“The intellectual cannot operate at room temperature.”
— Eric Hoffer, First Things, Last Things (1971)
Eric Hoffer (1902–1983) meant that intellectuals in his day tended not to be temperate. In our day, this defect — moral overheating — has been democratized: Anyone can have it. Now, everybody can be happily furious, delirious with hysteria, and intoxicated with intimations of apocalypse, all day every day.
In 2017, many others emulated this act. Were Hoffer still with us, he would marvel at today’s vast, deep reservoirs of extravagant rhetoric. For example:
During two decades, the Internet was barely regulated as it delighted its users. In 2015, a regulatory policy (“net neutrality”), one without a constituency sufficient to move Congress, was imposed by bureaucratic fiat. Thirty-three months later, net neutrality was ended. And the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth commenced: “This is the end of the Internet as we know it” (Senator Bernie Sanders); “A brazen betrayal . . . disastrous . . . I am disgusted” (Senator Richard Blumenthal); “Outrageous” (Senator Cory Booker); “Horrible” (Senator Tim Kaine); “Shameful” (Senator Sherrod Brown).
The many Americans who are happiest when unhappy seem as addicted to indignation as the fewer Americans are to cocaine. Brain imaging might show the same pleasure points lighting up in both cohorts. Furthermore, because today’s technologies have eliminated barriers to entry into public conversations, ignorance and intemperateness are not barriers. Because modern technologies allow the instant, costless dissemination of fulminations, and because the more vituperative the fulminations the more apt they are to be noticed in the digital clutter, public conversations often quickly degenerate into something less.
Christopher DeMuth, president emeritus of the American Enterprise Institute, notes the interaction of high affluence and modern technologies. “Americans have attained levels of material comfort, leisure time, and education unknown until the recent past.” And as Americans have become “entangled by networks of communication,” they have entered “a world of empowered mass intimacy” that encourages the better but also “the darker angels of human nature.” New modes of communication enable us “to organize ourselves into highly defined networks of affinity and endeavor.” These enable splendid cooperative endeavors; but they also are “fracturing our politics.”
Institutions that hitherto organized and stabilized politics — parties, Congress, federalism, civic organizations — have been, DeMuth says, “deconstructed by a thousand networks of ideology, interest, and identity.” Such “private networks have commandeered central institutions of government.” Congress, especially, has buckled beneath the weight of “many more numerous political causes than a representative legislature can manage.” Congress has responded by offloading onto the administrative state’s executive agencies activities that are essentially legislative. So, its members are free to “strut and fret on the national stage” on behalf of causes that are made conspicuous, articulate, and potent by the new technology-created networks.
The result is an ever-more-clamorous politics, and the survival of the shrillest. Hence 2017, the year of living splenetically, has been replete with confirmations of Eric Hoffer’s aphorisms: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” And: “We lie the loudest when we lie to ourselves.”
— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is [email protected]. © 2017 Washington Post Writers Group