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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