A mediocre professional quarterback’s intellectually vacuous and grandiose political gesture becomes fodder for the worldwide marketing of overpriced gym shoes, tokens of style for lives with too little moral, religious or familial substance.
The best female tennis player of all time (yes, that’s right, only the best female) tries to justify her loss to a rising star and, especially, her loss of self-control, by posing as a leader in the great political cause of feminism. She may seem to be aggressively, relentlessly abusing this chair umpire and fallible human being rather than focusing on an immensely talented and admirably focused young opponent, but really she is expressing her heroic commitment to the great cause of women’s rights, whatever they may be.
I wish to put aside the bitterness and looniness of the political scene by turning to my favorite sports, but it seems I am not allowed to watch them without being summoned to get on the right side of history. ESPN, a cable TV empire supposed to be wholly devoted to sports, is eager to prove that it is at least as “woke” as the regular news channels. No self-respecting sports analyst can be satisfied now to shed light on a curve ball or a jump shot, to explain trades or evaluate rankings — no way, now he or she must try to outdo the regular news guys in raising “social consciousness” in one way or another.
Shall I try to divert myself by listening to some late-night comedy or some meaningless banter from the entertainment world? But it turns out that comedians and talk-show hosts have abandoned comedy in favor of virtue-signaling and compulsive manifestations of contempt for any who might disagree. Who has time for jokes that target our frail and muddled human condition when one can be a high priest of political correctness, devoting to the edifying activity of reassuring viewers that they are right and righteous and that the others are backward and deplorable.
Let’s hope that I can enjoy a respite from the political preening on the Sabbath day. But, alas. … Has social consciousness-raising come to your local congregation? It will. Sociologists tell us that fundamental moral and political divisions run right through our religions and denominations. It seems to matter less whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, etc., than whether you are “liberal” or “conservative” Catholic, Protestant, etc.
But there is always the family, right? The most elemental bonds of affection ought to provide us solace and shelter from the ideological storms that are driving through our society. How is that working for your family?
I teach, read and write about politics and political philosophy almost every day. The political dimension of the human condition interests me, and I cling to the conviction that speaking and acting with a view to the common good, or indeed to some passably reasonable partisan version of it, is a noble, or at least an essential and necessary human activity. I used to focus in my classes on defending this higher view of politics against the standard behavioral-scientific or positivist view that politics is about nothing but power, about who gets what and how they get it.
Today, a political philosopher could be nostalgic for the days when politics was mostly about power (within institutions that were taken for granted) and about plain material interests (more is better than less, and all that). Today, no institutions or the shared beliefs that underlie can be taken for granted, and we expect way more from politics than the protection or advancement of our material interests. We look to “society” and to the state to affirm our very identity and thus to decide the very meaning of something like marriage or what counts as a man or as a woman. Everything has to be possible, so everything must be political. The old radical feminist mantra has come true, the personal is political and the political is personal. Everything is up for grabs, and whoever can master the arts of ideological seduction and manipulation, whoever can sustain the illusion — the lie, really — that some advanced universal consciousness can replace plain old personal and moral responsibility for ourselves and for our own, then that person gets to be on the cutting edge, the right side of history, to lead the movement, to ride the top of the wave going nowhere. It’s a lot like hell, I gather.
Everything has become political because we have succumbed to the illusion that politics can overcome all limitations and, yes, all inequalities of the human condition. We imagine we can make people more free and equal without making them better people. We demand equality for all human beings, but we have forgotten, or denied, what a human being is.
Politics now is about everything because it is about nothing.