Hatred comes first, and reasons follow after. In our time, from what I can see, political hatreds are the worst, because they are proof against any appeal to real things. Realities have receded, and the phantoms of imagination, of mass entertainment and its passions, rush in to take their place. Let me explain.
We used to have real things to appeal to. Local people used to be political in a direct and generally healthy sense. It was unavoidable. Do we float the ore on barges two hundred miles downriver, or would it be better to cut a canal across the watershed to reduce the distance to fifty miles? Should we lay a road with sharp turns to cross the mountain, or should we blast a tunnel through it? We have some funds for relieving the unemployed. To whom should we give them, and for how long? Should we prefer men with wives and children to unmarried men? Should we hire someone to teach Latin in our high school? Or would a German teacher fill a more immediate need?
These are good questions to ask. They are questions about how to attain a practical end when the end is agreed upon. We might ask similar questions about more important ends. How might we make it more likely that young men and women can learn to act upon their sexual attractions in a healthy way, and make it easier for them to marry sooner rather than later, and stay married? Given that culture without religion is an absurdity, how can we, with the kind of republic we have, encourage religious faith and observance, or at least, ensure that agents of government do not look upon them askance or place obstacles in their path? The elderly now commonly live far from their children. Is that a good thing? If it is not, what might we do to assist children who are taking care of their parents?
It goes without saying that you can’t have a discussion about anything important when everyone is shouting, and everyone will shout, because the copulation of mass entertainment and mass politics demands it. Social media does not help either. We become the tools of our tools. We are the less likely to read a book, because that takes silence and patience. So, too, we are less likely to read a political situation or any human reality. We are infected with the Saint Vitus dance of neural passion—not that the passions are deep. I am not talking about the great smoldering hatred of an Ahab, or the perilous love of a Don Giovanni. Depth of passion, whether good or evil, also demands silence and patience. These passions we suffer en masse are like a sandstorm in a desert. They have no direction. They do not touch the great solid earth beneath. They bring only chaos and darkness.
Show me the man, the saying goes, and I will find the crime. Tell me whom to hate, and I will find the causes. For there are always going to be causes. The current president is odious because he is arrogant and aggressive and narcissistic. But another recent president was odious even though he was slow of speech and deferent to his enemies. Man can always damn the neighbor to his left for being too loud, and damn the neighbor to his right for being too quiet, and damn his neighbor across the street for being a weakling compromiser huddling in the middle.
Imagine that the president were a Billy Bob Bumgarner, with a thick evangelical accent. Imagine that he has chosen as his Surgeon General a man like him in speech and culture, a Dr. Henry Lee Armbrister. January, 2020, comes along and Dr. Armbrister warns of a pandemic a-coming, as a judgment of God against a foolish and apostate nation. He recommends a national day of fasting and prayer. He also recommends exactly the same lockdowns and social distancing that we have had in the United States since March. The president acts upon his advice, the death rate from the pandemic is rather modestly eased, hospitals are not overburdened, and the economy goes into shock. Many millions of people are out of work. Some people see their life savings vanish. Some people lose the businesses they have sweated and strained to build for ten, twenty, thirty years. Imagine exactly what we are experiencing now, except that perhaps somewhat fewer people will die from the disease.
What would we hear from the politically-minded?
“He’s a snake-handler! An ignorant redneck!”
“We are destroying people’s lives because of a superstition!”
“The idiot probably doesn’t believe in dinosaurs. He’s never read a single book of scientific economics. He knows nothing about multiple causes. He can’t interpret statistics more complicated than what’s on a baseball card.”
“Look at what Sweden has done, secular Sweden! Why can’t we be more like Sweden? So much for Christians loving their neighbors!”
“Who’s profiting from these lockdowns? The big businesses will survive. They always do. It’s the little guy who is losing his shirt! This man’s pals will make money hand over fist when this is all over. But how many hundreds of thousands of small businesses will never open again?”
The responses write themselves. This is the kind of thing that neuro-politics must produce. I do not see a remedy. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. We have boarded the ship in a hurricane, and we will go where the hurricane takes us, perhaps to the bottom of the deep blue sea. God is not at the helm of this ship we have fashioned and boarded, but man is not at the helm either. No man is. No man or group of men is in charge of mass entertainment. The political parties themselves do not determine who their candidates for president will be. The engines of mass entertainment do that. The power—as Romano Guardini said long ago in The End of the Modern World—has passed into the control of demons.
I am not here recommending any single policy regarding the current virus. I am neither an epidemiologist nor an economist. I observe things around me. When this virus fades away, another virus will come. There will always be a virus. Mass entertainment demands it. The people must be heated to a fever—feverish envy, hatred, fear, obsession, filth, passion without a clear object, pride but in nothing tangible—the narcissism of people who read nothing, learn nothing, and build nothing, who hate and envy their own ancestors and plug up their ears against any lesson they might teach them. All these destructive sentiments are stoked by the machine of mass entertainment, which is also the machine of mass politics.
We can see, by fits and starts, that most of mass entertainment is foul and stupid and obscenely expensive all at once. Yet we do not see that mass politics is just mass entertainment applied to questions of the common good, unrestrained by any personal sense of responsibility or shame, dislocated from history and its hard lessons, and quite insensible of the stubborn realities of created things, even of man and woman and child. It is like a computer-generated image, a neural stunt which we work up to use upon ourselves, so that we can step off the observation deck of the Empire State Building, do a political back flip, and end up squarely in New Jersey, miles away. Left, right, and center lose all their meaning. Nothing remains but the passions, and of those the passions most easily engendered.
Charity is difficult. Hatred is easy. To be humble is to swim athwart the current of the self while envy floats downstream.
Am I a pessimist? As I see it, there are three options. One is to hope in God, and thus be sane. The other is to have no hope in man, and be sane. The third is to believe in man, and be quite mad. But perhaps we have gone past the third option: we trust in the machine. That is to cross over from madness to complete unmeaning, relinquishing the human altogether.
God came to the prophet on the mountain in the still small voice. “A bruised reed he shall not break,” says Isaiah about the great servant of God to come. Stillness, stillness. We live in a world where ignorant armies clash by night. We too must fight, but not as they. We will have much work to do when the hurricane has reduced the city to matchsticks. We must be found already doing that slow, patient, passionate and dispassionate work when the time comes, the work of true culture. We must not inject ourselves with the neural virus. For hatred comes first, and reasons follow after.
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