Friday, January 20, 2012

Newt’s Outrage and South Carolina’s “moment of enthusiasm”

In the Republican debate in Charleston last night Newt Gingrich scored a standing ovation by his response to a question about the statement by one of his divorced wives that he had asked her to agree to “an open marriage” – that is, to “share him” with his mistress Callista Bisek, who is now his wife.  This was his response:
“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.  I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
The response of the audience was the first of two standing ovations. 
Gingrich’s turning the question back on the news media is a familiar political device.  What alarms me is the response of the crowd, who not only accepted his response but endorsed it enthusiastically.  The question was obliterated by Newt’s outrage and the crowd’s enthusiasm. 
Consider the issue raised by the question:  How should the American public respond to a claim by an ex-wife of a candidate for President that he had asked her for “an open marriage” so that he could continue his liaison with a mistress and still retain an appearance of a faithful married man?  Also, how did this private proposal comport with Gingrich’s public behavior at the time?  Could this have been precisely during the time when he was condemning Bill Clinton for his extra-marital liaisons?  Gingrich would keep up appearances while presenting himself as a paragon of virtue. 

That was then.  Now is different, he says:  He has admitted to mistakes and now has reformed:  He is a good Catholic now; he’s got religion.  Now he would have the world understand that it is improper for anyone – and anyone in the media especially – to ask if his behavior in the past is worthy of someone who aspires to be President of the United States.  As he was outraged at the behavior of Bill Clinton he is now outraged at the behavior of the media who want to know more about his own behavior. 

To this outrage there was an audience in South Carolina that would join him enthusiastically in taking offense.  Presumably they agreed that the private behavior of a candidate for President should not be examined, even if it contrasts with the image he even then sought to present of himself. 

Their behavior brings to mind two statements of great nineteenth century social scientists on the behavior of crowds.  One of them said:
[Referring to “a section of civil society [that] emancipates itself and attains universal domination:] No class in society can play this part [of attaining universal domination] unless it can arouse, in itself and in the masses, a moment of enthusiasm in which it associates and mingles with society at large … and is recognized as the general representative of this society”
The author is suggesting that for a “section of civil society” to attain “universal domination” it must “arouse” in the masses “a moment of enthusiasm” through which it “associates and mingles with society at large” and appears to be “the general representative of the society.”  Such a moment of enthusiasm took place last night, when a crowd saw this man Newt Gingrich to be a “general representative” of their sentiments.
The other social scientist who wrote about crowd behavior had this to say:
The great movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousness.  They come to each one of us from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves… Once the crowd has dispersed, that is, once these social influences have ceased to act upon us and we are alone again, the motions which have passed through the mind appear strange to us, and we no longer recognize them as ours. We realize that these feelings have been impressed upon us …  It may even happen that they horrify us, so much were they contrary to our nature.  Thus, a group of individuals, most of whom are perfectly inoffensive, may, when gathered in a crowd, be drawn into acts of atrocity …
I hope that the good people of South Carolina will now, in retrospect, reflect on what happened, what the issues are, and what their response should have been. 

(And who were the social scientists I have quoted above?  And from what publications?)

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