Thursday, October 6, 2011

Where Art Thou, Hester Prynne? Occupied Street, Unoccupied Mind

It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude after own own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

-- Self Reliance, Emerson

(top to bottom)  Occupy Wall Street slogan, witchcraft symbol, Sean Hannity, 99% protester, Barack Obama, Tea Party sign
At a certain period of human history, one which we today label 'the dark ages', women of an unfavorable social standing were burned at the stake, executed based on the popular consensus that they practiced black magic in service of His Unholy Majesty Below. Popular consensus. The law largely vanished in the West with Great Britain passing the Witchcraft Act of 1735. When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, hysteria over witches was largely diminished, yet the worldview which legally prosecuted individuals on hearsay of supernatural prowess was still enough intact for Hawthorne to organize the fundamental structure of his plot and the plight of his protagonist, Hester Prynne, upon the mob mentality of 17th century New England communities.

For me, I remember The Scarlet Letter first and foremost not for its place in American literary history, but for Hester Prynne. I see her daily. She is the customer service rep at the airport, taking universal blame from commuters for flight delays. She waits tables during the morning rush hour, and getting 50 cents in tips all morning because the cook is drunk and messing up the orders. She looms in execution chambers, files up and down death row in Georgia, maybe in Italy courtrooms too. She's the child of abusive alcoholics, the ghost that's haunted middle school student council and congressional election campaigns since the advent of elections or campaigns. And she does not always inhabit the blameless commoner. She's also President Obama. She's the whole of Congress, she's Andy Reid, she's even the slimiest of Wall Street executives. Hester Prynne is anyone who receives ill-informed assault and battery of character, based upon theatrical shouting, mindless emotion, and most of all - mob mentality.

Here in America the common consensus is that politicians in the 21st century get nothing done. An increasing number of people agree that Democrat and Republican alike, Congressmen are out for themselves first, and their primary campaign strategy is to play popularity contest over rational discourse. This is an astute observation. Yet what have we the people taken to this firestorm? We charge into the political arena with blowtorches and gasoline, leveling accusations and claims no more informed, no more even-handed, no less baseless, than the same madness which attends "conversation" between competing candidates. We tune into Fox News and MSNBC and pay news reporters with less journalistic integrity than Perez Hilton to pander to our biases and arm us with the necessary talking points to choose between the lesser of two evils.

We set the model for our politicians, and they set the model for us. It is a ceaseless and circumambient cycle doomed to repeat itself indefinitely, unless we have the maturity to change our worldview.

This is democracy, many will say of Occupy My Soul protests. This is what America was founded upon. Freedom of individuals motivated by passion and an unerring sense of the rightness of their cause. But what was James Madison saying in Federalist Number 10, when he warned us of the dangers of factions, if not the dangers of the witch-hunt, the value of the popular sentiment based on its popularity? "A pure democracy (direct democracy) can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction," Madison wrote in 1787. "A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party." This is why our government is not run by rule of majority opinion; our very Constitution was defended and instituted in large part due to the corrupting influence of factions and mobs. And yet when it comes time to affect change, the only people who seem to be successfully arguing for constructive discourse are comedians, and large groups of intelligent individuals are doing something akin to fighting the Great Chicago Fire with napalm. And amidst the inferno, I see the charred husk of Hester Prynne burning at the stake.

And how does that differ from any large committed mob in world history? The legions which stormed the Bastille in the French Revolution deposed a barbaric monarchy by guillotining the nobility. Streets run red with blood regardless the governing regime and we are forced to ask, what is the difference? The question is one that could be applied to the annals of time. Each kingdom claims a right to justice just as each cause does; one replaces the next and we are blinded to their identical nature by their newness, their apparent freshness; a faux-virginity that is but a veil to disguise their thoughtless source. Today hundreds of thousands march to the tune of a drummer directly descended from a long line of witch-hunts and communist trials.

Americans whose political memory or history education reaches back a few decades should remember that one of the primary reasons Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy was the sweat beading down his forehead during a debate which, by all critical accounts, he handily won. We live in a nation - the greatest on earth, no less - where vain and shallow popularity contests have long held sway over our destinies. And we allow that. We permit that. We see ourselves as people with no power. The world acts upon us, we do not act upon the world. We feel so powerless that we are deluded into believing the only way we can have our sentiments heard is to join a Faction that has no logical expectation, no definite goal, no researched answer, no idea of mature negotiation. And we actually believe that marching in a mob of people shouting into megaphones and waving signs in the name of such a Faction is some kind of representation of our democratic, American right.

Yes, that is our right. It is our right in the same way that it is the right of a child to smack its head into a brick wall next to the swingset when given free reign of the playground. And of course corrupt Wall Street CEO's are to blame for our economic crises. As are the President and Congress. And maybe Wendy-Sue had something to do with the eggs at Mr. Johnson's table being sunnyside up instead of over-easy. Yelling at her isn't going to change a thing. Because in the end, the social pressure of these movements is a kind of witchcraft all to itself, asserting influence over even the most brilliant and reasoned minds, high school dropouts and college professors alike. That this black magic, pandering to petty egos and the modern mind that has patience for naught but instant gratification, should be allowed to permeate our individual genius, that it takes but one finger to be leveled at some Hester Prynne of the political-economic spectrum, is directly reflective of the clownish acrobatics that attend the election process itself. Like Luke we go into the dark of the cave armed to the teeth, thinking to strike down Vader when truly - truly it is ourself. We are precisely what we claim to hate.

In 2011 it should no longer be deemed acceptable to allow the future of our nation to be controlled by the sort of unproductive, cowardly, pandering mania that runs it today. Real, constructive change of the worldview that has brought us to this state will never occur from a large group of shouting citizens hiding in the shadow of their neighboring protester, letting raw emotion dictate action, consume discourse. It will come from individuals who, uncorrupted, hold within them the power of a thousand mobs. It will come from individuals with the serenity to to sit down and have a conversation with someone whose opinions are intensely opposite to their own. And perhaps most relevantly, most importantly, with the 2012 election just around the corner: it will come from individuals who rock the education, before they dare unleash that wolf in sheep's clothing that is rock the vote.

1 comment:

  1. Well stated and thought out - I wish more people could see the world as you do.