Dear Drama Observers,
I’ve not been posting Drama Review installments with any regularity in recent months due to the amount of time I’m devoting to a new writing project which, I’m glad to say, is coming along.
I first wrote the piece below five years ago and often post it on or around July 4th. Sometimes, things seem more relevant now than they did before and this would be an example.
I hope you find this enlightening.
But drama participation has corrosive effects on those coerced into participating, both on personal and collective levels. In the up-close-and-personal realm, it diminishes you in significant ways. It confuses you. It sickens you. It exhausts you. It messes with your brain. It can affect your physical health. It can loosen your grasp on previously-held moral convictions. It so clouds the sky that your lode-star reference points are obscured from view.
Drama participation has similar detrimental effects on the culture writ large. We talked last week about something called “tribalism” which is the collective version of individual drama. The stance of tribes is: “we’re right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.” Tribes can be political parties, religious groupings, unions, management, cults, bowling leagues, parent-teacher associations, protest groups, fraternities, sororities, professional guilds, or virtually any affiliation of Homo sapiens. You stay in the tribe’s good graces through unthinking adherence to the tribe’s cause and/or applauding the rightness of the tribal leader(s). And expect to pay a price if you don’t.
When tribal participation occurs, allegiance to tribe supersedes allegiance to truth. People stop thinking for themselves and become manipulated into groupthink echo chambers in which Machiavellian leaders do their thinking for them. Ideas become less important than winning because, after all, it’s the winners who now have the power to determine which ideas predominate.
This comes close to the Nietzschean-sounding declaration of the wicked Lord Voldemort to Harry Potter: “There is no good and evil, there is only power . . . and those too weak to seek it.” “When winning is all that matters,” Daniel Krauthammer wrote recently, “questions of morality are superfluous.”
This might-makes-right way of thinking is obviously an old phenomenon and each era witnesses its latest renditions. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said three thousand years ago, “There is no new thing under the sun.”
In 1939, a movie came out depicting the corrosive effects of tribalism on the political climate of Washington, D.C. The movie was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was directed by Frank Capra and starred a fresh-faced Jimmy Stewart who comprised the role of Jefferson Smith. A senator had died unexpectedly and the state’s corrupt political boss pressured the governor into appointing a new senator who would dutifully play his designated role in the tribal drama. Acquiescence to the political boss was the only qualification required.
Of course, this would involve lying, cover-ups, and back-room deals—things the newly-appointed Senator Smith’s integrity would not allow. Jeff had naively assumed that the state’s senior senator, Joseph Harrison Paine, would likewise be constrained by his integrity from doing such things. It was a sad awakening for Jeff to discover that Senator Paine had indeed done such things–for years. He was entirely unnerved by the appalling discrepancy between the public Senator Paine, who was greatly revered, and the one behind the mask. Here’s how he explained it when Jeff got wind of the crooked scheme being cooked up by the political boss and Senator Paine.
Now listen Jeff, please, and try to understand. I know it’s tough to run head on into facts but as I said, this is a man’s world and you have to check your ideals outside the door like you do your rubbers.
Now, 30 years ago, I had your ideals. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today. I made it. I compromised. Yes, so that all those years I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways.
You’ve got to face facts, Jeff. I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I’ve had to compromise. I’ve had to play ball. You can’t count on people voting. Half the time, they don’t vote anyway. That’s how states and empires have been built since time began. Don’t you understand?
Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that’s how things are. Now, I’ve told you all this because I’ve grown very fond of you.
I’d like to point out several glaring incongruences in Senator Paine’s tortured rationalization.
First, he was saying he had to lie in order to serve honestly. Honest service required dishonest methods.
Second, the higher good—assisting the people of his state—was served by low-life activities.
Third, appearances—Senator Paine was widely referred to in his state as The Silver Knight—were more important than reality.
Fourth, his repeated use of the word “facts.” The not-so-subtle subtext was, “My facts overwhelm your sentiments.” He had constructed a lie using nothing but the building ingredients of facts.
Fifth, his supposedly noble motivation of telling Jeff these things for his own good. Of course, Jeff’s subsequent refusal to acquiesce revealed Senator Paine’s true character—that of a vicious mortal enemy bent on Jeff’s complete and utter destruction.
And sixth, the elevation of power over truth. Lord Voldemort would’ve been proud.
As Jeff listened to this claptrap, he stood there dumbfounded, stumped for words. Because, in those situations, you’re never quite sure what to say. How do you discuss ideals with a man who justifies checking those ideals at the door? How do you talk principles when the person rationalizes the discarding of those principles to serve a supposed higher good? In actuality, the only “good” being served was the preserving of Senator Paine’s image and power. How do you reason with a man who’s renounced the use of reason? There just weren’t words.
And let me point out something else. When Jeff first came into Senator Paine’s office, he asked the secretary if the senator was in. She said, “Senator Paine is out of town.” He wasn’t. She lied. Corrupt leaders corrupt their followers. Like malignancies metastasizing in other organs, tribal followers eventually take on the unsavory characteristics of the ones they follow.
We become like whom we worship.