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Free the Mind from Bitterness

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Free the Mind from Bitterness

An Inaugural wish January 20, 2021
Politics and law

Let the cancel culture, always an ignoble business, shut down permanently. Let revenge politics, whether on the left or on the right, stop now. Blessed are the peacemakers. Give a pass to Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz—let them go their ways. Donald Trump as well. Let there be a national Act of Oblivion, wherein all past offenses are erased (as in ancient Rome after a civil war—except that this time we will do it twenty-first-century-style, forgetting deeds that have not yet even happened, so that, forgiving them in advance, we prevent their occurring).

Let the rearview mirrors (all obsessions on the Russia hoax or Hunter Biden or stolen ballots or last summer’s riots or anything else that belongs to the bitter past) be unscrewed from the vehicle, so that the only view is the road ahead. And let all the indignant identity- and race-and-gender politicians and talk show panelists and ranters, of left or right no matter, clam up for a year or two or three, or seven. And let all politicians and media succumb to the spell of what W. B. Yeats called “a Druid kindness”— a moment of general good will and forbearance and courtesy, of the sort that obtained in America in the first few years of World War II, when the country was beset by the monsters of the Axis and the fate of the world was in doubt. America is beset now by enemies who might, at their worst, become almost as horrible as then, and the danger is not less because those enemies are within—on either side of the chasm. Americans have become dangerous to themselves.

This is no good. Divided we fall. This must be transcended.

Mobs are the animal side of human nature—and of American history, which has, of course, seen its share of mobs. But America is essentially an Enlightenment project. If the country were just an animal, a mob, it would have perished a long time ago. When I speak of mobs today, I refer not only to the one that invaded the Capitol. I mean the mobs of last summer in Portland and Minneapolis and Kenosha and many other places. I mean the mobs in New York City two nights ago, on Martin Luther King’s birthday. I mean the mobs of social media, and the mobs of the corporate woke, enemies of free thought and speech who get other people’s book contracts cancelled and opinion editors (James Bennett of the New York Times, for example) fired.

There’s no dignity in a mob, and not much in the way of brains, either. The great flaw of twenty-first-century American politics—left or right—is the mobbing tendency, so ferociously intensified by smartphones: a collective thoughtlessness and lethal certainty hooked up to a shared source of adrenaline and self-righteousness. We saw what happened at the Capitol on January 6—and we saw what happened across the country all last summer. So far, twenty-first-century politics does not have much talent for thinking. Feeling is the game. The political and media classes tend to move straight from Feelings (often bogus, artificially stimulated emotions) to Ideology (hysterical generalizations that emerge from artificially stimulated emotions, to be cast into rhetoric by a priesthood of fanatics) to Power—all without pausing at an intermediate stage of Thought. Feelings are the mob’s energy, its Shinto. The American people—far from all, but too many, anyway—are in the grip of something like road rage, and their foot presses the accelerator to the floor and now they have taken the pistol from the glove compartment and rolled down the window and started to point the gun.

Insanity’s always at work in that sort of rage. Only a change of heart—a sudden access of grace—will repair this bitter state of affairs. Let it go, let all of it go. Free the mind from the mob, which is a sinister imposter—and, next morning, a source of shame. The mob’s not the real country.

As Yeats suggested, let all grow friendly, for a little while.

Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

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