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The modern mob

Monday 5/13/19

I think this will be an important piece later on. Excerpt from the new essay I am composing on the nature of the modern mob, called "Dark Angel Shivaree: The Mutation of the Mob."


There was a time when our collective envisioning of a mob involved pitchforks and torches, a seething mass of human bodies in collective ambulation towards what had been decided was its quarry.


Mobs, in our imaginings of them and our associations with the term, tend to have a shambling, drunken quality, but not in a manner to compromise the rate at which the mob proceeds, as if the mob were comprised of 1980s horror fiends with dragging feet and a pace that nonetheless accelerates.


There is good reason for the bibulous loping. The great mob eras and breeding grounds—that is, those periods and places when mobs teemed—like the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, the American Old West—tended to feature mobs fueled by alcohol. To go mobbing, such as it were, was a kind of sport, albeit a blood sport. Bloodlust was tantamount to mob fuel, but the mob also possessed a paradoxical self-awareness.


If you were in a mob, chances are that you knew—though you didn’t really care—that your endeavors were not guided by justice or cognition. You were going to mete out pain. That was all that mattered. The sport of the thing. In Faulkner novels like Pylon, or films like The Lost Weekend, we see what are essentially one-man mobs, in which a person sets upon themselves, in a kind of personal process of obliteration. Ironically, this was sometimes termed “blowing off some steam,” and if the effects were obviously nocent, at least one was only hurting one’s self. But we still see that link between something planned as salutary, that is anything but. That was the loose premise, too, of the traditional mob, and if you were a cattle hand on the trail for six months, and you were part of a group looking to string someone up, you pretended to care about justice, but you viewed this more as sport and letting off some steam, and it wasn’t your life anyway. You were fueled by booze, and booze would assuage your conscience, such as it were, later. Life is hard and monotonous; this mixed things up a little.


Mobs are more prevalent than ever, because it is easier than ever to join a mob, though what it means to be in a mob and what a mob can do has fundamentally changed. There is clearly less passing around of a bottle, but then again we also have a lot of people, sitting at their desks, in front of their screens, self-medicating, which is the modern way the mob takes its prodigious drink. You will never meet in person your fellow mob members. Throughout history, for everything that mobs did that was base, evil, unprompted, irreparable, there were times when people within a mob were able to stop what the mob intended to do before it was too late. Looking in someone’s eyes can be a powerful motivator, and it can be a stop sign, as the eyes have a way of reaching our conscience like no other part upon another person’s person. In group context guilt is more readily sourced.


But in the privacy of our own homes, or staring into space—space being the phone clutched in the hand—there is no in-person system of checks and balances, no one to stop us but us. Those earlier mobs were at least honest. They normally didn’t pretend to be true arbiters of decency and morals. They paid lip service to the idea of a prevailing goodness, and certainly righting wrongs, but they were overheated masses, almost like a connected pile of bodies in a moment of copulation, at that point when it is too late, or nearing too late, to disengage. Mobs didn’t bill themselves as units of cool-headed logic. They were disgusting, but they had an understanding of what they were, as the people within the mob told themselves white lies so that they could commit atrocities.


The current mob is something quite far afield, because it is now the members of the mob who believe—or strain to believe—that they are the justice super heroes of our culture, avenging angels who launch themselves into battle thinking that they actually think, that they have sifted through many complexities, understood context, calibrated the scales of justice to the nth decimal point, to be both enlighteners and rescuers of those of us out in society who are lost, in need of edification.


The mob now claims and insists upon the moral high ground. For the mob, it is less about you agreeing to this, and more that you acquiesce to it, lest you have your hide extracted from your person, and all but bleed out as you are trampled underfoot by an attack that depends upon volume. One horse running over your broken back does not a stampede make; the mob is equipped with a remuda to keep crunching bones until you are dust, then scattered by the wind, as if you never existed.