These Sudden Mobs

David Bromwich

I’ve been thinking about some lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens called 'Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz':

There are these sudden mobs of men,

These sudden clouds of faces and arms,
An immense suppression, freed,
These voices crying without knowing for what,

Except to be happy, without knowing how,
Imposing forms they cannot describe,
Requiring order beyond their speech.

Too many waltzes have ended.

The lines are the work of an American poet writing in the 1930s, and the first thing that may come to mind is the hunger marchers of the Depression. But there were other mobs then, in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. It could seem that the masses of men were taking into their own hands the next stage of the world’s advance, or the world’s motion; the direction might not be forward. They were crying out for something they were cheated of – obscurely this would be their thought, if you could turn it into language. The action was like the kicking of a leg from the pricking of a nerve; not to be enlisted in the cause of enlightenment, or anything like that.

'Mob' is a pejorative term. Historians of a populist tendency favour the more impartial-sounding 'crowd', just as they prefer 'uprising' to 'riot'. But it is hard to keep the distinctions firm: a crowd on the move from city to city, without principles of action or a generally understood plan – by what name shall we call it? In America, in recent weeks, we had the killings of unarmed black men by white policemen, the counteraction of crowds that teetered on the brink of violence, the assassination of policemen by mentally distraught black men, and a president hoping by his calm commentary to make the mobs subside. And what to call the followers of Donald Trump? A party? A cult?

The qualities of the mob I think Stevens meant to evoke were anger and a somehow warranted self-pity. Those outside are unequipped by nature to enter into the mood. But these sudden mobs don’t want our pity; they are made out of feelings that are intoxicating, and the feelings are their own reward. And never pretend that self-pity is a contemptible thing. It is the most popular and contagious of emotions. 'The epic of disbelief,' Stevens concluded, 'Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant.'

Maybe so; but here a short view seems best. These mobs are an alarm. They are telling you something has gone wrong in the system; something was wrong before you saw the proof. Your inventions and interconnections, your techniques and reassurances – none of them were the success you always supposed. They may have been adopted, but they were never liked. You took too much for granted. The mobs that come out of nowhere don’t come out of no time; they come when authority has miscarried, when it has taken command without taking control, and failed to learn the complexity of the medium it was working in.


  • 10 August 2016 at 10:28am
    Greencoat says:
    So the black murderers of police - their crimes carefully planned and orchestrated - are 'mentally distraught'.

    But the police - murdered or not - hey, they're just 'white'.

    • 10 August 2016 at 10:51am
      rae donaldson says: @ Greencoat
      Perhaps Greencoat could develop this point a little?

    • 11 August 2016 at 3:49am
      RobotBoy says: @ Greencoat
      Actually, Mexican-American and African-American officers were murdered as well. To be fair 'Mentally distraught' does sound overly euphemistic. These were severely mentally ill individuals.

    • 11 August 2016 at 1:51pm
      Greencoat says: @ RobotBoy
      'Mentally ill' is itself becoming a euphemism for criminals with murderous intentions. It's now used almost routinely for Muslim terrorists.

    • 11 August 2016 at 2:47pm
      David says: @ Greencoat
      Let me guess--are you a World Net Daily reader?

    • 23 August 2016 at 10:25pm
      gary morgan says: @ Greencoat
      DSM 4 has a lot to answer. I could use the cant word of the age and say they
      lack 'empathy' or perhaps have a Borderline Personality Disorder.
      From the little I could tell a couple of Blacks seemed understandably vengeful, the lone one a little deranged (no pun intended).
      Saw film of back rows of a Trump rally and they seemed bullying and generally cheesed off; a scrap waiting for somewhere to happen.

  • 10 August 2016 at 11:22am
    Stu Bry says:
    "The lines are the work of an American poet writing in the 1930s, and the first thing that may come to mind is the hunger marchers of the Depression. But there were other mobs then, in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. It could seem that the masses of men were taking into their own hands the next stage of the world’s advance, or the world’s motion; the direction might not be forward."

