“I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess that we thought he had a little more time.”
— Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1963)
Mise Éire: I am lonelier than the Hag of Beara.
Great is my glory: I who bore the brave Cúchulainn.
Great is my shame: My own children who sold their mother.
Great is my pain: My bitter foes who terrorize me without end.
Great is my sorrow: The hope I placed in my people; died.
Mise Éire: I am lonelier than the Hag of Beara.
— Padraic Pearse, Mise Eire (1912)
The hidden conceit of every writer is that we always hope that there will be one essay — just one completely coherent thought — that will actually crystallize opinion and change the way people view the world, ideally for the better.
Needless to say, the world seems to have become much more coarse since the early naughties when the internet was brave and new.
I have been writing in Virginia for about 15 years now. The world was a better place for ideas back then, as social media (such as it was) consisted of books, ideas, art, culture, and so forth.
Then came Twitter. The mythological School of Athens we thought digital media would provide us after the straightjacket our legacy media outlets continued to cram us into simply dissolved into the Coliseum.
In some sense, social media has been a net positive, though one does lament the demise of newsprint. To some degree, the legacy media did bring it upon themselves — too sclerotic to improvise; too angry at digital media for stealing advertising revenue they believed was sacrosanct; too livid at digital media for “stealing” their work only to turn it into commentary.
Yet in many ways, the newcomers simply imitated the sins of the past, with our attempts to institutionalize and our narrow editorialization of the news. Bloggers — that eponymous term for all things print media despises — simply imitated the standard they recognized. As print media declined and digital media interposed, journalists of the old school yielded to rank reporters of the new — imitators of a legacy, but pale ones at that.
Meanwhile, the opinion class merrily chirped away.
For myself, I find it much more difficult to justify writing on current affairs. It’s boring, for a start. Moreover, the only way we seem to have any impact is if we are absolutely savaging our opposition — be it internal or external.
Moreover, it’s what our reporters expect from us. “If it bleeds it leads” isn’t a term that we invented, after all.
The sad truth is that opinion leaders really aren’t leading a damn thing anymore. To quote one such leader of the French Revolution, “There are my people! I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” Such is our pathetic excuse for political leadership today that we find that our elected officials are more courtesans than statesmen. Conservatives love to pound the table that we are more republic than democracy, yet one wonders whether this is true in practice anymore.
Of course, l’affaire Kavanaugh brought us a determinate contact point regarding mob justice. Neither side was really invested in the idea of getting to the bottom of things; both sides merely crammed facts into their hypothesis and let the chips fall where they may. Yet much more serious to me was the fact that — in real time — we watched as Senate Democrats finally cashed out the very last penny from the public trust.
I don’t believe that the progressive left truly understands the damage they have done. Before September 2018, Republicans at least made a pretense that the Democrats really would observe due process. Instead, we were treated to a spectacle of shame followed by the outrageous behavior of a mob pounding on the doors of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some have said that if the Democrats truly believed that the U.S. Constitution represented the values of white supremacy and rape culture, they would be arming themselves and actually holding a revolution — not merely intimating violence.
Yet that intimation of violence is precisely the problem. In the week after the Kavanaugh confirmation, the political talking point was… to act like Trump. The chattering classes on the left at first tried to fob this off as metaphor, then pounced upon a Pennsylvania governor’s remarks that — of course — could not possibly be metaphor.
What bothers me intensely is that we are getting to point in this country where we are treating our neighbors as a metaphor. This metaphorical ‘they’ is looking to steal your income, deny you basic human rights, even enslave you to their will.
In many ways, the father of ‘identity politics’ wasn’t Barack Obama, though his campaign certainly weaponized it in a way we have never quite seen before in modern American politics. Rather, the idea that one is either with us or with the terrorists was a talking point of President George W. Bush.
Many will argue that we have seen such times before: Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, anti-German laws during the First World War, the suspension of habeus corpus by President Lincoln, the confiscation of loyalist property during and after the Revolutionary War.
Yet if the end state is really a condition between us and them? Who are us?
