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Home Madmen and Crowds

Madmen and Crowds

There was a temporary interval in American life when a shooting spree by a madman would have been viewed as the crime of one man. The dead would have been mourned. The killer, if he had been taken alive, would have been punished, and while the memorial might have been accompanied by some leading sermons, the country would have been spared the media exploitation and blame-a-thon that invariably follows such events.

The trouble is that there are no more individuals. Or rather the individual is no longer recognized as having any standing. "All private plans, all private lives, have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger," Roosevelt declared in 1940 to the Democratic National Convention  And the repeal never seems to have been repealed. Instead all private plans and private lives are being constantly repealed by a turmoil of overriding public dangers, most of them sociological in nature.

A shooting takes place and the media urges that millions of firearms be confiscated. Every crisis requires that more freedoms be sacrificed for that overriding public danger that the talking heads are screaming about this week over news feeds from every corner of the globe. There are no more private lives. Only public ones. Everyone will sooner or later pass before the camera and be judged by millions of strangers in a narrative that will transform him or her into a hero or villain in the great social struggle against the public danger of the day.

Calling Adam Lanza a madman has little meaning now. The madman retreats to a private world of his own making. But the collective culture does not recognize madness as a detachment from the crowd. Instead it views it as yet another social malady to be solved. Re-open the asylums. Provide more mental health funding. Open hotlines for anyone with suicidal thoughts. Social solutions for a social society coping with the anti-social.

But even our madmen are public figures now. Cut off from the collective culture by their minds, they still strive to connect to its most fundamental value. Fame.

America's spree killers don't drive pickup trucks with gun racks. They aren't NRA members and have never opened a bible. They are young, mentally ill and famous. They are exactly like the real and fake celebrities who crowd magazine covers, television screens and paparazzi-choked premieres. But they can't sing or dance, and have no unique way to embarrass themselves into staged fame. Instead they kill their way to being famous.

As schizophrenic as our shooters were, as unable to connect to the groupthink of the larger culture, they understood the one thing that we valued. And they got it in a brute force way. They became what every girl with dyed blonde hair waiting on line to impress the judges of television's dueling singing competitions, every waiter with sunglasses waiting to become a movie star on Rodeo Drive, every "internet personality" leaning precariously over a webcam on YouTube, every kid trying out rhymes on his friends and building a fake biography of all the people he shot in drug deals gone bad, want to be. Famous.

In mass culture, fame is the only oxygen of the individual. It is the only thing that distinguishes the vanishing individual from the herd. The celebrity is to 21st Century America as the general, the writer, the poet, the politician and the genius were to former eras. All these things and many more have been distilled down to the simple status of celebrity. You are either famous or you aren't. You either have a private life that everyone knows about or your private life has already been repealed by the overriding public dangers of cow farts, racism and large sodas. You are either a slave to the public or just a public slave.

A culture of crowds makes crazy people even crazier. There's nothing for paranoia like a major city and these days we all live in the major city of a culture that is crowded in even its most rural areas. Crowd culture expects everyone to follow the leader, to join the meme, to move with the flow, but that is something that crazy people cannot do. The madman is always out of step and out of sync, the paranoid schizophrenic occasionally makes a compelling leader, but he is unable to be a follower.

Madness can at its simplest be viewed as the gap between his thinking and our own. Like cultural differences, it often explodes into violence, but unlike cultural differences it cannot be bridged because there is no common language. The madman is a member of a unique culture of one. He is a citizen of himself. He has his own laws, his own values and even his own mental language. And it is one that no sane person will ever understand.

The madman is the ultimate individual dying in his own private rebellions that mean nothing to anyone else. A sane society may lock him up, it may crudely tinker with his brain chemistry or even carve up his gray matter, but it will never truly make him one with the group. And our society, addled by nearly as many drugs as your average madman, is a long way from sane. It flirts with madness in its aimless attempts at reestablishing the place of the individual in a collectivist culture, and it veers recklessly from sympathizing with violence to pretending not to understand where violence comes from. It's the feigned innocence of those who are just jaded enough not to want to know how jaded they have truly become.

If the madman has lost the ability to speak to the crowd, the crowd has equally lost the ability to speak to the individual. The madman suffers from a defective mental vocabulary and the mad society has lost the ability to formulate concepts relating to individual behavior.

In our society the individual is always seen as putting on a public performance of accepting or rejecting group values. All private lives become a public competition to see who recycles the most, is the least racist, the most giving and the best example of what a cog in the great social machine should be. Every individual act is a commentary, not ultimately on the individual, but on the social machine. Crime is no longer a private act, but a public one, that emerges out of social factors such as the poverty rate, race relations, the availability of firearms, cold medication in pharmacies and the amount of funding for midnight basketball, outpatient mental health therapy and a thousand others.

All private plans are a public danger. All individual acts are really collective acts. There is no "I" in individual. There is only the crowd, its avatars who live out their fantasies and entertain them, and the masses shuffling off toward their daily labors until they are released from the grind and allowed a few hours to entertain themselves watching their avatars live a public show of private life.

