by James Como (October 2016)
Whether good or bad, socio-cultural entropy has neither an end nor a beginning, and for it there is always a price to pay (i.e. the Civil War brings a substantially botched Reconstruction, the fall of Communism brings the Russian plutocracy and Putin). Yet, though always with us, not all entropic events are symmetrical: some are substantially good (say, the fall of Communism) or bad (say, the imposition from above – rather than it rising from a cultural consensus – of abortion-on-demand, which has led not only to the breakdown of serious social repulsion but, effectively, to the abandonment of the practices of persuasion and of consensus-building and also to our tolerance of showing just this disgusting event – baby seals being killed, for example – but not that – babies being killed in what should be the very safest place in all creation). Each of those claims, I know, would ordinarily require argument, and were this a different sort of essay I would provide that, but my interest here is not historical but rhetorical: our entropic public discourse
One is tempted to jump all Apocalypse Now on the enormities and their perpetrators: fighting “the horror, the horror” with horrors of one’s own – that is, rhetorical horrors, rants. But that’s incorrect: one is not tempted; many are tempted, and these days very many. I don’t mean on our socio-political fringes only; nor am I equating extremes of judgment (our Number One Threat is climate change) with extremes of language and temperament (Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America!”). Rather my interest here lies in what we might think of as certain rules of engagement.
For example, have we noticed how many entertainments (serious, comic, serio-comic) rely upon titles with “American” in the title? My first recollection of this was a book called The Ugly AmericanThe American (playing a hit man who could do a few pull-ups); for the past few seasons on television we have had American Gothic, a horror series which refers to the unhappy Grant Wood painting; there are also American Gangster, American Psycho and American Beauty (about a humdrum man who is essentially a fantasizing pederast). Really, there is no end to them, and that is without listing any number that are promoted with some sort of American reference (for example a recent film – a comedy — about gun-running that describes its heroes as pursuing “the American Dream,” a concept undercut seven decades ago by Arthur Miller, though he had the wit not to name the meme). To be sure there are some counter-examples (Coming to America, a benign and even an affectionate comedy), but let’s not expect another Yankee Doodle Dandy any time soon. What is going on, I believe, is that we have a New Rule, and not merely the old time New Left anti-Americanism. That at least regarded America as worth despising. This New Rule goes further: as President Obama has allowed, American exceptionalism is dead.
I also detect an affliction that’s part of either a manic crypto-theology, some neo-Dionysian sect, or (assuming a difference) a psychological disorder, a sort of complex. You must be either “privileged” or “victimized” (or both, but not simultaneously); possibly both male and female; tolerant of declared menaces but intolerant of opposition to them; sincere, compassionate, committed, and engaged as an “activist,” unless one is active as a heretic against this weltanschauung. A sufferer not only uses language as he or she pleases (e.g. we must avoid “labeling” but must call same-sex unions “marriage”) yet may deny the existence of objective truth – sometimes even of empirically verifiable (or deniable) reality: that “hands up don’t shoot” didn’t happen does not matter.
Distinctions are prohibited. Black lives matter. Period. Opposition to Islamic terrorism is an attack on Islam. Reservations respecting “belief in” climate change (not at all the same as “belief that,” which allows specific questions about particular aspects of the phenomenon) must be, according to some, forbidden and punished. Any questioning of privileges for newly-coined “communities” (e.g. LGBTQ) must be demonized. At first PC was merely codified courtesy, but now, run amok, it has invited the pre-disposed each to become an O’Brien, Orwell’s horrific torturer who will not settle for hearing that 2+2=5 but demands of poor Winston that he believe it. For those of us who do not, or will not, get it, the entire world must be Room 101. (Imagine the responses if the following were to be spoken: “What do you mean I shouldn’t smoke while I’m pregnant. You’ve already told me I can kill the mass of tissue growing inside me, so how is it not my right to decide how I do it? I ask as did Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a woman?”)
Just so may one afflicted by this complex be humorless (except when snidely attacking the low-hanging fruit of the opposition), abstract in policy recommendations (people need health care, so who cares about the clunking failures of our particular Rube Goldbergian plan), sanctimonious, morally exhibitionistic, and totalitarian. Moreover, and most importantly, any talk must be along a one-way street (though the afflicted may feign “dialogue”; e.g. the president can “evolve” but Trump “flip-flops,” Matt Lauer will be skewered by the liberal press for grilling Hillary, William Kunstler may say out loud that no socialist regime is subject to public criticism). Definition, long-standing common practices, even culture itself are fungible and may be abruptly undone from on high, and with uncommon rapidity. There is no cultivation of newness: persuasion is indeed dead.
