Monday, December 8, 2014

Crowds and Powerlessness

If it doesn’t teach anything else, the questioning of the accuracy of the Rolling Stone piece (“Rolling Stone Cites Doubts on Its Story of University of Virginia Rape,” NYT, 12/5/14) reiterates the old saw that the road to hell is paved with good intentions (though predicating a piece on the testimony of one victim with no attempt to interview the perpetrators doesn’t seem like either sound intention or sound journalism). Oh and one thing, if you’re ever joined a crowd of sans-culottes filled with torches and self- congratulatory rage, step out of the crowd for a moment, pause and reach for a copy of Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti’s examination of crowd psychology. The wrong man or woman may be about to be lynched. Sure sometimes you’ve indeed caught the culprit with his pants down, but step aside for a moment anyway. Wasn’t it Kant who argued that the ends never justify the means? You may be on the side of right, but there's something wrong when due process goes down the drain and you finding yourself thinking, what the hell I don’t care if some maniac shoots a tyrant. When you find yourself getting so enraged that you’ll do anything, you’re closing ranks with a number of crowds you might not have liked, like for instance the Nazis who attacked Jews on Kristallnacht. They too were filled with certainty about the righteousness of their cause. When you feel such a sense of certainly that you’re ready to say fuck it, then question the cause. If you think you're lynching the right man, then you’re lynching the wrong man and oddly enough you’re in bed with the enemy i.e. despots, ideologues, enemies of truth (with its distasteful menu of ambivalence and insolubility). The Enlightenment led to two great revolutions, in America and then France. One was based on democratic ideals and the other led to murder and demagoguery. But both started out with the object of promoting liberty, equality and fraternity. The horribly overused Yeats quote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” is still apt.

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