October 5, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

Pam Beesly, Dunder Mifflin’s receptionist on The Office, once asked, “You know what they say about a car wreck where it’s so awful you can’t look away?” Her question captures how many of us are feeling about our current national car wreck. Our civic drama is at once compelling and confusing, captivating and revolting, enthralling and exhausting.

As I’ve often said, dramas are fun when you’re an observer but miserable when you’re a participant. In a host of ways, we’re all feeling pressured to participate in the collective drama that dominates the air waves and social media. With each passing day it seems, the pressure is rising to join a group-thinking tribe—to pick a side and viciously harangue those who disagree. But as someone might say to me if I were to consider wearing a pair of skinny jeans, “You really shouldn’t do that.”

About a year and half ago, my Drama Review post addressed the perils of drama participation. I’m re-posting part of that letter because it may be more relevant now that it was then. Here it is:

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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 at 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, faculties, 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.” Daniel Krauthammer wrote recently, “When winning is all that matters, 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 involved lying, cover-ups, and back-room deals—things Jefferson Smith’s integrity would not allow. Jeff had naively assumed that the state’s other senator, Joseph Harrison Paine, would likewise be constrained by his integrity from doing such things. It was a sad awakening for Jeff when he discovered that Senator Paine had indeed done such things… for years. He was entirely unnerved by the appalling discrepancy between the public Senator Paine and the one behind the mask. Here’s how Paine explained it when Jeff confronted him about his shady scheme involvement:

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 incongruencies in Senator Paine’s despicable 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, “these hard facts are more reality-based than your lofty, child-like ideals.”

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 and 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 that will be the focus of a future letter. When Jeff first came into Senator Paine’s office, he asked the secretary if Senator Paine 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.

Till next week.

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