I’ve been thinking quite a bit about some of the habits of thought that form, or rather deform, the collective conversation of our time. Partly, of course, that’s because here in the United States, the collective conversation of our time has reached a level of weirdness that would make a surrealist gasp. Has anyone else noticed that most of our Democrats seem to be channeling McCarthy-era Republicans, babbling about sinister Russian agents hiding under every bed, while Republicans insist with a straight face that Jesus really does want them to punish the poor for being poor?
At stray moments late at night I sometimes wonder if we’ve somehow slipped into an analogue of that classic weird tale, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which is about a play that drives people insane. (There’s good reason why people use the term “political theater,” after all.) I’ve gone so far as to plot out a story in which characters spanning the political spectrum come unhinged in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, until a liberal character bashes her brains out against a concrete wall while shrieking “Trump, Trump, Trump,” and a conservative religious fundamentalist ends up flinging himself on a pyre of burning books as a sacrifice to Kek the Frog God. The one surviving character stumbles to the bank of the Potomac, only to find that it’s turned into the cloudy lake of Demhe, and beyond it the nightmare towers of Carcosa rise against a sky dotted with black stars. The title of the story, of course, is “The King in Orange.”
The collective craziness that grips so many Americans just now has deep and troubling roots, and we’ll probably have to talk about that down the road a bit. Just now, though, I want to talk about one of the factors that’s helping to drive that craziness, a habit that’s just as weird but somewhat less deeply rooted: the way that so many people these days insist on talking about controversial issues in ways that guarantee that they’ll lose the resulting quarrel.
The example that brought this to mind came up a little while back on the comments page to an earlier post. One of my readers, a Briton of socially conservative views, wanted to talk about the way that British officialdom penalizes people who express traditional attitudes toward sexual minorities in public. Is it a controversial issue? You bet, but it’s not impossible that he could have won support, or at least respect, for his point of view by presenting a reasoned case based on the values of free speech and freedom of religion. Instead, he succeeded in making everyone not already committed to his point of view roll their eyes. How? By the simple but admirably effective expedient of referring to the officials in question as “the Gaystapo.”
Pick up that term, dear reader. Turn it over, glance at it from various angles, heft it in your hand, tap it to hear it clunk. Can you think of a word that does a better job of making its users look absurd? The officials thus labeled, I’m told, have caused a certain number of people to lose their jobs or to suffer various other social and financial penalties. I have yet to hear anybody claim that they’ve rounded up prisoners by the tens of thousands and sent them off to die. As a masterpiece of self-defeating absurdity, “Gaystapo” is thus hard to top (though Rush Limbaugh gave it the ol’ college try with his coinage “Feminazis”). The yawning gap between the Gestapo and the people my reader wanted to tar with that label is just too wide to bridge, except with a horse laugh.
Such embarrassments are by no means limited to the rightward end of the political spectrum. As a different kind of example from the other end, consider the way that a great many Democrats responded to the shifts in voting patterns that put Donald Trump into the White House. It so happens that a significant number of voters in the Midwest who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted against Hillary Clinton in 2016. The response of the Democrats I have in mind was to insist at the top of their lungs that the voters in question could only have been motivated by racism. The fact that everyone agrees that the voters in question voted to put the first African-American president in office somehow never got any traction in the resulting tantrums; nor, crucially, did the fact that yelling insults at people is not exactly a useful habit if you want them to vote for your candidate in 2020.
What’s more, when a variety of people tried to explain to the Democrats exactly why people in the Rust Belt voted for Trump in 2016, they got not merely pushback but full-on meltdowns. (I was one of the people in question, so I can testify to this from personal experience.) A great many Democrats insisted angrily that it was utterly unreasonable to expect them to find out what got Midwestern voters to vote for Trump, and what might make them change their minds and vote for a Democratic candidate in 2020. Since Those People (who, again, helped put Barack Obama in the White House) were all racists, what they wanted didn’t matter.
Do you see the similarity between the two behavior patterns, the embrace of self-defeating rhetoric and the embrace of a self-defeating strategy? My socially conservative reader and the furious Democrats were alike behaving as though they didn’t actually have to convince anyone who disagreed with them—and they were doing this in a situation where, by any reasonable assessment, they had to do just that. Behind this strange habit, I’ve come to think, lies a very curious and very widespread habit of thought.
We can get inside this habit most easily by a slightly roundabout route: in this case, by way of a neglected classic of American literature, the novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis recently had a second helping of fame when his brilliant satire It Can’t Happen Here, a novel about a fascist takeover of the United States in the 1930s, found a new audience again in the wake of Trump’s election. Babbitt is also a satire, but it aims in a different direction. Sinclair Lewis was a leading member of America’s intelligentsia between the wars; he was whip-smart, a university graduate at a time when that still meant something, and a habitué of avant-garde cultural circles—the kind of person, in other words, whose great-grandchildren were convinced that Hillary Clinton would surely become the next president of the United States.
