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The extinction of the political animal Democracy is laughing itself to death

'Debate on contested issues has given way to blame, shame, and hectoring. Speakers are shouted down and chased from the podium.' (Credit: The Simpsons Movie/20th Century Fox)

'Debate on contested issues has given way to blame, shame, and hectoring. Speakers are shouted down and chased from the podium.' (Credit: The Simpsons Movie/20th Century Fox)


April 17, 2024   5 mins

For the past few years, scientists have warned that a human-driven mass extinction of animal species has begun. The focus falls mostly upon land-dwelling vertebrates, but fails to mention one critically endangered species: homo politicus, threatened on all sides by the collapse of its native habitat, the public square.

Aristotle writes in the Politics that man is by nature not just a social animal — one that finds mates, forms families and households, and comes together in larger communities for the sake of living well — but a political one. Other animals have voice [phonē], which vocalises pleasure and pain: think of a cat’s contented purring or a dog’s yelp when it’s stepped on. But only human beings have logos, a word whose primary meanings include “reason” and “speech”. Speech, Aristotle explains:

“serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort], and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a political community.”

Politics unfolds in debate and deliberation. It concerns the shared determination of what is advantageous and harmful, good and bad, and the acquisition, avoidance and just distribution of these things. And because deliberation and persuasion — unlike force and compulsion — actualise our highest human potentialities of reason and truth-seeking, they are integral to the good life.

A quick glance at what is today called politics shows just how far we have fallen from this Aristotelian standard. The middle ground of public life has mostly become a space not to reflect and discuss, but to emote; not to listen to others, but to heckle them. Debate on contested issues has given way to blame, shame and hectoring. Speakers are shouted down and chased from the podium. Tribal conflict has erased the lines dividing speech from violence, and arguments are often settled by intimidation rather than persuasion. People have learned to protect themselves by concealing or lying about their opinions.

There is historical precedent for these developments in the fascist and communist movements of the 20th century, and it is not encouraging. In her memoir, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam who was killed by the Soviet state, writes with powerful clarity about the collapse of thought, reason and speech in the USSR:

“Nothing can be predicted with certainty: people could even forget how to read altogether and books moulder away to dust. We might even stop talking to each other and communicate only by emitting call signs or blood curdling war cries. Sometimes I think this is what we are coming to. We did, after all, learn to speak in a lying code language designed to conceal our real thoughts. Our descendants pay for such things by losing the power of articulate speech altogether, caterwauling instead like fans at a football game.”

Mandelstam’s description of the degeneration of speech into animal voice — mobs howling their pain or pleasure like packs of wolves — draws directly from her own experience. She and Osip saw a woman torn to pieces by just such a mob during the civil war that started with the Bolshevik Revolution in the autumn of 1917.

There are many reasons for the disappearance of political logos. Social media, which has created sealed ideological echo chambers, is clearly to blame, as is the expansion of state surveillance and increasing control of economic and political activities. But so is human nature, sorely pressed by contemporary realities. “All human beings desire by nature to know,” Aristotle writes in the opening line of his Metaphysics. This seems right, with the qualification that some seek truth more than others — and that most people want other things, like avoiding ostracism and maintaining family comity, at least as much as they desire knowledge.

Technology, at any rate, merely amplifies a disease to which all democratic republics are prone. From the time of Socrates to the present day, democracies have been plagued by the tyranny of public opinion — a tyranny that “leaves the body alone and goes straight for the soul”, as Alexis de Tocqueville observes in Democracy in America:

“The master no longer says: ‘Think like me or you die.’ He does say: ‘You are free not to think as I do; you can keep your life and property and all, but from this day you are a stranger among us… When you approach your fellows, they will shun you as an impure being, and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you too, lets they in turn be shunned. Go in peace. I have given you your life, but it is a life worse than death.’”

