Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Politics We Deserve

America continues its long slide from meritocracy to idiotocracy. In a nation where public education renders people stupid and uniformed, we end up with the politics we deserve. 

And that means, a politics that involve perpetual drama, constant conflict, raw entertainment, or, as the Romans had it, bread and circuses. Assuming that any of it is still affordable.

It is a politics led by drama queens, by shrill ranters who think that each issue spells the end of the world, who imagine that each court decision and each election brings the end that much closer.

Evidently, entertainment politics appeals to the dumbest among us. It appeals to those who do not really know how to think, but who are expert at the art of emoting. Better yet, our political circus is now conducted and performed by the dumbest among us. 

We no longer deliberate. We no longer debate the issues. We slander and defame; we attack reputations in a flurry of ad hominem assaults. One would think, upon looking at the spectacle, that we have lost our collective minds. That is, that we have lost the ability to join together to engage in some consequential political action.

When America’s competitors around the world look at the spectacle, at a great country being ruled by a band of clowns and buffoons, they know that they need but await the climax, when it all falls down.

Keep in mind, we are about to spend ourselves into inflationary oblivion in order to fight a war against the weather and in order to watch Russia destroy Ukraine. As though to prove the point, yesterday we saw the president and first lady of Ukraine in Vogue. Nothing like a spot of glamour while you are allowing your country to be destroyed.

But, Lance Morrow, author of the thesis that American politics has descended into entertainment for the uneducated masses, believes that citizens still have one foot in reality. In their private lives, when they go to the supermarket or the gas station, when they see what is going on in public schools, they see more clearly.

Let’s hope that Morrow is right, because politics as entertainment is a sign of cultural self-deconstruction.

So, bread and circuses, constant psychodrama, visions of the pending apocalypse, predictions of the end of democracy as we know it, Morrow sums it up well in the Wall Street Journal:

If it’s beasts of the jungle you want—the savageries of nature, red in tooth and claw—politics and media offer an ongoing and spectacular show replete with raging ideology, riots, race hate, store looting, police-car burning, pageant plays, Proud Boys, deadly pandemics, mass shootings, cops caught on video doing dastardly things, the Capitol assaulted by mobs. Politics and media are co-producers of the immense 21st-century moral circus. It offers Americans such grand and enraging constitutional spectacles as Roe and Dobbs, such extravaganzas as the Transgender Follies and White Supremacy vs. Black Lives Matter. Held over (though not necessarily by popular demand): The Orange Man and the Dotard.

And Morrow points out that entertainment politics appeals most readily to those who know the least. By avoiding the complexity of issues, by collapsing the distinction between two opposing points of view into a battle of absolute good versus absolute evil, we have gotten to the point where more and more people are more and more stupid. By reducing the American mind to terminal stupidity you manage to render the stupid people less embarrassed about their intellectual deficiencies. In the academic world that is the point:

The ways of performative politics and media prey on unformed minds. The danger is that, in time, those ways will supplant what we used to recognize as reality and, in its place, install their theatrical and sinister and essentially cartoonish ideas. What were Uvalde or Highland Park but instances of the (very sick) private mind enacting grotesque public performances.

For all that, it may be that the extreme divisions in America are now tending toward the sort of exhausted resolution that is suggested at the final curtain of “King Lear.” The house lights come up; it’s time to move on.

Americans are troubled, but they aren’t crazy.

We would like to think so. And yet, we also know, from a number of studies, beginning with that of the former head of the National Institutes of Mental Health, one Thomas Insel, that the mental health profession has not done very well at curing people of crazy.

So, beyond the entertainment that has invaded our homes and our minds, we find what Morrow calls a base-line sanity, where people see through the bread and circuses, where they refuse to be distracted by the show and where they go about conducting their lives:

But the private mind is still committed to the sanity and realism that are necessities of survival. What Americans worry about is inflation. Reality is an insistent thing. Grown-ups know that they are being imposed on by the big show. They understand that a circus is a circus. The sane American mind—mens sana in corpore morbido—is the best hope now, I suspect.

So, Morrow is an optimist:

The private mind can spot the public con. It used to, anyway. Private citizens know that many decisions in life—most, perhaps—are difficult and may involve 48/52 calls, even 49/51. It’s true in choosing a mate and other important matters.

Morrow says that public politicians have now become drama queens. And he suggests, tellingly, that the constant manipulation of emotion, the constant shrieking public hysteria, is addicting, about as addicting as social media is to our children:

Such is the dramaturgy of American public culture, of a performative public mind that is addicted to its sensations and categories. The American ideologue is a drama queen. I’m perhaps kidding myself, but I suspect that Americans in the privacy of their own minds, in conversation among friends and family, remain in touch with reality. On the subject of abortion, for example, or on race, guns and transgenderism, the private mind remains fairly sensible and humane. It remains capable, among other things, of tolerating contradiction. There is such a thing as intelligent ambivalence. People in the privacy of their thoughts don’t have to be consistent. They aren’t burdened or corrupted by the demands of performance. That is true even in the clamor of social media.

Agree or disagree, the educated mind can tolerate contradictions. The educated mind can engage arguments that tend to dispute its most cherished beliefs. The educated mind can accept the results of democratic elections without taking to the streets and shouting about how the world is about to end.

If that were not bad enough, surely democracy is, by the meager dim lights of our pseudo-intelligentsia, about to be swallowed up by the forces of evil. This means that the products of our deficient educational system, the thought leaders who conduct public debate are basically frauds and imposters. First among their goals, to ensure that no one figures out that they do not know what they are talking about. 

Let’s hope that Morrow is right, that the private American mind is more sane, more grounded and more pragmatic than is the public spectacle that our politics has become.


370H55V said...

None of this would have happened without women in charge. Men let it happen. Men have to take it back--by any means necessary.

J. Burns said...

So, Morrow is an optimist: "The private mind can spot the public con.”

It is easy to become dispirited by the current state of the American public square. If one believes in the enduring wisdom of the ancients, Epictetus offers a reason to be optimistic (if the current admiration doesn’t crater the country first). “Our hatred of being deceived, our inability to accept as true what we clearly see to be false, is the most basic fact about human beings and the most promising.”

Here's hoping American common sense can right the ship first.

Anonymous said...

I don't follow much as what I see/read of politics. I live in a rural area, north of the Columbia River, which I can't see because of the ridgeline south of my house. As I've said before, Democrats Delenda EST!!

IamDevo said...

I, too live in a rural area in the wilds of Pennsylvania and I must say that most of my coevals are as disposed as I am to be skeptical of all things democrat. We support by a large margin a return to what used to be "normal" social and political life. That is to say, a life in which the difference between politicians and political parties was merely a question of what color drapes to hang, not whether we should raze the house and build a new one. We belong to what the late, great Dr. Codevilla called the "Country Class." We oppose everything that has been imposed on us by the "Ruling Class."