On The Bacchae and Discourse In America

About 10 years ago, Virginia’s bloggerati held the world in the palm of our hand. Our perspectives were not just consulted — they were feared. Such was the power that columnists and editorial boards held over the minds of Virginians that elected officials feared this new set of variables.

Yours truly happened to be one of those voices. To some degree — though we have scattered a bit — that same handful of perspectives still holds sway. Norm Leahy writes for the Washington Post as a columnist, Brian Schoeneman still manages to rack a few column pieces (even if he is in self-imposed exile), Rick Sincere has taken over The Score from the Lee Brothers, and Kenney the Younger still pokes around as a writer… just invariably not on politics.

Sure, the The Bull Elephant continues to define itself against Bearing Drift. Our friends at Blue Virginia seem to have figured out the keys to success early with a Democratic Party that understood why it was important to subsidize a narrative. For all the griping that Republicans do about the “liberal media” and the pay-to-play leftosphere, Republican digital media seems to have endured as a volunteer-only endurance marathon (until certain pay-to-play actors accuse others of in fact being pay-to-play… witness the pettiness of Virginia politics).

Today’s environment sees publications like The Republican Standard, The Virginia Mercury, and Richmond 2 Day rising above the amateur op-ed writers. In a time before Facebook, the lowly “blog” was the only means of really disseminating information beyond the legacy media.

If I seem terribly down on the legacy media vs. digital media, it isn’t because of the medium itself. After all, most of us in the digital arena would crawl across broken glass to be picked up by the Washington Post or the Richmond Times-Dispatch if even for peanuts. Rather, one sees today some of the best investigative reporting ever done — VICE, Politico, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — and some of the best opinion writing in places such as National Review, The Weekly Standard, and Quilletteand no one is reading it.

We are all lying to ourselves… and we love it.

It is difficult to write in such a time as to stand athwart history yelling “STOP!” while there is a cacophony of noise catering to our every whim, telling us to keep going and leveraging our feelings against us. Marketing does this. We buy Coke vs. Pepsi because we are attracted to red over blue. We buy Ritz crackers because it is perfectly spherical and attractive to the eye. We react viscerally to advertising and buy the products — not because we like or even want the product, but because the reaction itself felt true, ergo the argument must be true.

Are we all really this stupid.

Yes.

We are.

Or more importantly, we have entire industries set up to convince us that we aren’t as stupid as we constantly feel. For instance, we have a social media apparatus designed for hook-ups feeding us 85% of our social media and 67% of our news consumption (what 45% responding that they get “some” of their news). From a dating site turned pro, guys.

Worse than that, we have entire cottage industries set up to tell stupid people that they are in fact educated souls. Most college diplomas are crap. Even if they are in the humanities, how many people can truly say they are better for the exchange? $50,000 in debt for an undergraduate education can buy you the Great Books Series several times over… and you’d be $45,000 better off.

This is where I still hold out tremendous hope for the humanities in the sense they might actually teach us to read, consider, think, and slow the hell down a bit.

…but they don’t. People have been taught that verification of one’s ideas and thoughts comes with attention. The more attention, the more valid the feelings, and ergo the more valid one’s ideas.

After all, isn’t that how we built this entire blogosphere thing in Virginia?

What disappoints me most, perhaps, is the revelation that most people really don’t want to learn a damn thing. I have barn cats; they follow me because they expect to be fed on a rare occasion. Most people don’t want to be helped in the end… they just want to be fed.

Thus otherwise good people will justify absolutely horrible things in the name of “principles” and so forth. Tolerate the worst abuses, tear apart another person’s character, or seek to absolutely obliterate an opponent in the political arena — because she who believes most wins. Is it worth it? Is it really worth one’s soul?

I have been thinking a great deal on this line in the Matthew 19:

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

For those who have seen the compromises power forces others to take, when was the last time you saw a wealthy man who was a morally decent one? I’m not even talking about Daddy Warbucks here — even moderately successful people.

In fact, most Americans are this person indeed. Most working class Americans enjoy luxuries unavailable even to Roman emperors. We are well fed, housed, entertained beyond our wildest dreams, informed and wonderfully distracted.