Conformity of taste and opinion might not seem to be a big problem when the public is divided into hostile camps, as it is today. But the price of membership in these camps is the abandonment of individual judgment. The public space is no longer hospitable to spirited yet peaceful politics. It has become a field of conflict where herds of peevish cattle rush to lock horns.

The withering of individual capacities of thought has another consequence as well. It makes speech stupid and contributes to the essential unseriousness of public life. Søren Kierkegaard included the following apocalyptic parable in his 1843 book Either/Or:

“In a theatre, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed —amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.”

Plato, too, compared the public space to a theatre. He described Athenian democracy as a “wretched theatrocracy” in which sovereignty is in the hands of spectators hoping to be entertained. But Kierkegaard gives the analogy a new twist. The management of public affairs is today in the hands of clowns who put on a show for scribblers and pundits. These “wits and wags”, who clap and laugh but don’t listen, have no interest in what transpires away from the spotlight — or, as Americans say, “outside the beltway” that rings Washington, D.C. Yet it is there, in the homes, towns, and cities of the hinterland, that the pillars of civilisation stand or fall.

“The management of public affairs is today in the hands of clowns who put on a show for scribblers and pundits.”

All of the factors mentioned so far — social media, the censorious tyranny of public opinion, the frivolity of politicians and the chattering classes — debase politics by inhibiting the growth and ripening of individual minds. And they all contribute to the emasculation of public life.

Of Shakespeare, Goethe remarked, “it is said that he portrayed the Romans very well; I do not think so, they are all inveterate Englishmen, but, of course, they are men, men from top to bottom, and assuredly the Roman toga fits them”. Who could wear this stately attire today, outside of a comedy? It fits Blutarsky in Animal House, the insane, almost mute John Belushi character who leads a chant of “Toga! Toga! Toga!” and later becomes a United States senator. But nowadays there aren’t even any Blutarskys to be found on campus. Even our frat boys have been fitted with skirts.

Blame it on the puritans who govern us. We are ruled by scolding homeroom teachers, pedantic moralists with little political prudence who are determined to make us good boys and girls. And to our shame, we cower before them like frightened children.

Tocqueville saw this coming. He struggled to find a name for “the oppression that threatens democracy”. What he describes is a despotism that neuters spiritedness. This despotism “would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood”. Instead, the state “gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it”. It provides, facilitates, manages, and directs virtually all elements of public life. Why, Tocqueville wonders, “should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living”?

Tocqueville understood that all that would be left to erstwhile citizens under this despotism is entertainment. When the inner growth of our higher faculties is stunted and our political muscles have atrophied from disuse, what else are we fit for besides the lonely solipsism of personal amusement? Contemplating the extinction of the political animal, I fear Kierkegaard was right. The world will end not with a bang or a whimper, but a clueless guffaw.


Jacob Howland is Provost and Dean of the Intellectual Foundations Program at the University of Austin.


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
29 days ago

I love the past, hate the present, and fear the future.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago

The Reactionary Creed, established before written records.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
28 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Indeed, idolizing the past is a dangerous game, as we cannot truly understand what it was like to live in those times. We cannot avoid the bias that comes from hindsight, knowing what happens before the story unfolds. The people of the time were, of course, just like us, unsure of what would come and many of them were just as fearful and just as skeptical of the future as we are for many of the same reasons.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Yes, but could Jane Eyre be written today?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
28 days ago

No but a lot of things can be written today that couldn’t have been written back then, like an interracial romance or a gay couple raising a child, or career oriented women. One set of cultural mores is as good or bad as any other. To me they’re both fairly arbitrary and the result of the same social pressures to conform to norms. I’m not qualified to judge such things.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Permit me one more question: If all “cultural mores” are essentially the same, how does one explain that virtually all the immigration on the US southern border is moving in only one direction, south to north, not north to south?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago

If Canada was as poor and crime-plagued as Mexico, that gap would close. Canadian immigrants would likely outstrip the Mexican and farther-south group for a time, especially if they were from the white, English-speaking Canadian majority–many Republicans and Trumpkins would have far less of a problem with that type of immigration. Understandably so, for multiple reasons.

net mag
net mag
28 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Oh, trust me. Trudeau and the federal Liberal government are doing to their damnedest to make us as poor and crime plagued as Mexico.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago
Reply to  net mag

Hmm. I was up there visiting family near Calgary in November and I’d say he’s pretty far from “achieving” that, at least in small-town Alberta.

