Monasteries of the Mind

When everything is politicized, people retreat into mental mountaintops — dreams of the past and fantasies of the future.
by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review

So long, it’s been good to know ya,
So long, it’s been good to know ya,
So long, it’s been good to know ya.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.
—Woodie Guthrie

The rapper Snoop Dogg released a video shooting a mock-up of the president. Rapper Bow Wow wants to “pimp” the first lady. What a difference a few months make. Not long ago rapper Kendrick Lamar issued an album whose cover showed young rappers on the White House lawn celebrating the death of a white judge. He received an invitation to the White House (a cut from his To Pimp a Butterfly album was Barack Obama’s favorite song of the year). When Trump has lost the rapper vote, has he lost America?

There is now something called the “Resistance,” which by its nomenclature poses that its opposition to Trump is reminiscent of European partisan resistance to Hitler: Affluent progressives are now on the barricades to stop another Holocaust? Cities now nullify federal law in the spirit of the Old Confederacy. A federal judge doesn’t enforce federal law because he says he does not like what the president and his associates said in the past, during the campaign. Op-ed writers overseas wait eagerly for the president’s assassination. At CNN, Fareed Zakaria, wrist-slapped for past plagiarism, melts down while screaming of Trump’s “bullsh**.” Madonna says she has “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.” All the insanity reminds one of the old Kingston Trio ballad:

They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don’t like anybody very much!

Bad filibusters are now good ones. Vowing to kill, hurt, or remove the president and first family is hip, when it used to be felonious. States’ rights and nullification are now Confederate-cool. Free speech is hate speech. Censorship is a mere trigger warning. Assimilation is cultural appropriation. The nasal voiced thirtysomethings on the news, in their retro outfits of high-water pants and horn-rimmed glasses, impart worldly wisdom as our new Eric Sevareids.

When we all wish to be victims, there are too few oppressors to go around. Or perhaps the Boomer generation is going out in a fit of frenzied self-recognition: It enjoyed all that was given to it, did not accomplish much itself, and left a mess to its successors. Its metaphor is California’s Oroville dam: Aging greens believe that it never should have been built; but since it was, it came in handy for the good life; but no one should spend any money on its repair; but when it nearly fails, we were all warned that it was never a good idea. And so no more dams will be built for our children.

An increasing number of American don’t take all this seriously. And that’s not new.

In reaction to the growing globalization of the Roman Empire, elite corruption, the banality of bread-and-circuses, and the end of the agrarian Italian Republic, the Stoics opted out, choosing instead a reasoned detachment from contemporary life. Some, like the worldly court philosopher Seneca, seemed hypocritical; others, such as the later emperor Marcus Aurelius, lived a double life of imperial engagement and mental detachment.

Classical impassiveness established the foundations for the later monastic Christians, who in more dangerous times increasingly saw the world around them as incompatible with the world to come — and therefore they saw engagement as an impediment to their own Christian belief.

More and more Americans today are becoming Stoic dropouts. They are not illiberal, and certainly not reactionaries, racists, xenophobes, or homophobes. They’re simply exhausted by our frenzied culture.

They don’t like lectures from the privileged and the wealthy on the pitfalls of privilege and wealth. In response, they don’t hike out to monasteries, fall into fetal positions, or write Meditations. Instead, they have checked out mentally from American popular entertainment, sports, and the progressive cultural project in general.

But aren’t sports at least still sacrosanct?

Hardly. The new monastics were already watching less and less of the National Football League before the televised tantrums of Colin Kaepernick. After his multimillionaire stunts seemed to catch on with other players, many viewers quit entirely. The appeasement of his crudity by Kaepernick’s multimillionaire bosses and teammates might explain why NFL audiences (and revenues) are down.

In this age of pan-politicization, sports, like everything else, is not exempt from wealthy elites’ guilt-ridden obsessions with race, class, and gender agendas — as a $20-million-per-annum, mediocre, and pampered quarterback refuses to stand for the National Anthem, or as Beyoncé does last year’s Super Bowl half-time show as an amateurish paean to Black Lives Matter and the old Black Panthers.

It’s become more painful to watch TV sports analysts than the gladiatorial hits of the game itself: Aging veterans seek to recapture their cool by passing themselves off as political pundits who contextualize interceptions and fumbles in terms of abstract politics.. They’re oblivious that, in the court of identity politics, the NFL is itself found culpable: According to the logic of “disparate impact” and proportional representation, about 12 percent of the population is “overrepresented” through its nearly 70 percent membership on NFL teams.

During the Cold War, Soviet-athlete propagandists who talked of the masses at least had a gun to their heads; today’s ESPN jocks who play-act as NPR talking heads mouth Democratic-party platitudes as a form of career enhancement. Life is short, so when Sundays are no relief from the daily frenzy, an increasing number have pulled the plug on sports.

The Oscar awards?

