Sunday, March 18, 2007

On the Edge of Doom: The End of American Community

In his essay on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, W.H. Auden observed that theatrical directors throughout the 30's found it quite natural to make of Caesar a great fascist dictactor, perhaps more like Mussolini than Adolph Hitler. The conspirators, he says, were "liberals". Up to date analogies are irresistible. There was a very brief period of time not long ago, before Iraq fell into utter chaos, that it could be said that George W. Bush had "...crossed the Rubicon". There are, however, even better analogies to be made.

In 1947, Auden would say of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that it had "great relevance to our time". That is still true, though Auden believed that Julius Caesar was about a society, the society of ancient Rome, on the very edge of doom. Auden did not believe that to be true of Western Civilization in 1947. But --is it true of the US, Britain, and Western Civilization today? Are we perched on the edge of doom?

Historically, of course, Octavian would "ride the storm" eventually prevailing at Actium, and, upon assuming the title Augustus would give to Rome another 400 years. The prospects thus were not nearly as gloomy as those we face today.

Auden would write of the post Roman-Hellenic world that it collapsed of a spiritual failure, a lack of nerve, an inability to make sense of what was going on. This is the analogy that is to be made with the present. It is not surprising that a far flung war begun upon a pack of malicious and deliberate lies would drag on for four years. It has done so because it would appear that few in power understand what is going on. And those who do are afraid to speak. The BBC states flatly: the Iraq war has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East that will be felt for a generation. That is, in fact, an optimistic assessment.

There is yet another layer of complication. It has to do with the sense of community that is lately found lacking in America and, perhaps, to a lesser degree elsewhere. Auden makes much of the manner in which Shakespeare begins his plays. "First things in Shakespeare are always important", he writes. It is, therefore, significant that Julius Caesar begins with a crowd scene.

The crowd is among three important types: societies, communities, and crowds. One belongs to a society in which the individual has a function or to which one contributes in one way or another. Communities are composed of people who share a common love. Crowds, by contrast, are composed of members who neither belong nor join. Members of crowds merely add numerically to the crowd. The crowd, Auden writes, has no function.

Crowds arise when communities break down, when individuals for various reasons cannot share a common love or enthusiasm with others. Education, says Auden, has little to do with it. Knowledgeable, highly educated people often become members of crowds for various reasons and thus often help drive the enigma of fascism.

An over-simplification is tempting. Crowds are often fertile ground, nurturing fascism and other forms of authoritarian governments and regimes. If the manner in which Shakespeare begins his plays is important, then it must be pointed out that Julius Caesar begins with a crowd scene and ends with the loss of Republic.

A "crowd" is most often ugly, fickle, angry yet manipulable. Kierkegaard would write of the public as merely a large crowd "...a Roman emperor, a large well-fed figure, suffering from boredom, looking only for the sensual intoxication of laughter." He would call the "press" the "public's dog" that is often set upon the truly great. Thus, the crowd, manipulated by demogogues and charlatans, becomes a mob.

The increasingly isolated, suburban nature of American society, in the midst of plenty, devolved into islands of isolation. The word community merely attached to a souless suburb does not make a real community. It's only a sub-division at best. At worst --a dormitory. An affluent America became a nation of crowds, a public only loosely held together, isolated by the science of demographics whose very purpose is separation and analysis. Given those conditions, the events of 911 were highly exploitable and America became an angry mob.

The conditions were ripe for a would-be dictator to seize "the crown", vowing as he did to "...export death and destruction to the four corners of the earth." This would-be Caesar was hardly swept into office with a popular mandate. The election was stolen. Certainly, Al Gore received more popular votes in Florida. But for 911, Bush would already be retired.

There is some hope that a new Congress will force a positive change. But that assumes that they know what is really going on. Until America finds its soul, its sense of real community, it will remain like the Roman-Hellenic world on the very edge of doom. There is no Octavian in the wings who might give us another 400 years or so.

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5 comments:

Shawna said...

I really enjoyed reading your well written post.

I think you should share your ideas at this website that is getting some fun responses.

www.DoSomethingBlog.com

It asks for you to state something that you would like to change or create to make a difference in our community. It is aimed to stir up conversation and perhaps allow other readers to respond back if they can help make that change possible.

I think it would be great to have your thoughts over there.

