The World Turned Upside Down (and what to do about it)

The current state of the country and the current state of political and intellectual conversation depresses me in a way that it never has before. You have to understand — I’m never happy with the state of the country — that’s the inevitable fate of holding an ideological position that rarely gets any traction — I’m a classical liberal who’d like government to be dramatically smaller than it is now.

But the world today feels different. Everything feels angrier. I think of Yeats’s masterpiece, The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

Maybe it’s paranoia but it’s been a long time since I felt the thinness of the veneer of civilization and our vulnerability to a sequence of events that might threaten not just the policy positions I might favor but the very existence of the American experiment.

The main way I’ve been dealing with this feeling of despair is to stop paying close attention. I don’t know what depresses me more — the stupidities and dishonesty and tolerance of darkness that come out of the President’s mouth or the response from those that oppose him. Given that I don’t like the President, you’d think I find the response of his enemies inspiring or important. But the responses scare me too, the naked hatred of Trump or anyone who supports or likes him. And of course, it goes way beyond Trump and politics. The same level of vitriol and anger and unreason is happening on college campuses and at the dinner table when families gather to talk about the hot-button issues of the day. Everything seems magnified.

It feels as if we’re in a very dangerous moment. Not because I think that Donald Trump is going to declare himself emperor or that there are going to see riots in the streets until he’s impeached. I think we’re in a dangerous moment because of what we’ve learned from the response to the Trump candidacy and the Trump presidency. I feel as if a giant flat rock has been lifted up and what is suddenly made visible crawling around underneath has lots of legs and plenty of venom.

I’m not naive. I know there’s a lot of hatred in the human heart. It’s nothing new. But what appears to be new at least in America in my experience and I’m 62 years old, is a willingness to vocalize that hatred and to act on it. The only parallel in my lifetime is the 1960s. There are some obvious parallels, but once the Vietnam war ended, things settled down. I’m not sure the divisions and lack of respect we’re seeing now is going to fade away. Certainly not while Trump is president.

A part of me wants to go off to the 18th century and think some more about Adam Smith. But another part of me thinks that standing idly by is the wrong thing to do. It feels as if we are at crucial juncture. But what action are we to take, those of us who are alarmed at the state of the country? It’s not the heat of the political kitchen that is hard to take, it’s the hatred and anger and intolerance that is spilling out of the kitchen and out into the dining room and into the streets.

So running away, while appealing, is the wrong thing to do. But what is the right thing to do?

To figure that out, we have to have some diagnosis of what malaise or disease we’re trying to cure. Here are my thoughts on how we got here and why I’m so unmoored and alarmed by the current state of our country and then at the end I’ll suggest some steps individuals might take to improve matters.

The underlying problem is very old. Most of us know very little. The world is a complex place and it’s hard to know what is going on. So we grope around in the dark trying to make sense of what is happening and what explains what we observe. We manage to convince ourselves that we are seeking the truth and we have found it. Trump is evil or Hillary is evil. Black people are the victims of a conspiracy by white people to oppress them or white people are being marginalized as their majority status dwindles. The country is on the wrong track. (Everyone believes this one). And subtlety is not our strong suit as human beings. We like simple stories without too much nuance.

So we manage to convince ourselves that the evidence speaks so loudly, so emphatically, that we have no choice but to declare our allegiance to a particular tribe as a result of that evidence. The red tribe. Or the blue one. Or the white one. Or the black one. It rarely crosses our minds to notice that causation is probably going the opposite direction — the tribe we are in determines the evidence we notice and accept.

This is also very old. What is new is the confidence people have in the righteousness of their tribe. Certainly some of this is due to the echo chambers we frequently inhabit on the internet. We tend to visit websites and follow people on Twitter and Facebook who think the way we do and reinforce the narratives we tell ourselves.

The media is part of the problem. I follow a lot of mildy left-leaning journalists on Twitter who write for major publications and outlets. They are not fringe players. Their employers aren’t either. These reporters aren’t ideologues. They’re just right-thinking people who lean left. Somewhere along the line, they stopped pretending to be objective about Trump. They have decided he is dangerous and a liar and they write about it openly on Twitter. They mock him in a way they didn’t mock previous presidents who they didn’t particularly like. They may be right about the dangers posed by a Trump presidency. But their stance which violates long-standing norms of their profession amplifies the feelings of Trump supporters that those supporters are under attack from mainstream American culture.

Here’s a relatively benign but simple example. Trump says America is the most taxed nation in the world. This is not a true statement. But I suspect in Trump’s mind and the minds of his supporters, it’s not a lie. To them, Trump’s claim is a marketing statement, the way a real estate developer would tell you that this corner is the best location in the city. It’s enthusiasm to get you sympathetic to a tax cut.

Politicians lie and dissemble all the time. But they tend not to lie and dissemble about things that can be fact-checked. So this is new and it understandably outrages people and reporters. There is indeed something outrageous about this kind of hyperbole. So when a member of the media tweets or prints a chart showing Trump’s claim is totally incorrect, the chart reminds Haters of Trump that Trump is a buffoon and a liar. But it doesn’t convince the Lovers of Trump. Instead it confirms their view that the media is hostile to Trump. And as the media becomes more self-righteous in its denunciations of Trump, the Lovers of Trump see this as confirmation not of Trumps idiocy but of Trump as victim and the media as the enemy of their friend.