Paul
Paul
26 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Too bad you didn’t arrange a stopover in Toronto.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
24 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

You have to beat Trudeau off with a stick constantly. And you have to watch your neighbours, like marlin schmidt, who can’t understand why other jurisdictions in Alberta should have a say on the graft the federal liberals want to give him. https://edmontonjournal.com/news/politics/accusations-of-intimidation-and-division-make-for-a-testy-week-at-the-alberta-legislature

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
28 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

The opposition to immigration is only partly on cultural or racial grounds (because of the huge difficulty of integrating large numbers of people from very different societies). This is a perfectly reasonable concern and is born out by vast amounts of real life experience especially in Europe. But it is also about the enormous numbers of low-skilled migrants who undoubtedly uncut undercut the wages of the host society’s poorer classes.

I’m also not aware that Trump supporters or anybody else on the Right would be exactly ecstatic about white Protestant drug addicts pouring across the border either.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Agreed. But all things being equal people prefer ‘their own kind’, which I don’t consider blameworthy in and of itself, more of a matter of degree and of guarding against our most ‘tribal’ or insular impulses. Of course when there are few to no ‘exotic’ foreigners, ‘white-on-white’ (or brown-on-brown, etc.) class and ethnic antipathies can still thrive. But a semblance of social cohesion is still easier to maintain under the same-colour umbrella, so to speak.
I don’t think the US sees hordes of drug addicts flooding in (just the in-demand drugs themselves), but plenty of the low-skill wage shavers you mention. And too many too fast. Living in a major California city I don’t have to watch the news to see that.
I think the US in particular has a sacred, self-declared mission to take in asylum seekers and worthy common folk along with the best and brightest–but not every last one and not all at once.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
28 days ago

I didn’t say they were essentially the same, just that one is not necessarily better or morally superior than any other. They’re all a result of the same social processes that produced all the other iterations of human culture in ages past. To suggest we’re actually better people than those from two hundred years ago or the opposite strikes me as a bridge too far to cross with any semblance of logical reasoning. It’s far too easy to idolize past generations as saints or denigrate them as savages because they’re not here to contest the point either way. I just consider the romanticizing or demonizing of the past to be intellectually lazy, the product of seeking easy answers to hard questions and simple solutions to complex problems. I have found this intellectual practice tends to be common among people with a simplistic, binary outlook toward everything. It has to be either black or white, right or wrong, good or evil, and there’s no middle ground nor any room for subtlety. I personally have always found such people to be insufferably annoying and engage them as little as I possibly can.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“Modern” is a Latin word which means “just-now.” Modernity is “just-now-ness.” It is the idea that what time it is, is important, that time marches on, and that our task is to keep up with it. Do I understand you correctly, then, that you would reject such notions as “simplistic?” If so, I’m with you. Would you agree instead that the “present is an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one.” (Nietzsche).