How does one speak of individual responsibility to such people and how can they be expected to distinguish individualism from madness? The ant hive cannot be expected to think of the ant. It cannot understand anthood apart from the hive.

The Blame-a-Thon continues. Blaming Adam Lanza for his own actions is insufficient. Even blaming his dead mother is insufficient. Individuals do not matter. Only groups do. Corporations. The NRA. The Tea Party. Private tragedy becomes a political event complete with campaign speeches and fundraising letters. Organizations converge. New offices are opened and phone lines are installed. Press conferences are given. "This is a wake up call. A call for action. It's time we did something."

Within an hour, the responsibility is transferred from a killer to the society at large and then to the groups that do not share the values of the new collectivist society. War is declared. Press releases are faxed. Letters are sent out. "We need your help, Michael." "Stand with us, Susan." The dead are buried and their bodies are used to make the mulch of a new wave of political repression and profiteering. The dead, like singing competition contestants, are ultimately disposable, as are their killers. It is the producers and the judges who endure.

Each call to action is signed with the promise, "So that this will never have happen again." That is the sociological siren song of the crowd. The promise of a powerful government safety net that will keep every terrible thing from ever happening a second time. But there is no net that madmen cannot slip through when they choose to. It is possible to repeal the private lives and private plans of all gun owners, but not the private lives and plans of madmen who are not peninsulas, but islands in the stream, who do not care about laws, regulations and expectations. Broken men looking to break.

There is more danger than safety in the crowd. Not only can the crowd not deter a madman, for the same reason that Kitty Genovese bled to death lay dying for an hour, but the crowd is also mad. It is a madness that is harder to detect because it is the madness of a crowd. The individual irrationality of a madman is detectable by outsiders, because of its conflict with the group reality, and even to the person of the madman by that same conflict, which fuels his paranoia toward the outside world, but the group cannot detect its own irrationality and is too large and pervasive for its irrationality to be recognized on the outside.

Our crowd is not yet as collectively insane as Adam Lanza, but it's getting there. And it will not be pretty when it does. The madness of crowds is not a pretty thing. It can be seen in the hysterical crowds that greeted Hitler or the equally hysterical crowds swooning at the sight of a celebrity. Individual madness is flawed chemistry, but crowd madness is a will to madness, a raving desire to be one with the collective view, to be famous or almost famous, to exchange reason for sensation and individuality for the group immortality of the group.


  1. Has the individual ever counted for anything? Aren't all armies based on subjugation of the individual, and aren't all societies dependent on their armies? How can we know if we haven't always been deceiving ourselves about our self-importance?

  2. I am sad to admit that I share Daniel's pessimism and his view of America's 21st century society where the numbness to violence requires much more for the thrill of it all. Hence, many are thirsting for fame and glory...anyway one can get it. I often wear a tee-shirt that says: "Don't ever underestimate the power of large groups of stupid people." At the time I got it I felt it referred to Congress, but now I see it as referring to our generally uneducated, uninterested, and ant-like 'majority.'
    It seems to me the only thing saving Western society from total collapse (to the Islamic world) are millions of anonymously good people doing anonymously good things, some putting their lives on the line. The rest of the world is clearly up-side-down and the madness has chased me to Tel Aviv. I can see the world much clearer from here...and Daniel's right on the money.

  3. I'm listening to I Sing the Body Electric from Fame (original not the movie remake.) The title lifted from the first line of Walt Whitman's poem.

    Great song to start the day.

    As for individualism, another Whitman line from I Hear America Singing:

    "Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else."

  4. Anonymous24/12/12

    Daniel, thank you. This is a kick ass piece.

  5. Weapons provide force, unachievable by bare arms ("weapons" also called "arms" for a reason, as they enhance arm's killing potential considerably).

    In essence, a crowd can be just another weapon. It can be organized, agitated and directed toward some target, with purpose to achieve some goal. Or mere crowd presence and threat of action can be utilized as a psychological weapon toward some target, with purpose to achieve some goal.

    In essence, "community organizers" mostly weaponize people (under some pretext, they agitate susceptible people into a crowd, and then they can wield it as a serious weapon).

    Now, with large part of mass media acting as community organizers and agitators for the left, and many school teachers acting as propagandists for the left, and many medical doctors acting as marketing agents for pharmaceutical industry, and Hollywood sewer pipe in high gear, and all that agitating and cross-contaminating one another, may heavens help this great nation.

  6. Shlomo ben Shmuel24/12/12

    While reading this post, I thought of something that never occurred to me before: all of the mass murderers have been male. Females have committed some horrendous acts, but they are usually confined to immediate family. This may not be true, but to my memory most or all of the killers of large number of people have been male. I would like to have comments on this idea, either to support or to oppose it; and/or if supporting, to offer some explanation.

