By Louis René Beres
Special to Jewish Business News
“The crowd is untruth”
Soren Kierkegaard, Point of View, “That Individual”
To understand the broadly dysfunctional nature of current American politics, we must first learn to look more capably behind the news. There, suitably distant from any adrenalized jumble of private fears and collective concerns, we could finally uncover what is actually underway. This effort would reveal the obligatory struggle of each individual person against mass, and derivatively, the significance of this struggle for every American.
Albeit rare, this individual is potentially the singular “One,” the still-independent human being who somehow remains willing to express genuinely critical thought and to defy the “crowd.”
The stakes are very high. Without such indispensable defiance, this country’s already weakened democratic ethos will continue to slide ever more deeply into a dense primeval forest of personal and national evasions. By excluding everything excellent once taught by Thomas Jefferson and his patriotic contemporaries about erudition and democracy, this attenuated ethos will crumble even further. Ultimately, it will devolve into a shapeless and incoherent heap of banalities, clichés, and doggedly empty witticisms.
The crowd, recognized the 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, any crowd, is “untruth.” Accordingly, whatever side one takes on the current American president, there is never any palpable reward for expressing “rugged individualism.” Contrary to the familiar stock reassurances of our high school and university history textbooks, this nation most enthusiastically smiles not upon any stubborn independence of mind, but rather on meek conformance and visceral submissions.
America’s prevailing rituals and rules generally disapprove and simultaneously seek to crush any residual dint of critical questioning or divergent thought.
To look beyond the headlines, which is critical, a single overarching “lesson” emerges. This lesson instructs that our most insidious national enemy is not one political party or another – and not any particular orientation or ideology – but instead a crudely unphilosophical spirit that knows nothing and demonstrably wants to know nothing, of truth. Now, more than ever, Americans feel most comfortable when they can chant in chorus. “America First,” “We’re number one;” “Who will pay for the wall, Mexico;” etc., etc.
Blather is not only taken seriously, it seeks conspicuously elevated status as a dominant orthodoxy. Always lacking any dignified grace of real learning, the crowd shouts as one voice, reflexively, meaninglessly, menacingly, and even as the country’s ascertainable capacity to project global power and influence continually withers. All this deterioration transpires, moreover, even as the grievously stark polarization of rich and poor has come to resemble certain stark inequalities of the most downtrodden nations on earth.
To be sure, America’s poor do have the formal right to vote (at least in principle), but not to keep their teeth. And of what use is voting to sheep? They stick only to bleating.
The reasons for our expanding predicament are largely unhidden. Plainly uncomfortable with meeting any genuine intellectual demands, Americans remain openly annoyed with difficult concepts or challengingly complex ideas. It is much easier, after all, to fashion personal judgments and opinions on the basis of some conveniently pre-formed political discourse; that is, to remain securely sheltered within the ritualistically chanting crowd. For most of this fragmenting country, moreover, shallow and numbing entertainments remain the only expected compensation for a distressingly barren life of tedious routine and stultifying work.
It’s not complicated. Everyone here is the other, and no one is himself. An “abundant” portion of the afflicted populace, carefully trying to keep itself distant from any true personal growth (and by means of every imaginable social and economic buffer), seeks leftover compensations. For the most part, this pitiful search is founded upon the embarrassingly silly slogans of an illiterate national politics.
This ubiquitous illiteracy is discoverable not only in the inane tweets of a sitting president, but just as resoundingly, in the self-serving programs of this president’s “cabinet.”
There is more. As Americans, we must finally understand that no nation can ever be “first” that does not first hold the individual sacred. At one long-forgotten time in our national history, even after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had brilliantly showcased the American Transcendentalists, a tangible spirit of personal accomplishment could sometimes still earn high marks. Then, young people especially could strive to rise interestingly, not just as the shamelessly obedient servants of a markedly vulgar politics and commerce, but as the singularly proud owners of a unique and cultivated Self.
Alas, today, most Americans “live” in long lines of anarchic traffic, and, more or less cheerlessly, on the cell phone or “personal device.” Whether we would prefer to become more expressly secular or more reverent, to grant government more authority over our lives, or less, a willing submission to multitudes has become our most common and enthusiastic inclination.
In essence, it has already become our uncontested national “religion.”
There is more. Such crowd-like sentiments are not entirely unique to the present-day United States. On the contrary, they have a long and even diversified planetary history. We are, to be fair, not the very first people to so abjectly surrender to crowds. Still, conspicuously, our driving movements in this regard have been backward, or retrograde. The contemporary American crowd-man or woman is, therefore, a sorely primal and universal being, one who has somehow “slipped back,” in the words of the great Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, “through the wings, and on to the age-old stage of civilization.”
In such matters, a backward movement is far worse than no movement at all. Plausibly, this grotesque American stage is now preparing to join the lacquered corpses of other assorted dead or dying civilizations. Whatever its purported ideologies, the American crowd indiscriminately defiles all that is still most gracious and promising in society. Charles Dickens, during his first visit to America, had already observed back in 1842: “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.”
