George F. Will: Survival of the shrillest
“The intellectual cannot operate at room temperature.”
— Eric Hoffer, “First Things, Last Things” (1971)
Eric Hoffer (1902-83) meant that intellectuals in his day tended not to be temperate. In our day, this defect — moral overheating — has been democratized: Everybody can be happily furious all day, every day.
Hoffer's first book, “The True Believer” (1951), put him on a path to a 1983 Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his time, intellectuals often were feverish because this was the best way to be noticed, and to say, about this and that: Listen to our intelligent selves or the end is nigh. In 2017, many emulated this act.
For example: During two decades, the internet was barely regulated while delighting users. In 2015, a regulatory policy (“net neutrality”) was imposed by bureaucratic fiat. Thirty-three months later, it was ended. And the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth commenced: “This is the end of the internet as we know it” (Sen. Bernie Sanders); “Outrageous” (Sen. Cory Booker).
Another example: Most nonstop noise emanating from the White House is white noise — there but unnoticed. Some is, however, interestingly symptomatic, as when a presidential assistant calls this year's tax legislation “the most significant tax reform we've had since 1986.” On a scale of importance from 1 (negligible) to 10 (stupendous), the legislation might be a 3. Never mind. This tax cut of less than 1 percent of the next decade's projected GDP is “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress” (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi).
Today's technologies have eliminated ignorance and intemperateness as barriers to entry into public conversations. Christopher DeMuth, American Enterprise Institute president emeritus, says that as Americans have become “entangled by networks of communication,” they have entered “a world of empowered mass intimacy” that encourages the better but also “the darker angels of human nature.” New modes of communication enable us “to organize ourselves into highly defined networks of affinity and endeavor” but are “fracturing our politics.”
Institutions that hitherto organized and stabilized politics — parties, Congress, federalism, civic organizations — have been, DeMuth says, “deconstructed by a thousand networks of ideology, interest and identity” that “have commandeered central institutions of government.” Buckled beneath the weight of “numerous political causes,” Congress has offloaded onto the administrative state's executive agencies activities that are essentially legislative. So, its members are free to “strut and fret on the national stage” on behalf of causes made conspicuous by the new technology-created networks.
The result is an ever-more-clamorous politics, and the survival of the shrillest. Hence 2017, the year of living splenetically, has confirmed Hoffer's aphorisms: “Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.” And: “We lie the loudest when we lie to ourselves.”
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.