Fuzzflash said...

"On the Edge of Doom: The End of American Community"

Len, your recent creative surge has been most stimulating. Very "Eve of Destruction" in a Barry McGiure sort of way.

“Augustus would give to Rome another 400 years. The prospects thus were not nearly as gloomy as those we face today.”

Back then there was a whole world to plunder. The industrial revolution and subsequent environmental destruction and species extinctions was but a distant mammonist dream. The complications and side effects of our diminished sense of commumity is particularly interesting. Once free range apes, we have become functional ants, structured groupthinkers, communicating amongst ourselves only the bare essentials of survival; devoid of hopes and dreams, we have become pushovers to control; easy to shape schmucks to have our consent manufactured so that we may wage war on abstract nouns, while simultaneously consuming endless production lines of widgets that we can’t possibly live without.


“The increasingly isolated, suburban nature of American society, in the midst of plenty, devolved into islands of isolation. The word community merely attached to a souless suburb does not make a real community. It's only a sub-division at best. At worst --a dormitory.”

“Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes on the hillside, and they all look just the same”

A sense of, and a deep need for community is catered to by the churches, especially the fundies, who provide a stage for communities to be indoctrinated by hot button oratorial/dialectical techniques, as well as providing worshippers the opportunity to catch up on gossip, display wealth/social rank, and maybe hook up with potential marks with a view to a spot of mercantilism down the road apiece. Churches use metal bells to stridently spruik “Where da ya geddit?”, whereas in ancient more pagan times devotees were drawn to assembly by the pulsing heartbeat of drums.

“…the events of 911 were highly exploitable and America became an angry mob.”

Yes. Aided and abetted by the MSM, especially Drudge and Fox and a seemingly endless passing parade of lower wattage shills du jour. Agree that without 9/11 BushCo would be now out of “bidness”. As for a latter day Octavian, Neil Young addresses the question on his “Living With War” album in his song, “Lookin’for a leader”. Hillary it ain’t. Obama has burst from the political woodpile with Jimmy Smits charisma and a ton of potential. He’s certainly giving HRC pause for concern. Gore knows the beltway, has been consistently against the Oil War and is better credentialled to address the biosphere’s demise than the rest of the pretenders, including Surge McCain, Nutcase Newt, and to conclude on a Roman note, a man who knows a good Caesar salad when he chows down on one, a man who has emerged unscathed through yet another Ides of March, Big Giuli.

Len Hart said...

Thanks, Shawna. Welcome and come back often.

Fuzzflash, Sad and I have set up a team blog. Articles by you would be most welcome. I will try to set up a "temporary" email address that you might email to. That way, we can email back a formal invitation. Something like yahoo that might be cancelled or deleted later if you like.

Also, the same applies to Damien and Dante.

Your comments, as usual, are intriguing. I have often wondered if the Roman institution of slavery, the act of enslaving the dregs of conquered provinces, actually worked against and delayed industrialization and technological progress in general.

Indeed, there were some interesting technologies developed in ancient Greece --the steam engine and solar power among them. Alas, nothing came of either one. It was left to James Watt to rediscover the power of steam. Solar energy is STILL awaiting its time in ...uh...the sun.

Indeed, the fundamentalist churches literally exploit the need for commnunity. The most pernicious trend is found in the emergence of "super churches". The largest, I believe, is naturally in Houston --the Lakewood Church. It was originally the home of the Houston Rockets and it would seat 18,000. The Rockets now play in the new Toyata center downtown. The old arena was revamped to seat, as I recall, as many as 25,000. Their telecasts are available via cable in Europe and perhaps other parts of the world. I am quite sure that many starved for real community adopt this top down approach. It may be all they have.

Fuzzflash said...

Len, happy to punch out the odd piece for the team. Temp email address away.

Like the way steam simmered away for a couple of lazy scientific millenia till wee Jimmy Watt tried to keep the lid on it.

"The largest, I believe, is naturally in Houston --the Lakewood Church. It was originally the home of the Houston Rockets..."

Len, this is clearly a case of Rockets being propelled by a higher power. It's a MURKLE! Halleleujah!

SadButTrue said...

Here's your temporary email address: iamsadbuttrue@hotmail.com. Forward me something, and I will send a blogger invite to you.