If social media material is any indication, the sheer ugliness of American political sentiment is increasing exponentially, and the ugliness is getting harder and harder to tune out. To the extent that its inner character shines through on the internet, it would seem American democracy isn’t so apt to “die in darkness” as it is to succumb to a strangely garish death by suffocation, buried under an avalanche of anti-democratic sentiments, sentiments increasingly normalized and aggressively promoted with almost ghoulish glee.
Democracy is a disposition; it is a willingness to curb one’s expectations regarding the good that mere politics can deliver. The democratic mentality refuses the temptation to see in politics a key to achieving some grand universal state of affairs satisfying to all; it calls for humility in the exercise of power and places this humility at the center of all political activity. This serves as perhaps the deepest check on the tyrannical impulse. The democratically inclined individual recognizes a necessity to tolerate the imperfection of the human condition (even while working continually to improve it) so as to avoid risking the Hell of a perverted “perfection” forcibly imposed. The tyrannical impulse falsely proclaims utopia to be within easy reach and takes its own insane ambition as adequate justification for the employment of radical and violent means to realize it. Democracy is anti-utopian and suspicious of power; it rejects the tyrannical impulse in principle, and it is this rather modest and unsensational disposition that is being effectively depopularized.
Anti-democratic sentiments are regularly blared at us by blowhards playacting as “journalists” at major media companies, but they’re also offered up for online acclamation in a thousand little memes. Steeped in snark, suffused with an air of defiant self-congratulation (as though advancing something truly daring and clever) anti-democratic memes flow freely into one’s feed like a stream of digital pollution, and in so doing attest to the gradual extinguishment of the democratic disposition. Let us examine just one of these memes. It reads as follows:
“Unbiased journalism is not pretending both sides are equally valid. Unbiased journalism is reporting the facts even if those facts include that one side is irredeemably awful. False neutrality is propaganda.”
So speaks the wisdom of the mob. Tyrannies establish themselves through the perversion of language and the manipulation of sentiment. We are presented here with an avowedly principled rejection of press objectivity (or neutrality); journalists are enjoined to act as agents of political vilification. A decent media, the meme asserts, would identify one of two alternatives as “irredeemably awful.” Since we operate within a two-party system, it seems only reasonable to assume that the two “sides” refers to the two parties. Simple math would suggest that if one of the two parties is rejected as “irredeemably awful,” one is left with exactly one party. The meme effectively calls for a one-party state.
The meme is a symptom — and admittedly a rather small one — but it is not unrepresentative. American political culture seems to be growing increasingly vindictive, with the avowed aim of politics being punitive. The meme effectively normalizes the spectacle of a significant portion of the American public demanding the vindictive repression of millions of other Americans. Vindictive political repression would appear to be a new group entitlement to which large numbers of people now seek to lay claim, with ample encouragement from demagogues in the media and elsewhere.
Perhaps social media merely amplifies and concentrates a vindictiveness that has been building for some time, the character of which may be seen in a comparison of the struggle for civil rights with the quest for gun control. In the civil rights struggle, the nation ultimately united behind efforts to extend rights to those who could not safely exercise them. In contrast to this, the advocates of gun control seek to revoke the rights of people who are not abusing the right in question. In the one case, Americans were urged to see themselves in those who had been unjustly deprived of their rights, and to wish for them to have full access to those rights. In the case of gun control advocacy Americans are urged to vindictively demand the disarming of people who have been effectively scapegoated for social problems to which they do not in any meaningful way contribute.
Gun control is — at best — a simpleminded non-solution to a social problem deliberately misattributed to a politically vulnerable class of people. Violent criminality cannot plausibly be pinned on legal firearms owners because legal firearms owners do not habitually engage in criminal activity. To attack gun owners for “gun violence” simply makes no sense. Such attacks are akin to blaming licensed pharmacists and physicians for the sale of illegal drugs, punishing them for their legal activities, and then citing this punishment as the solution to illegal drug sales. Yet the effort to incite public anger against these presumed malignant recalcitrants is a predictable expression of contemporary political vindictiveness.
One should also note the perversion of language in which the media as a whole is complicit: the media incessantly speaks of “gun violence” — not “violent criminality,” not “gang conflict” — but “gun violence,” thus ensuring the stigma of “violence” will be associated as a conditioned reflex in the popular mind with the word “gun,” rendering gun ownership intuitively controversial and problematic in the minds of the impressionable. Word association is here wielded as a political weapon through the time-tested technique of constant repetition.
Of course, political repression in the form of large-scale firearms confiscation would be presented as a measure taken to ensure “public safety,” but this would only make sense if legal firearms owners were first presented as a public danger. Millions of barely attentive bystanders would have to be encouraged to blame legal firearms owners for all social violence and to condemn them for refusing to yield to putatively reasonable demands. These bystanders would need to be persuaded that it is only the recalcitrance of Second Amendment enthusiasts that stands between a blissful state of public safety and all the decent people that seek it. The mere existence of a significant number of people who choose to arm themselves would be portrayed as an intolerable social menace. Under such conditions, the American Experiment in representative self-government collapses into a contest pitting vindictive mobs against their hapless scapegoats.
An independent, objective media could step in to adjudicate such an unseemly contest, of course. Responsible journalists could dispassionately and critically evaluate the attempted political indictment of the nation’s millions of legal firearms owners and expose the unreasonableness and artificiality of the claims made against them, coming to the aid of the intended scapegoats and effectively breaking the momentum of the agents of their intended repression — but one would have to be very naive to expect this. The media increasingly exists in an adversarial relationship to the nation as founded and to the people at large. The media exists largely to justify, promote, and celebrate the exercise of political repression against those deemed moral inferiors. Of course, once the repression they now cheer has been imposed and proves wholly ineffective in solving the problem, the blowhards will be quick to lament “we haven’t done enough,” thus driving the cycle of repression onward.
With a view to this discouraging dynamic, let us soberly assess our predicament, recognize the hostility with which our First and Second Amendment rights are now confronted, educate ourselves in defiance of a thousand meme-spouting idiots, and resolve to reject any calls for repression that might issue from a corrupt media that would pass off its own political bigotries as the reasonable demands of an elevated moral perspective.