James Madison and our Tower of Babel
By pushing outcomes rather than striving for a common good, we put the project of self-government and a free press at tremendous risk.
Back in the early naughties, if one was a writer of any merit the landscape was bleak and expensive. Getting published was a nightmare of editors who couldn’t write but felt perfectly entitled to rewrite, gatekeepers who promised the world and offered nothing in exchange, and a mere handful of publications to get your works out into the public square.
For myself, I was lucky to find a mentor of sorts — the late Paul Akers of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star on how to write for an op-ed audience. I was never instructed, but merely guided with hints that came in ones and twos. Later advice on how to kill your babies pace Hemingway — self-editing — was excellent advice in an 800-word universe.
Then the internet happened.
The humble blog — a now antiquated term used by the illiterate — was an excellent haven for opinion writers who simply couldn’t be published. Or more accurately, writers who refused to have the bundle of editors, gatekeepers, journalists, reporters, rivals and other hobgoblins peeling the wings off what would otherwise be a perfectly serviceable fancy of flight.
This was the era of David Foster Wallace and Hunter Thompson, where young writers would furiously scribble in composition books in coffee shops while digesting pack upon pack of cigarettes. You could tell them by their look. When writing turned digital and literati turned into the blogerati it was a world full of unlocked ideas, music, literature, investigative journalism, philosophy, poetry, the arts.
Then Twitter happened.
"Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."
-- R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. quoting Eric Hoffer, "After the Hangover" (2010)
One of the great perils of writing in the postmodern age is that some idiot will always question your motives. For instance, I have never been paid a dime to publish an opinion piece one way or the other — it happens far more frequently than readers would ever care to imagine and there are plenty of ways to do it off the books — mostly for the simple fact that I just don’t care and never have.
For myself, this remains one of the great liberating things about writing.
While I love to do so, I don’t have a particular audience in mind. My thoughts do not aim for your assent, writes Robert Nozick, just place them alongside your own for awhile.
I don’t care much about confining my thoughts to 350 words or 140 characters either — that’s not thinking; that’s snark and everything wrong with an easily manipulated and entirely illiterate mob. Influence is the only metric of real power nowadays. I find that game tiresome in the extreme.
The catch is that most people don’t think of writing that way in an age where public relations and propagandists are constantly trying to massage narratives for a sack of cash — and will talk absolute trash about those who refuse to play the game. PAOs and PR types like to think of their craft as a profession. It is more closely linked to the first profession than anything ingenious of its own accord.
That’s not to say there aren’t incredibly decent people in the field.
Yet it does speak to a certain truth that deep down we all instinctively understand, whether it is the Ukraine or parental choice in public education all the way to the chatter at the PTO or courthouse — if it involves gossip, it involves power.
What has most of our information-soaked age turned into? Not thought or deliberation or reason. But provocation and reaction and emotion. All of which serve the nihilist spirit of the age. Such an environment can most certainly destroy an institution, but they cannot reinvent one much less govern a free society.
For a generation of us who came of age just before the era of social media and smartphones, who drank in thinkers like Christopher Hitchens and laughed at George Carlin even though we disagreed with half of what they said, read Infinite Jest and got the joke, watched films and read books that had no point other than to entertain or disturb with insight on the human condition — Cormac McCarthy comes to mind as a writer — there was an emphasis that it didn’t matter so much what you thought as much as it mattered that you were indeed thinking.
Today we don’t want people thinking or questioning at all. Merely consuming, swiping right, and getting those likes and hearts. When Instagram users say it is “all about the gram” it’s dopamine — not crack — that is the drug of choice.
Jonathan Haidt writes in the pages of The Atlantic about why the past 10 years online has surrendered the public square to the interminable pandering of the mob. If there was a shift in thinking from the advent of digital writing in 2003 made different than the arrival of splash-and-trash influencers in 2008 — perfected by the post-macaca media environment Virginia pioneered in 2006 — the difference was a dynamic where doing unto others before they did unto you was the only metric that mattered — regardless of its veracity:
By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.
This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
Or to put things in more Madisonian terms, the passions of faction:
The tech companies that enhanced virality from 2009 to 2012 brought us deep into Madison’s nightmare. Many authors quote his comments in “Federalist No. 10” on the innate human proclivity toward “faction,” by which he meant our tendency to divide ourselves into teams or parties that are so inflamed with “mutual animosity” that they are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
Welcome to the post-truth America, folks.
Harry Frankfurt writes about this phenomenon in a classic essay entitled On Bullshit — which is not the trite term that we think that it is, but rather a 1986 essay that was turned into a very small coffee table book in 2005 describing the pile of bovine excrement that defines our era in relation to those who tell the truth vs. those who tell outright lies.
The problem is that unlike liars who know what the truth is and intent to obfuscate the truth, bullshitters or artists of the form do not care about either what is true or whether something is a lie.
Doesn’t matter whether or not they have a firm argument. Doesn’t matter who they hurt in order to achieve an objective. They are sophists in the most degenerative and pejorative meanings of the term — they make arguments without any philos to sustain the common good.
They only care about outcomes.
Would you like to see two examples of absolute bullshit?
I don’t know Michael Paul Williams at all. I’m sure he is a tremendous soul with experiences and opportunities that have helped shape his worldview.
I’m sure he has good reasons why he views Critical Race Theory as a positive good and why opposition to viewing the world through the lens of race is somehow in and of itself racism.
