Funny thing about my new book: I had begun shopping around the proposal for writing it long before my brief period of employment with that other magazine and the subsequent witless chimp-brained media freakout and Caffeine-Free Diet Maoist struggle session that followed and climaxed with my being fired by Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg on my third day of employment there and after a good deal of stink eye from some seething young woman with an unfortunate All-Lesbian World Bowling Champion haircut loitering glumly in the coffee room. I was, for a few days, a writer who was much more read about than read. After the ninth (or so) New York Times denunciation of my soul and my work, my professional dance card began to fill up with pleasing speed.
That’s the upside of being in the controversy business: I always get paid. Hooray for me.1
But why was I flogging this book way back before I got involved in what I must with some genuine disappointment characterize as only the second-most-infamous episode involving a shady right-winger and the Watergate complex?2 There were good reasons. A number of disturbing sociopolitical meltdowns combining deep stupidity with casual authoritarianism already had taken place: the firing of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for his views on marriage, and the IRS’s criminal leak of the National Organization for Marriage’s confidential tax documents in the service of a campaign to harass and attack its donors; the firing of James Damore for the crime of being stupid enough to believe that his po-faced ham-souled Caitlyn-haunted superiors at Google were being anything like halfway serious when they asked for dialogue about diversity in the firm; the campaigns against Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss at the New York Times; the “deplatforming”3 of conservatives and other nonconforming voices on social media; the violence and firebombings targeting unpopular speakers at Berkeley and other college campuses; and much more. The blackshirts and the American Association of Outrage Professionals were as creepily tumescent as Anthony Weiner cruising a Hello Kitty boutique, and there was outrage-porn aplenty, rampant, unapologetic, depraved — but my little book proposal was met with almost no excitement until I became, for a couple of weeks, the headline in the story.
I revisit that tawdry little episode in the book, to the extent that it is necessary to the story, but it isn’t a memoir. My subject is not the life and times of Kevin D. Williamson.4 My subject is what Coriolanus5 called “the beast with many heads” — mob politics, on social media and in what passes for real life, which increasingly is patterned on social media — and its effects on our political discourse and our culture. It is the most important political issue of our time. Discourse — the health and character of that discourse — is a force that exists above and outside the specific policy questions of the day; it is the master issue that will determine how every other issue is talked about and thought about — and whether those issues are thought about at all.
We think in language. We signal6 in memes. Language is the instrument of discourse. Memes are the instrument of antidiscourse, i.e., communication designed and deployed to prevent the exchange of information and perspectives rather than to enable it, a weapon of mass intellectual destruction — the moron bomb. The function of discourse is to know other minds and to make yours known to them; the function of antidiscourse is to lower the status of rivals and enemies. Antidiscourse is not a conversation about politics — it is politics; it is no more discourse than a “Beto for Senate” yard sign is literature. It is a way of holding the conversation captive within politics itself rather than permitting it to get partly clear of the wall and examine the questions of the day from the outside with some degree of clarity and independence. Antidiscourse and discourse serve different functions; trying to understand what is going on in political life by relying on antidiscourse is like trying to fuel a Falcon Heavy rocket with Soarin’ Strawberry Kool-Aid. Caravaggio didn’t paint The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew with his dick.
War and peace, taxing and spending, crime and punishment, detonating munitions on the heads of goat-bothering savages in Panjshir until all that’s left looks like a hot-yoga class following a PTA meeting in Greenwich, Conn.: None of these can be addressed in a way that does any real political work without a political culture that not only tolerates genuine discourse — meaning genuine disagreement — but also understands what discourse is for, which is not petty advantage-seeking, cultural gang-sign flashing, and cheap partisan opportunism. But we do not have that kind of a political culture, or, in some ways, any culture at all, properly understood. What we have is Instant Culture, which is to culture what stevia is to sugar, what masturbation is to sex, what Paul Krugman’s New York Times vomitus is to journalism, what Monday’s dank memes are to the English language: a substitute that replicates the real thing in certain formal ways but that remains nonetheless entirely lacking in the essence of the thing itself.
And that is why the desire for popularity is the original sin of the American intellectual: When he subordinates his independent mind to the demands of the herd, he ceases to perform any useful function. He abandons culture for Instant Culture, discourse for antidiscourse, and truth-seeking for status-seeking.
