Last year, I inflicted a series of letters to my Irish father on the reading public of the United States and, I am told, several customers at Hodges Figgis. My Father Left Me Ireland was about growing up in the US in a fatherless home, and how the births of my first two children had transformed my relationship to my old man, and to Ireland.
The book is a happy one, documenting our reconciliation as men and my fumbling with Gaeilge. It was also brash, and calculated to give offence. It was my unwelcome Irish-American rebuke to Ireland during the centennials of Home Rule and the Rising, my attempt to explain why political nationalism had a peculiar appeal in an age defined by fatherlessness and atomisation.
When the patriarch is absent, the child will try to conjure a spirit from the patrimony.
A few hostile reviewers reminded me that I was a Yank, and cautioned me to stop pretending to be Irish. The feeling is mutual, I think. Because the Irish revolutionaries were unable to de-anglicise Ireland, the country is doomed to become more American.
American power guarantees that its mass culture and its largest corporations get a firm hold almost everywhere, but especially where the Saxon tongue is spoken. Our dysfunctions can become yours – and I have some bad news on that front.
A century ago, the conservative US president Warren G Harding detected his nation’s desire to put the frenetic, exhausting, pestiferous exertions of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency behind them. A war to end all wars, a utopian peace plan, the braying propaganda at home, and the criminalisation of dissent had left many Americans disillusioned and tired.
In his campaign-defining speech, Harding held that “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise”.
Trump is not the cause of the country’s brain malfunction and removing him will not end the era of populist rebellion
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is making the same promises as Harding. He tells us he wants to unify his countrymen, and describes the current era as an “aberration”. He tells us that “consensus is not weakness”.
In a campaign speech in Philadelphia, former president Barack Obama promised that, after electing Biden, “it just won’t be so exhausting. You might be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner without having an argument. You’ll be able to go about your lives knowing that the president is not going to retweet conspiracy theories about secret cabals running the world or that maybe [the navy] Seals didn’t actually kill bin Laden”.
Just try to imagine it. Uncontentious conversation across the holiday feasts, a general refusal to buy into zany theories, a moment in which American culture and government strike others as “serene”.
I can’t imagine it either.
It’s true that, if Biden wins, there will be a long loud sigh across the normal centres of power. Much of the permanent bureaucracy in Washington DC will be relieved of the conflicts between serving, redirecting or thwarting Donald Trump. Ditto the Republican Party. Silicon Valley will sleep easier at night, knowing that the mandarins of the “liberal world order” will not hold them responsible for another sour result again, as they did in 2016. European capitals (save Warsaw and Budapest) will signal their pleasure at the new administration.
But no matter the result this November, there is no viable prospect of a “return to normalcy” in the US. Trump is not the cause of the country’s brain malfunction and removing him will not end the era of populist rebellion, “alternative facts” and the flowering of conspiracy theories. The US is going crazy. The rest of the world is next.
Conspiracy theories and alternative facts may flourish on the Trumpian right. But they are not confined to it. His opponents have recently latched on to and discarded the idea that the postal service was being destroyed to further the president’s electoral means. They have invented theories that Trump would produce a rogue vaccine to end the pandemic. (How, exactly?) They spent years imagining that the Kremlin controls Trump and benefits him despite all the evidence – expelled diplomatic personnel, sanctions, a battle between the US military and Russian mercenaries in Khasham, Syria – that US-Russian relations are at a dangerous post-cold war nadir.
The digital age, and the social media companies in particular, have reordered the institutions of knowledge and political authority that are supposed to elicit our trust
Sometimes right and left information streams poison each other. During this pandemic, Trump touted hydroxycholoroquine after it gained a following among some doctors and, ahem, YouTubers. Then the world’s most respected medical journal, The Lancet, was apparently so anxious to rebuke that it promptly published a ludicrous hoax article showing Trump’s drug to be an imminent danger.
The digital age, and the social media companies in particular, have reordered the institutions of knowledge and political authority that are supposed to elicit our trust, making them pervasive and obnoxious. And we ourselves, formed by this world of broken institutions – even our broken families – have an enfeebled ability to trust authority, to wield it disinterestedly, even to hold ideas in common. The result is that these institutions strain even harder to control the flow of information and retain their authority, while various sectors of the public draw further away from them in fear.