To our partial credit, perhaps, we Americans have thus far maintained our political freedom from traditional political tyrannies and from formalized sorts of oppression, but we have also cravenly surrendered certain corollary liberties to become inauthentic persons. Very openly deploring an enriching life of meaning and sincerity, we foolishly conflate wealth with success, and cheerlessly blurt out inanely rhythmic chants of patriotic celebration. This happens even as our rudderless and incrementally cheapened democracy continues to vanish into a noiseless but expansive suffering.
Whatever its origin, there is a readily identifiable “reason” behind all this carefully synchronized delirium. Above all, such fevered babble seeks to protect us from a terrifying and unbearable loneliness, a fearful condition that a great many Americans may literally fear more than death. In the end, however, it will turn out to have been a contrived and progressively lethal “solution.”
The courageous “single” American who might still seek to escape from the masquerading crowd, the rare “One” who opts heroically for disciplined individual thought over effortless and jingoistic conformance, feels most deeply alone. This is not difficult to explain. “The most radical division,” asserted José 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, the Jewish philosopher, 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?”
It is finally time for camouflage and concealment in the pitiful American crowd to yield to what Heschel had aptly called “being-challenged-in-the-world.” Individuals who might dare to read books for more than transient entertainment, and who are still willing to risk social and material disapproval in exchange for exiting the crowd, offer America its only potentially lasting hope. To be sure, these rare souls can seldom be found in politics, universities or corporate boardrooms.
But there will be some.
Always, wherever they might be discovered, their critical inner strength will lie not in any contrived or baseless oratory, in silly or catchy phrases, or in visibly large accumulations of personal wealth. This commendable strength will lie, instead, in the substantially more ample powers of genuineness, reason and serious thought. These exemplary powers, in turn, will represent the enviable antithesis of crowd “thinking,” the welcome reciprocal of those properly challenged individuals who can still recognize the crowd as “untruth.”
Presently, not even the flimsiest ghost of intellectual originality haunts our public discussions of politics and economics. Now that our self-deceiving citizenry has seemingly lost all sense of awe in the world, the homogenized American public not only studiously avoids authenticity, it positively loathes it. In a nation that has lost absolutely all regard for the Western literary canon, American crowds routinely seek comfort and fraternity largely in their common and openly shared illiteracy.
Indeed, the core reason for hyperbole now heard everywhere (absolutely everything one reads or hears these days is “incredible,” “amazing” or “awesome”) is a flagrantly cascading incapacity to think seriously.
The simple division of American society into few and mass may represent a useful separation of those who are casual imitators from those who would initiate true 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 ready deference to this mass, the intellectually un-ambitious American not only wallows lazily in nonsensical political and cultural phrases; he or she dutifully applauds a manifestly shallow ethos of complete personal surrender.
By definition, the mass, or crowd, can never become few. Yet, some individual members of the mass can make the difficult transformation. Those who are already part of the few must somehow announce and maintain their courageously determined stance. Should they fail or refuse, America would abandon both its historical and philosophic obligations. According to the Founding Fathers of the United States, there was considerably more to the Declaration and Constitution than a seemingly calculable right to bear arms.
These still-authentic thinkers were well familiar with the complex jurisprudential writings of Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Samuel Pufendorff, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Fortunately, they did not craft their obviously informed points of view from any eighteenth-century equivalents of bumper stickers.
Aware that they might comprise a commendably core barrier to our further spiritual, cultural, intellectual and political declensions, resolute opponents of the American crowd will steadfastly refuse to chant in chorus. Ultimately, therefore, in the best of all possible worlds, they will remind us of something most notably urgent. It is that staying the predictably lonely course of personal self-actualization and self-renewal – a focused course of consciousness rather than delusion – can be the only honest and purposeful option for a starkly imperiled country.
Today, unhindered in their misguided efforts, national cheerleaders in all walks of American life still draw feverishly upon the sovereignty of an unqualified crowd. This defiling crowd depends for its very breath of life on the relentless withering of others’ personal dignity, and also on the witting servitude of a prospectively more independent national consciousness. But before its “respiration” can be drawn from more evidently robust and healthy sources, this collective voice must somehow learn to reflect the insights of more genuine individuals.
Otherwise, here in America, the madding crowd will remain “untruth.”
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
 Roughly synonymous with Kierkegaard’s “crowd” are the Nitezschean “herd,” Sigmund Freud’s “horde,” and Carl G. Jung’s “mass.” All four of these profound thinkers – and also Martin Heidegger, who wrote similarly of “Das Mann” or “The They” – understood the utter primacy of opposing any struggle against the individual.
 In the same philosophic essay, The Dehumanization of Art (1925), Ortega foresees exactly what is actually happening today, in the United States: “The demagogues, impresarios of alteracion, who have already caused the death of several civilizations, harass men so that they will not reflect; manage to keep them herded together in crowds, so that they cannot reconstruct their individuality in the one place where it can be reconstructed, which is in solitude. They tear down service to truth, and in its stead offer us myths.”