Triviality's Assault on Liberty

Liberty faces numerous threats. Illiberal nations like Russia attack democratically elected governments, hoping to expand their empire. Cyberwarfare and propaganda undermine citizens’ faith in their system of government. Economic distress renders people vulnerable to the demagogic rhetoric of populists.

Then there is Tocqueville’s “soft despotism,” a “network of small, complicated rules . . . through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate,” in which the will of man is “not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided,” such that men “are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.” Tocqueville continues, “Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Yet there is a threat to liberty even more insidious, corrupting, and yes, stupefying, especially when paired with Tocqueville’s soft despotism. It can be likened to the art of bonsai, the aesthetic miniaturization of trees, in which a cutting, seedling, or small tree is subjected to an unremitting regimen of leaf trimming, defoliation, pruning, and redirection of growth using wiring and clamping, creating what might appear to be a mature tree, but which is in fact perhaps only 1/50th of its normal size. Bonsai represents a kind of dwarfing, evoking John Stuart Mill’s warning, “A state which dwarfs its men. . . , even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” 

This threat is especially difficult to recognize because it is so ubiquitous. If it were like a dark cloud appearing in the sky at sunrise, a loud boom during the quiet hours of the night, or a particularly putrid odor the likes of which no one had ever encountered, it would be easy to detect. But instead, most Americans are so awash in it, like fish in water, that its presence is difficult not to take positively for granted. It is like the chirping of birds, or the gentle rustling of leaves in the wind. It is with us always, every time we pick up a newspaper, turn on the radio or television, glance at billboards, or use our cell phones and computers to access the internet.

It is our popular culture, or at least a thread of that culture that is so deeply interwoven that by now we could hardly hope to disentangle and remove it. It is not deliberate disinformation, an attempt, in Swift’s memorable phrase, to get us to trust in or say “the thing which was not.” Nor is it a form of nihilism, which would have us believe that there is no difference between truth and falsehood, or what amounts to the same thing, to suppose that whatever distinction might exist between the two is insignificant—“Say and do whatever you want, no matter,” or “No one else cares what you believe, so why should you?”

In contrast, this thread of popular culture operates on the presumption that we cannot distinguish between the significant and the trivial, and continuously undermines our capacity to do so. Consider this example. One morning early this month, at roughly the same time the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear a North Carolina case on the influence of state legislatures over elections, and Russian missiles crashed into a residential tower in a Ukrainian Black Sea town, my morning news feed carried this announcement: “J.Lo [dancer, actor, and singer Jennifer Lopez] dons string bikini and heels and announces, ‘Summer Mode: Activated.’”

It reminds me of the day in September 1997 when newspapers around the world carried the news of the deaths of Princess Di (front page headline) and Mother Teresa (page 7, right lower corner).

Those moved to follow this clickbait, or as in my case, who are so fortunate as to find a photograph accompanying the headline, behold an image of the entertainer clad in a flowered gown open at the front to reveal a black bathing suit that barely covers her bosom and pelvis, her arms wrapped up in a provocative self-embrace. Just what is this information meant to arouse in the viewer? Rejoicing at the summer solstice? Envy over the lifestyles of the rich and famous? An oniomaniac impulse to rush off to the local shopping mall to purchase the fashion items depicted? Lust at the sexuality on display? Outrage over the patriarchy that forces female performers to prostitute themselves for the male eye?

Resisting to the best of my ability the temptation to wallow in dyspepsia, I nevertheless find myself more than mildly alarmed. One day it is J.Lo announcing the activation of summer mode. The next it is Kim sharing that she is divorcing Kanye and now dating Pete. Soon follows the news that Justin and Hailey are getting a prenup. Of course, such pandering is not new. Not so long ago, newspapers and magazines overflowed with headlines such as “Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe,” “Lana Gives a Party,” “Dropping in on Lucy and Desi,” and “Bob Hope and that Naughty Blonde.” The appetite for celebrity gossip is nothing new.

The problem with such seemingly innocent distractions is this: they draw us, citizens and neighbors, away from more substantial matters with a deeper claim on our attention, and they do so in an especially pernicious way. Pernicious because we live in a world where the numbers of clicks on a link or followers on Twitter is often deemed a more reliable indicator of significance than the impact of others’ thoughts, feelings, words, and actions on our sense of responsibility as members of a free society. It reminds me of the day in September 1997 when newspapers around the world carried the news of the deaths of Princess Di (front page headline) and Mother Teresa (page 7, right lower corner).

C. S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters” warns of as much. Ostensibly a series of letters written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his junior tempter nephew, Wormwood, it offers advice on how to corrupt the human soul. Screwtape counsels the inexperienced Wormwood, naturally inclined toward extravagant temptations involving the most wicked of sins, to redirect his attention to subtler means. “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” No Faustian bargains here, just a gradual descent into the quicksand of glamor and gossip. 

There should be no collision, no confrontation, and no argument. Instead, the “patient,” the object of the young demon’s efforts, is to be won over without any recognition on his part that a contest between radically opposed forces is taking place within him. Screwtape counsels, “The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.” Argument, in other words, involves powers of reason, sentiment, and intuition that are best left dormant, for fear that if people begin to think about matters, pay attention to the feelings they evoke, and put their trust in their own sense of things, the battle will be lost.

Gorged on such pablum, we are liable to become indolent, somnolent, and neglectful—overfed loafers of a popular culture of junk food, dozing uneasily on our couches as the world flashes by on our screens.

J.Lo, Kim, Justin, Joe, Lana, and Bob are not evil, or at least, depending on what they have been up to, not necessarily so. But they are dangerous, because they draw us away from the things we most need to attend to, and toward the shallow, insincere, and insubstantial. They are, in a sense, not real, or at least far less real than matters closer to home that beg for attention—the state of our nation, state, city, town, neighborhood, family, and even our own soul. It does no good to revel in J.Lo’s latest fashion statement, no matter how bold and daring, if in so doing we neglect the needs and concerns of neighbors, family members, and fellow citizens.

Gorged on such pablum, we are liable to become indolent, somnolent, and neglectful—overfed loafers of a popular culture of junk food, dozing uneasily on our couches as the world flashes by on our screens. Desires for affiliation and vicarious experience can lead us disastrously astray, leaving us nothing to go by but what others say and devoid of any capacity to discern or navigate on our own. In the words of Screwtape, we can be made to abandon people, food, and books we really like in favor of the “best” people, the “right” food, and the “important” books. A slavish infatuation with the overwrought lives of the rich and famous can deafen us to the pealing of liberty’s bell.