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
27 days ago

In a way, yes. I reject the notion of social and moral progress. I see the notion of progress as being based on the idea that people are learning from their history and past mistakes and approaching an ideal state, but with increasingly incremental progress such that they never truly achieve ‘perfection’. It’s like the concept of an asymptote in mathematics.
It’s an attractive concept but I see no evidence of it in practice. Even as we speak the Chinese government is herding people into reeducation camps little different than those from the last century, which themselves were modernized, industrialized, organized forms of human prejudice that has always existed. We have people who call themselves lovers of freedom and democracy earnestly trying to use undemocratic means and suppression of alternative viewpoints to protect said freedom and democracy. We have learned nothing, and probably never will, not collectively at any rate. An individual can improve themselves through thought, meditation, reading, and experiencing the world. An individual can, if they so choose, refuse to participate in the collective nonsense. Collectively though, what I see in history and through the present, is people making the same mistakes and repeating the same patterns over and over again.
Nietzsche made a lot of excellent observations about the human condition. He saw through things in a similar manner to myself. For someone like me who lacks much of the social instincts that people take for granted, a lot of human activity seems just hollow and pointless. Like anyone I’m a product of my own experiences and my own nature. I have no more claim to moral or intellectual superiority than anyone else. I’m just stating my personal views.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Your point ends up saying that we cannot make a distinction between Nazi Germany and say Roosevelt’s America, which is an extreme relativist position.

Some cultures ARE indeed better than others on measurable grounds – more people can flourish economically and socially, fear the authorities less, less arbitrary punishment, less violence – and perhaps more meaningful freedom. You could ask John Rawls’ question: if you had a few to dropped into one of a range of societies in a random position, which one would you choose?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
27 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Well, that is the best counterargument to relativism. The extremes such as those you mention are the most difficult to reconcile to a relativistic view. One wonders who would choose Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia over the US in the 1930’s, yet people did. How much of the Holocaust is the collective responsibility of all Germans who allowed it to happen. The Nazis won the most seats in the Reichstag before they came to power. Somebody chose them. Did they know at the time what they were really choosing? Probably not, but that’s easy to say sitting around eighty years later on the winning side of the war and knowing how everything turned out. It was less obvious to the people living during that time, and people were then, as now, willing to overlook a lot of things they didn’t really agree with for the sake of their own safety and prosperity.
A better example is countries choosing between the US and China today. Here we don’t have the benefit of hindsight. We don’t know who will win. Everybody can see what China is at this point. They oppress their own people for the sake of collective prosperity or ideological purity or just because Chairman Xi said so. I can’t fathom who would choose to back the Chinese, yet many Chinese citizens are highly and earnestly supportive of their government. Many countries have and will continue to take the side of the Chinese so long as the second cold war continues. It’s not impossible that we could be in WWIII a year from now and there’s no guarantee our side would win. There have to be two sides in a war, there has to be some point of disagreement, whether it’s as complex as capitalism vs. communism or as simple as who is the rightful ruler of whatever stretch of territory. If there were an obvious universal right answer in terms of what kind of society one prefers, one would think war would be a great deal rarer than it is.
To be frank, yes, I do believe there is such a thing as good and evil and I would choose Roosevelt’s America over Nazi Germany in the 30’s or today’s America over China. I’m simply a great deal less cavalier about the righteousness of my own cause. Much evil has been done in the name of good. There are people right now trying to police the Internet for ‘misinformation’ in the name of freedom and democracy, despite the obvious contradiction. How can any form of censorship protect freedom and democracy. The answer is that the people advocating such things are absolutely, utterly convinced that their ideas, on COVID or climate change or whatever else, are the indisputable truth of the matter now and forever more. We should never assume we’re right, or that people will see it. We should start from a point of humility, that is my view is no better or more important than anyone else’s. Judge not lest ye be judged.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

No, I totally disagree. The best of traditional arts and literature were about universal themes applying to mankind. Modern progressive arts largely exclude or are extremely unsympathetic to the more traditional groups in society, simplistically lionise people who belong to the right victim group, and are pitifully reductive, banal and tedious in consequence.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
27 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“One set of cultural mores is as good or bad as any other.”
Wow. It is hard to think of any statement about human civilization that has been more clearly refuted by world history.

Paul
Paul
26 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

Well really, who are we to judge child sacrifice?—after all, we have global warming! (Sarc.)

Paul
Paul
26 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

This kind of relativism ends in saying that we’re not qualified to judge the Third Reich, partly because we’re not Germans in 1939 and partly because one set of cultural mores is as good as any other.