    It's always worth remembering that 'the masses of men' in Germany, Italy and Spain were not taking the world into their own hands but were funded by industrialists and helped into power by established elites in order to create a populist alternative to the left.

    • 10 August 2016 at 1:42pm
      suetonius says: @ Stu Bry
      Yes, very important point. Fascism is a tool of the bourgeoisie, used to fight the left. Almost forgotten now, to our detriment.

    • 11 August 2016 at 3:51am
      RobotBoy says: @ suetonius
      Let's not forget the 'mobs' of communist, socialists and anarchists as well.

    • 23 August 2016 at 2:17pm
      mwilson says: @ RobotBoy
      It's only a 'mob' to those who don't like the message.

    • 23 August 2016 at 7:10pm
      Blackorpheus7 says: @ RobotBoy
      Confiscate their smartphones and our millions of tech-addicted, culturally neutered Americans become a very large mob.

  • 15 August 2016 at 3:56pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    One thing that's different this time around, at least in the US, is the lack of paramilitary organizations that the parties of the interwar years had. In Germany alone, in addition to Hitler's SA, the Communists had the "Rote Fahne", Hugenberg's Nationalist Party had the Stahlhelm, and the Social Democrats had a similar group whose name I forget at the moment. Up until 1933 the purpose of each was similiar, and multifold: show the colors; rally the "masses"; protest against specific policies; and, of course, intimidate the opposition, resulting in numerous major brawls and street-killings. Uniforms and banners were absolutely necessary. The US now has individuals who would probably love this kind of thing, but there is little tradition of it and a certain unwillingness to organize real "political action" groups this way - instead we do have temporary mobs that coalesce and disperse in response to very specific events. Imagine paramilitaries over here - half or more of them would be armed to the teeth and flaunting their NRA cards to show that they are just "concerned constitutionalists". As usual, things, bad enough as they are, could always be worse.

    On the possible relations between "mobs" and calls to "the People", a constantly redefined entity, Jill Lepore has a good article in the most recent issue (for Aug 8th and 15th) of the New Yorker. I don't have a web link for this, but it's worth a read.

    • 23 August 2016 at 2:35pm
      HBART says: @ Timothy Rogers
      We had brownshirts (RNC sponsored "demonstrators) outside the vote counting rooms in Florida in 2000. We have them at Trump rallies hustling out protestors and people of color. They just aren't wearing brown shirts. As for the "bourgeoisie," and their use of facism to control the people, William Carlos Williams' "The Yachts" depicts them in a grand extended metaphor.

    • 23 August 2016 at 6:20pm
      I don't know anything about organized and armed American Nazi/fascist/white power groups supporting Trump, or if they do (it seems like they might), what their level of activity is in this campaign. In Trump's own terms, these guys and gals would be "losers" who blame everything in the world on a conspiracy directed against them. But then again he feeds the populist conspiracy theories that abound (and that contain an element of truth about who is of real political consequence in the US). Nothing new there. Trump did play fast and loose with the truth about David Duke's endorsement earlier this year, claiming to have no knowledge of the man or the fact that he was at one time a high muckety-muck in the Ku Klux Klan - given the amount of publicity Duke generated in his heyday, this would mean that Trump never picked up a newspaper or watched television unless there was a story about him (also a reasonable possibility). The staunch "second amendment" folks who showed up carrying automatic weapons outside the convention site in Cleveland were mostly "God, guns, guts and glory" types who supply free publicity for the benighted and disgusting NRA and for right-wing blatherers on radio and TV. They were not organized as a specific group and other than some verbal sallies, did nothing to cause a problem for the heavily armed Cleveland police. While raging about either global or Islamic terrorism, folks on the right shy away from commenting on America's second biggest and most lethal terrorist attack, the big bombing of a Federal govt. building in Omaha in 1995, carried out by the pinhead conspiracy-theory nut (and conspirator), Timothy McVeigh, who was involved with right-wing groups who consider themselves "super-patriots". He wasn't one of those "noble souls" who undertake suicide missions - he made plans to cover his tracks and get away, but he just wasn't all that bright or competent. If a similar kind of person undertakes some kind of major act like this during the present presidential campaign, it would probably be a mistake to hold Trump responsible (certainly this would fail, legally speaking), though he certainly has encouraged violence directed at his "foes" and critics.

