Awful as it seems, there is a certain redemptive aspect to what happened to Roy Horn of the Las Vegas act, “Siegfried and Roy.” It was the redemption of verity. A truth.
Call the tiger by its pet name, “Montecore.” Train it for years. Put your face next to its mouth. Make it jump through hoops. One day it will summon verity and will try to kill. This is what tigers do. And not all the relativism of this modern world will penetrate that ineluctable truth. Whatever framed that fearful symmetry is not to be mocked.
As fellow homo sapiens, we must root for Roy, wish him well in recovery, sympathize with the 267 employees of the famed tiger training act who are now out of work, yet regard that act of “Montecore” for what it is, the reassertion of a verity in an age where truth is benighted.
What other verities are compromised? We could list the sanctity of marriage, the reliability of religion, the pledge of one’s word. Belief in a higher being that demands a higher calling. Recite, if it is still permitted, the Ten Commandments. All were verities that have been subsumed in the relativism of this age. But the tiger remains a tiger, inculcated with an instinct. And in a horrifying moment on a stage for the enjoyment of paying customers it demonstrated its terrifying truth. It was, is, and remains at this moment, a tiger.
By sheer luck, there was no camera rolling, no videographer present, to record the act. We have been spared the ceaseless replay. It was an event that exists like many enactments of truth, unrecorded save by the witnesses who tell the story, and later by the doctors who affirm it.
We are assailed by half-truths now, to the point where anything is believed by a portion of a populace, and where nothing at all is subscribed to by many. We are inventing new truths by means of the Internet, a repository for opinion masquerading as fact, and gradually eroding what once was fact. One day, in an undertaking rivaling that of the original encyclopedists, mankind will have to purge this depository, re-establishing that which is known, that which was once said, rescuing experience from chaos.
But not now, not today. We are too busy inventing versions of the life experience to look back and see if that is really so.
Meanwhile, the tiger. Doing what a tiger does, always has, and always will, until some morphogenesis makes it what it is not.
There are gentler verities no less substantial. We need find them.
My father always warned me about crowds. It didn’t matter to him how benignly they assembled: at a sporting event, a religious revival or a political rally. According to him, any large group of people was always vulnerable to a demagogue who could manipulate the group into thinking as one, then hypnotically direct them in a stampede out of the stadium or town square to commit atrocities against their community’s less favored minorities.
Through most of the twentieth century, history was certainly on dad’s side: Pogroms in Europe, lynchings in the U. S., Kristallnacht in Berlin. Better to live in sixties America, he felt, with the citizenry atomized in suburban sprawl and ethnicity de-emphasized. Spread money through the economically depressed areas. Anesthetize the populace. Keep them happy. Keep them apart.
As we begin our new century, ubiquitous personal communications technologies (email, i-mail, wireless computing, cell phones) have made assembling a crowd easier and quicker than ever. When Samuel Morse was developing the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century (courtesy of a government research grant), he had a vision of technology delivering to the people the “godly” ability to be two places at once. When explaining why he chose the biblical phrase “What hath God wrought” as the first telegraph transmission, Morse was explicit in stating that instantaneous communication was an emulation — however feint — of divine powers.
Today, Morse’s vision is at least half fulfilled: average people now possess the extremely powerful ability to both communicate instantaneously and be in two places at once. Inevitably, most of the uses people choose for these powers are hardly divine. In WTO cities like Seattle, Florence, and Cancun, a weird mélange of international interest groups (with internally contradictory goals) unify to wreak havoc and worse. In Gaza this summer, each time Israeli helicopters surgically terminated a Hamas biggie, crowds turned into mobs, with ritual car dismemberment becoming de rigueur. In Najaf, Iraq, 400,000 spontaneously gathered for a funeral of a religious leader. In each case, the tom toms fomenting rage were digital, invisible, and immediate.
But recently, here in the United States, we are applying these new technologies in a far different manner, creating new types of crowds — in groups that civilization has never seen before. In fact, we are witnessing the emergence of distinctly American crowds. And, dad’s suspicions notwithstanding, that might not be such a bad thing.
This summer, three new types of crowd appeared, with varying degrees of historical and cultural significance. Observed together, they illuminate an important moment in our social evolution.
1. The “Flash Mob”
Guaranteed to make the lists as one of the “New Words of 2003,” this effervescent social phenomenon was born in this spring in New York City, and by the end of September, was widely declared passé. For the uninitiated, the gambit can be easily described: A group of strangers organize themselves via email, agreeing to appear at a to-be-designated place and time. Then, using pagers and cell phones as tactical deployment devices, hundreds of people converge on a random spot in Manhattan — such as a clothing store — all asking for the same silly item. Then, on another cue, each member of the group disperses and disappears as quickly as he arrived. The “flash mob” is nothing more or less than living modern art — form without substance, appreciated by the kind of people who eschew Oreo cookies for biscotti.
Despite the manifestoes of the organizers, there is of course an alternate subtext of substance: flash mobs are simply the latest way for people to meet while still pretending that they’re not. Skeptics are permitted to view the flash mob as just an updated structure that engineers ambiguity back into the mating ritual, a process best described fifty years ago in the Oscar Hammerstein lyric: “I know how it feels to have wings on your heels and to glide down the street in a trance, you glide down the street on the chance that you’ll meet and you meet — not really by chance.”