Senator Ben Sasse pens this article for the Wall Street Journal wondering whether loneliness is the condition that is afflicting American society:
Loneliness is everywhere in the U.S., across every sector of society. A survey of more than 20,000 American adults conducted earlier this year by the health insurer Cigna and the market research firm Ipsos found that a majority of us are lonely, based on responses to the UCLA Loneliness Scale. The highest scores were reported by the youngest adults, ages 18 to 22. The researchers describe it as a “loneliness epidemic.”
None of this should surprise us. Americans today have fewer shared projects than our parents and grandparents did, and we belong to fewer civic groups. Because we change jobs more often, we have fewer lasting work friendships. We delay marriage, have fewer children and live in larger homes, more separate from those of our neighbors. We move from place to place for relationships, economic opportunity and better weather—and we end up with economic opportunity and better weather.
Some good things to say here, but I think Ben Sasse misses the point. It’s not ‘loneliness’ that is plaguing the American public, but mediocrity.
In short, we have become a vulgar, boring people… and you can see it every day on social media, legacy media, commercials, entertainment, sports, etc. Our loneliness isn’t the problem — we’re just not interesting anymore (neither to ourselves or to one another).
So we have to manufacture virtue rather than work on becoming better, more interesting people. Turns out, virtue can’t be purchased. So we opt for wit, humor, condescension and the like rather than insight, relevance, and dialogue.
Is it a problem of education? Perhaps so.
What I do know is this. The solution here is very simple — but it’s not easy.
Empathy and character only get folks to a certain point, but they are useless without dialogue — and while we have taught ourselves that emotive is rewarding and disengagement is the best defensive measure, rarely do people discuss ideas trying to understand the perspective of “they” — but rather with the objective of asserting the power of “us”.
Perhaps this is the logic of power, and perhaps power is always a zero-sum game where anyone outside of “us” is a pathogen to the body politic that must — at all cost — be destroyed.
Yet as I grow older and re-read the things I have written in the past, one concept occurs as inescapable — that I am a Christian personalist in a world that is neither Christian nor personal.
For instance, most people will readily identify themselves as Republican or Democrat, whereas I would places such terms in the very last of the ordinal hierarchy of labels. A conservative before I am a Republican, a Virginian before I am a conservative, a Christian before I am a Virginian, and my Catholicism as the fullest expression of who I am and what I believe — that’s me, my family, my core.
I have been a tremendous fan of Montaigne’s Essais ever since picking them up many years ago — in fact, the proto-blogger himself and the father of the essay. Sadly, more recently I have found myself picking up and reading through Victor Klemperer’s essays and diaries he collected as he survived Nazi Germany before enduring the German Democratic Republic. My thoughts have been drifting towards the Spanish Civil War and its root causes — the grasp for power, the decline of institutions, the blind fanaticism of the Spanish Nationalists (fascists) and the Spanish Republicans (communists).
One can only imagine how Fr. Jose Maria Escriva must have thought during that time as he was founding Opus Dei, enduring both the persecution of the communists and the recriminations of the fascists.
One of my favorite films of all time is Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis which begins with the epigram — “The Mediator between the head and the hands is the heart!” Thea von Barbou — Lang’s wife who penned the script for Metropolis — had the Catholic Church in mind as that institution which welds the aristocracy to the demos.
Yet even a cursory look at the Catholic Church (both in America and in Europe) finds a Catholicism convulsed by the power struggles of secular religions interposing upon the sacred. One is either a “conservative” Catholic or a “liberal” Catholic. I am neither. I just want to be a Catholic.
It is difficult to see things one believe as settled be overturned in a matter of years. Once upon a time, I did not believe that racists could occupy positions of power in the Republican Party (much less in Virginia!) — and I was wrong.
Once upon a time, I believed that violence in the public square was something to be abhorred by both sides of the political spectrum — and I am being proven wrong again. I believed and was taught that what was unique about America was that we would allow 100 guilty men to go free if it prevented the conviction of one innocent man, whereas the Soviets would plow through 100 innocent men to get to a guilty one — and I see that spirit dead in America today. I believed that to be a good Catholic, one had to feed the poor, visit the sick, clothe the naked, rebuke the oppressor, and hunger for righteousness — and I see that our own bishops do not believe much less practice this.
Most of all, I believed in a certain Jeffersonian optimism that if people were given the tools to be self-sufficient and create better lives for themselves and their families, they would.
