Quick and Slow Crowds at Old St. Patrick's
The camp of life and the camp of death differ in more than their political opinions.
A congregation at Old St. Pat’s in New York kneels and prays on Saturday morning as the chants of protestors rise outside. It is the beginning of Witness for Life, a monthly anti-abortion demonstration that begins in the Soho church and proceeds to a nearby Planned Parenthood. Hundreds of demonstrators are outside, galvanized by the reversal of Roe v. Wade. They will do all they can to block the course of the march, flinging their bodies against the police escort, complaining as they are shoved aside.
Before the anti-abortion demonstrators leave the church, they are instructed to be reserved and prayerful, and to a remarkable degree they will be. Instead of signs, they hold rosaries. Instead of rousing chants, they join in subdued prayers.
The counter-demonstrators present a stark contrast. They use loudspeakers to drown out their opponents. “Pro-life, that’s a lie. You don’t care if people die!” They bang drums. They hold up signs bearing obscene slogans.
In an effort to confuse the counter-demonstrators, the pro-lifers send a small contingent out the church’s front door. Hundreds of counter-demonstrators press up to the church gates, and a woman wearing very little aside from a hideous mask gyrates and taunts the Catholics, as she pretends, over and over, to abort a plastic doll. A gray friar kneels down and continues to pray.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the congregation exits through the church’s back door onto Mott Street, where it is immediately noticed and stopped. Policemen, photographers, and cameramen form a buffer between the two parties, trying to prevent or capture any clash. Moira Donegan, originator of the “Shitty Media Men” list, imprecates the pro-lifers as they pass by. Sarah Leonard, founder of Lux (“It’s sex, with class”), grips one of her magazine’s totes as she stands before the police.
Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, is marching alongside me, and we begin to discuss Elias Canetti, whose distinction between “quick” and “slow” crowds sums up the difference between the pro-abortion demonstrators and the crowd marching for life. As Canetti notes, crowds tend toward equality. To join a crowd is to lose one’s sense of individuality. Along with this loss comes a sense of sublime escape from established patterns of distance and distinction. This sensation, which Canetti calls “discharge,” is the thing that all quick crowds seek. It is why they so often tear down statues and utter obscenities. They achieve their purpose by overcoming established hierarchies and codes of propriety.
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Slow crowds operate differently. Though they too desire discharge, its achievement is always deferred. Even as they oppose external hierarchies, they erect their own. The people of Israel going forth from Egypt are a slow crowd, following the pillars of smoke and flame. Religious congregations, equal before God but led by the ordained, are likewise slow crowds. They earnestly pray that the mighty will be cast from their thrones, though they may be very far from expecting to see it happen. Their dream of discharge “is always strongly present, though its actuality lies at the end of the way.”
We are a slow crowd, proceeding at a snail’s pace, facing resistance at every step. If the discharge we seek—the humiliation of the proud and the exaltation of the weak—seems like a fantasy, it is no more illusory than the equality that quick crowds achieve. For if by toppling a statue, pantomiming an abortion, or uttering an obscenity they feel bound together, the feeling cannot last. In due course, Canetti notes, “they return to their separate houses, they lie down on their own beds, they keep their possessions and their names.”
After kneeling outside Planned Parenthood, the pro-life crowd returns to the church for benediction, followed by a reception in a shabby hall. There I talk to a criminal defense attorney who has defended pro-life activists as well as other people held in low esteem by the best society. I meet a grad student whose political formation came through his involvement in a Marxist reading group. He describes to me how the group schooled him in a canon of texts that he found compelling. But he also found that those texts had little to do with the actually existing left. What does he make of these Catholics? Does he find in their books something that corresponds to Catholicism as it exists today? I wonder but do not ask.