• "God invented war so Americans could learn geography" -- Mark Twain.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Die Volk Gefühlschaft

Why, we have wondered, do people from coast to coast emote over the "tragedy" in Boston?  Although the press churns out one trivial-detail after another, blaming the emote-fest on the press falls short.  People needed little prompting to fill walls on social networks with poster pictures of the little boy... of the hero who... of flickering candles on the pavement and the full detritus of sentimentality.   We stand by you, Boston! Like. The press simply feeds what it knows the people want.

What then do the people want?  It occurs to us that what people want is a sense of community, of belonging and social empathy which we otherwise lack. But it is the same absence of social empathy, community and belonging which gave rise to the bombing in the first place.  In the end, we are trapped in a circle of anomie which feeds on itself.

There is no doubt that those who were directly impacted by the explosion suffered true and grievous losses which will stay with them for a long time.  There is nothing false or superficial about loosing one's child or an arm or a leg.

Those who were present at the event but who were not injured will suffer a psychological impact which arises from a consciousness of uncertainty and vulnerability.  Most humans live within a hermetic bubble of confidence, acquired from the time we take our third, fourth and fifth baby steps.  We could not live otherwise if we were paralysed by intimations of danger and misfortune lurking at every pass.  From time to time,  however, some event brings upon us an awareness  of our mortality and this fills us with hesitancy until we regain our forgetfulness.

But as for the vast rest of us -- are we affected?  No.  We have not lost a leg or a loved one and any danger of a like bombing on our own morning jog is far more remote than that of being struck by an impatient and inattentive motorist.

We are not affected but we want to be. Or, more precisely, we want to feel as if we are because that feeling is the type of feeling we would feel if we were family, neighbours and friends with those who did suffer.

True community arises out of shared experience in work, success, suffering and defeat.  We feel as one because we have felt together in living our common experience.  Even enemies in battle have a sense of community because they have both felt the common experience of war, as the meeting between Priam and Achilles so exquisitely symbolised.  The aged father and the young warrior were able to weep together and share their sorrows because they had each suffered grief at the hand of the other.  

"So the two men there both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered. Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud  for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept  for his own father and once more for Patroclus. The sound of their lamenting filled the house."  (Iliad, Bk 24.)

This was not forgiveness but it was compassion.  The two men shared meat and drink.  They shared rest.  And Achilles gave Priam 12 days to fittingly bury Hector before resuming the war. 

There are happier communions but, howsoever they are, they all arise from real work and proximate living together.  In contrast, the shared experience and interests San Francisco has with Boston are remote and abstract.  The two cities are united by a vast economic engine and a shared deluge of consumer brands, styles and motifs.  But if either were to disappear from the map, the other would not be affected any more than the rest of the country was affected by the swamping of New Orleans.  The connections are real but they are not essential.

The same communal disconnect between Boston and San Francisco exist even between the denizens of Boston itself.  It is, after all, hardly a secret that mass industrial societies suffer from anomie; and it is the individual's estrangement from a society which denies him a connection that nurses and ultimately triggers the despaired reactions of suicide or homicide.

It is thus that the marathon bomber's act serves to remind us that we are estranged from ourselves.  If we were not, then such alienated crimes would not arise, as they do, among us.  To repeat: the bomber's destructive act reminds us that it is we who are alienated - not just him.  This is why in ancient Rome, for example, when a murder occurred within the walls, the entire city had to be evacuated and purified before being reoccupied.

The ancients acknowledged, in this manner, that there is in truth no such thing as an "individual crime."  The alienation that manifests itself in crime is a hole in our social fabric and it is the fabric which requires mending.  In contrast, the intense atomisation of American society (going under the brand of "individualism") masks the alienation which it itself produces so that we do not see the we in the matter.

But we do feel its absence -- that is, we sense our own lacking -- which is why the alienated action of the bomber(s) triggers an immediate and equally alienated reaction: the junk compassion of feeling as if we were affected.

Since the symptom was diagnosed by Durkheim, Western societies have struggled to deal with the problem of anomie.  For the most part, they have relied of "symptom relievers."  The most direct and candid attempt to deal with societal anomie was mounted by Germany's National Socialists whose Volk Gemeinschaft sought to create a palpable and real sense of "national community" without abolishing the industrialised, mechanised, regimented means of production which engendered the feeling of metropolitan isolation in the first place.

The United States has not been lacking in the attempt. The difference is in the style of the kitsch.  And although we do crowd masses onto the Mall on Independence Day where they can sit, eat and listen to insipid speeches and equally bad music, the Miracle of Television has allowed us to create all manner and layers of false community without having to jam people onto a field. 

But the fact remains: we are an alienated non-community and all the sympathetic emoting from coast to coast only serves to underscore that fact.