The Supreme Court’s vision of a society in which each defines his own “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” has been realized all too thoroughly.
What it means is that America has lost touch with reality.
It’s hard to know what to say about the situation. The usual point of writing for publication is to add to public discussion, but what if public discussion no longer relates to a common public world? Can it be said to exist?
It’s even hard to give concrete examples of the problem that others will accept, since people don’t agree about what’s real. For many people, transgenderism provides a wealth of examples. The New York City officials who threaten fines of up to $250,000 for “misgendering” don’t seem to agree.
The madness is social rather than individual. There are signs that mental problems are becoming more common in America, with later generations less stable than earlier, and young liberal white women—who are often acutely susceptible to social cues and so likely to be vulnerable during bad times—having the most difficulty.
But such findings are difficult to interpret, most of us don’t see much connection between political and other forms of craziness among our acquaintances, and the people who seem politically crazy to many of us include educated, accomplished, personally stable, and highly reputable figures.
What we are seeing, then, is less an epidemic of madness spreading from the personal to the public than a complex of influences that disrupt public thought as well as private life. The trends that are making sensitive young people come unglued—for example, the electronic disintegration of reality into a mass of images and soundbites in which anything can mean anything—are having the same effect on political discussion.
Take, for example, a recent piece by the New York Times editorial board, titled “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now”, which treats the events of that day as an attempted coup that was part of a continuing attempt to abolish democracy by means ranging from voter ID to violent insurrection.
An unarmed coup that kills no one and has no plan and little apparent organization doesn’t strike me as much of a coup. Nor does widespread public concern about voting security seem much like an attack on democracy. To me, the NYT piece looks like a collection of silly fantasies intended to justify extraordinary measures against Republicans, and above all against a Trump victory in 2024. Rhetoric such as the claims that “the Republic faces an existential threat” and “the only thing that matters in the end is whether you get it done” suggests a willingness to do anything at all that could head off such a (presumed) catastrophe.
What these people say matters a great deal. They speak for the most influential news organization in America and probably the world, the one that sets the agenda for mainstream journalism and so helps establish an understanding of the world that much of public life is based upon. So if they say that half the country have aligned themselves with deranged criminals who must be defeated at whatever cost, that’s a big problem.
They would respond, of course, that Trump and his supporters are the insane fantasists driven by delusion and other bad qualities to extreme measures. Some readers will agree with that—it is a common view among presumably responsible and well-informed people including journalists, university professors, the elite bar, and national law enforcement agencies.
But that is the nature of our current madness: public reason and those who normally stand for it are no longer functional. Rational public discussion requires networks of trusted investigators and authorities. And when they’re no longer present it disappears.
So what to do? Our own views seem obviously correct to us, but our opponents see their views the same way. We can appeal to legal procedures such as elections, but mutual distrust means their outcome will be doubted. Or we can try an appeal to authority, which ideally serves as a common principle above faction. But in a deeply politicized society the authorities themselves become political. What they say becomes one more weapon in the struggle and so loses legitimacy.
That tendency has affected the authority of elected officials, cultural heroes like the Founding Fathers, and the institutional authority of experts, including people on the Times editorial board.
It can even affect the authority of the Church, at least as a practical matter, when her leaders allow personal political and social affiliations to affect their official acts and pronouncements.
The authority of Reason, Doctrine, and the Good, Beautiful, and True remains, but who can be trusted to present it accurately in a time in which everything is spin? Time, patience, and reason—in theory at least—together with love of truth and humanity, can overcome such problems. After all, man is a social and rational animal, and these things make for unity.
But such influences have limited practical effect. Life must go on, and we can’t constantly be putting our fundamental beliefs in question. So people usually stick with the basic views and loyalties they already have, with a few fiddles and fudges to deal with awkward problems, and sometimes a tendency to radicalize or moderate positions when circumstances seem pressing.
Since principled unity can be hard to come by, we normally try to maintain peace through compromise. But that becomes difficult as trust vanishes. Those who are more moderate than the Times editorial board can try to appeal to a supposed non-radical silent majority, but such people can be hard to find and organize in an age of loud voices, propaganda, and extreme views.
Even in the best of times politics is favorable to irrational hatreds, because it involves compulsion regarding matters that touch us closely. The problem becomes worse when people reject natural law and transcendent loyalties, and so view the whole of life as endlessly changeable through collective action. Such views radically increase the stakes in political disputes, with the result that they easily slide into something very much like civil war.
So what to do in a situation that, at least among the people who are politically most engaged, looks less like anything described in a high school civics textbook and more like a house of mirrors in which the possibility of rational discussion regarding a common public reality has disappeared?
Three basic suggestions might be useful here.
First, we must avoid hatred. We must pray for our opponents, that they—along with us and our friends—may be given the gift of prudence, and converted to all that is good, beautiful, and true. It may help to remember that it is unlikely they are simply being perverse, and should not usually be blamed personally for what seems worst on their side. Very likely, their overall position makes sense of their very different understanding of the world, which is likely to have intelligent and seemingly trustworthy advocates.
Second, we must avoid factionalism. That means holding our own position with integrity. We cannot live by lies—our own or those of other people. So we must give primary authority to truth, and be willing to consider other arguments and evidence, even though loyalty to what seems obviously good and real (as well as exercising caution in accepting the conclusions the loudest voices are pushing) is always prudent. Avoiding factionalism, for many people, will involve reducing involvement in political back-and-forth and putting their efforts where they can do more good.
Finally, we need to remember that our trust is not in princes and our hope is not in this world. The radically secular point of view that turns politics—human will backed by force—into a religion is false and unreliable. The tyrants who accept that view and follow through on its implications never last long, no matter how much damage they cause in the short run. And we should never join them.
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