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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

All Our Follies

P.T. Barnum famously said that “You will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” a statement I find too limiting. American stupidity and crowd-madness is done more ostentatiously – for some reason I think about Winston Churchill’s dictum that “The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, after trying everything else first” – than in other lands; but ours are not new stupidities, rather ways of doing old stupidities with such energy as if they are new. The history of the human race is one, primarily, of great folly tempered very occasionally with brief, inscrutable outbursts of reason. The student of stupidity, knowing what to look for, sees it everywhere, in the loftiest of realms as well as in the gutters. (If he or she may see it in themselves, all the better than seeing it everywhere else in the world). Imbecility is the great leveler; money does not temper it, power does not bequeath a judicious mien on its wards, however the pretense and formalities may suggest it. Wisdom and prudence are pre-existing conditions, and will survive in want and in wealth. Unfortunately, they are not the keys to the kingdom, like a license is to the power of possessing a legal firearm. Power over other minds is not tested for. The meanest of men often win out in this world. When they are given control of a greater share of power over his fellows than another has, there then alights the faculty to do greater evil. The history of mankind – political histories of men like Robespierre or the religio-political history of our bin Ladens – has been the history of damaged individuals attempting to exert their influence over the credulous, and succeeding. Somehow, we have made it through to the present. And, we are still susceptible to anti-Francophone sentiment that causes us to boycott cheese and label French Fries “freedom fries.” The cult of Bush circa 2002 may bear resemblances to Obamania, may it not.

Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (L.C. Page & Co., Boston, 1932) is cool water to those who cherish and wish to protect and expand the enlightenment. Sociologists, historians, philosophers, and practitioners of many other disciplines can find something useful in this book, which is large but, as Mackay says in his Preface, not large enough: “Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history.” Indeed, the comprehensive work of human ignorance and folly has yet to be written. (Pity its author!) It is often enough students of economics who come across Mackay in their studies, though it is my firm opinion that the book should be taught to incoming freshmen, if they have not read it in high school. It is useful for its vivid portrayal of market bubbles, and relays several early such phenomena – the “South Seas” bubble of the 18th century, European tulipomania – in clear language. The book is this side of two hundred years old, but Mackay is an acerbic writer and energetic researcher.

The financier Bernard Baruch estimated that the book saved him millions of dollars. Baruch’s short foreword to my 1932 edition, written during the darkest years of the Great Depression that Baruch managed to weather out due to wise investing, is of interest itself. All of Mackay’s book is fascinating and instructive, and includes chapters on: “The Alchymists,” “Fortune-Telling,” the wonderfully perceived “Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard,” explorations of the Crusades, the Witch madness (focused largely on the European cases, and not your run-of-the-mill history of Salem – the body count is vastly larger and the stories far more wrenching than may be imagined), poisoning as a matter of societal trend, and duelling, among others. It is a book that fairly falls from the shelf to be read, and the reading was pleasing.

It is about groupthink. If you were known as the “smelly” kid in sixth grade, even though you showered ever morning before you went to school, it is about what you went through. It is about the many manifestations of “keeping up with the Joneses.” If you did not go on the Atkins Diet, and do not grow or cut your hair to signify your political affiliation, it is your book.

There is much here. A few piquant passages in “Popular Follies of Great Cities” concerns itself with cant phrases and displays of the hive mind among London’s urban poor. Mackay begins with a term he noted that is similar to our “psyyyyche!,” which itself is very much like saying someone has been “owned” in the online term. It is “Quoz!,” but unlike the previous two, quoz had a fuggeda-bout-it-like flexibility to it. “This odd word took the fancy of the multitude to an extraordinary degree, and very soon acquired an almost boundless meaning,” the author says, then noting “like all other earthly things, Quoz had its season, and passed away as suddenly as it arose, never again to be the pet and the idol of the populace.” “What a shocking bad hat!” was meant to provoke anyone wearing a hat who happened not to be one of the dozens of street urchins lurking about. If the slightest sign of discomfort or irritability was shown during the aural assault, the wearer was accosted and (at least) the hat was taken and trampled. Other slang terms become epidemic (“There he goes with his eye out!” “Who are you?”) and are omnipresent as air for a fortnight, but vanish as surely as they come. Whazaaaaaaap?

These are mild displays if meme that grow to infect entire communities and countries. The witch mania chapter is long and dolorous, a catalog of crude torments visited on the most innocent of people. Over and over again, “Hundreds of them…were put to the rack,” “The more they burned, the more they found to burn, until it became a common prayer with women in the humbler walks of life, that they might never live to grow old…” “In France, about the year 1520, fires for the execution of witches burned…in almost every town.” Whole families would be burned, the prettiest girl in town and anyone’s grandmother.

As a history buff, I focus on things like this. A young investor will look for the bubbles (reading this between dot-com booms may be valuable). A syncretist will see that there are strands connecting the two readings, and the uniting link is the thought that if others are doing it, I should do it.

In light of the economic moment, with our credulous borrowers and predatory lenders, and our statist bullies and libertarian pin-heads battling it out over cable news for a chance to sucker the masses anew, I do not see how this book goes unread by anyone who wishes to understand how humanity continuously paints itself into the corner. The amazing thing is that we always find a way out (usually through reason, and often through the relative clear judgment of one or a few people; consider Churchill’s estimation of Hitler before WWII). The fear is, that one day we won’t.

(N.B. The book is in the public domain and free copies are available online. It is readily available on Amazon.com, and my copy was affordable at the Brattle Book Store.)

About the Contributor
Dan Roche served as opinions editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2006-2007; 2007-2008; 2008-2009