The Campaign Spot

What Fuels Irrationality in Our Public Life?

A lot of readers liked this section of today’s Morning Jolt:

How Do Our Most Irrational Foes Get Formed?

I was actually thinking these thoughts before I heard the news that somebody “SWATed” Erick Erickson of RedState and CNN — that is, anonymously called his local police with a false report of a shooting, to harass Erickson and his family and perhaps hope for some police raid to go . . . quite wrong.

I think our culture’s ratio of crazy-people-to-non-crazy-people is getting out of whack.

There have always been crazy people in every society. And mind you, I’m not talking about psychosis or hallucinations. I’m just referring to people who develop an obsession and whose focus upon that obsession makes . . . public life more challenging for the rest of us.

In the past, if you had a worldview that was far from the mainstream, you had to seek out people who agreed with you, and sometimes that was hard. There was a good chance that you would encounter lots of people who would say, “What on earth are you talking about? That’s crazy! How could you possibly believe that?”

Enter the Internet. The good news is, if you really want to talk about obscure bits of history, or political issues, or sports, or pop culture, chances are, there’s some online community for you. Of course, this applies to every interest, including the bad ones — hate groups, child pornographers, extremists of every stripe. (In the book about online social networks, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky discusses anorexia support groups online where the anorexics encouraged each other to remain anorexic.) And of course, with the Internet, every conspiracy theorist can finds dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people who find their theory completely plausible and in fact convincing, and provide reinforcement. It’s the Pauline Kael effect on a massive scale; everyone they know — or more specifically, the majority of the people who they interact with online — believe the government arranged 9/11 or whatever.

(Walking through a Barnes & Noble this weekend, in the remainders bin I saw Jesse Ventura’s latest, 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You to Read. Now . . . if a guy like Jesse Ventura can collect all of these documents in one book, and get that book published and distributed in every major chain bookseller in America . . . then our skepticism of the effectiveness of government bureaucracies is proven well-founded once again. Or the government doesn’t really care if we read those documents. I’d like to think that if the documents really were the sort of thing the government didn’t want us to read — say, the NOC list — the government would have a better method of keeping the information secret. Although having the documents published by Jesse Ventura could be a fantastic reverse-psychology method of making sure no one takes them seriously.)

So I can’t help but suspect that we have more crazy people walking around than in the pre-Internet days. Again, I’m not talking about hearing voices or the other off-the-charts categories of crazy. Just the all-consuming obsession with a particular topic: Since this is a political newsletter and chances are you’re interested in politics, chances are we’re going to encounter folks who just have some sort of unhealthy level of focus on a particular topic or political figure or belief that “they” are responsible for almost everything that goes wrong in this world.

In a way, this kind of modern ease of slipping into an obsession is a luxury. You get the feeling that in past generations, perhaps there was some other all-consuming goal — a societal one like avoiding the Black Plague, or westward expansion, or beating the Nazis and Japanese — that occupied the minds of most of the populace. To be crazy meant you weren’t dealing with this potentially life-threatening problem, and as a result, you would probably die earlier than normal.

Modern life is safer and better, thankfully. We don’t fear smallpox, an invading army, or rabid beasts; few of us fear dying from exposure or hunger. Making ends meet has become a bit more challenging, but even with the seemingly endless economic hard times, many places have 99 weeks of unemployment insurance. For the unemployed and under-employed, the lack of work means limited money but a surplus of time. Time easily spent online, and time spent alone: “Today, more than fifty per cent of U.S. residents are single, nearly a third of all households have just one resident, and five million adults younger than thirty-five live alone.” Perhaps idle hands really are the devil’s workshop.

The computer — the glowing screen that I’m typing these words on, and that I spend large chunks of every weekday and weeknight staring at — is not great for reinforcing one’s sense of reality. From my interactions online — this newsletter, e-mail, the comments in response to the Campaign Spot, Twitter, etc. — it would be very easy for me to conclude that the public at large is a) as interested in politics are I/we are and b) as conservative as I/we are. And then I finish writing the Jolt, go about the actions of daily life and child-rearing, go to get my morning coffee, and throughout my morning’s travels, I encounter many, many people who appear to spend little or no time thinking about politics.

When we see people behaving in a way that seems so inexplicable to us — political activists who seem consumed with vindictiveness towards those who disagree, and hell-bent on inflicting whatever misery they can upon those whose only sin is to express a contrary opinion — it probably reflects a worldview shaped by words on a screen, and interaction with a very small and unrepresentative group, focusing on topics that are obscure and odd to most of the general public. (Yes, I realize about half of that description applies to all of us.) They wear the obscurity of their cause as a badge of honor; they are the few enlightened ones, while the rest of the “sheeple” sleepwalk through their lives. Those who express contrary opinions aren’t just exercising their First Amendment rights; they’re perpetuating the system of injustice. They cannot be permitted to continue doing such seemingly innocuous acts; only the harshest and most brutal retaliation will intimidate them into silence. After all, the end justifies the means. Everyone they talk to agrees. Well, everyone they type to, at least.

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