Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mobs rule: Monster movie mobs and the politics of rage

It comes down to torches and pitchforks. In classic monster movies, when the villagers determine where the monster is currently residing, they set forth in a group organized solely by righteous anger. They then proceed to have fun storming the castle.

As is determined somewhere in the angry mob charter, villagers are required to take up torches and pitchforks for the nightly rampage. Oh sure, some nonconformists prefer shotguns, axes or even rakes, but the classics persist. The best examples of a torch-and-pitchfork wielding crowd has to be the 1931 film Frankenstein, but the beloved trope has shown up in a variety of great pop culture, including The Phantom of the Opera, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Far Side, and The Simpsons.

Now, I love me some angry mobs in entertainment; it’s fun to watch the fear-driven peasants juiced up on paranoia take to the streets for a little old fashion shouting and rioting – especially when they take to singing as in “The Mob Song” from the 1991 animated movie Beauty and the Beast or Jesus Christ Superstar. Plus, I frequently join in the angry mob national past times of football and baseball fandom, and even have an angry mob playset surrounding a Freddy Krueger action figure. So yeah, mobs rule.

Yet I’m less than enthused to see the current angry mobs convening in New York City over the proposed Muslim community center a few blocks away from Ground Zero. For that matter, I’m not a fan of rampaging villagers who rise up over healthcare, immigration, gay rights, elections or any cause. While it is a good thing the torches and pitchforks have been replaced by poster boards and megaphones - which just barely prevents the likelihood of violence – these protesters are simply vociferous medieval peasants. They are the “mobile vulgus,” the Latin root for mob meaning “the fickle crowd.”

Anyone who knows me will vouch that I get a kick out of protests, debates and pretty much any opportunity I have to voice my opinion and be contrary. Simply because I derive enjoyment from debating, I have argued - with some success, I think – the case for the world being flat and the sky not being blue. As such, I readily exercise that whole free speech thingy, and endorse the protection of those with opinions about matters both important and moronic.

In reality, as in movies, angry mobs don’t work because they are always moronic - even if they are right. In all due deference to Springfield’s Principal Skinner who said, “There’s no justice like angry mob justice,” the villagers always screw things up further by freaking out and charging to the supposed monster’s lair.

Back to Freddy Krueger for a moment, the Elm Street nightmare came about because the villagers placed faith in their constitutional system of criminal defense, and when it failed them over a search warrant technicality – which resulted in Fred’s release - they trashed democracy in favor of ochlocracy, or mob rule.  They were right to be angry and to protest, but if the parents hadn’t burned the dream demon alive in his boiler room, the graduating class of Elm Street high school might have been slightly larger and there would be one less creepy nursery rhyme sung on playgrounds.

Angry mobs don’t think, they act. Like idiots.

At least in pop culture, the angry mob is occasionally talked down from their craziness using reason or human decency. In Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch utilizes her uncanny childlike logic to shame the Tom Robinson lynch mob into dispersing. Likewise, in Justin Cronin’s new book The Passage, until Peter Jaxon (temporarily) calms them down, the colonists choose to respond to a vampire attack by forming into a mob and turning on one another.

It rarely works out so well in real life. Just ask the “union carpenter who works at Ground Zero” in the recent YouTube video posted by user “lefthandedart.” In a colorful attempt to disagree with the anti-Muslim protesters in New York City, “Kenny” is surrounded by the angry mob and nearly gets pounced. Neither cooler heads nor reason appeared to prevail.

The funny thing is angry mobs have always struck me as the very loud minority. I used to imagine that for every frothing villager with a torch and pitchfork hunting down Frankenstein’s misunderstood monster, there were a bunch of people in their barns pitching hay and going about their chores.

No matter how many sensible people avoid stooping to the level of the fickle crowd, the shouting few of the angry mob makes quite an impression on cable news.  However, don’t confuse exposure with winning. Successfully storming the castle does not equal triumph.

Rev. Parris and his ilk from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible had their happy witch-hunting fun in Salem, but when an angry mob prevails, it is inevitably revealed the villagers were way more monstrous than the creature they pursued. Much like the ochlocracy of neighbors in the classic The Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” we are far more capable of own destroying ourselves than any perceived alien threat - when given the appropriate silliness to salivate over. And in that Twilight Zone episode, there was a threat, but the neighborhood was too caught up in the mob to see it was being played as a town of small-minded puppets.

In the end, that’s the great irony about an angry mob with torches and pitchforks, or poster boards and T-shirts. They are easily controlled through paranoia and – as Aldous Huxley phrased it – “man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

Instead of having legitimate conversations about serious issues – like, oh I don’t know, jobs, the environment, education, etc. – we are being manipulated and prodded along to care about a distraction by others using their pitchforks to make hay off our fears. Once again, it comes down to torches and pitchforks.