Thu Sep 2, 2004

Emile Durkheim on Zell Miller

Well, OK not really—Durkheim died in 1917. But there’s more to crowds than being able to estimate prices accurately and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is without doubt the place to begin when reflecting on the Republican Convention once the speeches are all done:

The force of the collectivity is not wholly external; it does not move us entirely from outside. Indeed … it must enter into us and become organized within us … This stimulating and invigorating effect of society is particularly apparent in certain circumstances. In the midst of an assembly that becomes worked up, we become capable of feelings and conduct which we are incapable when left to our individual resources … For this reason all parties—be they political, economic, or denominational—see to it that periodic conventions are held, at which their followers can renew their common faith by making a public demonstration of it together …

In the same way, we can also explain the curious posture that is so characteristic of a man who is speaking to a crowd—if he has achieved communion with it. His language becomes high-flown in a way that would be “ridiculous in ordinary circumstances”:http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ericzorn/chi-zornlog.story#zell; his gestures take on an overbearing quality; his very thought becomes impatient of limits and slips easily into every kind of extreme. … Sometimes he even feels possessed by a moral force greater than he, of which he is only the interpreter … This extraordinary surplus of forces is quite real and comes to him from the very group he is addressing. The feelings he arouses as he speaks return to him enlarged and amplified, reinforcing his own to some degree. … It is then no longer a mere individual who speaks but a group incarnated and personified.

Continuing in a Durkheimian mood, it strikes me that, by holding the convention in New York, the Republican Party has managed to have it both ways with the conscience collective: Party solidarity is enhanced positively as the delegates make a reverent pilgrimage to the site of the September 11th attacks, but also negatively through the buzz they get from feeling angry at and superior to the actual New Yorkers loudly protesting their presence. Thus the real New York of September 2004 provides the raw emotional energy used inside the convention hall to sanctify an image of the New York of September 2001.