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Les Murray Vs. The Mob Inside

The instinct to lose oneself in an angry crowd is universal
Australian poet Les Murray talks on honorary doctorates in Sydney, 24 April 2001

Reflecting on why the gun-toting men who stood watch over the Michigan legislature, to intimidate them, brought such antagonism out within me, and why all mobs do the same, sent me back to one of my favorite poems. It’s called “Demo,” and it was written by the great Australian poet Les Murray. Murray, who died last year, was on the autism spectrum, and was badly bullied as a boy in school. Here is his poem:

by Les Murray

No. Not from me. Never.
Not a step in your march.
not a vowel in your unison,
bray that shifts to bay.

Banners sailing a street river,
power in advance of a vote,
go choke on these quatrain tablets.
I grant you no claim ever,

not if you pushed the Christ Child
as President of Rock Candy Mountain
or yowled for the found Elixir
would your caste expectations snare me.

Superhuman with accusation,
you would conscript me to a world
of people spat on, people hiding
ahead of oncoming poetry.

Whatever class is your screen
I’m from several lower,
To your rigged fashions, I’m pariah.
Nothing a mob does is clean,

not at first, not when slowed to a media,
not when police. The first demos I saw,
before placards, were against me,
alone, for two years, with chants,

every day, with half-conciliatory
needling in between, and aloof
moral cowardice holding skirts away.
I learned your world order then.

There it is. That’s it. Notice that he condemns mobs as such, whether they are a crowd of angry protesters, whether they are journalists, and whether they are police. All I needed to know about mobs I learned while being alone for two years, in ninth and tenth grade, facing the chants, and the aloof moral cowardice of those who could have stopped it, but did nothing.

That taught me a deep and irresolvable suspicion of convinced crowds. You want to know why everything in me rose up in protest of the institutional Catholic Church’s abuse of children, and related abuse of those victims and their families when they sought redress? It’s there in the years 1980-82. That mob that was the bishops of the Catholic Church. That mob that was the Catholic laity, who averted their eyes from atrocity to preserve their innocence.

That experience helps me to understand why otherwise good people stayed silent in any and all kinds of situations. When I discovered via a friend that people we both knew from our town — old men who had died by then — had been part of a 1940s mob that lynched a black man for raping a white woman, but who in fact had been innocent, I knew where it came from. When I see progressive mobs setting upon professors (I think of Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis, but there are many examples), I know. The thing I fear more than just about anything is the breakdown of law and order, of the sort that leads to mob justice.

When communism fell in Czechoslovakia, there were plenty of people who wanted revenge against their communist persecutors. And they deserved to have it! But Vaclav Havel stayed their hand. He told the crowd (not yet a mob) that we are not like them. He saved their dignity. The older I get, the more I stand in awe before the moral courage of the Civil Rights movement, and the inner strength it took for its leaders and their followers to refuse vengeance, in the name of a higher moral order. I confess that the lowest part of me is still, in some way, looking for vengeance against the mob.

Les Murray once said, in an interview with Image Journal:

In the sixties there was a kind of bohemian revolution which was about one molecule thick lying on top of an ancient ocean of force. It changes all the time because of impulses from below. It’s glittering too. It’s pulling people toward it. Dangerous. Absolutely untrustworthy.

Well, from that, you can deduce that I’ve never been handsome. People who are handsome and socially successful never notice these things, because they’re riding on them.

The ancient ocean of force — what a powerful symbol. It’s true. The powerful never notice that force, because they are surfing the wave. People who convince themselves that they are speaking on behalf of the powerless use that rhetoric as a shield to hide what they do from themselves, and to absolve themselves from their deeds.

Here’s the problem, though: if one adopts the view that is instinctive to me (though a learned instinct, which is paradoxical, but I meant it was a lesson learned so profoundly that it feels instinctive) — anyway, if one adopts my instinctively anti-mob stance, it makes collective action impossible. Last autumn, I was in the Warsaw apartment of Zofia Romaszewska, a grande dame of the Solidarity trade union movement. I talked to her about the lessons that we today can learn from the experience of Catholics in Solidarity. She went on and on about the importance of, yes, solidarity: of coming together and forming bonds of love and loyalty, to resist evil.

Of course she is correct. She is entirely correct. The Solidarity movement was not a mob; it was a movement that stood up to the communist mob in power. It could have become a mob, but it did not.

How did it not?

How can we tell the difference between a movement and a mob? It cannot be the righteousness of the cause. A mob that murders a murderer is a mess of outlaws. But as Murray tells us, and as experience bears out, it is possible for a mob to be a mob and stay within the law and social convention. And, a mob that prevents justice from being done is also a mob.

This is a mystery to me. I would appreciate your reflections on the matter of force and justice. I suspect that there is no ultimate answer, and that in the imperfection of our mortal lives, all societies will have to find a way to live with knowledge that the mob is in us all, and could emerge under certain conditions. But how do we know? Inside the experience, our passions likely blind us to the evil that we may do. All its passions are righteous to a mob. I was part of a mob that rushed to war in Iraq. For me, it was a mild mob, and we certainly did not recognize ourselves as a mob — that is, as a crowd convinced by its own passion, that it was righteous, and should prevail. But a mob it was, and I was guilty of surrendering to it, while thinking of myself as clear-minded and rational.

How do we form ourselves such that we are courageous and clear-sighted enough to join a movement for justice when the call goes out, but also courageous and clear-sighted enough to refuse to join what is not a movement, but is, in fact, a mob? To adapt Kierkegaard’s maxim to my own purpose, the problem is that collective action has to be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.

In his poem, Les Murray indicates that mobs are always about force. There is no cause pure enough to cause Murray to join a demonstration for it. That is where I am, but I admit the limitations of that stance.



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