Why Mass Marches Have Lost Their Meaning

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In 1963, I watched the March on Washington on a grainy black-and-white television set. I reacted first with surprise — at so many Negroes (as one said then) assembled in the great white marble public spaces (Mall, Lincoln Memorial, Reflecting Pool) of a city I knew to be so intensely segregated that it replicated a southern plantation (grand edifices for the whites, slave quarters off somewhere out of sight, the capital city's terrible metaphysical division: White-Black, Power-No Power, Exist-Don't Exist). My surprise turned to wonder: at the sheer numbers, at the people, dignified, well-dressed (men in starched short-sleeved white shirts and narrow ties and pressed slacks, women in neat summer church dresses), the Constitution's right of peaceable assembly come to life.

Then King spoke — "I have a dream today...." — great preacherly cadences rolling across moral topography, mountains, mighty streams, imperatives. Centuries of history had coalesced in irresistible manifestation, the trespass of No Power into the home of Power, the multitudes of Don't Exist insisting, in the eloquence of their numbers, upon their own existence. The March on Washington was a powerful thing.

I wonder if that was the last time. Over the decades, marches on Washington degenerated, it seemed, into merely coercive shows of force, of political plumage display. Sometimes, of course — especially in the vast antiwar outpourings of the late '60s — they possessed anarchic energy. And they sometimes accomplished their purposes. But the art form (happening, circus, pep rally, Chautauqua, media spectacle, political threat) has devolved into special-interest pleading. In addition, there is the risk that good causes may be contaminated or embarrassed, as by appalling jokes during the recent gay and lesbian march on Washington, cracks that made Minister Farrakhan's interminable parsing of the mystical meanings of the number 19 during the "Million Man March" seem eloquent by comparison.

What exactly is the moral meaning of a crowd? Does a crowd have claims to legitimacy? Does it have more political significance than, say, a Zogby poll? If one person expresses a strong opinion on a subject, does the opinion become 200,000 times more valid if 200,000 people gather in the same place to proclaim it?

That is the fallacy of crowds. The crowd means you have organized a lot of people. Yes, you hope to have similar numbers joining you to vote your views in November. But crowd passion (an intense, highly motivated core sample) rarely translates into proportional ballot power in general elections.

The Million Mom March over the Mother's Day weekend may have changed some minds about gun control. I doubt it somehow. Our minds are made up, one way or another, for better and for worse, on these issues. We have developed a theater of moral spectacle for our entertainment mostly — if preaching to the choir can be called entertainment. Sheer numbers generate an atmosphere of smugness and self-congratulation, as fatuous as George Bush the elder's "Message: I care."

Because of the '60s, I suspect (Woodstock, the moratorium marches, rock concerts), Americans have come to lose their fear of people assembled in mobs. In fact, Baby Boomers (a demographic mob themselves) like manifestations of this kind, like to see all those lighted matches winking and flickering. But during most of civilized history, crowds have been considered mindless, dangerous animals, easily manipulated by demagogues. I remember driving through northern Alabama in the middle of the night with George Wallace Jr. ("Little George"), who told me, in tones of fear and awe, how he had, as a child, watched his father, Governor George Wallace, inflame a very nasty audience in Michigan. "He set them on fire," Little George kept repeating, with lingering astonishment. "He just set them on fire."

Even when a crowd calls itself a Million Moms, mad as heck for the sake of the kids, I'm afraid it gives me a sense of moral claustrophobia.