Bob Israel
Bob Israel
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I’m 81 years old and I have lived in the past. Before television was common, before computers, portable phones, the surveillance state, the internet and other bases of modernity existed for the general public. It was a better life, but not easier.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
27 days ago
Reply to  Bob Israel

Can you picture people your age who, for valid reasons, might on balance disagree with your sense that life was better then?

John Riordan
John Riordan
28 days ago

I don’t fear the future. Our descendants will live lives amongst a cornucopia of material wealth that would astound us today, if we lived long enough to witness it.

It might be that “descendants” in this context refers only in the very broadest sense to all future humans and not, as you might think, your own future family tree, because the vanguard of the permanent advancement of the human condition might well be in China or some other place on the planet where the political class might have all sorts of faults but not the astonishingly-stupid characteristic of hating it’s own citizens.

We in the West might well end up like China did in the 20th century (when it sank from its historic average of 20% of global GDP down to 5%) as the rest of the world prospers to western levels of wealth and then carries on, romping past us to new heights in the human condition. Maybe we can stop this happening and ensure that the West forms part of this ongoing success story, or maybe the West is an empire destined to fall like any other. I don’t know, but what I do know is that if this happens, the rest of the world will gladly take over the torch of progress.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
28 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

So living in untold material wealth, provided you’re right, makes everything else okay? People in The Black Mirror lived in a time of comfort and convenience, but I don’t see the masses clamoring for such an existence.

John Riordan
John Riordan
28 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I do like these “So….” comments. The word usually precedes a non-sequitur, or is merely the first word in a “this is what I want to talk about and you’re going to be the pretext I use”.

I am not sure exactly how – or even if – you want me to respond.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
28 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I think perhaps that particular style is irritating, but Alex makes the completely reasonable point that you can’t define the worth of a society solely by its levels of material wealth. You appear to do so, or at least that was the only criterion that you mentioned. Nazi Germany was actually a well-off society of its time by world standards

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
28 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I suspect your comment will be misunderstood (it’s already happened).
The vast majority are unable to think of history except through the lens of the present; or think of the future as something unknowable and therefore to be feared. Neither reaction is appropriate, although common and to some degree understandable.
In the end, all we as individuals can do is seek to acquire knowledge and experience, and thenceforth seek to disseminate what we’ve acquired in the broadest possible terms, i.e. cultural propagation in addition to biological propagation.
What happens as a result of all our individual endeavours is ultimately outside our control. Rather than fear it, it seems to me the best course is to seek to understand it.

John Riordan
John Riordan
27 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

What I’m getting at is that the West possesses a collective and instinctive narcissism about its own place in the world that cannot survive a confrontation with reality. Through the mechanism of climate change ideology and the hypocrisy of how we wage war and set economic standards, we are effectively marketing poverty-as-a-virtue to everyone else on earth except ourselves.

Not only is this doomed to ignominious failure, it means that we actually deserve to be overtaken and demoted in global standing. The point I was initially making is that thought this might be extremely difficult for Westerners, it doesn’t matter at all as far as humanity is concerned. There is no reason whatsoever why Mandarin instead of English should not end up being the official language on Mars, and there’s no basis in the West for expecting the rest of the world to agree with us that English would be preferable. Especially when we keep insulting the rest of the world by expecting it to join us in a an economic suicide-pact.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