George Babbitt, in turn, was Sinclair Lewis’ portrayal of his own antithesis. The main character of Babbitt, he’s a vulgar, glad-handing, back-slapping real estate salesman without a cultured bone in his body, pursuing the almighty dollar with every fiber of his being. A Republican, a Christian in that vague sense that doesn’t prevent him from committing whatever sins will make him rich, and an inhabitant of the flyover states before there were flyover states, he’s Lewis’ vision of the archetypal Trump voter, twenty-four years before Donald Trump was born.
So far, so good—but George Babbitt isn’t happy. In his heart of hearts, he knows that his life is empty and meaningless. As the novel unfolds, he makes several feeble attempts at rebellion, only to stumble back into conformity with the expectations of his peers when these fail. It falls to his son Ted to break the rules, elope with an unsuitable girl, and set out to become an engineer rather than being sucked into the same track as his father—and when crunch time comes, George encourages Ted to follow his dreams, telling him, “don’t be like me.”
It’s a great scene in a great novel, but it ultimately rings false, because Sinclair Lewis is trying to insist that in his heart of hearts, George Babbitt agrees with Sinclair Lewis about the Babbitts of the world. In Lewis’ fictive universe, there’s ultimately no room for valid differences of opinion; there’s the truth, which is of course identical to Lewis’ own values and opinions, and then there’s the malign make-believe of Babbitt and his peers, who know deep down that Lewis is right and they should all run off and become engineers or something, but persist in living their awful lives because they don’t have what it takes to act like Ted.
The same theme shows up in a far more crass and hamfisted way in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Here, in keeping with the increasingly vicious tone of political conflict in recent decades, Babbitt and his peers have morphed into the sinister Lord Voldemort and his legions of Death Eaters. Think about that last moniker for a moment. You don’t join a group called the Death Eaters because you believe in the justice and rightness of your cause. You join a group called the Death Eaters because you want to be baaaad. You join a group called the Death Eaters because you agree with Harry Potter and his pals about what’s right and what’s wrong—it’s just that for some reason or other, you want to be on the wrong side.
Imagine for a moment a Harry Potter series written in an alternate universe by an alternate J.K. Rowling. In this alternate universe, instead of having to contend with antagonists who go around with big signs saying KICK ME—I’M EVIL taped onto their rumps, Harry and his pals are up against the visionary idealist Tom Riddle and his Campaign for a New Wizarding Future, which is full of bright faces, youthful enthusiasm, and soulful concern about how the wizarding world is being crushed under the boot-heel of mudbloodcentric hegemony. What’s more, in this alternate Harry Potter series, Riddle and his followers believe in their cause. They’re not just spouting cant to deceive the unwary while cackling in secret about how baaaad they are. No, they really, truly believe that what they’re doing is right and good and just, and if that involves ugly deeds from time to time, well, the crisis is so extreme and the vision that drives them on is so glorious that it’s necessary to set aside moral quibbles and do what must be done, right?
That alternate Harry Potter series would have been a far richer tale, much less weighed down with cheap moral caricature, far more effective at speaking to the ethical crises of our own time. If Rowling had written it that way, though, she wouldn’t be the richest woman in Britain today, and the Harry Potter novels wouldn’t have made anything like the splash they did. They won the hearts of the mass media and the leftward end of the reading public precisely because they embraced the same fantasy Sinclair Lewis wove into Babbitt: the fantasy that the people that today’s liberals like to hate really do know they’re wrong, but just won’t admit it.
Here again, that’s a habit found with equal intensity on the other side of the political spectrum. The exact equivalent of the Harry Potter series, in its vast commercial success as well as its frantically monochrome moral one-sidedness, is Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ equally sprawling religious-fantasy series Left Behind. Nicolae Carpathia, the villain of the Left Behind series, is a precise equivalent of Lord Voldemort; in fact, he’s the Antichrist, the triple-distilled, charcoal-filtered essence of evil for evil’s sake, and he’s there for the sole purpose of acting out a set of dubiously Biblical prophecies and then getting the stuffing pounded out of him by God. In the process, though, he feeds the evangelical Protestant daydream that everyone who disagrees with them really does know better, and thus deserves to get the boot in the face forever once Jesus finally gets around to showing up.
Now factor this same weird fixation into the self-defeating behavior discussed earlier in this post, and see how it connects the dots.
Consider the notion, equally popular across the entire political landscape these days, that the best way to convince people to do what you want is to scream insults at them. To say that this doesn’t work is to understate the case considerably—after all, dear reader, if someone were to scream insults at you, especially if you had good reason to think that the insults in question are absurdly unfair, would you be likely to give their point of view a fair hearing thereafter?—but people who assume that everyone really does agree with them deep down don’t think of that. Since, in their view, everyone knows that the insulters are right, it ought to be an effective strategy to bully and shame other people into admitting what they already know to be true. Thus it makes a warped kind of sense for one side to scream “Gaystapo!” while the other side screams “Racist!”—and the mere fact that this sort of screaming has never changed anyone’s mind, not once in the history of forever, never occurs to those who haven’t grasped that changing minds is what’s necessary.