Culture, as Michael Oakeshott characterized it, is a conversation: “As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”7 Because it is characterized by crude signaling rather than by conversation as such, Instant Culture differs from culture properly understood in that it includes no meaningful connections across time, having the character of a spasm rather than that of a continuity. It is the Jacobin herd stampeding through G. K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” and like any stampeding herd it is both terrifying and terrified, a directionless and hysterical moral panic on the digital hoof.
Language is how we think; culture is where we think. Without culture and language, we are deprived of a means of intellectual and moral orientation and are forced to seek new and necessarily inferior ones, choosing from a New Jersey diner menu of grossness and insipidity: nationalism, racism, tribalism, class solidarity, religious particularism, “intersectionality” (which is only mutant nationalism, the same pre-Oedipal penis-clutching obsession with superficial markers of distinctiveness), ideological fanaticism, shallow partisanship — all of them jumbled together by the instruments of Instant Culture (social media and related Internet phenomena, antidiscourse, memery, the rituals of electronic tribalism) to produce the illiterate and unnavigable mess that now passes for our political culture, and our culture at large.
The question before us is whether American democracy can think — which would necessitate the rediscovery of rigorous literary language8 and political culture properly understood — or will abandon literacy and content itself with signaling. It will be quite something if we go from John Hancock’s extravagant paraph on Thomas Jefferson’s concise English masterpiece to signing our names with an “X” in just a few short centuries. One thinks of those isolated island-dwellers who discovered and lost and rediscovered barbed hooks and other technologies a half dozen times over the centuries. Peoples who fail to communicate cannot even preserve their own local memory.
This, like much else, was foreseen by George Orwell, who wrote in 1946:
It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: It is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Orwell made these observations about the bad political writing of his time — but our subliterate culture is well on its way to giving up writing entirely in favor of a crude new Instant Culture mode of semiotic exchange that amounts to a high-tech version of those old Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave paintings. The modern primitive is no less primitive for having a smartphone.9
The alternative to political discourse — you know, with sentences and stuff — is a hokey luchador wrestling match between the mind-killed partisans, grunting modern primitives, talk-radio hucksters, cable-news hustlers, purveyors of freeze-dried apocalypse lasagnas and mystical doggie vitamins, associate professors of being pissed off and generally aggrieved, and the sundry other dumbasstical sh**weasels10 who currently dominate our political conversation, a spectacle and a debacle that will go on and on — until it doesn’t.
The problem for mass democracy is that the demos does not think. It cannot. It lacks the requisite apparatus.
Groups do not think in any meaningful sense. People think — one at a time.
And they exchange thoughts, to use one of those expressions so common and shopworn that we have forgotten what it means. The value of such exchange is detectable in its absence. Once, not long ago, the morning headlines were full of “Jon Stewart Destroys” whatever the target of the comedian had been the night before. Stewart is gone now, having grown out his beard and gone off into the wilderness to feed on locusts and wild honey. But there are others. The Destroyer remains always with us.
The ascent is easy, then;
The event is feared! Should we again provoke
Our stronger, some worse way his wrath may find
To our destruction, if there be in Hell
Fear to be worse destroyed! What can be worse
Than to dwell here, driven out from bliss, condemned
In this abhorred deep to utter woe;
Where pain of unextinguishable fire
Must exercise us without hope of end,
The vassals of his anger, when the scourge
Inexorably, and the torturing hour,
Calls us to penance? More destroyed than thus,
We should be quite abolished, and expire.11
Culture is the context in which we think and share our thoughts. It is what makes William Shakespeare or John Milton or Thomas Jefferson alive to us, one unique human mind reaching out to another unique human mind through time through the medium of English sentences. Something just short of the entirety of popular American political discourse in our time consists of only two primitive sentences: “I affiliate with this,” “I disaffiliate from that,” translated into various kinds of social-media idiotgrams and post-literate chengyu:12 “So much this!” “lol wut?” That supercut gif of Ray Liotta laughing or a pic of Side-Eying Chloe or the U Mad troll or Trigglypuff when words themselves, however jumbled and dyspeptically yawped, become too much work for the unsteady minds and deformed souls of 21st-century mass so-called culture.