So you see little risk of us “torching ourselves” on a cataclysmic scale?
I remain stubbornly hopeful and non-pessimistic myself but I think your ironic dissenter Alex Lekas raises a fair point concerning the depression, alienation, and even sci-fi-level horror that can co-exist with great material comfort and progress.
And if you have one, I would be happy to hear your reply, whatever it may be.
You make a consistent “material” contribution to these comments.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
23 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Good God, what a load of facile bullshit. ‘Cornucopia of material wealth’? Hate to break it to you but the accelerated upward transfer of wealth we’ve seen over the last 30 odd years directly contradicts your fantasy. All political classes treat their subjects (which is what they really are) as chattel to be exploited, lied to and manipulated. Some just have more power to do so. ‘New heights in the human condition’? We’re seeing the same ugly behaviors we always have, the only differences are to what degree and by what methods, but obviously to the same end, which is more power for the elites and less and less for everyone else. Technology can hardly be framed as a civilizing influence when it makes oppression, surveillance of populations, censorship and killing so much easier than they’ve ever been before. Blithely asserting your yetis on pink unicorn viewpoint only serves to make things worse. Fiddle on, Nero.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

See! Humour is wise! People laughed when Tommy Cooper died on stage. Were they wrong too? Like Red Nose Day, another assault upon our most astute of faculties?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
28 days ago

An accurate summation of the author’s argument, condensed into few enough characters to fit in a twitter post.

Y Chromosome
Y Chromosome
29 days ago

Was this essay a pretext for Mr. Howland to list all the philosophers he studied in school?

Martin M
Martin M
28 days ago
Reply to  Y Chromosome

Cue a rendition of Monty Python’s “Philosophers Song”.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
28 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Immanuel Kant was a real piss-ant who was very rarely stable.

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table.

David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ‘ya ’bout the raising of the wrist.

Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, after half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Plato, they say, could stick it away, half a crate of whiskey every day!

Aristotle, Aristotle was a b****r for the bottle,

And Hobbes was fond of his Dram.

And René Descartes was a drunken fart: ‘I drink, therefore I am.’

Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed;

A lovely little thinker, but a b****r when he’s pissed.

John Tyler
John Tyler
28 days ago
Reply to  Y Chromosome

Oh, come on all you down voters! You have to admit he does rather love to display his intellectual credentials. It doesn’t make him less persuasive, but it does make him less accessible.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
29 days ago

I’m sensing a theme with this and Freddy’s essay. Not being critical at all though. The demise of political debate is the root cause of the problems plaguing the west right now. I’m always surprised when people like Bjorn Lomborg are demonized as being climate change deniers and grifters. He’s such a reasonable, even keeled thinker. It’s hard to understand how people accuse him of nefarious motives.

John Riordan
John Riordan
28 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It’s not hard to understand how and why Bjorn Lomborg is demonised: his work reveals that trillions of dollars-worth of climate-change-justified economic transformation is unnecessary, counterproductive and will decimate both advanced and developing economies for no good reason.

Since however these plans will enrich some powerful corporations and empower an ambitious class of supranational bureaucrats and activists who have no intention whatsoever of allowing their prize to be taken from them, Lomborg is routinely insulted and vilified in ways that never withstand factual scrutiny but that doesn’t matter because where climate change politics is concerned, you only get into trouble if you tell the truth.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
28 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I think you are right about the dollars. My view is the climate alarmism began with the general concerns about the environment and out of that grew the specific concern about global warming. I suspect that the activists penetrated the universities with the objective of creating climate change as specific area of study. But nothing much would have happened as a result. It was when business and bankers saw an opportunity to make money from supporting it, without any concern about the problems of energy costs and pointless renewable energy.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
28 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Not so hard to understand. This is how cults work: you are either on board with the entirety of the dogma or you are a heretic. Aside from her belief in biology, JK Rowling was in otherwise good standing among the left. But her deviation on this one issue means that she must be excommunicated.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
28 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

This is what I don’t understand. I like Glen Greenwald. I don’t like his position on Israel. Just because we disagree on a particular issue doesn’t make him an awful person, or someone who must be excommunicated. I like Ben Shapiro. I don’t like his stand on abortion or his zealous support of Israel. It seems that with progressives, you have to be totally onside with everything.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs
29 days ago

Might I offer up two suggestions to help find a name for “the oppression that threatens democracy”…

Paternalistic Despotism: A state that behaves like an overbearing parent, dictating and controlling every aspect of public life, assuming a paternal role in the pursuit of its citizens’ happiness, but stifling their maturity and autonomy.