The notion that everyone really does agree with you after all, and just has to be bullied and shamed and insulted into admitting it, deserves a label. I propose to give it one: the Babbitt Fallacy. It could as well be called the Voldemort Fallacy or the Antichrist Fallacy, but those labels might encourage people on one or the other side of the political landscape to forget that the same rule applies to them, too. The Babbitt Fallacy it is, then: the notion that everyone agrees with you deep down in their heart of hearts, that no one actually has a different opinion and believes in it at least as firmly as you believe in yours. Ultimately, it’s the denial that anybody can have reasons for their beliefs except you.
There’s another work of fiction that comes to mind as I consider the Babbitt Fallacy and its alternatives, an old favorite of mine that had quite a burst of popularity at once point and then got shoved into our culture’s memory hole as its implications sank in. The novel in question is Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.
Hesse’s tale is set right around the same time as Babbitt, in Germany rather than America, and the main character, Harry Haller, is basically the Antibabbit. He’s what Sinclair Lewis and his contemporary equivalents would think of as one of the Good People: a sensitive, cultured writer who’s rebelled against the lowbrow middle-class culture of his upbringing, and likes to imagine himself as a wolf on the steppes, estranged from the human world. He’s also miserably unhappy and kind of a jerk. He’s a jerk in an excellent cause—as Hesse himself did, he tries to oppose the movement toward a renewed militarism that ended up leading Germany into Hitler’s clutches—but he’s still a jerk, and one of the consequences is that he alienates an old friend who might otherwise have been sympathetic to his ideas.
So he ends up in a bar, afraid to go home because he knows that when he gets there he’ll probably cut his own throat—and a chance encounter with a younger woman plunges him into a face-first encounter with the realities he’s shut out of his life. He comes to terms with his dependence on his lowbrow middle-class origins; he comes to terms with the lowbrow pop culture he’s convinced himself he despises; he comes to terms with the whole dizzying reality of a world in which many different values and viewpoints and tastes exist. He doesn’t give up his own values and viewpoints and tastes, but he recognizes that they’re his and not everyone’s.
There’s a lot more to Steppenwolf than that; among other things, though it never breathes a word about Carl Jung or Jung’s theories, it’s probably the best introduction to Jungian psychology I’ve ever read. (Jung and Hesse were good friends.) It’s also simply a really good read, if you can handle a bit of surrealism in your fiction. (You should be able to do this, dear reader, given the amount of it that features these days on the evening news.) Still, it’s particularly relevant here, because its portrayal of the way that an intelligent person can get stuck in a self-defeating dead end, and then get popped out of it. That’s something a lot of us can stand to learn just now.
Ironically, when Steppenwolf had its fifteen minutes of fame in English translation, critics tended to describe it as a searing, bitter satire on the futility and emptiness of modern life—that is to say, as though it were Babbitt. I’m pretty sure that this was because the critics in question realized what Hesse was saying, and ran like Babbitts back to their familiar clichés. Hesse found all this baffling; in the introduction to the copy I have, a battered 1970s paperback with pleasantly lurid cover art, he points out that Steppenwolf is ultimately an optimistic book, a book about healing, and ultimately a book about spirituality. And of course that’s just it: Hesse is talking about ways out of the suffocating insistence that there’s only one way to understand the world, and that’s a very frightening thing…
…especially when your one way to understand the world doesn’t work any more.
That’s the deeper dimension, or one of the deeper dimensions, underlying the pervasiveness of the Babbitt Fallacy in contemporary life in the industrial world. None of the ways by which we’re taught to make sense of the world still live up to their billing. The grand liberal faith in a future of limitless betterment, in which economic abundance and moral improvement would someday turn the world into Utopia, has shattered on the rocks of reality. Its equivalent on the other end of the spectrum, the conservative faith in the enduring wisdom of traditional social arrangements, was quietly strangled by its supposed friends a long time ago, and functions now the way Lenin’s corpse functioned in the late and unlamented Soviet Union, as the mummified icon of an ideology long since replaced by straightforward kleptocratic mania.
Neither liberalism as currently practiced, nor conservatism as currently practiced, have answers for the spiraling questions of the present day. Neither, for that matter, do their self-consciously avant-garde offshoots, social-justice faux-liberalism or alt-right pseudoconservatism; nor does what passes for a moderate stance these days, which usually amounts to blind commitment to business as usual at a time when business as usual has definitively passed its pull date. Since these are the only socially acceptable viewpoints just now, in turn, those who hold them are stuck in a quandary at least as savage as the one that had Harry Haller sitting in that bar, desperately looking for reasons not to go home and cut his throat. It’s no wonder that so many of them react with such frenzy to the suggestion that someone else might have a different view of things.
There’s a surprisingly straightforward way out of the quandary, as it happens. It comes from an unexpected quarter: the old-fashioned art of rhetoric. We’ll talk about that next week—and in the process we’ll begin a sequence of posts I’ve been pondering for a very long time: a discussion of the place of education, and especially of self-directed adult education, in an age of decline.