We are, and always have been homo rumoris, according to Jonah Goldberg in his (often) weekly newsletter; if not homo rumusculi, or homo fabulationis. Well, homos of one kind or another. That is to say, the whispering mob was around long before the discovery of electricity; and in Goldberg’s view, as mine, it has a useful function. Morality requires shame, and the vindication of justice requires shaming people. The question has never been, should people be shamed? It has rather been, what should they be shamed for?
I would pause here, to consider the Catholic approach, embodied in the Sacrament of Penance, and contrast it with our North American Puritan conventions, going back to Salem, Massachusetts. That is to say, the focus on reconciliation with God, as opposed to reconciliation with peer pressure, and the whited sepulchres who by their righteous sermons inspire the crowds. But this does not change the fact that we are, regardless of our religion, all humans — with copious actual sins to confess.
Are God and the mob always on the same side? Now there is a question that answers itself promptly.
Even the West Mercia Police were able to distinguish them, during an incident in Telford, Shropshire, on 14th March. It was one of those wee passing items in the news cycle, that grabbed my horrified imagination, so that I flagged it for this later use. Though in itself, only one horror among many, many.
A poor, distraught man had climbed to the top of a multi-storey car park, by the town’s shopping mall. Even from a distance, his emotional state could be seen; and from his position on the ledge, that he had contemplated suicide.
A crowd of teenagers gathered below. It was a Saturday, school was out, and the inmates lounging about this palace of consumerism. And there were some older, too — full adults — also with their social media in their hands, to capture the scene. (“Citizen journalists” shall we call them?) According to witnesses, at least twenty at a time were filming this exciting piece of “breaking news.”
But the man did not jump; he was frozen.
And so the crowd, getting bored, began to taunt: “Go on, do it. … Jump!”
The police were trying to reach him; trying to talk him back to safety. But the man could not hear them; he was mesmerized by the audience he had somehow summoned. They were screaming. He could see people running about, from one side of him to the other, to get better pictorial angles for their iPhones. He had their full attention; he had become the focus of a public demand to be entertained.
Time passed: more than two hours. The crowd’s frustration was growing. But with the man still at the edge of the car park roof, frozen by despair, they could hardly tear themselves away. A narrative like this requires a resolution.
“Go for it! … Now! … Do it! … Stop effing about! … Jump! … Do it!”
Finally, he obliged.
So that now he is dead, and beyond democracy. He cannot hear “the voice of the people” any more.
A second mob quickly formed, on the Internet, in response to the news report — to shame the members of the first. Clicking from their armchairs, cubicles, and car seats, the middle-class English declared themselves appalled. Mild, by the usual standard of public outrage, and utterly ineffectual; yet the noise was there. And when I looked for Comments, I found that these spokesmen for a forgotten mercy and compassion were, to a man, blood-curdling in their demands for retribution.
The West Mercia Police were likewise infuriated, promising legal action against those who had physically and verbally interfered with their work, if people would kindly step forward and identify the malefactors.
“Ah, to be in England, now that Winston’s out.” (That was how Ezra Pound put it, with his usual perspicacity as idiot savant.)
A mob is a mob is a mob. I was struck, too, glancing through Comments on articles about the shooting death of Cecil the Lion, by the bloodthirstiness. Most wanted the hunter dead, if not first tortured. But if, I should think, they had the means to kill him, another mob would come forward after that, to shame the shamers, and demand their punishment in turn.
For the time being, the Internet is mostly virtual. Further advances in technology will be needed, to allow for the dispensation of populist justice in “live time.” At present, unless one has command of a national guard or other armed forces, one must make do with information alone, such as broadcasting workplaces and home addresses.
Or, in the case of the AshleyMadison.com hackers, the identities of 37 million customers, who use this “matchmaking” site specifically to arrange adulterous liaisons. They may be “named and shamed” — curiously from the motive of punishing the website for inadequate attention to “privacy concerns.” And there is consternation about this, even though (as Goldberg mentions) adultery is considered an insignificant thing, these days. To many, it is no more a sin than sodomy, so what is the big deal? Yet oddly, it continues to matter to the adulterers’ live-in mates, and to their children, so far as their moral and emotional callusing is not yet complete. And so: “Let them suffer!”
Goldberg calls himself a Burkean conservative. (I think of myself as more the Jeremiah type.) There will always be something to shame; there will always be moral indignation. We can never become true libertines, for we are inextricably human; and seem to be “hard wired” to judge and to punish, others as well as ourselves. And by some kink, others in preference to ourselves.
Nothing has changed in this regard: the Internet is wringing with moral indignation, and the pundits are kept busy by it. Goldberg rightly sees that the effect of the imposed, ideological libertinism — as it is taught by our current elites, through the schools and the media and the courts they control — is only to change the rules of the game. The game itself continues. What is condemned was previously applauded; what is applauded was previously condemned; but the mob moves on. So long as it is still provided with scapegoats to damn, in the Forum of public opinion, one sin will do as well as another. New sins will always be invented to fill the space from which the old sins were winkled; the witches in Macbeth promised no less.
Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum; but it is important to discern that the Devil does not. He flourishes, for the vacuum has ever been his pleasure; his tube into the human heart. For him, the vacuum is like the caress of a breeze on a warm summer day; or like the puff of feather fans, as his enablers pump the air out of the old, crumbling Christian civilization; that gentle sucking action. Hell itself, like the inaudible whoosh of the black hole, a music to his ears; and all of God’s creation to be sucked, downward ever downward, as we glide down, to death beneath death beneath death.