Or

Solipsistic State: Reflecting the inward-looking, individual-centric nature of our current political governance, where collective agency and communal spirit are dissolved into isolated, self-centered existence under state oversight.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jobs

I quite like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Naive Interventionism’.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
28 days ago

This is a pathway that is encouraged by GDI that seeks to suppress opinions that don’t agree with those of GDI’s directorate as highlighted in Freddie Sayers article above.

AC Harper
AC Harper
28 days ago

Or perhaps:
The management of public affairs is today in the hands of the bureaucracy, but fronted by clowns who put on a show for scribblers and pundits.
It would explain a great deal about our current situation in the UK.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago

Certainly bread and circuses and shiny new distractions for amusing ourselves to death (Postman) are a longstanding phenomenon. I like Mr. Howland’s thoughtful long view overall, but I think an essay on jokiness rum amok should be a bit less humorless itself.
“Blame it on the puritans who govern us. We are ruled by scolding homeroom teachers, pedantic moralists with little political prudence who are determined to make us good boys and girls. And to our shame, we cower before them like frightened children”.
Who’s “We”? I’ve been a frightened child and I’m still capable of cowardice–though ever-so-brave to admit that–but I don’t tend to cower before puritans, and often didn’t when I was a child. I don’t think that’s too rare in America. We’re more given to tribalized self-righteousness than obedience to governing elites. We do tend to pick our preferred type of pedantic moralist, then become some version of those pedants ourselves.
Aren’t frat boys some of the least feminized dudebros left on campus, who’d wear a toga or skirt primarily to chase skirts/yoga-pants in the age-old way? Not that I want to demonize or applaud that type of horny young joiner.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
27 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Excellent observation which I share. Whatever their faults, and surely there are many, Americans are perhaps the least likely of the world’s people to be led blindly into totalitarian dystopia like lambs to the slaughter. Too many of us or our ancestors came here fleeing such things. America’s anti-elite strain runs deep. Protesting the government, rebellion, civil disobedience, popular movements, are all proud American traditions. One could argue that American culture, such as it is, consists of little else. It has been well said that there is nothing so American as burning the American flag.
At the same time, the author goes to great pains to point out how our modern politicians are a sad collection of petty bickerers, profiteers, opportunists, grievance peddlers, and dog whistlers. Such men seem incapable of accomplishing anything of any great substance, let alone the herculean task of transforming perhaps the most collectively disagreeable, the most unruly, the least passive, people on the face of the earth into good little soldiers marching to the same government beat. I have little doubt they will continue to try. I have even less doubt they will fail at the task.

John Riordan
John Riordan
28 days ago

This is a superbly expressed set of ideas – as usual with Unherd it contains several arguments I vaguely perceived myself but wouldn’t have been able to express with this degree of erudition.

Penny Rose
Penny Rose
28 days ago

Nice essay. Thanks.

Arthur King
Arthur King
28 days ago

But the entertainment produced under this kind of soft despotism is not entertaining.

Fabio Paolo Barbieri
Fabio Paolo Barbieri
28 days ago

Welcome to planet Earth. The fact that Plato, Kierkegaard and Tocqueville, among others, can be quoted to the same purpose in different ages and countries, means that these are universal flaws with democracy. Live with them, face them, deal with them, and keep going.