To these rapidly devolving human-shaped things, it’s a world of black hats and white hats. The excitable boys and girls on the radio went on and on about how the presidential election in 2016 was “binary,” which was a way of attempting to sound smart while saying “Shut up and get in line, boy!” and simultaneously being dumb as hammered goose by-product. In reality, it is Instant Culture, our debased substitute for culture itself, that has become neatly binate,13 being as it is only an instrument in the service of status-seeking, with the demands of tribalism everywhere debasing and squandering the only asset this country — this world — has: the functioning individual mind.
— This essay is adapted from the author’s new book, The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics, due from Gateway Editions this July.
- “. . . and f*** you.” Bad Religion, 1994. “I don’t exactly want to apologize for anything.”
- The Atlantic’s offices are at the Watergate, and skulking around the premises is always a bittersweet thing for a man like me.
- “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” So goes the wisdom of Tyrion Lannister. But you can tell what’s really on the mind of the pop-literary 21st century by the fact that Game of Thrones contains so few tongue amputations and so many genital amputations.
- I suppose I’ll write a memoir eventually. I think I’ll call it “The Gun Didn’t Know I Was Loaded.”
- Coriolanus, act 4, scene 1. William Shakespeare, c. 1605.
- Nothing like signifyin’ in the Henry Louis Gates Jr. sense, with its necessarily intelligent playfulness, but something essentially post-literate and cheerless. Something closer to what is commonly derided as “virtue-signaling.”
- “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Rationalism in Politics, 1962.
- How many American voters could actually read, say, Sartor Resartus or Moby-Dick? And by “read” I mean read the sentences, not read the words. What proportion of them could comprehend The Federalist Papers?
- From which he may in his accustomed fashion engage in high-tech poo-flinging.
- For “dumbasstical sh**weasels” you may read “ordinary constituents of the demos.” In much the same way as the patrician was once forbidden by custom to engage in trade and money-lending and most kinds of money-making activities, the ancient habit of intellectuals’ keeping rah-rah partisan politics at many arms’ length helped to order society by means of something we do not think very highly of in the age of social media: hierarchy. “The modern world has made the intellectual into a citizen, subject to all the responsibilities of a citizen, and consequently to despise lay passions is far more difficult for him than for his predecessors. If he is reproached for not looking upon national quarrels with the noble serenity of Descartes and Goethe, the intellectual may well retort that his nation claps a soldier’s pack on his back if she is insulted, and crushes him with taxes even if she is victorious. If shame is cried upon him because he does not rise superior to social hatreds, he will point out that the day of enlightened patronage is over, that to-day he has to earn his living, and that it is not his fault if he is eager to support the class which takes a pleasure in his productions. . . . Let me add that the modern writer’s desire to be a political man is excused by the fact that the position is to some extent offered him by public opinion, whereas the compatriots of Racine and La Bruyère would have laughed in their faces if they had thought of publishing their views on the advisability of the war with Holland or the legality of Chambres de réunion. There again, it was easier to be a true intellectual in the past than to-day.” Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals, 1927. Which is to say: The intellectual became a plebeian in part because the patricians abandoned their duty. N.B.: I have taken the liberty here and throughout of rendering as “intellectuals” the “clerks” of the Routledge edition, translated by Richard Aldington. “Clerks,” with its Kevin Smith connotations, just seems too weird and jarring to me, and it’s always been “intellectuals” in the title. I trust Roger Kimball, who edited that edition, will forgive me.
- Paradise Lost, book 2. John Milton, 1667.
- Like the idiomatic Chinese expressions, social-media chengyu are highly context-dependent and assume intimacy with a certain culture — in the case of social media, that’s roughly the culture depicted in Mike Judge’s prophetic Idiocracy. Social-media memes are in this sense the chengyu of an inferior literary tradition, a system of literary and historical allusions for people without a literature or history.
- E.g., the symbiotic relationship between Antifa and Proud Boys is identical to that of the Democratic party and the Republican party in its dynamic, each faction providing the other the one thing whose absence would rob the opposite party, and hence the entire symbiotic relationship, of its coherence: a mortal enemy. The Proud Boys and Antifa are playing the same game of make-believe. They are not seriously competing for political power: They are playing with each other, just as if they were playing softball or tiddlywinks. You will remember that energetic partisans left and right in 2016 reserved their bitterest invective for those who declined to choose between the salted and the unsalted sh** sandwich and subordinate themselves to one faction or the other with the appropriate gusto. Tribal opposition is part of the game; independent criticism is not.