What then causes often legitimate writs abruptly to explode into collective fits that end up either ensnaring the innocent or taking legitimate concerns beyond human reason? In our Jacobin frenzy, is it now still permitted to listen to folksy Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, or to hear Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” or to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Have you or have you not ever read Death in Venice?
Human nature is prone to a herd mentality and the politics of excess. Groupthink offers a sense of belonging and reinforcement to most people. Democracies in particular in their radical egalitarian culture and exalted sense of self-righteousness are particularly prone to shared frenzies. In volatile democratic culture, today’s sensational scoop becomes passé by tomorrow.
Social media, smartphones, the internet, and cable news are accelerants—as we saw in the Duke Lacrosse and the Virginia fraternity cases. They do in minutes what used to take weeks, with the added fuel of anonymity. “Sources report” blare out TV journalists. Bloggers comment on rumors with their own fake names, photos, and handles, virtue signaling to each their own greater outrage. Chain email comes from pressure groups rather than from named individuals.