One feels as if this presupposition — this confidence in the American person — is being eroded daily by those who simply cannot leave their neighbors alone — or worse, by those who demand positive rights from society (thou shall) rather than keeping to negative rights (thou shall nots) that fundamentally undergirds this grand experiment we call America.
In short, I see too many people willing to become a part of a mob. Willing to give up their own humanity in order to matter. Willing to sell out the humanity of others in order to gain a little temporary advantage. We have commercialized the sacred and sacralized the commercial. We treat mediocrity as excellence and treat excellence with a vulgar contempt. We disguise ideology as fact while dismissing facts as ideological privilege.
Sociologists will tell us that every generation thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Others will tell us that the long arc of history bends towards justice… but these are both lies we tell ourselves — adult fairy tales so we can sleep at night and not worry about being responsible citizens.
The very fact of the matter is that something broke in the American public this September, and it will not be easily fixed. Battle lines are being drawn — clear ones — ones that break the heart of anyone who reads their history. Those of us who are climbing into Plato’s Cave to sound the alarm can only articulate a handful certain truths to those too deaf to hear: history is bloody and violent, not just… and that banking on the civility of others while practicing none is a grift — it is not progress, and it certainly is not politics.
St. Padre Pio would tell us to pray and do not worry. For one, I pray and worry intensely — not because I worry, but because one can only feel tremendous sadness at what we have chosen to become. We can’t blame social media, nor can we blame liberal institutions or Fox News, Soros or Koch.
The fault, dear Brutus, is in our stars.
Perhaps this is what brings me to the Moynihan quote some 55 years after the news that President John F. Kennedy had been brought low by an assassin’s bullet. Mise Éire: this is the curse of the Irish — to know that in the end this world will indeed break your heart.
If this is truly the endgame of the demos in America, then I find myself as Fr. Gabriel in The Mission speaking to Fr. Rodrigo:
If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.
Of course, we can stop this at any time we choose. The question remains — do we have the courage to do so? If courage is rooted in humility, and violence in pride, then I fear we have much work to do… both individually and collectively.
UPDATE: A reader helpfully forwards the following two posts from Econlib, one much more recent, the other from 2014:
Once you identify with any large, unselective group, you will be regularly tempted to commit the villainous act of standing up for your groups’ villains. When they do wrong – as they inevitably will – your impulse will be to ignore, minimize, or justify their misdeeds. To quote the underrated 8mm, “If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you.”
Shades of Kierkegaard’s The Present Age as he discusses how human beings will do the most terrible things to one another in the name of principle:
“It is acting ‘on principle’ which does away with the vital distinction which constitutes decency. For decency is immediate (whether the immediate is original or acquired). It has its seat in feeling and in the impulse and consistency of an inner enthusiasm.
“‘In this way everything becomes permissible if done ‘on principle’. The police can go to certain places on ‘official duty’ to which no one else can go, but as a result one cannot deduce anything from their presence. In the same way one can do anything ‘on principle’ and avoid all personal responsibility. People pull to pieces ‘on principle’ what they admire personally, which is nonsensical, for while it is true that everything creative is latently polemical, since it has to make room for the new which it is bringing into the world, a purely destructive process is nothing and its principle is emptiness — so what does it need space for? But modesty, repentance and responsibility cannot easily strike root in ground where everything is done ‘on principle’.” (emphasis added)
— Soren Kierkegaard, “The Present Age” (1846)
Caplan offers a solution of a sort: never identify with large groups; only with small ones. Which is a solution of a sort… but more Benedict Option than grand solution. After all, small tribalism doesn’t seem like the solution to big tribalism — it’s Rod Dreher misinterpreting Alasdair MacIntyre while refusing to grapple constructively with the idea that yes, we do have a moral responsibility to be a part of this great big messed up world of ours (and I pull specifically from Romano Guardini’s The Church and the Catholic on this point).
One grand solution that Caplan does point towards is the recent kerfuffle over Robin Hanson’s admonishment that we once again take people at face value and quit presupposing their motives:
Let us instead revert back to the traditional intellectual standard: respond most to what people say, and don’t stretch too hard to infer what you think they mean in scattered hints of what they’ve said and done.
One presupposes that we are all muck farmers now. Everyone racks up the suppression points… and only then can we have a conversation? Doesn’t quite seem like an ideal starting place, now does it?
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