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The Making of the Social Self The analysis of crowds-public-mob paralleled in public discourse at the end of the century the debate about the real characteristics of individuality . The French school of Le Bon and Tarde emphasized the crowd as something that “swallowed up” the individual, in accordance with the European state-centered traditions, while American scholars were intent on redefining a basic assumption of their own cultural tradition: liberal individualism. A desire to safeguard both single and collective values was evident in the Americans’ search for a harmonious relationship between the two. Rather than following the dictates of evolutionism, the task of the social sciences became that of leading the way to establish a society regulated by a “harmony of interests” within a framework that could be defined as “the paradox of a conformist democracy.”1 The paradox was expressed in the many questions this vision attempted to answer. In addition to risks of social fractures along the lines of class, race, and ethnicity were disturbing signs, in the great metropolises, of conformism, which could make the masses easy prey for irrational enthusiasms. Between the two antinomic terms, the irrational crowd and the democratic public, were areas of reciprocal influence that made it very difficult to draw a sharp distinction between them. The distinction was also based on racial characteristics contrasting the rational, white, democratic public to irrational mobs, which were compared to savages, women, and children. It is important to emphasize that if the lynchings denounced by the naacp had been fully discussed on a national level, doing so would have blurred this distinction, as the “primitive” lynching crowds were composed of white men and women, the supposed members of the democratic public. However, the subject of lynchings remained on the fringes of public discourse, and even those scholars who were discussing them came, for the most part, from the same Anglo-Saxon and Protestant cultural background that had clearly defined the color line in the first place. CHAPTER 4 The Paradox of a Conformist Democracy 98 chapter four Although all scholars clung to a distinct separation between the irrationality of the “crowd” and the rationality of the “public,” some of them reexamined the possibility that irrational elements could erupt within the democratic public. On the eve of the war against Cuba, Ross commented on the strong emotional climate: “in waves of national feelings, in war fevers, in passionate ‘sympathetic’ strikes . . . in public frights . . . in religious crazes, in ‘booms’ and panics, in agitations, insurrections . . . we witness contagion on a gigantic scale, favored in some cases by popular hysteria.”2 It is interesting to note how the same use of words, such as “contagion,” was significant of the influence of the French school on American scholars. Moreover, to the characteristics of crowds that Ross described, a new one had to be added: consumerism. In fact, the increasing development of consumerism fueled the advertising industry interested in the psychological mechanism of suggestion and persuasion. While in the most enlightened liberal tradition crowds needed to be “educated” about the values of American society—“education” meant the intention to shape a critical will from the bottom up—consumer crowds had to be “persuaded ” from above by the psychology of suggestion and social imitation.3 It is important to keep these two apparently irreconcilable objectives in mind, because they will be part of every discussion and every subsequent analysis of these themes up to the 1920s and 1930s.4 New definitions of the “public” also implied new conceptions of subjectivity . The idea of the “social self” that the progressives developed was radically different from traditional nineteenth-century individualism. The concept of the individual, passively conditioned by the new consumer industry or actively participating in the decisional processes of society , as was John Dewey’s wish, was in critical need of revision. The new Anglo-Saxon expansionist discourse now emphasized traditional “rugged individualism,” as we saw in the case of Theodore Roosevelt’s appeal to the “vigor for life” in the nation’s struggle to fulfill its “manifest destiny” through imperial conquest. Social scientists, however, were more interested in investigating the connection between the individual and society. In the search for social aggregations that would break up the uniformity of large masses and at the same time help define democratic citizenship, progressive reformers focused on the concept of the group and the community as an intermediate link between the individual and the...


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