2. The California Recall
As observed from here at ground zero in Santa Monica, the recall is all substance and no form. This is not a political movement as much as a “tipping point” response by a sufficient number of people who perceive a clear and present threat to their livelihood and lifestyles. In another demonstration of the power of the new informational environment technologies, the petition process (jumpstarted by cash) expanded “virally” through an unplanned but highly integrated campaign in the new media: websites, talk radio, and email. This was the first time that petitions could be downloaded to a home computer, and the result was a dramatic rise in the number of signatures as well as an incredible turnaround time.
As someone who was publicly talking recall before November’s election, this only became a possible dream in July, when I signed the petition at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. There, I was joined in signing by a rainbow coalition of angry citizens, a heterogeneous though affluent group that previously agreed upon nothing except possibly the scarcity of real tomatoes.
The legacy of the recall campaign will not include an “Arnold” political party or any other activist organization. The motivation of most recall was precisely to recede politics back to their correct California place, which is off the radar screen. Now that the recall question is resolved, people will go back to their lives. The enduring political change is the appreciation the electorate now has of its own potential to effect change; the latency to rise up some time in the future will be much greater.
3. The Howard Dean Campaign
“Dean is nothing more or less than the first guy to really understand that the Internet is the new ‘direct mail.'”
That was the aggravated, dismissive assessment shared with me privately this summer by a high-level campaign official of one of the other challengers. The obtuseness and bias from this otherwise brilliant strategist reminded me of an evening in 1985, when I walked out of the shop of my friendly typesetter for what would be the last time.
“Who the heck is going to want to [do the work of laying out on the computer] their own page layouts?” the soon-to-be-broke owner had asked, mocking and minimizing the importance of the arrival of Aldus (now Adobe) PageMaker. Some people just don’t want to see the steamroller coming.
Howard Dean’s campaign is no fad — and his success has changed the dynamic of politics forever. By exploiting the new communications realities to re-invent how political parties organize, raise money, and persuade, the Dean campaign has redefined who has the power and the leverage.
You know you’re on a roll when the Doonesbury cartoon does an affectionate send-up on your activities. Within weeks of their inception, the Howard Dean coffee klatch’s were certified as an American institution by the country’s most politically aware hand drawn characters. With all their directness, warmth, intimacy and “realness,” these hundreds if not thousands of in-home gatherings were the ultimate manifestation of cyber-technology.
No direct mail ever created a coffee klatch. The spectacular achievement of Dean was to use the Internet as precisely not the top down model of electioneering — with television, direct mail and rallies. Rather, people communicate both horizontally and vertically, participating in the inside baseball dialog of the day to day national campaign in matters of scheduling, fundraising, and issues, while at the same time organizing and empowering locally. In pre-Internet terms, it is as if you were to (a) receive direct mail that you in effect solicited by telepathically defining yourself as interested (b) ripped the mailer into twenty pieces (c) watched each piece grow into a complete piece and then (d) sent it to twenty neighbors how had telepathically indicated their interest in receiving such material, and then, amazingly (e) invited these strangers into your home!. By these conventional electioneering standards, Dean has performed voodoo, and done it well.
The Dean campaign is form and substance. No matter what happens with the campaign, human bonds have been made locally and nationally. A de facto political party now exists that can, after 2004, take on another candidate or another issue.
The New American Crowd
America is a land of ideas, not blood ties. Rather than perpetuate tribal loyalties, our greatness has stemmed from our ability to form and grow communities of common spiritual and moral purpose. And so, while the rest of the world may use technology to propel and accelerate anarchy, here it is has been harnessed to promote our communitarian impulse.
Communal alienation and resultant secularism is generally accepted to have begun post World War II, when America left its crowded cities to populate the suburbs. Of course, the communitarian impulse still remained, manifesting itself sporadically if pathetically in events like Woodstock and the development of “gated communities.” Now that people can once again regroup to socialize and grow with people who share their values, we may well be living at the end parenthesis of this period of American community estrangement.
And even though the Dean Campaign is nominally the “more extreme” wing of the Democratic Party, watch how the process of e-politics actually becomes over time a profoundly moderating force. When people identify with a community as opposed to an interest group, they become more trusting, and place consensus ahead of their own personal agenda. The minority extremes that drove the antiwar, “choice”, and miscellaneous rights agendas ultimately are ill-served by a nation that talks and relates to each other.
This is all happening very quickly. In the early nineties, American Demographics magazine discussed how there would emerge a new kind of connectivity between computers that would profoundly change the way we live, work, and socialize. The editors were dead right, of course, but the article never used the term “Internet” — it was simply not in the lexicon, even amongst the most sophisticated social observers.
Dad was right. Crowds are still bad — and technology will make some of them more lethal. But here in America, people are assembling in a manner that the Founding Fathers never dreamed possible, but in a dynamic that emulates their original principles of participatory representative democracy. Who would have thunk that it would take the Palm Pilot to come along and enable America to begin recovering her soul?