But opposing divisive racial viewpoints is the epitome of systemic racism? As in the absolute pinnacle of human oppression? No greater evil other than opposing in good faith viewpoints that ask us to view history through the lens of racial determinism? Williams’ disdain and contempt are palpable here:
If Youngkin and other politicians want to stifle the interrogation of systemic racism, they should quote George Wallace, Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson. Keep King’s words out of your mouth.
For one, I am more than happy to interrogate the institutions co-opted by the Democratic Party that continue to propagate systemic racism in Virginia. One doesn’t exactly have to sharpen the crayons too hard to think of counterpoints to Mr. Williams’ argument here:
Massive Resistance — a program led by Virginia Democrats well into the 1970s whose culture still produced men such as former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam — comes to mind as an example.
Failing urban communities comes to mind. Fatherless households come to mind.
Segregation — another system of racism imposed by the modern Democratic Party — comes to mind.
Abortion — which disproportionately impacts minority babies in a way that far outpaces incarceration rates — comes to mind.
Welfare comes to mind as former President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s own biographer Robert Caro makes vividly clear. Even the Snopes article attempting to whitewash LBJ’s record is more conviction than vindication.
Not sure we have to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to interrogate who the villain is in this story — yes?
Which brings us to this curious piece in today’s Virginia Mercury, which is more sentiment than fact. But again — facts might be stubborn things, but are utterly inconvenient when outcomes are on the line:
Of course, Republicans were first in line to throw rocks at this scapegoat. Democrats might view it as convenient escapism — the dismissal of one rather than engaging the problem. As Chesley explains:
[Youngkin] and other elected Republicans have too often employed racial tropes and outright lies, after calculating such strategies would drive their base to the polls.
. . .
Youngkin ran his gubernatorial contest claiming “critical race theory” was harming public education. Conservatives had ginned up the catch-all phrase to incite their voters. The issue helped the political novice defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe last year.
Chesley engages in a list of horribles, up to and including:
The presence of an openly racist person on the Hampton Electoral Board ostensibly approved by the Hampton GOP,
Youngkin’s opposition to Critical Race Theory,
Trump’s questioning of Obama’s birth certificate, which Chesley claims is rooted in purely racial animus,
Trump’s claim of voter fraud in America’s inner cities, predominantly minority and ergo evidence of deep-seated racial animus,
The Republican Party’s failure to perform among minority communities, with Republicans barely capturing 13% of the black vote,
Senate Republicans asking direct questions of Judge-now-Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson,
The appearance of a noose during the January 6th riot,
One of the great failures of the postmodern political environment is that we really cannot make the argument of our opposition in its best possible light.
The Jesuits used to hammer this home — if you cannot understand the other person’s argument, then you do not understand your own.
I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether or not a series of dots really can be connected with a dark line from the inkwell of racism. One might be tempted to argue that we have a series of discrete events connected not by racism but linked in their opposition to a progressive agenda that promises DEI advocates within the institutions entirely predicating their existence on the fact that the institutions themselves — all run by the political left, mind you — have zero intentions on changing at all.
Democrats are quite fond of reminding Republicans that not all the bad actors from the Black Lives Matter and Antifa riots over the summer of 2020 are representative of the whole. Indeed, Chesley admits that not every Republican is inherently a racist before spinning back and decrying the institutional racism of his opposition.
Yet once again, we find little insight much less thought in this. Racism is a serious charge denoting a lack of both integrity and character. The charge itself is designed to put people on their back foot in the same way McCarthyism used the term communist to put leftists on their back foot.
Sometimes the charge can be coincidentally true.
Yet as we are reminded, correlation rarely if ever implies causality. And if the charge is sincerely issued, then the response should be sincerely met. Because it is not Republicans who tolerate racism. . .
Now one would suspect that Chesley and Williams both would point the finger at Virginia Democrats and insist that this remains a deeply ingrained problem among their own elites. The line that somehow Jim Crow Democrats were different wears thin.
These Democrats are the same institutional elite who turned Jim Crow into segregation, innovated a policy of eugenics and social hygiene that turned the heads of admiring Nazis in the 1930s, plowed interstates through minority neighborhoods, allowed urban centers to decay, attacked the traditional family, made high school diplomas about as worthless as elementary school stickers, used welfare and abortion to keep down “growth in populations we don’t want too many of” in the words of former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, tore down statues in lieu of reforming their own power base via the institutions, and now have invented the trope of giving away a couple of jobs here and there that make us aware of problems that — if the institutions ever fixed them — would render those very same positions obsolete.
It’s not rooted in truth.
It’s not even a lie.
They only care about outcomes.
Of course, I don’t want to insist that either Williams or Chesley are arguing in bad faith. In fact, they are both quite sincere. Where I find most arguments lacking is in their understanding of their opposition and the descent to faction that occurs when we don’t make a good faith effort to understand the other argument.
Haidt reflects on a comment made by former CIA analyst Martin Gurri on the collapse of the old legacy media:
The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.
Our great task is to build trust, disagree without being disagreeable, and to present the concerns of others in their best possible light — not as part of a power game but in defense of common things.
That is the only way to heed Madisonian warnings about what happens when we choose power over understanding. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a penalty for this:
Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another's speech. (Genesis 11:7)
Factions are the death of democracies, after all.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.