Sunday, November 15, 2009

The End of American Community

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

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 dictator --more like Mussolini than Hitler. The conspirators, he says, were "liberals". Up to date analogies are irresistible.

There was a very brief period of time not so 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. I am still surprised that the GOP 'released' the White House so willingly, it seems in retrospect. Still cynical, I am inclined to believe that the world left Obama in Bush's wake is now so precariously perched, so involved in economic disaster that it is hoped Obama will take 'the fall' for the mess that was left him.

In 1947, Auden would say of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that it had "great relevance to our time". 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" to prevail at Actium, and, assuming the title "Augustus" would give to Rome another 400 years. The prospects thus were not nearly so 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 utter inability to make sense of what was going on. This is the most accurate 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 years. It has done so only because few in power understand what is going on. The BBC states flatly: the Iraq war has sent shock waves throughout the Middle East that will be felt for a generation --an optimistic assessment.

There is yet another layer of complication. It has to do with the sense of community 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, evidence of community found in few modern societies.

The crowd is one of 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 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.

Over simplifications are tempting. Crowds are 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 intoxification of laughter." He would call the "press" the "public's dog" that is often set upon the truly great. Thus, the crowd, manipulated by demagogues and charlatans, becomes a mob.

I submit that 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 community. It is but a sub-division at best. At worst --a dormitory. An affluent America became a nation of crowds, a public only loosely held together yet isolated by the science of demographics the very purpose of which 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 genuine popular mandate. Many say the election was stolen. Certainly, Gore received more popular votes in Florida. But for 911, Bush would have been retired early.

There is still some hope for a positive change, more if Bush had not left Obama an economic catastrophe already well under way. In this fog, we are fortunate if we should know what is really going on. Until America finds its soul, its sense of real community, it will remain like the Roman-Hellenic world. There is no Octavian in the wings who might give us a reprieve of some 400 years or so.


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