Stevie K
Stevie K
28 days ago

Inspirational excellence – Thank you

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
27 days ago

“deal with them”
Suggestions welcome. Indeed, needed.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
28 days ago

This author seems to have fallen into the intellectual trap of romanticizing some imagined past ideal. Of course the present seems horrifying given that context. If some past condition is the ideal, then the farther one deviates from the past, the worse things are, and the criticism basically writes itself. One can basically point at and criticize anything that’s different, which in the end is just about everything, as the world and human society are always changing, sometimes faster than others. I can’t entirely condemn the approach. There are aspects of the past we should preserve and pass on to the future. Yet, it’s far too easy having the benefit of hindsight to conclude that our past generations were far more confident, sure of themselves, and optimistic than they actually were and that history turned out just as they intended it at the time because they’re not around to contest the point. History vindicates the winners and we generally forget the losing side or only remember how they were defeated. It’s always easier to find justifications after the fact than it is to predict the future, hence the prevalence of this particular intellectual trap.
It’s interesting he cites de Tocqueville, who visited and wrote about America as it was before the civil war. If these criticisms apply to present conditions so well, then surely that suggests current conditions are not so exceptional, not so different after all. I’ve often made the point here that current US political conditions are more typical of US history than the post WWII period. American politics has usually been characterized by factions based on race, religion, ideology, geography, or advocacy for a single issue. The political parties are really coalitions of these factions who tolerate each other well enough to find common political cause and opposed by an opposite coalition. There has always been an upper class, corporate, merchant based faction that favors unrestricted free trade regardless of social consequences even in the time of de Tocqueville. There have nearly always been evangelical religious factions and strict libertarians as well. They regularly change sides, as organized labor is slowly shifting towards Republicans these days, but the factions themselves are their own beasts. The partisanship, the ring fencing of ideological and geographic territory, even the silly name calling and shaming of nonconformists can be found pretty much anywhere in American history. That’s why de Tocqueville is still relevant today.
In other words, no Chicken Little, the sky isn’t falling. The world isn’t coming to an end. We aren’t on the brink of apocalypse. Every generation before us had its own Chicken Littles, but nobody remembers who they were because they ended up being wrong, and unless they happen to be right in predicting the apocalypse or a civilizational collapse on par with the fall of Rome, nobody will remember today’s doomers either. Even if they are correct, people will still argue the why even as we still argue the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, even as this author fervently and vividly describes how the incivility of politics and cultural/intellectual decline will lead to our collective doom, other partisans are, equally fervently, citing climate change, racism, intolerance, globalism, populism, WWIII, unchecked immigration, or some combination of the above as the cause of some similar doom.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Excellent. Because of your comment I’m gonna try to read de Tocqueville at least one more time. I’ve probably read 50 pages of his famous tome and would like to have a more detailed sense of his observations.
Throughout history, most announcements of foregone or imminent doom have proven premature, or at least exaggerated. No data provided at this time.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Yes, in the grand scheme of things human beings will survive countless horrors, and there are many worst places to live than in in modern western society. But surely it is perfectly reasonable to observe that the West in general, and the United States in particular, are now going through extreme polarization, have idiotic and shallow politicians, that cost free posturing and virtue signalling rule the day, etc.

This is a huge fall from not that many decades ago. In this context of the United Kingdom I could look at the debate on the European Union carried out in the 1970s, which was on a completely different plane to contemporary arguments over Brexit.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

I don’t agree with the conclusion. Many societies survived oppression and, eventually, rose from the ashes.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
28 days ago

GDI is the European version of the Taliban minister of Vice and Virtue. A digital shariah police. f**k them. f**k whoever participates, or helps them.
Whoever associates wilfully with the is an ennemy of the Wesern civilization.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
28 days ago

Sorry, but I have absolutely no idea what point this author is trying to make.

Thomas Harrington
Thomas Harrington
27 days ago

It is breathtaking to witness the cynicism of people like Howland and his colleague at UATX Bari Weiss who serially lament the decline of of social discourse, and go around presenting themselves as champions of free speech, but who, when it comes to Israel, have no compunctions about telling us what we need to believe in order to be considered a good and civilized person, and never say a word about the biggest and most effective cancel-culture apparatus ever erected: the Israel lobby. They must really think most of us are either stupid or blind.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
21 days ago

Very insightful piece. Yes, satire, comedy and outrage are poor substitutes for robust debate on pertinent issues in the world.