For a very long time, thousands of years, in fact, politics was a complex variation on the fable of the blind men and the elephant, each individual and each school of thought perceiving, at best, an aspect of the great and permanent problem before us. Groping at reality from behind the inescapable veil of ignorance, our reach exceeds our grasp. The rate of GDP growth, the man sleeping in the street, the number of months it takes to become licensed as an interior decorator, Levantine unrest — all of these things are part of the same animal, but it is impossible for any of us to comprehend the beast, our impressions limited to an ear or a tusk.
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
But say this for the blind sages of the fable: They were reaching out. In the 21st century, we have regressed to the Freudian phallic stage of development, reaching in, back in short pants with our hands all the way down them, which gives one a rather limited impression of the elephant in the room.
The “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, directed at the fanatical Islamist slavers in Nigeria, has inspired selfies from U.S. senators and the wife of the president of these United States, while State Department spokesman Jen Psaki, the Pippi Longstocking of the diplomatic world, took to Twitter to photograph herself with a “United for Ukraine” placard. To confront the heinous crimes of Boko Haram, a U.S. senator has many options — for example, introducing an authorization to use military force against said terrorist franchise. The U.S. State Department has many tools at its disposal for confronting the expansionist tendencies of Vladimir Putin.
The selfie is not among those tools.
Imagine, if you can, the abjectly juvenile state of mind necessary to contemplate the hundreds of Nigerian girls taken into slavery by a fanatical Muslim anti-education militia — whose characteristic activity beyond slave-taking is setting fire to children — and, in the face of all that horror, concluding: “You know what this situation really calls for? A cutesy picture of . . . me!” Bad enough when your cousin Caitlin at Bryn Mawr does that — but senators? State Department officials? These are men and (disproportionately, I think) women of power and influence, who have the ability to engage with the world and change it. But they are enchanted by the unique witchcraft of the age of social media, the totemic power of the digital expression of the self. It is not accidental that the only good selfie in the history of world leaders came well before the invention of Twitter from a man with an ego sufficiently robust not to require the constant reinforcement that is the psychic lifeblood of Millennials (and Washingtonians well old enough to know better), without which they find themselves paralyzed.
Bishop Berkeley, the early-18th-century champion of the philosophy of “immaterialism,” which held that all things exist only as subjective sensory experiences, condensed his thought into this slogan: “To be is to be perceived.” Bishop Berkeley’s works were regarded with some skepticism at the time of their publication; today, his proverb is more influential than the Nicene Creed. God forgive me for my lack of charity, but I hope that, on his way to Abraham’s bosom, His Excellency got at least a brief taste of Purgatory for planting that seed in the mind of mankind.
But unlike his 21st-century epigones, Bishop Berkeley did not believe that being perceived was in and of itself sufficient. He was very much engaged with the world, not only through his intellectual correspondence but also through such practical projects as creating the Foundling Hospital to look after London’s orphans and abandoned children. He did not merely commission William Hogarth to paint a portrait of him looking serious above the slogan #standwithorphans.
Our politics, particularly among young people and those who interact with the world mainly through social media, is no longer about the world but about the self. It is mostly an exercise in what economists call “signaling,” a way to communicate to friends, and to the world, that one is a certain superior kind of person. As the socialist blogger Fredrik deBoer put it:
Online liberalism, as I’ve said many times, is not actually a series of political beliefs and alliances but instead a set of social cues that are adopted to demonstrate one’s class background — economic class, certainly, but more cultural class, the various linguistic and consumptive signals that assure those around you that you’re the right kind of person and which appear to be the only thing that America’s 20-something progressives really care about anymore. The dominance of personal branding and cultural signaling over political theory means that liberal attitudes change very rapidly and then congeal into a consensus that is supposedly so obviously correct that it does not need defending.
