by Daniel A. Kaufman
The sub-heading of the late-Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great, reads: “how religion poisons everything.” Now, maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. I really don’t know. But one thing I do know is this: Politics poisons everything. And the reason it does is that we are not serious or mature enough to engage in it properly or to understand when it should be put to the side. Today’s politics is reminiscent not of the noble pursuit described by the ancient Greek philosophers or the humbler, more practical game played by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, but of the narcissistic displays and social jockeying most identified with insecure teenagers.
When I say ‘we’, I mean all of us; everyone; even some of our most significant institutions. Our leading professional organization for practicing psychologists, the American Psychological Association demonstrated this with its recent “Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” which deem masculinity a mental-health risk. Rather than any sort of scientific statement (anyone who knows anything about science could tell you that a claim such as “stoicism is harmful” is neither testable nor otherwise empirically verifiable), the document is a transparent and cringeworthy effort to pander to the current politics swirling around the #MeToo movement.  A number of our top corporations have demonstrated it, insofar as they have allowed politics to so blind them to the reason for being in business (which is to provide goods and services, for the purpose of making a profit) that they actively attack and insult their own customers for being insufficiently feminist or gay friendly or environmentalist or otherwise sufficiently “woke” (the pitiful, ill-conceived recent Gillette ad being only the most recent example).  Even comedy, the one place where one always could expect to find an unrestrained free for all, full of wit and humor, delicious irony and hilarious offensiveness – think Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy – has been ruined by wokeness, with miserable creeps like Hannah Gadsby being praised to the skies for “performances” like Nanette and her weird misandrist rant, last year, at The Hollywood Reporter‘s Top 100 Women In Entertainment gala, while real (i.e. funny) comedians are being de- and no-platformed left and right and disappearing from the cultural map, without replacement.  Beyond comedy, the pathetic parade of examples from the world of entertainment is ongoing: Scarlett Johansson being hounded by trans-activists for being cast as a trans character in Rub and Tug, to the point of having to drop out (already exhausted at having previously been attacked by Asian-activists for her role in Ghost in the Shell); Roseanne Barr having her television show canceled for an off-color, ill-advised tweet; and Liam Neeson, who is about to have his career euthanized for having made the mistake of being candid about a very dark moment in his life.
I first “got into” politics early in high school. My best friend at the time, who was to some extent the “leader” of our little group, was over-the-top right wing and crazy about everything military and paramilitary – the sort who subscribed to Soldier of Fortune magazine, wore tiger-stripe camos, and had an arsenal of knives and shuriken in his dresser – so I fashioned myself as a super-Leftist and drove him insane by expressing support for Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas on every possible occasion. Of course, his own “passionate political commitments” were equally disingenuous, devoted as they were to showing what a macho bad-ass he was, which may have been great for attracting other guys and maintaining some semblance of control over the group, but was radioactive when it came to girls. As we grew older and I became more interested in getting lucky with the chicks than in hanging out with a bunch of dudes watching The Dogs of War over and over again and fantasizing about being mercenaries, I ditched my gang as well as my leftist politics and did myself up with a Miami Vice makeover, Sonny Crockett style, complete with linen suits and t-shirts in pastel colors. It was a wild success.
From that point on, I retained the nagging suspicion that peoples’ politics were phony, but it remained largely unconscious, until I arrived at the University of Michigan in 1986, when it was triggered once again. It was a time of intense student activism on campus that manifested itself in all sorts of high-profile stunts, whose primary effect on me was a feeling of escalating annoyance. Students belonging to the “Black Action Movement” surrounded classroom buildings, barring anyone from entering, in protest of the University’s decision not to make Martin Luther King day an official school holiday. Anti-racism activists built a wood shanty in the middle of the school’s main quad, where everyone would hang out between classes (known as the Diag), to protest South African apartheid. This quickly devolved into what we called the “shanty wars,” as Palestinian activists built their own shanty to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and pro-Israel students built a full-sized model of a blown-up bus to protest Palestinian terrorism, all of which rendered the Diag a shithole and a bummer to hang out in. The University, in the meantime, had introduced “the Code,” an early version of today’s speech codes, which landed it almost immediately in an ACLU-filed lawsuit. The school newspaper, the Michigan Daily, became increasingly fractured between its liberal and radical wings, which gave birth to the Michigan Review, a right-of-center student publication that spent half of its pages mocking the Daily. And so on and so forth.
I perceived not a little insincerity in all of this, as it seemed to me that all the activism I was witnessing had more to do with social positioning on campus than with the actual plight of the people in any of these places. There are any number of useful things that someone motivated by genuine concern about the situation between Israel and the Palestinians could do, but building a shack or a model bus in the middle of a university campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan was not one of them. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in an article on this period at U of M (he graduated just a few years after me):
It is a sad irony that a newly resurgent left, rather than aiming outward to redress the world’s evils, instead directed its energies almost entirely inward in a misguided attempt to achieve ideological hegemony in a small university enclave.
While those on every side were engaged in this early version of political virtue-signaling, for the most part it was people on the Left, so my aggravation over the politics on my campus led me to the political Right. It had not yet occurred to me that I might become apolitical or that my own political moves, motivated as they were by personal and social imperatives of my own, were really no different from those of the people I was aligning – and realigning – myself against.
