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Monday, June 3, 2019

Herd Mentality–The Persistent, Undying Need To Belong

A well-known university held its Fiftieth Reunion weekend, and by organizers’ counts, it was well-attended.  Over three-quarters of the class were still alive at 72 and over half of them attended the Reunion.  For many it was a chance to reconnect with classmates who had disappeared over time.  For others it was a more important chance to reconnect with the university which, in the words of one alumnus, “was not just any university”.  The events were congenial, happy affairs, and those who went to find old friends were not disappointed. 

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The Reunion organizers felt that because of the attendance of so many well-known public personalities – high-level cabinet members, important judges, democratic representatives, and CEOs of important environmental and social justice organizations – it would be only fitting to focus the Reunion on themes of civic importance.  “Dealing with Crisis – The Noblesse Oblige of the Intellectual Class” was the satirical theme title of the university student publication.  The student body, despite the almost universal progressive zeitgeist of the Eastern Establishment, had moved on.  It was like the Dartmouth counter-revolution of a few decades ago when the college broke ranks and moved to the forefront of conservative thinking but with an even more cynical edge.  The Acid Rain, the conservative literary journal of the university, took on the old men who gathered on campus in late May, and said that they were antediluvian relics who had never gotten over the Sixties, and who not only persisted in their progressive beliefs in progress, equality, and world peace, but who were convinced that such secular interests were beyond reproach.

‘Alte Kockers Convene On The Green’, read the headline of the Reunion edition of the Acid Rain to much criticism.  Not only was the headline anti-Semitic (Yiddish derivation) but ageist – a transparent, untoward attack on older alumni who had forged the progressive agenda which was still part of the American zeitgeist.  Yet the editors of Acid Rain were unbowed.  The seminars and colloquies of the alte kockers on global warming, the glass ceiling, income inequality, and racial justice were pilloried in text and cartoons.  in fact the whole idea of reunions was dismissed as herd mentality nonsense.  Why on earth was the four years spent at the university of the 70 or so lived by the attendees so important?  How could any memories of late adolescence persist over the more mature recollections of adulthood?  Reunions were only longing attempts to belong when anyone of a certain age knows definitively, as Tolstoy did when he wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich, that we all die alone.

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The Acid Rain was merciless in its coverage of the Reunion – fat, balding alumni barely able to see over the podium, blathering nonsense about climate Armageddon, white male privilege (the irony of that!), and Right Wing autocracy.  These old guys should be on their knees in supplication to the Almighty, beseeching forgiveness for their disregard for His offers of redemption and salvation rather than fulminating about things which, in the final accounting, don’t matter a cat’s whiskers.

But looked at from within, the Reunion was a fabulous success.  There is one thing about a university class cohort – it virtually guarantees intellectual camaraderie and solidarity.  The graduates of this class almost to a man were of the same political philosophy.  Not only that, they were bred from the same exclusive genetic and social pool.  They were from the country’s best families with homes on the Vineyard, Palm Beach, Gstaad, and Cannes.  They had come by privilege naturally, down from generations of old New Yorkers, Rittenhouse Square, the Main Line, and Beacon Street.  That the Sixties had infected this particularly American, patriotic heritage was – at least temporarily – was a non-issue.  The marvelous irony of a group of bluebloods gathered to discuss and promote radical progressivism was even more uniquely American than Copley Square.

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It would be too harsh to single out the fifty-year alumni of the university for such herd behavior; for most Americans are no different.  They belong to Kiwanis, Rotary, the Baptist Church, the NRA, the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Association, the Washington Nationals Fan Club, American Atheists, and People for Parks.  Whether we convene every five years or every week; whether we wear Old Blue or sing camp songs; whether we share secret handshakes or hail the anthem of our alma mater; whether we kneel or shout; and whether we contribute or demur, we belong. We need to belong.

The true, unencumbered, unaffiliated individual is a rare bird, an outlier, and a threat.  A lack of affiliation is taken for a lack of commitment; and a lack of commitment can only mean a lack of moral values, faith, and sincerity.  Anyone who does not belong to something is suspect.  Belonging is a higher value which shows the better side of humanity.  A person who belongs cannot, ipso facto, be niggardly or selfish.  Belonging bestows value as well as provide it.

At the same time there is little more to community than survival.  An aggregation of individuals into groups gives strength in numbers, and this calculus has never changed over time.  America, perhaps the most individualistic nation on earth relies as much on social groupings for strength and survival as the most primitive Amazonian tribe.  While in many quarters groups are given a higher, intrinsic value, they still remain only operational units in service to the welfare and interests of their members.

The myth of the American loner is nothing but fantasy.  Although we admire mountain men and round-the-world sailors, non-conformists and counter-culturalists, heroes of the American Neo-Romantic movement – Walden Pond, Oneida utopians -  or Northern California and Idaho panhandle cultural refugees, we are at heart true belongers, middle-class to our very core, needing community, neighborhood, and fellowship to survive. T.C. Boyle’s Drop City is a story of hopeful, but ultimately failed separatism.

It is 1970, and a down-at-the-heels California commune devoted to peace, free love, and the simple life has decided to relocate to the last frontier—the unforgiving landscape of interior Alaska—in the ultimate expression of going back to the land. Armed with the spirit of adventure and naïve optimism, the inhabitants of “Drop City” arrive in the wilderness of Alaska only to find their utopia already populated by other young homesteaders (Goodreads synopsis).

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Such desires for cultural independence and individual freedom seem vain, idealistic, and ignorant given the overwhelming drive to belong.  As much as we hope for a life ‘outside the box’, we are forever condemned to live within it.  While the old alumni of our storied university might well be pilloried for their naïve exuberance and passionate commitment to passing, temporal causes, they at least have willingly given themselves over to tribe and shared community.

To many older people, belonging of any character seems less and less relevant as the end of life approaches.  Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich was never a joiner.  In fact he did what he could to rid himself of life’s social encumbrances – family, friendships, membership, and worship.  He did so, however, not out of an understanding that such belonging means nothing in the final accounting – that spiritual accountability is the only balance sheet – but simply to keep his life untethered and free.   For a time as he lay dying Ivan Ilyich regrets his lack of community and continuity, but in his final moment he realizes that death must be faced alone; and that no matter the engagements of one’s former life, one’s end will always be personal and unique.

Which is why this need for belonging – reunions, church picnics, family gatherings, conferences, marches, seminars, and collective events – persists at all.  Even though one might actually believe that human progress is within reach, how can this belief ever be more important than settling one’s spiritual accounts?  Even if one loves family, friends, classmates, and community, how can they ever be more important than, to be unfortunately melodramatic – eternity?

Conservatism seems to express this sentiment best.  The world has been created without reason or purpose, but certain things are indisputable.  Human nature has always been self-interested, self-protective, aggressive, and territorial.  Given this ineluctable scenario, attempts at circumventing it, tricking it, or maneuvering it are hopeless.  ‘Let it be’.  We are part of the cycle, both agents and recipients, either part of God’s plan or either players in an indeterminate, random, and inevitable game of billiards.  Better consider one’s origins and end rather than one’s effect or contributions.

Konstantin Levin, a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina reflected on God’s ultimate irony – having created a sentient, brilliant, creative, intelligent, insightful being, allowed him to exist for a scant few three or four decades, and then consign him for all eternity to the cold, hard ground of the steppes.

Levin goes on to act alone, cognizant of his divine fate, dismissive of any social obligations, and a true individual.

We all need to belong, but need more to ignore the sirens of community.  Life is led among others but ends alone.

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