This, as Mr. deBoer writes, leads not only to philosophically inconsistent views, changing in roughly the same manner as fashion, but also to the headlong abandonment of principle as such. Considering the cases of athlete-shoplifter Jameis Winston, alleged child molester Woody Allen, deposed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, and billionaire creep Donald Sterling, he writes: “In the past year, liberalism as an elite social phenomenon has abandoned first rights of the accused and second the right to free expression. The Jameis Winston and Woody Allen sexual-assault cases saw the rise of resistance to any discussion whatsoever of due process and rights of the accused . . . [And those] mentioning those rights at all were immediately and angrily denounced, and accused of insufficient resistance to (if not outright support for) rape and rape culture.”
But the point of discussions about subjects such as the case of Mr. Sterling, or of such political hippogriffs as “rape culture,” is not to say something about the subject; it is to say something about the speaker. It is the political-discourse version of conspicuous consumption. That matters relatively little in the case of such trivial figures as hashtag-activists Michelle Obama or Kim Kardashian, who occupy roughly comparable places in the cultural firmament. But when preening replaces thinking as a cultural habit, our ability to engage in responsible self-government is diminished.
I recently read Dave Eggers’s excellent new novel, The Circle, in which he assumes that the instantaneous and (when desired) anonymous nature of online communication brings out the worst in people. I think that Mr. Eggers is only partly correct. Social media and other online communications do not make people vicious and shallow; they reveal people as vicious and shallow. Sometimes, that is called “democraticizing the media,” and sometimes it is that. Other times, it’s just giving people enough rope to hang themselves publicly for the crime of felonious jackassery. Many of my more populist-leaning conservative friends are fond of railing against “elites” and “elite opinion,” and that is understandable — but they should give some sober consideration to the alternative, which is the opinion of people who invite you to play Farmville in between bouts of #lookatmeplease.
This is far from limited to politics. In my moonlight job as a theater critic, I am occasionally enraged but consistently perplexed at the habits of New York City theatergoers, from audiences at $200-a-ticket Broadway shows to the self-consciously intellectual types at off-off-off-somebody’s-basement productions: Tourists talking all the way through The Cripple of Inishmaan, hipsters live-tweeting Brooklyn warehouse shows, etc. True disciples of Bishop Berkeley, they believe that if they cease talking then they cease to exist. At a recent performance of Of Mice and Men, with an excellent Chris O’Dowd in the role of Lennie, the Longacre Theater lit up for George’s final monologue — not because the house lights had come on, but because a thousand cell phones were making videos, which no doubt were put up immediately on Facebook pages and the like. To be is to be perceived, and that is, even at the theater, more important than perceiving to narcissistic children of all ages.
A play is relatively easy to perceive — it is designed to facilitate its own perception. A complicated public-policy issue is not so easy to perceive. But in the context of the very difficult questions of our times, it is more important to perceive than to be perceived. Our responsibility is not to the satisfaction of our own egos, but to reality. We are part of a vanishingly small minority of all the people who have ever lived, having both political freedom and technology that connects us, at very little cost or inconvenience, to most of the world’s relevant knowledge. If you believe, as I believe, that we have a positive moral obligation toward our fellow human beings, then that implies, at the very least, a “Do no harm” rule when it comes to matters of politics and policy. Perhaps you have interests other than politics — in fact, I hope you do. As the founder of this magazine once observed, decent people would leave politics alone if we thought politics would leave us alone. But if you choose to participate in politics, you might consider that more people follow Kim Kardashian on Twitter than read every political periodical in the English language of whatever ideological bent combined, that Web traffic on JSTOR is probably not a rounding error of that on PornHub, and that all the readers of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and the Washington Post, combined, add up to fewer people than are playing Farmville on any given day.
If your reading on public affairs has not progressed much past Internet memes, you have a responsibility to your country: Don’t vote. In fact, you probably should not even speak about those things. There is no shame in that; all of us are mostly ignorant about most things, as my poor father is reminded every time he tries to talk to me about sports. But please, if you actually care about the world and the human beings who inhabit it, stop — just stop — subordinating girls taken into slavery in Nigeria to the satisfaction of your ego. Go read a book. This is not about you.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.