But does any of this mean we are really good people at the end of the day? Sure we pay taxes, go through the motions, attend church, flip that guy in the median our $3.86 we got back in change after we purchased our Big Kahuna Burger, and maybe even itemized our charitable contributions.

…but is that it?

Maybe we put our heads on our pillows claiming to be a part of a cause? Volunteering for the PTO? Doing our jobs really well? Maybe we even perform extracurricular stuff like local or state politics? You know — righteous anger against those people coming to take our rights away, destroy what it means to be an American, and deny other people their basic rights.

There are far too many people who base their goodness on what they do. We don’t need better brands; we need better souls. We don’t need more identity; we need stronger minds.

One thinks of the parable of the rich man and all the compromises one must make to become wealthy, considered, even honored by others. Things we would never normally excuse, others will wantonly excuse in the pursuit of power. People we would willingly embrace, we would tear apart once objectified as an diabolical other. We manufacture hatred because we have no charity ourselves.

Politics in America just seems to bring this fatal personal flaw in people to the fore in ways I’d never imagined even five years ago, much less 10 or 20 years ago when I got started. Again, they don’t want to be helped… only fed.

I have thought a great deal about keeping a diary the same way Victor Klemperer did during the rise of fascism in Germany and the concurrent arrival of the communists in East Germany. Both claimed to be utopias; neither had conscience… and we seem absolutely bound and determined to create American versions of each.

Who wins this fight? Certainly not the people.

Yet there is a presentation of inevitability in the contest. Participate in politics, they say, lest you be governed by evil men. The counterpoint? Better to be insane with the mob than sane alone…

For myself, I see this wave of “creative destruction” in our institutions and society proglumated by people with rotten souls and malformed minds, both sides chasing appetites knowing what the rich man knows — that it is far easier to steal than it is to build.

Can there be a politics when rational discourse is reduced to pathos on the left and ethos on the right? That narrow field for logic and discourse (logos) seems to be growing more and more narrow by the day. One gets the sense that people don’t even really believe what they say they believe anymore — provided it either carries their tribe to victory or denies it to those whom they profess to dislike. To keep such factions in line, Roman emperors used to resort to colors such as Blues and Greens and then force them towards civic projects — the key point here that an emperor was required to keep faction down.

I am reminded of a recent biography on Secretary of Defense James Mattis that one can still find in bookstores. The title of this book was rather quaint: No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy. I’m sure a good number of folks (in both parties) got a chest-thumping hurrah out of such a title without even considering where it was from or whom it references.

The line is Sulla’s epitaph, the man who overthrew Rome’s corrupt leadership and restored some sense of constitutional law before Pompey and Caesar engaged in their death struggle to rule.

A dangerous sentiment indeed. One imagines who wins and loses fostering such thoughts… but I assure you, it will not be the common man. Rather, it will be some apparatchik or group thereof who see this as a game they can win, ignorant of how to govern and willfully blind to the consequences of stupid.

Schopenhauer used to argue that intellect is invisible to the man who has none. The same could be true for individuals in power; the same is definitely true for a mob. Yet when even the best and brightest set down their pens for fear of retribution? When some of the best journalism in recent memory is drowned out by a series of “fake news” (either state-sponsored or privately fostered)? When honest opinions and legitimate thought are muzzled and pay-to-play hackers and the rage of feelings is the norm?

Euripides wrote in his tragedy The Bacchae how the young women of Thebes, whipped into an ecstatic frenzy by Dionysus, ends up killing Pentheus — with his own mother helping to rip him apart using their bare hands. The ecstasy wears off, and the Maenads see what they have done. Pentheus’ own mother, Agave (still in an ecstatic state) presents her son’s head to the king believing it to be the head of a mountain lion. As the ecstatic frenzy wears off, Agave sees what she has done and is exiled for it. Dionysus himself leads a barbarian horde to wipe out the city of Thebes in vengeance.

Now we might lie to ourselves and suggest that our petty principles really are about the future. Deep down, we know they aren’t. Euripides is a warning about what happens when we whip ourselves into a frenzy and put principles over values, one might say. Pathos over ethos.

Will we learn? Five years ago, I was more hopeful. Today, it is harder to cut through the noise to even have the discussion. One sees more bacchanalia than discourse, I’m afraid.

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