Marlowe and Raleigh alike were mockers. Or to put it more kindly: they were gadflies, jesting about matters that were too serious for jest, playing with different and contradictory unorthodoxies without committing themselves to any of them, consistent only in their refusal to bow to authority.
— Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
Ryrie’s subject is the emotional, as opposed to intellectual, history of how people in the West came to doubt the Christian narrative. I found the book enthralling, and I recommend it to anyone interested. But this passage actually turned my thoughts toward contemporary politics and my own coming-of-age.
Claire Berlinski wrote a bit in a recent installment of her newsletter about Manufacturing Consent, the famous book by Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman. Now, I was born in the early 1970s. I was in high school when the Berlin Wall came down. My twenties began concurrently with Bill Clinton’s presidency. To the extent that I had a political identity, I largely thought of myself as a non-denominational leftie, especially as defined against the bigoted, religious cultural conservatives of my youth, the kind who wanted to sticker cassettes and CDs with parental warning labels and keep those poor kids in Footloose from dancing at their prom. (The Great Awokening of this decade forced me to reconsider a lot of complacent assumptions.)
What really struck me in reading Claire’s post was how much of my lukewarm-leftism, like that of many of my peers, was basically Chomskian in its framework. Anti-anti-Communist, I suppose you could call it; relentlessly critical of existing realities while being evasive about offering workable alternatives; a comfortable, idealistic posture that reeks of (dare I utter the overused term), privilege. For many of us naïfs, Chomsky seemed to represent an intoxicating intellectual ideal — his moral credibility seemed unimpeachable, his knowledge seemed encyclopedic, and his ability to connect disparate dots seemed unparalleled. (Yes, I know; that’s why I say “seemed.”) He seemed to sit above all partisan bias, observing empirical facts, dispensing moralistic judgments. As adolescent Chomskians, we felt secure that in attacking the compromises and sellouts of political life, we were just being like sculptors, chipping away the unnecessary parts to reveal the idealistic essence within. If we weren’t actually optimistic that the best was ever achievable, we were at least smugly secure that the worst was somehow unlikely. It might not have been the End of History after all, but it was at least a Historical Fermata.
Chomsky, though, seemed a little too serious sometimes. He never seemed to lighten up; he couldn’t watch a basketball game without seeing a modern-day fascist rally lurking underneath. Can’t we enjoy the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the online age? We needed some gadflies with a sense of humor and pop-culture approachability, some mockers to whom we could relate. Luckily, we had comedians like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and Jon Stewart. Moral superiority with cutting zingers and naughty language? How could we resist? We didn’t have to do much of anything besides taunt the booboisie. We just had to be clever and observant and to crack wise as the parade of fools marched by in public life. It seems only fitting that one of Stewart’s final acts as a jester was to gleefully welcome Trump’s candidacy as a “gift from heaven,” oblivious to what a Trojan Horse it was.
It appears obvious in hindsight that such a respite from responsibility could only be temporary. History’s currents started flowing again. The reality of post-partisan politics and online connectedness has left most observers muttering, “The horror! The horror!” Currently, it’s fashionable for many theoretically-inclined right-wingers (and timid liberals) to lament how capitalism/liberalism was always destined by history’s dialectic to end up producing a society of atomized, isolated individuals wasting away in their loneliness and decadence. Like most fashionable theories, this one is mostly dreck, soon to appear embarrassingly outdated. Millions of years of evolution as a social species is not going to be undone by several decades of affluence and technological trends. We’ve already seen the “atomization” that was going to occur, and it was more cerebral than anything: clever individuals playing with heterodoxies without committing to any of them, consistent only in their refusal to bow to authority. Faced with the competing idiocies of the woke left and the nationalist right, I didn’t have any trouble putting away the childish snark of my gadfly youth. I suspect many more of my peers feel the same.