather than less, individualism within the group? They have less in common in terms of skill sets than they once did.
Nor do I see what Woodward presents as overruling of the advice of advisors by an official as individualism. Moreover, it’s a story. We don’t know have any supplemental information. We don’t even know if the event occurred as described.
Yes, stories tell something but how much, really? Any HNN reader could tell me a story about how his or her boss made a decision but it wouldn’t give me enough information to assess decision making in the company. To assess what the reader told me, I’d have to learn more about the people. And whether anything skewed the process. This requires more than just talking to people. But gaining access to information would take time. Not all would be immediately releasable. I’d have to see the content of pertinent documents, study how information flow worked up and down the hierarchy, whether there was a shoot the messenger or reward the messenger syndrome which stifled or encouraged the presentation of data and discussion, and so forth. That’s why archival material is so valuable.
From outside, I could not tell how an HNN reader’s boss fit in with members of his management team and how they in turn fit in with their subordinates. People show different traits in terms of assessing and processing information. They differ in whether they are introverts or extraverts; sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving. An ISTJ might view a process or an outcome quite differently than two ENFPs, for example.
That can show up anywhere a group of people gets together to come to a decision. A juror may walk fellow jurors through the evidence as he or she perceives it and argue that the defendant is guilty only to have another juror say, “I just have a gut feeling that he is innocent, I just feel it.” Both have reached strong conclusions and may even hold firm, but how they got there involved very different processes. That’s what makes MBTI so interesting, at least to me.
Back to Woodward and Presidents. I don't take anything Woodward writes at face value. Sure, Woodward has done a few oral history interviews. But whether he is writing about Democrats or Republicans, as a former federal archivist, I take his accounts with a pinch of salt. As a non-governmental employee, Woodward is not cleared to see internal, non-public records (classified or unclassified) and cannot access them, except through requesting them under open records laws. I take such rules seriously. At the federal, state, and local level, strict laws and ethics rules cover the sharing of non-public information. Government employees are not supposed to share internal government records with their friends, family members, reporters, or other outsiders. It’s one of those character and honor things. No one, at any level, should show someone such as Woodward anything that hasnot been cleared concurrently for simultaneous release to the public.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/13/2008
The arrival of "outcomes-based" education in the schools, displacing the "be all you can be" philosophy, has set back individualism (and civilization) much more than any power of political conventions... A measured surrender of some individualism, of course, was necessary as the nation grew more crowded and specialized. A company of Sheridan's men once butchered a herd of 700 sheep in two or three hours, as all pitched in. In a company of soldiers today there might be one or two men who could butcher a sheep. So shed a tear for that loss of Yankee know-how, aka individuality.
There will always be some individualism in our chief executives. Bob Woodward has just told us about the launching of the Surge in Iraq: Condi Rice voted no, Gen. Abazaid voted no, Gen. Casey voted no, Gen. Pace voted no, whereupon the President said, "The chair votes aye, and the ayes have it."
I do see a lot of individualism in those conventions, however. Sombody wrote the good speeches, somebody created the videos, and somebody clever designed the balloon drops. Somebody also planned the smooth effor to eject and arrest demonstrators. You can't say there were no opportunities at all for individualists.
The common people were always there, en masse. And the Lord must have loved them, or why would he have made so many of them, as Lincoln told John Hay, who mentioned in his diary that it was "neato" the way he said it...
One must not underestimate the power of the individual, even in this day and age. Look at Osama bin Laden.
Raul A Garcia - 9/12/2008
There is little serenity in the political world, thus the "rugged individualists" sometimes look for solitude or make their noises elsewhere. The author,I think, is a little too harsh on the "common man". There is a greater nobility in all the day in/day out heroics of good fathers and mothers and parents of all kinds. Political systems, of either right, center, or left persuasions tend to generally smother many voices and there is an "oligarchy" of two parties, or maybe just one. Wasn't it a poet-philosopher who would rule in that utopian work? Given the abundant narcissism of our romantic world, I cannot accept the thesis of the author. I teach American history and urge interpretation and discovery and critical thinking- I always say they should be tenacious "wolves"rather than submissive "sheep" when it comes to their thought, though I also admit to telling them to "follow their hearts".
Maarja Krusten - 9/11/2008
This article comes across as very much from the Ivory Tower. I don't have time right now to get into all the reasons why it seems that way to me. So, I'll just point out that those who need to work with different types of people (as opposed to observing them) learn about personality types such as introverts and extroverts. The terms refer to how people process and obtain information and how they prefer to interact. More Americans are extroverts than introverts.
Jonathan Rauch mentioned in an article in The Atlantic in 2003 that
"Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially 'on,' we introverts need to turn off and recharge. . . . For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: 'I'm okay, you're okay—in small doses.'"
Rauch also discusses politicians, Presidents, etc. See
According to him, in the modern age, more Presidents have been extroverts than introverts. Some are visibly energized in the presence of crowds. The one whom I most closely studied in my work as a National Archives' employee (Richard Nixon) was not.
Understanding what pushes people's buttons in a positive sense can be useful. In the working world, it's good to be able to tell, even from behind the masks that many people learn to wear at work, which colleagues are natural introverts and which are natural extroverts. The former may enjoy reading detailed background information on a job related topic that is sent by e-mail. The latter may prefer a face to face oral briefing that summarizes the same information. Some people hate meetings where colleagues sit around and brainstorm and prefer to retreat to their offices to think things through alone. Others love debating things in a group. To manage people effectively, you have to understand what makes them tick.
David Lion Salmanson - 9/10/2008
Bring back the authentic politicians like William Henry Harrison (er, no wait a minute), Andrew Jackson (oh, that won't work either) Or maybe this is yet another ahistorical declension narrative.
By most measures (number of hours volunteered, amount of time spent in political and community activity, money donated) more people are more committed to public good than ever before and in innovative ways. So the political conventions suck, (which isn't exactly new news is it?) how does that explain Teach for America's remarkable success?
Randll Reese Besch - 9/10/2008
Both can be looked upon as a value of good or ill. Dependent on what group is observing and qualifying how it fits one within a society. And if one rates high or low within it.
Dennis Kucinich would have been that type of individual but we saw how the process weeded him out and any others like him who would make change a reality not just a hackneyed cliche these days.
For me it isn't the person but what they stand for and have demonstrated they mean what they say. Obama doesn't fit that criterion yet. Hillery was worse. With a two party duopoly we aren't given much in the way of real choices. Ones who would upset the status quo are left out. Third parties? No, without national exposure and ballot access they have no chance. That has been done on purpose for just that purpose.
John Diehl - 9/10/2008
Dead on! Bravo!
Observe the democrats and the republicans at this point are barely Indistinguishable - no surprise there as we are led towards socialism bit by bit. a good reversal point would be the removal of the UN from our shores. following up with reclaiming the public schools....
I hope this concept becomes public - widely!
- Tut’s beard glued back on like a bad craft project
- Smithsonian working to finalize deal for new site in London
- The voices of Auschwitz
- What countries teach children about the Holocaust varies hugely
- Duke honors historian John Hope Franklin with year-long series of events
- What New Left History Gave Us
- Marcus Borg, Liberal Christian Scholar, Dies at 72
- Richard Hofstadter’s insights into the "paranoid style in American politics” lauded in the NYT