The American writer (and my boss at the American Enterprise Institute) Yuval Levin demonstrates this conflict between institutions and platforms by using the example of the US Congress. Its role in the constitutional order was to make compromises and thereby conciliate the contrary political passions of the country. But US legislators now punt almost all of its responsibilities to the unelected branches of government. And so a congressman merely uses his office to become a pundit. Our elected representatives somehow become more present, even as they have become more useless.
The dysfunction of US institutions leaves the public square more hostile and dangerous. It is more open to the ever-shifting and merciless winds of fashionable opinion. And it is precisely because social media networks like Facebook and Twitter seem to give its users a real-time glimpse into the formation of public opinion that so many members of the knowledge professions find themselves addicted to these platforms, though most of what passes by on the screen is subliterate and repulsive.
On the other side, the habits of human trust and sacrifice required to make liberal institutions run honorably require practice. They require the mortification of an individual’s desires, and their subordination to a higher purpose. That practice begins in the home, where a joyful or even tolerable family life is only possible through the self-sacrifices of its members. A large and mostly joyful family fills a child’s world with people whose loyalty and self-sacrifice is assured. This can be good preparation for leading complex institutions.
I take US sitcoms such as Modern Family to be a kind of parody of our modern desire to have these family institutions without ever really setting our individual interests aside. Each episode revolves around the problems of a few individual members heedlessly and psychopathically pursuing their own interests against the interests of their siblings, parents and in-laws. By the end, when the only damage is a few laughs, all is forgiven.
But if our technological environment makes our institutions dysfunctional, and if our primordial experiences of life make us less trusting and less willing to set aside our self interests, we will see our common life as a repository to be plundered. What would you call an institution or a movement that pretends to be dedicated to its high ideals, but is really filled only with the self-interest of its members and adherents? You’d call it a conspiracy.
The late attempts of social media companies to throttle, censor, warn, or fact-check American political life into safety are doomed to failure
A few years ago, the pizzagate conspiracy theory posited that the world was run by paedophiles. A man addled by this theory took a gun into a family restaurant rumored to hide a torture chamber. How preposterous and dangerous!
But, “sometimes paranoia stands to reason,” wrote the novelist Walter Kirn, while contemplating the suicide of the mysterious billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein whose crimes and predilections were well-known even as he seemed to be connected to half of the US’s most powerful people. Kirn described his experience of following the Epstein saga as being “mugged by unreality” .
But conspiracy theories aren’t growing just to explain why. They can be a desperate bid for mental freedom when the pervasiveness of fashionable opinion threatens to bully us into submission, or when institutions seem to betray their purpose.
The late attempts of social media companies to throttle, censor, warn, or fact-check American political life into safety are doomed to failure. In fact, they are doomed to provoke even more conspiracy theories and distrust in institutions. Anonymous and unquestionable censors manipulating code simply don’t have the authority or the public trust to fact-check our social life. Only journalists in a free press, following the best ethical codes of their trade, could do such a thing.
When I was reading about Ireland’s nationalist rebellion for my book, I was struck by Arthur Griffith’s mightily inventive campaign to discredit wartime censorship of the press as a journalist and activist. Two of his earlier papers had been suppressed by the authorities. But his third and greatest newspaper title was called Scissors and Paste and simply reproduced reports and extracts from newspapers that were not banned or censored. The trick was that he would juxtapose the extracts to show that the approved stories were contradictory.
Griffith took shortcuts and was not above propaganda himself. Like many western Europeans today, he pretended to understand the political history and evolution of Hungary, when in fact he was just using it as an example for his own purposes.
It’s not hard to imagine Griffith, or millions like him, working now as an online crank, lining up successive and contradictory health authority recommendations on face masks, or demonstrating and mocking the regnant political biases against travel restrictions that affect the few and affluent, but in favour of severe lockdowns of the many. It’s easy these days precisely because social media already has done much of the scissor work for us. With a few clicks we too can deconstruct the authorities. The genius of the QAnon conspiracy theory is that it encourages adherents to fill in the gaps in the theory themselves.
Harding held out that “our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people”. I wouldn’t expect it anytime soon. I guess what I’m saying is that the spread of American madness can’t be staunched by a change of president. We have to eject the real powers governing and dominating us. I think the fault lie in Silicon Valley and in ourselves. But I encourage you to fill in the details yourselves.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review and visiting fellow for the social, cultural and constitutional studies division at the American Enterprise Institute. His book, My Father Left Me Ireland, is published by Sentinel