I would remain on the “Right” through my graduate school years in the 1990’s, though what this mostly meant was fighting against the efforts at the time to “decolonize” the university curriculum, by way of political attacks on the magnificent Western canon. It was the Rightism (if you can even call it that) of an Allan Bloom, rather than of a Newt Gingrich, but moving to Springfield, Missouri in 1999, in order to take my current job at Missouri State, changed all of that, as being “Right” down here means something very different – and much more distasteful – than it does in New York City. The local racists, gay haters, Bible thumpers, and other assorted lower-Midwestern know-nothings sent me trotting back to the Left, but it was halfhearted, as I found myself tiring of what had become a lifelong game of political yo-yo.
Family and professional life had led me to become much more self-reflective and self-aware, and I began to realize the extent to which my politics over the years had simply been tracking whomever I hated the most or wanted to socially upset in some fashion. The new century saw campus politics ratchet up to the absurdist levels we see today, making the political conflicts of my college years seem like enlightened discourse by comparison, and the weird and disturbing spread of that style of politics throughout every sector of society, by way of social media was becoming increasingly manifest. I also started listening to more and more hardcore punk, whose aggressive, speed-infused energy isn’t directed against any particular politics, as 1960’s protest music was, but against politics itself and especially, the hypocrisy inherent in so much of it.  The stirrings of those unconscious suspicions about politics that I’d been carrying around since the early 1980’s were getting stronger and stronger, but it was the rediscovery of Joan Didion that brought me to the state of relative clarity that I enjoy now, with regard to politics and especially, the current political moment.
I say “rediscovery,” because I had read Didion’s fiction at least as far back as college – I think I might have read A Book of Common Prayer in high school, though I can’t remember for sure – but I only found my way to her essays much later in my life, and it was the essays that were so revelatory, not just with regard to my understanding of my own political inclinations but of the politics of our age. Didion articulated in her beautifully bare, razor sharp prose what I had instinctively understood as an adolescent and came into full consciousness of as a middle-aged adult: that beyond the day-to-day business of legislation and management and statecraft, politics has become more about narcissistic self-assertion and justification and in-group domination/out-group subjugation than about the implementation of principles by way of public policy. In this, she was certainly channeling Lionel Trilling, who warned in The Liberal Imagination that “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion,” but in my view, Didion said it best, in a tiny slip of an essay, “On Morality”:
Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned … factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that… But I think it is all right only so long as we don’t delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. 
“Facile and self-indulgent.” “Assuaging private guilts in public causes.” “Transforming the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home.” I can’t think of anything that better describes today’s politics and the way in which we have politicized dimensions of life that never should have had anything to do with politics, and we couldn’t be any less aware of it, as “deluding ourselves” is all we seem to do. Hannah Gadsby clearly has suffered tremendous personal trauma at the hands of certain men, but her loudly broadcast rejection of comedy, on the grounds there is too much misery in the world is an obvious instance of “transforming the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home,” and her public excoriation of 150 million or so men whom she doesn’t know is demonstrably “facile and self-indulgent.” Every suddenly “woke” person publicly apologizing for his or her “privilege” and bowing and scraping at the altar of intersectional identity politics is clearly “assuaging private guilts in public causes.” You get the drift. Didion wrote the script for the politics we suffer with today, decades ago. It’s too bad that nobody took it for the warning that it was.
The tipping point that brought us from the political farce one might have experienced on a 1980’s college campus to the political nightmare that is everywhere USA, today, was when social media arrived on the scene. What it has effected is no less than the virtual return of everyone to high school and its clique-oriented culture, turning all of us – from the lowest-wage laborer to the highest-paid corporate CEO – into eternal adolescents, by exposing us to what everyone in the world thinks about us, at every moment of every day, and thereby reviving all of the adolescent insecurities that we normally outgrow, not just by way of our physical development, but by entering into the adult spheres of life. These spheres can no longer play this role, because social media has effectively turned them all into high school cafeterias, which is why we find ourselves confronted with the bizarre spectacle of the heads of major corporations and healthcare institutions behaving like teenagers engaged in popularity contests and other juvenile forms of social competition. How else to explain the “woke-business” antics of a Gillette or Electronic Arts or the betrayal of every principle of sound science and medicine on the part of a professional organization like the American Psychological Association, but a desperate need to prove oneself in-group, by way of shameless obsequiousness and pandering out of one side of our mouths, and the condemnation and destruction of those who are out-group, out of the other, under the ever-present, ever-watching eyes of one’s clique on Twitter?
In “On the Morning after the Sixties,” Didion wrote of her cohort, born between the mid 1920’s and mid 1940’s:
We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal… 
We would all do very well to be a lot more “silent” in this way; much more aware of and invested in the personal; and much less inclined to engage in “social action,” i.e. the political. In other words, we should all fucking grow up. If we don’t, I fear for what will become of us, and one thing that I know for sure is that it’ll happen a lot sooner than we’ll drown or roast or whatever, as a result of global warming.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEPsqFLhHBc&t Towards the end, Ms. Gadsby also has tough words for “white people,” of which she is, of course, one.
 I discussed this in my essay “Middle-Aged Punk.” https://theelectricagora.com/2016/01/25/middle-aged-punk/
 “On the Morning after the Sixties,” originally from The White Album (1979), reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (Everyman’s Library, 2006), p. 330.