I am not suggesting that the media shouldn’t fact-check the President. But it’s a little like shooting fish in a barrel. And when its done with disdain or triumphalism it reinforces the view that Trump is embattled.

Jordan Peterson has pointed out that there’s a destructive positive feedback loop operating these days — my outrage doesn’t convince you to rethink your position, it only encourages you to ratchet up your own. He is on to something.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, deviationism from the party line is increasibly unacceptable. The extreme version of this is so-called intersectionality. If you’re a feminist, you also have to oppose Zionism. These kinds of litmus tests may be useful for political power. They aren’t good for nuance or independent thinking. But increasingly it seems people are uncomfortable failing these tests of ideological purity. They don’t want to lose their membership in the right tribe, the tribe that gives them a sense of identity.

The result is an unjustified confidence in one’s own side of the debate, whatever that debate is. Consider religion. I live a religious life as a Jew and have for about 30 years. Being a religious Jew or Christian in the academy was once merely a novelty. Now it’s a badge of shame. There’s a hostility to religion that goes beyond non-belief. People write me asking how I can be religious given that I’m so smart. Not sure there is a more back-handed compliment than that one. Now I’m well aware of the intellectual paradoxes of believing in a Creator and living one’s life according to an ancient set of precepts. Many of those make me uncomfortable. Many bring comfort. I fully understand how someone could reject them as irrrational or stultifying. What bothers me is that I don’t think many of those who are surprised or outraged at my leading a religious life could begin to explain its appeal to me. It is simply unimaginable to them that an educated person could be religious.

This lack of imagination is a common problem across most issues. People don’t just disagree with each other. They can’t imagine how a decent caring human being could disagree with their own view of race or the minimum wage or immigration or Trump. Being a member of the virtuous tribe means not only carrying the correct card in your wallet to reassure yourself. You have to also believe that the people carrying any other card are irrational, or worse, evil. They’re not people to engage in conversation with. They are barriers to be ignored or pushed aside on the virtuous path to paradise.

This intolerance and inability to imagine the virtue of the other side is the road to tyranny and chaos. It dehumanizes a good chunk of humanity and that in turn justifies the worst atrocities human beings are capable of. The increased tribalism of discourse today is leading to a lot more self-righteousness and intolerance. (This superb essay by Scott Alexander lays it out beautifully. Read it.) We all understand in some part of our being how dangerous self-righteousness can be. The left can point to the religious crusader who murders innocents in God’s name. The right can point to the millions murdered by Communists convinced they could remake humankind and bring heaven on earth. But somehow we think the problems are all on the other side.

One answer is Jordan Peterson’s. Here is how I would summarize what he has been suggesting: You want to improve the world? Improve yourself. Read history and understand the dangers of self-righteousness. Read literature and understand the human condition. Know who you are and the strengths and weaknesses of being a human being. Learn the limitations of reason. Be an exemplar of personal virtue.

This is good advice. It’s good for you. But it’s also good for the world even if you believe it oversells the possibility of individual action to ripple outward.

Unconvinced? Sure. I don’t blame you. It’s pretty unfashionable these days. So here are a few practical things I’d suggest for how to behave on Twitter, Facebook, and at social gatherings that are threatening to end in shouting matches or worse. I would summarize these suggestions as saying — when the world is increasingly uncivilized, take a step toward civility.

  1. Don’t be part of the positive feedback problem. When someone yells at you on the internet or in an email or across the dinner table, turn the volume down rather than up. Don’t respond in kind to the troll. Stay calm. It’s not as much fun as yelling or humiliating your opponent with a clever insult, but it’s not worth it. It takes a toll on you and it’s bad for the state of debate. And you might actually change someone’s mind.
  2. Be humble. Shakespeare had it right: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. You’re inevitably a cherry-picker, ignoring the facts and evidence that might challenge the certainty of your views. The world is a complex place. Truth is elusive. Don’t be so confident. You shouldn’t be.
  3. Imagine the possibility not just that you are wrong, but that the person you disagree with could be right. Try to imagine the best version of their views and not the straw man your side is constantly portraying. Imagine that it is possible that there is some virtue on the other side. We are all human beings, flawed, a mix of good and bad.

As best as I can remember, I only saw James Buchanan speak twice. The first time he changed the way I thought about trade. The second time I saw him speak, shortly before he passed away, he said something very deep and paradoxical. He said something like this: When I look to the future, I’m a pessimist. But when I look the past, I’m an optimist. What did he mean by that? He meant that right now, the future looks pretty bleak. But if we look to the past, we see times like the 1930s, when things must have looked a lot bleaker. Unemployment reached 25% in the United States and elsewhere. Fascism was on the rise around the world. And yet, the world recovered from those times and while things got worse, much worse before they got better, the resulting path was unimaginably more positive than could have been imagined at the time.

So maybe I am overreacting to the state of things today. But it doesn’t matter. The virtues of humility and decency are timeless. They are out of fashion today. Through our actions, maybe they can be fashionable once again.