The structure of media programming aggravates the affliction. Sound bites, quarrel rather than argument, personality-driven stories, the need for a simple “narrative,” the decline of journalist standards (owing to the narcissistic needs of news people – as opposed to frankly-declared commentators – who crave cheers from their amen choruses), the trivialization of history (especially the history of ideas), motive-hunting, and sheer ignorance: these all now dominate public discourse. . . .
. . . as does tolerance for pure drivel, intellectual and sentimental. For example, there is a second syndrome (in addition to the complex: it still needs a name suitable for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual): MEP? – Misplaced and Excessive Passion. Really, snowflake? You need a safe space or you’ll be overcome by fear and trembling when someone questions Black Lives Matter? Or get so angry when hearing the Pledge of Allegiance recited that you’d ban its recitation in schools? Or writhe with rage at the prospect of vetting immigrants when Christians the world over are being massacred? (Language Alert: “genocide” may be used, but only selectively.) Along with this sentimentality comes ignorance of what nationhood means: borders, shared values and pieties, common defense, and memory. It is the nation that stands between us and both imperialism and ethno-racism. (Go back to Mein Kampf: for Hitler, the race, not the nation, was the feature that defined the species and its sub-divisions; he showed contempt even for the German people.) When will we have had enough, not of civic organization that obey law, but of these nations-within-nations: the Klan, the Mafia (or any such gang), Clinton, Inc., The Nation of Islam, sharia followers and the radical groups and apologists (along with their Imams and the mosques) who promote it all?
Part of the problem, I think, is creeping collectivism, a ramification of the balkanization that afflicts us. You can’t insult, say, a Serb, without insulting all Serbs. That sort of thing. Formally, it is the Fallacy of Composition, and here I am tempted merely to list the fallacies (e.g. begging the question, which has absolutely nothing to do with how the term is applied these days) rampant in public discourse. Another part of the problem – I’ll call it Faux Seriousness – is the taking of “responsibility” under false pretenses. In a nutshell, it is blameless blame. Hillary is sorry she used a private server but – other than that she’s been sorely inconvenienced by its discovery – neither says why she is sorry (in fact denying that it did any harm to anyone) nor facing any de jure consequences. Wherefore the “responsibility”? We tolerate it all. (I say “we” meaning the editorial “we,” not we the Jeremiahs in the wilderness.)
And yet we are largely unserious about fraudulence, corruption, and incompetence. The IRS, the VA, the Secret Service, the hacking of our national computer systems, fighter jets unfit for combat, Obamacare (the ACA, now living down to its risible rollout – really, we cannot mention that too often) – all presaged by Obama’s first inaugural ball, which was crashed by two infamous crashers. Corruption? Who not on the Right is livid over the abuses of the Clinton Foundation (or the IRS scandal)? And the lies: one man admits they falsified the Affordable Care Act, virtually instructing the president to lie; another admits the administration lied about the Iran deal; then there’s Harry Reid’s little birdie and of course the ever-reliable Lying Machine, out of whose mouth every single word is “shovel ready” (and by the way that original claim, not projects justifying the stimulus, was itself eponymous). Two decades ago the question was, “where’s the outrage?” Now we know the answer: hardly anywhere. In other words, where is passion when you need it?
We have become impulsive rather than thoughtful. Reading, listening, conversing, thinking – with curiosity and humility – are no longer commonplace in the public square. Instead, moral exhibitionism is now on the counter next to drugs designed to make us feel good – about ourselves. I repeat (more or less): among pundits, news anchors, and political operatives there is too often an ignorance of recent (post WWII) history, impatience with ideas, and impatience with and ignorance of the ways of extended argument. In truth, the forums for such traits are rare: that sound bite, the gotcha moment, our pseudo-debates, and the sheer lack of time afforded real discussion by most formats (even those that pass as thoughtful) – all are lamentable.
Finally, too many people are tempted by those false symmetries. We used to hear such nonsense during the Cold War, and now we’re hearing it from the president, in his case about ISIS and medieval Christianity. (That may be unfair of me: we do not know how much of his Columbia undergrad education he showed up for, unintoxicated.)
Sure, we’ve always been going to Hell. The Psalms warn against the evils done by malevolent discourse: “Their throat is an open sepulcher”; “under his tongue is ungodliness and vanity”; “perjury,” “deceitful lips,” “lying lips,” and “words full of deceit” “cut like a razor,” as does “pitiless jeering.” But we’re closer to Hell now and in times more dangerous to more people than at any time in the past. The consequences of our discursive entropy, unlike the passions of progressives, will be proportionate: to the proximities and immediacies of all our Pandemonia.
James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: essays on conversation, rhetoric and the transmission of culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).
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