The promise of Social Media Land was always, to some extent, an imperialistic dream. The geeks who created this online world were all, to a man, urban liberals who hoped the Internet would bring the light of civilization to Sameville, a mythological small town where everybody’s white and wrong. The enlightened minds of the multicultural metropolis were going to bring the true gospel of diversity and tolerance to the benighted citizens of Sameville. If these guys had a theme song, it would be a cover of Walter Donaldson’s Jazz Era classic “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” (1919) entitled “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down in Stupidlandia (After They’ve Seen Portlandia)?”
The dream came true. Well, sort of. When I was a kid, there were still people in my working-class neighborhood who believed that if you scared a pregnant woman, her baby would be born with a tail. Ignorance like this of shockingly medieval proportions was everywhere to be found. Few of my friends had a working 20th-century knowledge of human anatomy, much less the natural world. But I’m happy to report that the Internet, and especially Wikipedia, has cleared up much of this ignorance.
My children have access to far more accurate knowledge about things like how a woman gets pregnant than most of my friends did at their age. What’s more, to the best of my knowledge, none of their friends believe in babies with tails. To some extent, then, the Internet has indeed been a force of enlightenment in our world. But its enlightenment has been limited in scope, in part, because the geeks who dreamed of conquering small-town ignorance failed to anticipate the emergence of Sameville’s online doppelgänger: Likeville.
These days, any simpleminded partisan with a political ax to grind can find a Likeville, an online community of like-minded whack-jobs who’ll happily Facebook-like every stupid thing he says. Likeville isn’t just a safe space for stupid, it’s boot camp for bullshit.
Likeville arms its citizens with plenty of ideological ammunition (e.g., bogus stats, pre-fab arguments, etc.). Before long, what was once a more-or-less harmless, single-issue troll has morphed into something far more monstrous and formidable: a veritable Swiss-army knife of bullshit, a perfect storm of bad ideas, a walking Wikipedia of stupid.
There are those who see this as a kind of progress, as a perfect example of the democratization of knowledge in the Information Age. But I think it’s more like giving nuclear weapons to a crazy little country run by coked-up child soldiers. Regardless, what’s done is done, and there’s no turning back: the genie’s out of the bottle. These Frankenstein creations of the Internet are now, as they will continue to be for quite some time, a major obstacle to 21st-century Enlightenment.
Getting sucked into the insanity of the 2016 election campaign was like getting sucked into an ancient myth. One minute you’re living your life, next minute you’re a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Seriously, I feel like I should write a sequel to A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically (2007) entitled The Year of Living Homerically (2017).
Were we not, like Odysseus’s men, turned into swine? Were we not, like Odysseus, bewitched? Did we not lose track of time, trumping till two, night after night? Waking up this past weekend, after a thoroughly unhealthy, year-long obsession with American politics, I felt like disoriented Odysseus, coming to his senses on the Island of Ogygia.
Angry people are incredibly easy to manipulate. Same is true of the self-righteous. The more “political” you become, the more you become a mere pawn in someone else’s chess game. Your ideas are no longer your own. They’re not even your friends’ ideas. They are, instead, prefabricated ideas, manufactured by spin-doctors, mad scientists of the spirit, who understand human nature better than most, and are practiced in the art of deception.
These master manipulators understand that the pleasures of politics may be ugly pleasures, but they’re pleasures nonetheless. Anger feels good. Self-righteousness feels good. But these pleasures come at a cost. Politics erodes your creativity far more than it erodes your humanity. I can’t believe how boring we became! Thinking prefabricated ideas all the time is sort of like moving into a prefabricated suburban row house. You get to choose the drapes, what color to paint the walls, little else.
Oh Aristotle, stop snickering in the back row! Yes, yes, yes, I know! Man is indeed the political animal. But it’s equally true that the political too often brings out the animal in the man. And you, Edmund, for God’s sake, save your breath! I know what you’re gonna say: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Of course there’s truth to what you say, much truth. But can you not conceive of a species of evil that’s akin to quicksand? Can you not see why Epicurus admonished his followers to shun politics?
In a secular democracy such as ours, politics and religion are sort of like sports: you can ignore them for the most part and be a non-fan, like my friend Aaron Haspel, or you can be a fan, like me, who roots for the home team and never misses a game. Do I wanna see my team win? Yes! Big time. Am I willing to do anything to see to it that they win? No. Can I live with the fact that my team isn’t going to win all the time? Yes. Can I listen to criticism of my team without freaking out? Yes. Am I, at times, disappointed with my team’s performance? Yes. Do I think that the people rooting for the other side are evil monsters? No. Do I think they’re deluded idiots? No.
If you’re an ideologue, your answers to questions of this stamp are not like mine. And therein lies the difference between an ideologue and a fan. Like football hooligans, ideologues view anyone who’s not rooting for their team with suspicion. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. And anyone who’s against them is evil (or stupid). This includes, I hasten to add, not only those fans who are actively cheering for another team, but also non-fans, like my friend Aaron, who really don’t have a dog in the race. So far as the ideologue is concerned, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
I was raised to believe that apathetic citizens like Aaron were a clear and present danger to the Open Society. We had to find a way to engage these people, these non-fans, and turn them into fans, or all would soon be lost. I no longer subscribe to this silly view. Fans and non-fans aren’t the problem. It’s the football hooligans. They’re the problem. An Open Society such as ours which consisted of, say, 40% fans, 40% non-fans, and 10% football hooligans, could probably function, and function well, more or less indefinitely. But what if something traumatic happens, something polarizing, something which radicalizes a lot of the fans? What if half the fans morph into football hooligans? Is that a sustainable situation? Can it work? I seriously doubt it.
“Don’t talk about politics and religion at dinner.” That’s what my WASPy friend’s grandmother used to say. I was already into Aristotle in my late teens, and I was really into politics, so I thought this was a ridiculously stupid rule. Isn’t talking about politics central to what it means to live a fully human life? Besides, what else are we gonna talk about? The weather?
She died a few years ago. At her funeral, I was surprised to learn that she was a deeply religious woman. She was a deeply political woman too, a lifelong activist. It’s taken me decades, but this horribly divisive period has led me to reconsider the wisdom of her dinnertime rule.
She was policing the boundary between sacred and profane. She was setting aside dinnertime, family time, as a sacred place. I think she was forbidding the discussion of politics and religion, not because she thought these things were bullshit, but rather because she saw how powerfully divisive they could be. Thinking along similar lines, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic insisted upon the importance of the separation of church and state, not because they thought religion was bullshit, but because they respected its power.
Sometimes the Outrage Machine feels like a giant bird of prey that picks me up uninformed and drops me off misinformed. And sometimes it feels like a giant washing machine that churns and churns, in 24-hour news cycles, wringing out all that is good in me: leaving me, each time, a little more cynical, a little less charitable.
It’s like we’re staring at flashing billboards of BREAKING NEWS as we barrel along the Information Highway in the middle of the night, going God knows where, whilst the sounds of the suffering of the world grow harder and harder to hear: like the chirping, of a field full of crickets, in a country we no longer know.
—John Faithful Hamer, Welcome to Likeville (2018)