This week, I was going to reflect a bit on public service and how a man like former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper could be pushed out of his job by a gofer like Johnny McEntee. But I’ll leave that—along with my own experiences as a public servant—for later.
Instead, I want to talk about the fact that a fair number of people in the United States have lost their damn mind. And I don’t mean someone walking the streets wearing a sandwich board warning you that “THE END IS NEAR.” I mean an entire assortment of our fellow citizens, ranging from elected officials to the neighbor who seems perfectly nice and keeps his lawn tidy but who also believes in things that are full-goose-bozo crazy.
Some of these folks are easy to spot, from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene to retired Lieutenant General Mike “Jack D. Ripper” Flynn to the “Kraken Queen” herself, Sidney Powell. These are people whose break with reality has been ongoing and public for months, even years.
I do not mean that these are people whose politics are different from mine. I mean that these are people who took off from Spaceport Earth and then ripped up their return visa. It’s bad enough to support a coup against the U.S. government. It’s even worse to do it because you believe (as Powell did) that the CIA director is being held in secret custody in Germany or because you think (as Flynn did) that so many ballots were falsified that the military should impound them.
Remember, for a hot minute Flynn was the national security adviser, the guy who wakes up the president if there’s a sign of an incoming nuclear attack. You probably should worry if a person in that position is a member of a whacked-out cult and thinks maybe the government is sneaking vaccines into your salad dressing. Next to Flynn, Curtis LeMay seems like a Zen master.
And, of course, we have the celebrities who, for various reasons, embrace nutty theories, perhaps from years of living in the bubble of fame. William Hurt (an actor whose work I admire and who is now battling cancer) has apparently decided that 9/11 was an inside job; Kyrie Irving (an athlete whom I do not admire, because I do not care about sports) has gone from flat-eartherism to “do your own research” vaccine refusal.
Fine. So politicos and celebs can be cynical and sometimes kooky. But what about everyone else? Aren’t these only isolated examples of people in the public eye who are, or became, unhinged under pressure?
Pretty to think so. Unfortunately, we’ve become a nation, to steal a line from Peggy Noonan, of “sullen paranoids,” in which millions of us have embraced a toxic combination of fantasy and stupidity. This is more than just the revival of conspiracy theories, which always lurk just beneath the surface of every society. This is far worse. From “microchips in the vaccines” to QAnon, from Venezuelan voting machines to Russian-hacked voting machines, from faked moon landings to “January 6 was antifa or the FBI or maybe both,” too many of our fellow citizens are adrift, lost, freaked-out, and willing to believe almost anything, especially if it helps to support their preexisting political narratives and tribal loyalties.
Sure, some of this can be written off to ignorance. (When a quarter of us believe the sun revolves around the Earth, that’s just depleted-uranium dumbness.) But there’s a huge difference between being confused about which way the Earth turns and going to Dallas because you think a resurrected John F. Kennedy Jr. is going to lead you to a new era of government by revenant.
This is a social sickness, a chronic and growing problem in a society that is searching for meaning and connection. This search once led us to family or faith or community involvement. But that was before we chose a life of narcissistic, consumer-driven isolation. Even before the pandemic, modern humans spent way too much time inside our own heads, inside our own homes, and away from our fellow citizens.
This matters, because as Eric Hoffer warned us 70 years ago, boredom and loneliness can make us crazy and soften us up as easy prey for crankery, crusades, and conspiracy theories.
When I was a kid, the people who were confined to their home or to an institution because of their medical problems were called “shut-ins,” a term, thankfully, that you don’t hear much anymore. We had one living next to us when I was growing up. Mickey was an older woman whose legs had been destroyed by (I suspect) diabetes, and she could barely move. We all cared about her and looked after her a bit; she was often my babysitter when I was small, and later my job every week was to go to the drugstore to get “Mickey’s papers” for her.
They were all tabloids. She loved the National Enquirer and some other pieces of picture-filled schlock whose names I can’t recall, and she believed every word in them. When my mother would look in on her, she had to disentangle herself from long and lurid conversations about what everyone from the pope to the president of the United States was really up to (usually involving sex).
Mickey loved the tabloids because her life was a dead end of illness and loneliness. Her entire world was our little street (although I never once saw her outside), along with her television and her live-in, middle-aged bachelor nephew. The tabloids were a jolt of fascination, with a frisson of secret and forbidden excitement. They were something to make her feel alive.
We’re now a nation of paranoid shut-ins by our own choice, and our tabloid excitement comes in far greater volume from the internet and cable. Lonely, bored, desperate for anything that will make our lives interesting, and convinced that we should all be at the center of great dramas, we feed on trash strewn before us by clever entrepreneurs who can monetize the movement of our eyeballs and the twitch of our mousing hand.
The presence of another human being is a great corrective to this self-imposed isolation. Someone next to us on a barstool or a church pew or in a bowling alley forces us to say things out loud and then see the look on someone else’s face when they say: “Gee, Bob, you’re my pal, but that’s just crazy talk.”
We need to say this to each other more often. And we need to make it stick. Perhaps we need less “understanding” and “dialogue,” and a little more stoic common sense. I know this isn’t easy; we value our time together with friends and loved ones. But I am convinced (and I’ll return to this theme in the future in this newsletter) that the remedy for saving our corroded public life lies within ourselves rather than through the law and regulation.
Turning to someone you know and telling them that the Earth is round, that vaccines work, that JFK Jr. is as dead as Julius Caesar—and that you are not willing to argue about it for three hours—is not an act of hostility. It’s an act of civic virtue, of friendship, even of love. And we need to do more of it.