Gerard Baker: In a Time of Crisis, Public Discourse Has Descended Into Nonsense

From a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Gerard Baker headlined “In a Time of Crisis, Public Discourse Has Descended Into Nonsense”:

If I had to pick the most worrying characteristic of our current dystopia, I would choose the unsettling disconnect between the seriousness of the challenges we face and the public discourse that is supposed to be addressing them.

A perilous war rages in Europe, as a failing tyrant with nuclear weapons launches desperate new waves of cannon fodder against a nation whose defense we are financing and reinforcing. In Asia, the emerging Chinese superpower is in the throes of a significant economic and social upheaval that may propel it toward the full-scale confrontation it increasingly threatens with Taiwan, an island whose people we are pledged to defend. At home we are caught in the worst of economic traps—as the Federal Reserve inflicts unavoidable monetary pain to kill the surging inflation incurred by its avoidable mistake. Meanwhile the global economy seems to be sliding into a potentially serious recession, and financial markets are eroding our wealth at a dizzying pace.

But at a time when the need for quiet, calm deliberation has never been greater, the U.S. is engaged in a conversation that sounds less like the Constitutional Convention of 1787 than the game room of a psychiatric institution.

This isn’t a partisan point. Both sides are only too eager to point out the mania in the other’s rhetorical obsessions but deny the delusion in their own. So secure are they in the knowledge that their supporters will stand by whatever they say that our leaders now seem free to utter things completely at odds with reality and logic.

We have a former and quite likely future Republican president who muses on national television that by merely “thinking” something, he can exercise executive authority.

When minds do seem to be focused on the challenges at hand, the words that come out are often a nonsensical babble. The current president is the embodiment of this. His mood seems to oscillate between semi-somnolent incoherence and inflammations of angry hysteria. He says the Covid pandemic is over but insists on maintaining emergency measures. He claims prices are rising only by “an inch.” He confuses friends and allies with his multiple pronouncements on the U.S. posture toward the defense of Taiwan. The confusion complete, this is then all translated back into administrative English by an attentive staff, as the puzzlement we feel gets more ominous.

We are used to politicians bending facts and logic to fit their aims, but the problem goes well beyond political rhetoric. Our larger discourse is dominated by cultural authorities who want us to believe things that the human mind rebels against—that there is no such thing as biological sex, that the way to fight past discrimination is with present discrimination, that not punishing crime is the way to prevent crime, that words can mean whatever they tell us they mean. These are the nostrums of the dominant progressives in our culture, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that conservatives aren’t also susceptible to impossible ideas and implausible theories.

How alarmed should we be by this degradation of our public discourse? Americans, like all humans, have been through similar phases of history before, periods in which dominant delusions have shaped our culture.

An important difference this time could be that modern technology has created a platform that elevates extreme voices at the expense of saner counsels. But what is it about our current condition that seems to make so many people predisposed to believing and propagating those extreme voices?

It’s inescapable that part of the answer lies in the collapse of the traditional institutions of authority. The stability of the two-parent family, the primacy of faith and the cohesion of a wider community not only conferred an order on people’s lives but established a larger sovereignty of truth on them. Loving but firm parental leadership, the eternal verities of religion, the obligations to a wider social unit of shared values imposed a structure of epistemic guardrails. It is not that this structure constrained us all to believe the same things, religiously, politically or otherwise, but it established the prior understanding that there is such a thing as a higher truth that mocks propositions and ideas that defy it.

“When men choose not to believe in God,” G.K. Chesterton famously said, “they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

Gerard Baker is Editor at Large of The Wall Street Journal. He previously served as Editor in Chief of The Wall Street Journal.

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