How to make sense of America’s era of irrationality?


By Sigurd Neubauer

26/05/2022

There’s no shortage of commentary on America’s present discourse, its causes and effects and the role social media plays to amplify divisions and societal anger growing by the day.

While the United States is certainly not perfect by any means – but no country is – it is still the richest nation the world has ever seen where citizens of all backgrounds and ethnicities enjoy unprecedented prosperity even if income inequality is growing and the traditional middle class continues to shrink.

The US faces significant problems, including record inflation, supply-chain shortages, high gas prices, volatile equity markets and the prospect of a recession by 2023. The global COVID-19 pandemic is still raging and geopolitical volatility, whether it is Russia’s war in Ukraine or US-China tensions, are fundamentally threatening the American way of life. So too, is the climate crisis.

In the meantime, culture, sports and increasingly business are becoming battlegrounds for a divided and bitter nation. In what is presently called the Culture Wars in America, culture is simultaneously the battleground, the weapon, and the prize to be won or vanquished.

Whereas America’s present economic uncertainty may be indicative of a bear market to come, the country’s cultural and societal divisions precede it.

For the curious mind, who seeks to better understand how much of America’s present discourse is anchored in irrationality, where anti-intellectualism is championed and even celebrated, a good place to start is examining previous patches in human history where similar dynamics played out.

In today’s environment, irrationality plays out through the embrace of Wokeism on the left and QAnon-style conspiracies on the right.

At this point, it can be assumed that most informed Americans have encountered the Woke ideology in some form or another.

For the purpose of this essay, we shall not define what Wokeism is or what it represents as there are several commentators who have already done so. Nor shall we debate the merits of conspiracy theories and why some are drawn to them, but rather seek to understand present day America by examining previous patches of irrationality in human history.

A good place to start is with scripture.

Dance around the golden calf by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

When the Prophet Moses came down from Mount Sinai after receiving the 10 Commandments, he witnesses the Israelites celebrating a festival featuring the Golden Calf. Witnessing this, the Bible says, Moses throws down the tablets and shatters them (Exod. 32:19).

The Golden Calf metaphor can be applied to present day America.

Just like Moses had received the 10 Commandments directly from God, the people – who wanted to be virtuous in their own right – couldn’t wait for the Prophet’s descent but wanted to direct their spiritual energies towards something larger than themselves.

Instead of worshipping God, they worshipped an idol.

In present day United States, where wealth and opportunity for most people are bountiful, Americans are battling through the never-ending framework of Culture War over whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.

It is the desire to be moral and pursue justice which motivates Americans to embrace irrationality through adopting Wokeism, even though in practice it is clear why it cannot help solving real problems – whether they are fighting inequality or combating the climate crisis – as the ideology in practice only generates strife among people.

If the arguments for why justice for all and environmentalism are important for the future of mankind are framed properly and presented in a coherent manner, a plurality of Americans would certainly agree that solutions are needed even if they may argue over what the best path forward would be.

The free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of better policy solutions are what characterizes a healthy democracy.

The fear of pointing out the obvious is what brings us to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, a classic fairytale by celebrated Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It was published in 1837.

The plot of the story centers on two scoundrels posing as weavers offering to supply the emperor with elegant clothes that are invisible to those who are ignorant or incompetent. The emperor hires them. As he parades around town to show off his new attire, it takes a child to point out that the emperor is naked.

The moral of the story is straightforward: Americans cannot let pride or fear keep them from speaking up. Another moral is that children speak the truth when no one else will.

The fairytale captures America’s era of irrationality.

Once the child proclaims that the emperor is naked, everyone recognizes the truth

But Wokeism is not the only anti-intellectual stream in American life.

On the other side of the political spectrum, QAnon-style conspiracies are proliferating which themselves are reminiscent of the world is flat mentality.

Either way, it has become clear that Workeism or QAnon-style conspiracies cannot possibly help solve some of society’s most complex problems.

 ‘An Enemy of the People’,  written in 1882 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, also captures America’s moment in history where irrationality has become the norm, but people still fear to speak out against the obvious. The play is about truth, freedom and tyranny. It deals with the loner versus the group, the role of the elite and the power of the majority.

 ‘The Dance Around the Golden Calf,’ ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and ‘An Enemy of the People,’ all represent criticism of collectivism taken to its extreme and the fear of speaking the truth especially when it is inconvenient.

 For Americans seeking to find comfort in what is happening to their country, it may be found in recognizing that throughout history, man has had to grapple with periods of irrationality and mass hysteria. While this moment in time is hardly different from other periods in history marked by anti-intellectualism and parochialism, America will once again prevail as a new era of enlightenment will eventually be ushered in.

 As King Solomon of the Bible (c. 970–931 BCE) once remarked:

 “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9).

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen by Henrik Olrik, 1879
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