It too has become cultural Newspeak, with limited themes and scripted vocabulary. Watching hours of multimillionaires gushing about their own psychodramas was always trying, but in the age of Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Maureen O’Hara, the stars at least showed some dignity and authentic eccentricity. Now entertainment awards ceremonies are mostly predictable rants, as if career success required speaking “truth” to power in a collective Two Minutes Hate exercise condemning the president, who serves as our new Emmanuel Goldstein. How odd that liberalism became elites’ groupthink about equality — or perhaps not so odd at all, given Orwell’s observation that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The new monastics likewise avoid new movies. The fall-off in movie viewership is not just due to the advent of cable television and streaming video over the Internet. Nor is the rub that new movies are mostly short on plot, dialogue, and characterization, and long on cardboard-cutout comic-book heroes, explosives, car crashes, and sadism.

The problem is also that there are finite ways of portraying a good-looking, young, liberal, justice crusader uncovering yet another corporate or oligarchic plot — by villains with southern accents or Russian tattoos — to pollute the planet, promote white privilege, or hurt justice crusaders. The actors, directors, producers, and studios are themselves multimillionaire corporatists who are trying to convince themselves that they are not multimillionaire corporatists — and this is another reason that some of the public has long ago lost interest in these scripted morality plays.

Monastics are tuning out the media. Listening to Brian Williams warn of fake news would be like paying attention to Miley Cyrus’s reminder about the need for abstinence. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is often said to be the ethical conscience of the paper’s op-ed page, recently begged the IRS to commit a felony by sending him Trump’s tax returns. He went so far as to provide his own address to facilitate the crime: “But if you’re in IRS and have a certain president’s tax return that you’d like to leak, my address is: NYT, 620 Eighth Ave., NY NY 10018.”

Someone belatedly might have gotten the message. Rhodes scholar Rachel Maddow got a hold of two pages from Trump’s 2005 tax return. On MSNBC she went the full Roswell-UFO mode in hyping the scoop until she finally grasped that a twelve-year-old-tax return revealed that her Trump-as-Snidely-Whiplash had paid a greater tax (percentage-wise and absolutely) than “you didn’t build that” Barack Obama paid. Such an inadvertent demonstration is not the purpose for which a Rachel Maddow was hired.

The Middlebury and Berkeley and indeed all campus violence is now predictable: Mostly rich, white, privileged kids posing as barricade brawlers in a rite of passage — all predicated on the fact that they feel exempt from the reach of the local district attorney and are assured that there are not too many working kids without privilege nearby who might push back.

When everything is politicized, everything is monotonous; nothing is interesting. There are only so many ways one can express existential hatred for Trump, turn the Aztecs into the Founding Fathers, or show disrespect for the National Anthem (Kneeling? Or clenched fist held high? Or just sitting? Or turning one’s back? Or talking over the music?). So millions tune out and retreat to reading what was written before 1980, or to watching movies of a past age or seeking their own tribal ties of the mind.

I went into what once was our sleepy hometown the other day. An Aztec totem devoted to Coatlicue, the earth-mother goddess, portrayed as a paean to noble farm workers, sits in the old park. The huge monolith is sculpted quite well and by a talented former colleague at CSU Fresno. Its dedication was widely reported; no one was so rude as to mention that Coatlicue was a fierce mother goddess to whom captives were sacrificed each year. (She wore a necklace of human hearts and hands and a cloak of skin.) But identity-politics art is never free from overt propaganda: The modern epigraph atop our Coatlicue reads “Viva la Raza” (“Long live the Race”). I don’t recall anyone in the city’s supposed illiberal past ever suggesting that “Long live the race” would have been an acceptable epigraph on any city art.

Monasteries of the mind are an effort to reconnect with the past and disengage psychologically from the present. For millions of Americans, their music, their movies, their sports, and their media are not current fare. Instead, they have mentally moved to mountaintops or inaccessible valleys, where they can live in the past or dream of the future, but certainly not dwell in the here and now.

But oddly, sometimes there are surprises.

Today at 6 a.m. in the dark, I stopped at a gas station in the California coastal foothills. The car next to me had, I thought, way-too-loud booming rap music of the “kill the ho,” “bust up the pig” generic type. Why listen to all that before sunset?

I decided, in protest to the early-morning noise, to leave my own music louder than his as I filled the tank. The first song happened to be a short old folk rendition of Carl Sandburg’s lyrical “The Colorado Trail,” a sad homage to a 16-year-old girl who died on the way westward:

Laura was a laughin’ girl, joyful in the day.
Laura was my darling girl. Now she’s gone away.
Sixteen years she graced the Earth, and all of life was good.
Now my life lies buried ’neath a cross of wood.

I then switched tracks to Joan Baez’s folk version of the 18th-century “Plaisir d’amour.”

As it ended with Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment? Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie, the young driver, his neck and wrists spotted with tattoos, got into his car (he had earlier turned down his stereo around “Now she’s gone away”) and drove up alongside me.

What next?

He grinned, “Hey, I liked your songs, okay?”

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