Public Life Is Crazy, but Americans Aren’t

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is planning a comeback next year after a period of closure — without elephants, lions or other animals. The circus was cruel to the creatures, so it was decided, so in the future they will not be in the circus tent anymore.

Doesn’t matter. If you want beasts of the jungle – the savages of nature, red of tooth and claw – politics and media offer an ongoing and spectacular show of rampaging ideology, riots, racial hatred, store looting, burning police cars, pageants, Proud Boys, deadly pandemics, Mass shootings, cops caught on video doing underhanded things, the Capitol being attacked by mobs. Politics and the media are co-producers of the immense moral circus of the 21st century. It offers Americans such grand and furious constitutional spectacles as roe and Dobbs, such extravagances as Transgender Follies and White Supremacy vs. Black Lives Matter. Withheld (though not necessarily by popular demand): The Orange Man and the Dotard.

Meanwhile, Americans are struggling with their private lives and sorting out their private thoughts. Sometimes, however, they are inflamed by the tremendous excitement of the circus. How could they not be? But the private mind is still committed to the reason and realism necessary for survival. What Americans worry about is inflation. Reality is a stubborn thing. Adults know that the big show is being foisted on them. They understand that a circus is a circus. The common American mind—mens sana in corpore morbido– is the best hope now, I suppose.

The issues (e.g. abortion) are urgent and real, but private thinking seems to understand the complexities more subtly and responsibly than ideologues and performers in the media mosh pits. The private mind can discern the public deceit. In the past anyway. Individuals know that many decisions in life – perhaps most – are difficult and can involve 48/52 calls, even 49/51. This applies to the choice of partner and other important matters.

Public performances inherently simplify and distort—these are the ways of theatre, careerism, politics and, unfortunately, journalism. You have a better story to tell when the details are bright and vivid – and, as can happen, even wrong. This is nothing new. Shakespeare understood. “King Lear”, the greatest of his plays, is full of transcendent truth. But it would be a boring production if the old man just ended up in a mediocre nursing home in Wichita, Kan., with awkward daughters complaining about how much it costs. The old king must lie homeless and naked on the heath. He must be eloquent, cosmically insane. The younger generation must be either holy (Edgar, Cordelia) or monstrous (Edmund, Goneril, Regan), and before the evening is over the stage must be littered with corpses. The monsters and saints in “Lear” are evil twins of each other, like the political left and right of our time.

American politics and the media are deeply competing forms of entertainment, information, and propaganda. Both have been Shakespearian in their stagecraft since the 1960s, if not in their language or subtle thinking. The baby boomer generation, now as old as the old king, orchestrated the conspiracy of “Lear” – a powerful tale of replacement. This generation overthrew the authority of the fathers and all their ways at a young age. That happened first with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. Over time, the principle of renewal through patricide developed broader ambitions and began to attack all “patriarchal” norms, including marriage and then the very concept of man and woman. The old solidities must be dissolved. (But why exactly?)

This is the dramaturgy of American public culture, a performative public mind addicted to its sentiments and categories. The American ideologist is a drama queen. I may be deluding myself, but I suspect that Americans stay in touch with reality in the privacy of their own minds, in conversations with friends and family. When it comes to abortion, for example, or race, guns, and transgenderism, the private mind remains fairly sane and human. Among other things, it remains contradictory. There is such a thing as intelligent ambivalence. People in the privacy of their minds don’t have to be consistent. You will not be burdened or corrupted by performance requirements. This is true even in the noise of social media.

The ways of performative politics and the media prey on unformed minds. The danger is that over time these ways will displace what we previously recognized as reality and install in its place their theatrical and sinister and essentially cartoonish ideas. What was Uvalde or Highland Park but examples of the (very sick) private mind putting on grotesque public performances?

Still, it could be that the extreme divisions in America are now gravitating towards the kind of exhausted resolve hinted at by the closing curtain of “King Lear.” The house lights come on; it’s time to move on.

Americans are worried, but they’re not crazy.

Mr. Morrow is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.

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