    • 23 August 2016 at 10:29pm
      Well since both are as near to certain as one can imagine, I'll not be taking my usual holiday in the U.S. this year then.
      In the past I have found perfectly lovely people in 'flyover America' off the scale politically speaking and that wads BEFORE Trump. These people were Very Angry Indeed before DT, they will be worse soon.

    • 24 August 2016 at 5:46pm
      dionmcc says: @ Timothy Rogers
      The 1995 bombing by McVeigh was at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and not Omaha.

    • 24 August 2016 at 9:23pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ dionmcc
      I stand corrected and thank you-- I should never trust my 72-year old memory without double-checking! It's not a sign of "fly-over country" syndrome but old age.

  • 23 August 2016 at 3:25pm
    Sadiq says:
    It's odd seeing an article about mobs in the LRB. Recall when David Cameron referred to people at Calais as a "bunch of migrants." The general consensus was that he had dehumanized them. Are the people Bromwich has in mind--whether they are Trump supporters or advocates of Black Lives Matter--any less human?

    Brexit seems to have undermined the intellectual left's ability to say it stands with "the people." Perhaps it is now beginning to embrace the elitism that it previously disguised. When "the people" are "mobs," the intellectual left becomes, in effect, a priestly caste, burdened with the unpopular truth that must be said for moral advancement. Perhaps the LRB is the new SPCK.

    • 23 August 2016 at 10:32pm
      gary morgan says: @ Sadiq
      Well there's always been a 'priestly' aspect to Labour. I mean look at the Fabians, Shaw the Webbs et al and their enthusiasm for eudenics and inability to see the Soviet Union for what it was (when Bertrand Russell, for example, DID see beyond the Potemkim charade).

  • 23 August 2016 at 10:36pm
    gary morgan says:
    Very R.D. Laing of you Bevin, to suggest it might be those who endure mistreatment and injustice who might more accurately be called mentally ill, for all that the lexicon of mental illness IS often overdone thanks in large part to DSM4 and its predecessors, especially DSM3.

  • 24 August 2016 at 2:51pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Assad as mayor of Baltimore – now there’s an interesting thought experiment. Born and raised there (during the 1940s-50s), I can recall the situation when those on the right in American politics would have welcomed him (this is hyperbole, but it’s in the right direction). During the major “race riot” that broke out in Baltimore in 1968 in response to the MLK assassination, Maryland’s governor, Spiro Agnew (a Baltimore boy himself) motored over to the city to dress down the city’s black political and civic leaders, tongue-lashing them about not being able to “control their people”. I guess Baltimore’s black citizens were no longer “his people” (no doubt, few had voted for him – the vast majority of black voters in the city were Democrats, and still are). A mayor Assad, ready to “discipline his people” might have appealed to Agnew’s worst instincts, but that’s counterfactual history. Being on an army assignment in Texas at the time, I was not in my home town for the riots, but I do remember how national TV and newspaper coverage gave Agnew a big boost with Richard Nixon, who selected him as VP (just one more bad decision by Nixon, and one that backfired when Agnew was indicted for violating one of those old federal catch-all laws, “mail fraud” – i.e., conducting illegal business involving cash kickbacks through the mails, comparable to similar skullduggery enabled by the internet today). In spite of the hyped-up news hysteria, the riots in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray were a walk in the park compared to 1968 (i.e., in terms of lives lost and major damage due to arson). Another difficult-to-parse element in such outbreaks at present is that the city’s “political establishment” (mayors, DAs, police chiefs) has been preponderantly black for several decades now.

    I’m not sure at all about the other aspect of bevin’s remark/analogy – does he mean that the US Establishment (however defined) instigated the original uprising against Assad?

  • 24 August 2016 at 10:43pm
    dsueii says:
    Having just read John Lanchaster's fine piece on why the Remain vote lost, this serves to further explain the result. It might even be managed now by a Ministry of Brexit.

Read more