When does a pattern of behavior become a ritual?
And no, thank you very much, my drinking has not become a problem. Rather I’m puzzling about this stuff as part umpteen of umpteen hundred of my ongoing “Happy Warrior” series on Twitter and the Future of Mankind.
Five, six years ago I got self-conscious every time I referenced in a pulped-wood column some 140-character missive somebody else had launched into the digital ether. Writing about tweets felt attenuated and unserious. It still kind of does, even though — or perhaps because — Twitter has in the interval become the most notorious communications medium in the world, and the preferred battleground of our addled president and the motley who self-identify as “the Resistance” to him.
But for all its notoriety, for all the emotional energy we’ve invested in it, for all the work it does as the vessel of our most putrid thoughts, it somehow feels less consequential with each passing day. The keyboard conflicts, especially the conflict between POTUS and the many Losers and Haters, feel increasingly causally isolated from the unfolding of events in the, you know, real world.
If this is true, then any sane man should be glad of it. But what’s interesting is that even though the people actually making policy and running businesses and living their lives off the Twitter grid appear to have learned how to bracket off this forever flame war being waged by tapping thumbs and forefingers around the world, the combatants in that war remain themselves undaunted and, if anything, only grow in their zeal. The cycle of provocation, outrage, denunciation, and escalation continues apace, with all involved seemingly convinced of their own efficacy even as not a damned thing changes.
And so I ask again, when does a pattern of behavior become a ritual?
Let’s make like college freshmen and dial up Wikipedia.
A ritual, we’re told, “is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects” that is “characterized but not defined by formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.”
Is there not pre-coded form, rigid fixity, and, oh, so much performance in each litigation of a presidential tweet? Do we not, every time, hear the same collection of panicky expletives from shrill comediennes? The same sober and somber expressions of disquiet and great pause from David Frum? The same unmoored schadenfreude from the MAGA — or, I’ll beg your pardon, the anti-anti-MAGA — set?
More Wikipedia: “Ritual utilizes a limited and rigidly organized set of expressions which anthropologists call a ‘restricted code’ . . . limited in intonation, syntax, vocabulary, loudness, and fixity of order. Limiting what can be said thereby induces ‘acceptance, compliance, or at least forbearance with regard to any overt challenge.’”
And indeed sometimes in response to presidential tweets we get mere clichéd incantations and exclamations meant to stand in for entire arguments. As Charlie Cooke put it in his late essay on Jennifer Rubin, is there a day that goes by without “Really” or “In 2017” or “Let that sink in” appended to the top of some half thought from the White House? It’s a kind of call-and-response that doesn’t require anything beyond superficially wielding the correct words, just as even Christmas-and-Easter Catholics know the correct times to utter “Amen” or “And with your spirit,” even if they have half-forgotten the context.
Rituals can of course be very powerful things. They’re vehicles for social cohesion and the transmission of values, and they do, to be sure, occasionally involve killing people and stuff like that. Likewise, the emanations of the president, and their ritualistic glorification and denunciation, occasionally have real-world consequences.
But perhaps the most striking feature of a presidency born and bred on Twitter is how little any of it has mattered, how hermetic the entire affair is. As Ross Douthat tweeted, of all things, it isn’t the president’s behavior in office that is surprising. It’s everyone else’s behavior. “Investors, foreign [governments], even to some extent his opponents, all of whom have entered into a tacit conspiracy to act as if his behavior isn’t really part of the presidency.”
The bad news for the Resistance is that if POTUS’s tweets don’t matter then theirs doubly don’t. But I wonder if that’s even the point. One aim of ritual is self-purification, another catharsis, and neither requires that one’s epic trolls and sick burns actually accomplish anything.
The tangible effects of this presidency seem mostly to have been produced by Jim Mattis, Nikki Haley, Mitch McConnell, sundry agency heads, and so forth, while far, far away at the margins lie the president’s biggest partisans and greatest detractors, preparing their bodies for another day’s rites.