  7. There was at least one school shooting carried out by a teenage girl with a rifle, but yes that is the exception

    but men tend to lead in violent crimes in general, so not very surprising

  8. There was an anti-semitic knife attack by a woman on Jewish children in a playground in New Zealand and a poisoning attack on a playground in the US.

  9. Anonymous24/12/12

    What we have is a removal of Biblical values and an overwhelming input of demonic nature.
    Put on The Armor Of God, bless your family daily.
    Keep you lamp full of oil.

  10. A problem for freedom and individuality for most, to a large extent independent of the intelligence of the individual, is the ever increasing complexity of society and the change from agricultural life, industrial production life to post industrial city life. On one's own piece of G'ds little acre a decent hardworking but not too smart person could stil wrestle his livelihood from the giving soil and in factories as a laborer but in todays post industrial beehive we not got ever more interdependent because under a certain skill level these individuals, even when of good will and wanting to work for a living can no longer keep up with the pace. Do not underestimate the numbers of those that can't, read American statistics 47%! maybe 10% of are advantage takers but on, say 37%, the demands of the day surpasses their abilities and they need to be helped to survive. The more dependent the less self esteem, the more chance that psychotics amongst them go to extremes for some recognition and, for this mass the dangerous path of being willing to follow leaders, be they good or bad, where regrettably manipulative leaders turn out in most cases to be the latter variety.

  11. Anonymous24/12/12

    Daniel-Philosophical explanations of our culture are lost on the majority as they are much too complicated for the modern mind. The 15 second soundbite's success is successful because one doesn't have to use up much brainpower to get the message.

    Our culture is awash in denial of truth and reality because thinking is a lost art. Thinking is much too time consuming in modern society. Philosophy is dead as the individual is dead. --Elaine

  12. Anonymous24/12/12

    Something in our DNA -- people prefer security over freedom.

  13. Anonymous24/12/12

    "In our society the individual is always seen as putting on a public performance of accepting or rejecting group values." One sentence more profound than anything found in a year's worth of times op-eds.

    merry christmas, knish

    -- spanky

  14. What tragic news about the firefighters killed, set up, ambushed in Webster today:(

    This world is getting worse.

  15. I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know. ~Epicurus

    Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer! ~Hitler

    We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. ~Borg

    Together we are many! We cannot be defeated! ~Ukrainian Orange Revolution, 2004

    We are all in this together. ~Obama

  16. Rob De Witt26/12/12

    As always, a brilliant essay. Thanks for your clarity and effort to expose your logic.

    One thing surprises me in the comment stream, which is the once-again-expressed "conundrum" that all mass-murderers in the recent public disasters have been male - I would go further and point out that they have all been white and male.

    This would seem to me the essential self-fulfilling prophecy. For almost 40 years now no white boy who's attended a public school has been able to avoid the relentless message that there are a majority of very unhappy people in the world, and the source of their justified grievance is ultimately people who look just like him.

    Besides the carefully constructed Social Message im-(or even ex-)plicit in every school day's "education," every month there is a Day or even a Week celebrating the achievements and victimhood of some group which courageously transcended the cruelty of......Straight White Males. Hurrah.

    It cannot possibly escape the awareness of even the dimmest among them that they (white males, losers in the great Birth Lottery) are doomed to become that which they are being taught to despise. Indeed there would seem to be no way out beyond the acceptance of universal guilt, becoming publicly homosexual (and thereby self-identifying as an acceptable fellow victim,) or stepping off the bus via suicide.

    If enough anger is generated at the unfairness of this situation, we've now come full circle, haven't we?

    It's long past time to turn the endless squeals of the Liberal Wise Men of the public square back upon them. If, by their logic, all "minority" crime statistics can be excused by the lifetimes of cruel injustice, real or projected, suffered by the perpetrators of those crimes - then the miracle is that the Columbines and the Newtowns have been so few, rather than the opposite.

    If you raise a puppy to be a dogfighter and a killer, it's apparent to most people that you don't want him around your young children.

    And yet nobody stands up and points out the conditioning suffered by white boys from the day they can understand language. Why is that?

  17. Have to echo something Rob DeWitt said. I spent 15 years of my life as a deputy prosecutor. In both the private and public sectors, system is valued over individuality. Any person over 50 looking for a job is greeted with a huge wall of indifference as to his or her life experience. We don't even really know how to have conversations anymore. Grief gets reduced to an Oprahism.

    I don't have an answer, but would not that a number of folks in the wake of World War I became alarmed at the advent of the Mass Man, who was denied autonomy by virtue of operating within the context of large systems -- as noted by the first commenter in this stream.

    Great piece -- though the inquiry doesn't end there!

  18. Orwell foresaw the system as a means of immortality. There's no need to have children. Perpetuate yourself through the system. That was Oceania.

    And on the flip side we have the cult of youth which makes life experience irrelevant. There's just a desperate red queen's race to stay in place with the passing trends of the mass culture.


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