It was late afternoon and once again I sat in the shade of the black trees and watched the crackling autumn leaves. With extraordinary caution I lit a cigarette, hoping no scandal would follow. But soon as I took a few puffs a sour-faced woman wearing tattered pig moccasins perched on a bench directly across, so I reluctantly tossed it away. This preemptive surrender caused a man walking a collie dog with a lolling tongue to offer me a punishing glance, for littering. A ring of boys and girls played nearby, but it is no longer permitted to sit and watch the children play, sorry Sir Mick. I started feeling maybe it’d be easier to grow stubble across my mug, wear miserable clothing, gulp whisky from a bottle, and hurl curses at passers-by. But of course, instead, I submitted to the rule and pretended that the park was not really like a customs-office at all. I tried contemplating the heavenly origin of the blossoms and birdsong but there was no poeticizing in me.
Then came some horrible yells. It was a local demonstration that came every so often to the same place. On the corner near the grocery store was the doors of a pet shop that mainly sold canaries and goldfish but also sometimes a kitty cat and on even rarer instances a puppy dog. The Animal People alighted there now chanting and hollering. Some were arrayed in pajamas and others besprinkled with political buttons, but all with one voice were set on closing the devilish shop. I don’t suppose they hoped to dismantle some horrific cat torture-chamber, but this was their very own Bastille, so they loved it regardless of how distinguished or lowly the abuses. Now, I grant that the stink inside the shop really hit your nose holes, but I didn’t want to see the place stormed, since the owner was a decent sort. She was a bit rough, with a leathery face, but she was also white-headed and probably had no savings. How would she survive if it closed all a sudden?
So, for the first time ever, I decided to take a stand. That is to say I resolved to go over and have a brotherly word with the Animal People, mammal to mammal. I thought that maybe if I made a half-wit out of myself, I could soften them towards the owner. I came over and at once a band of woman surrounded me on the pavement while the men continued to chant. One person, who might have been a woman or a man, even looked directly at me, like all the hymnody was meant just for me. But I couldn’t find any one goose-master to appeal to. So I headed over to the shop’s wooden knob to better position myself but this made them think I was a customer and caused some to break with the communal chant in favor of more particularized ditties. Soon, a young man red in hair, with a big happy cartoon chicken painted on his tee-shirt, but with a big frown on his own face, came over to me. I was confused of mind by now but somehow I muttered:
Listen, I feel as bad about the animals as anyone, (I know, I know, one shouldn’t try to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds), but I feel pretty lousy about the shop owner too. It’s her only income. If she loses the shop she’ll have nowhere to go. Her children don’t want her. These demonstrations make her sick for days. She’s trying to clean up better but she gets tired…
At this, the young man took out several dozen photographs of slaughtered animals that might have made good decorations for a Prussian hunting lodge. One was of a rogue elephant who looked pretty upset but maybe the local village had made him that way. By this time, a few more protestors started to whirl round, and I repeated my speech to the newcomers. One of them, a woman nice of face but with a volcanic hairdo, gave me a big lesson on ‘puppy mills.’ And to be frank, I was forced to wonder at it all, the inbreeding of poor hounds. But our particular shop hardly ever sold canines! What if the owner would agree to not sell anymore? Then would they leave her be? In answer, they sent at me a scraggly man in skinny pants who had a swollen vein at his temple and another one throbbing at his neck. His sentiment was that the owner should be sent to prison and that I should go too, for abetting. Put this way, I could hardly argue back, since he wanted more blood than closing the miserable shop could ever give. So I resolved to tread my cobbled way home.
The whole gang of them flung abuses at my back as I walked away. My head even ducked a little and I was queasy of stomach. I wanted to go butcher a baby crocodile to make a wallet out of him. What made me so sore, as I turned the corner, was that the three choristers I’d appealed to hammered at me loudest of all!
But the peculiar thing about mobs isn’t that they spit and make such clamor as to frighten others away. It is to be expected that a large crowd shouting abuses and insults will interrupt other voices. What is especially funny is how sensitive the ochlocrats are. I remember when a moderate feminist and philosopher, Christina Hoff Sommers, came to the Georgetown campus to give a lecture, student protestors with clenched fists said that her very presence on campus posed a threat to the student population. To protect everyone a ‘safe space’ was erected equipped with brownies, bubbles, blankets, coloring books, and even videos of puppies. Apparently, a sizeable mass of hard-faced demonstrators, many leaping on their big red feet, holding banners, livid with fury, howling bawdy chants from their platform, is not to upset us. But the grouchy rumblings of a tweed and buttoned philosophy professor speaks of an emergency?
So the trouble, really, is not only that a mob acts like a mob. Nor that a mob interrupts reasoned public discussion. Nor that it demands to be taken seriously. Nor that it expects our gratitude for the benefit it confers. The trouble is that it reigns now over our private talk like a pointed carbine. Its attitude is not only on campuses and public squares but comes now into our gardens, it’s just outside as we sink into our chairs, it breaks the chain of symphony even between friends, for it is ignorant of subtle feelings, repelled by distinctions and weary of particulars. It weasels in at a tender age and blessedly embraces our fibers till they no longer quiver. It is in fashionable districts and slums and shouts all down to its inarticulate realm. There is no brotherly chit chat with it. To all the varieties of mankind a mob is gloriously indifferent, despite its so-called diversity, for it is only possessed of bland feelings amplified. Of all the true and deep experiences that may be had the mob feels itself the only one. Its songs are not sung with joy. Its justice is without mercy or is mercy too late. It is enthralled only with itself.
But all this is nothing. What is especially remarkable is the way our protestors can do the lighting of fires and smashing of windows and sardonically sip Macchiatos all at once. Some of them may even be burdened with some good in the bottom of their hearts. I don’t know, maybe the Animal People just upset me that day, maybe I should go have some veal chops topped with foie gras and try to find something ineffectual to do.
Mark Mantel is a lawyer in Richmond, Virginia.