How to explain Brian Sims? None of the three most likely possibilities — that he is not very bright, that he is insane, that he is a fanatic — speaks very well of the Pennsylvania state representative, who for some reason decided to accost an elderly woman praying silently in front of an abortion facility, to film the attack, and then to boast about it on Twitter.
It is tempting to lean toward stupidity as an explanation for Sims’s shenanigans, if only because that is the most statistically likely scenario when the subject in question is a member of the Pennsylvania state legislature, as witless a collection of moldering goofs and ravening mediocrities as you will find in any of our state capitals.
But let’s not give short shrift to the insanity option. Sims — who holds elected office and previously worked for the Philadelphia Bar Association — offered a cash bounty to his social-media followers for identifying information with which to “dox” three teenage girls who were praying outside the same clinic. Mentally normal adult men do not go around photographing teenaged girls and then trolling for their names on social media in order to facilitate harassing them. Generally speaking, adult men who go around taking photographs of teenaged girls are considered creeps; Representative Sims is a homosexual, which may spare him the charge of lechery in this matter, but his behavior is still pretty weird.
The times being what they are, perhaps we should classify political fanaticism of the social-media performance-art variety as a kind of insanity. Political fanatics such as Sims live in the shadows between the idée fixe and outright monomania. The inferior kind — and Sims is the inferior kind — fixate on terminology as a substitute for ideas, and for them buzzwords are a necessary intellectual crutch. Hence, Sims’s shouty accusations of “white privilege” in the face of a young woman who, as she pointed out with a smile, is not white. Intersectionality — it is a bitch.
What should be remarkable (but is not remarkable) about the Sims video is the superficiality and banality of his thinking. His political arguments are utterly sophomoric, e.g. demanding that the elderly lady interrupt her Rosary to tell him how many unwanted children she is clothing and feeding. The taunt is childish: No one ever asks critics of capital punishment how many murderers they’re willing to bring into their homes. The Pennsylvania state legislature is not the Olympus of politics, but even that repulsive body deserves better than this stuff. It would be tempting to describe this as dorm-room discourse, but most kindergartens do not have dormitories.
Some fanatics are dangerous. Almost all of them are boring. They are tedious in themselves and the cause of tediousness in others. Forgive me for repeating this story: I once had a student who discovered the Palestinian cause in college, as a certain kind of WASP suburbanite does, and she endeavored to turn every conversation to the evils of Israel, rarely speaking a sentence that did include the word “Zionist,” which she pronounced in a distinctly low-pH way. I shared with her Winston Churchill’s observation that a fanatic is “a man who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” She did not miss a beat. “Exactly. It’s like when you’re debating with a Zionist . . .”
Representative Sims is a low kind of man with a low kind of mind, but Representative Sims is, in fact, representative. In our time, politics has become a very strong part of some people’s identities, fundamental to their self-conception. Partly it fills the hole left by the attenuation of religion, but it is also a kind of identity politics for — Representative Sims surely will appreciate the irony — college-educated white people. People without a politically piquant demographic characteristic (and being gay ain’t what it used to be) sometimes use affinity groups as a substitute, seeking in being a vegan or a socialist or a Hamas apologist the solidarity, cohesion, and social cachet they imagine African Americans or transgender decathletes enjoying by virtue of their membership in those ranks. They take up political causes just as some young people take up exotic religions, in the same way and for the same reason.
Representative Sims is an adult man and an elected representative in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Watching his rage-monkey videos, one wonders: “Does he not hear himself?”
Of course he hears himself. He doesn’t hear anything else.
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