Published January 25, 2019
Powerful American stories converged and got tangled up with one another beside the Potomac on a cold winter day in the symbolic white marble city. The story of slavery was there. And Martin Luther King Jr. haunted the scene, for it was his day. In 1963, he spoke to history from that spot. (“I have a dream.”) Just up the steps, Abraham Lincoln (also assassinated) went on brooding in his temple. Our two greatest saints and martyrs were there to bear witness.
Then up the steps came the Native American and his story, in the person of a “tribal elder” who brought the superadded complexity of being a (supposed) Vietnam veteran, so that, by a chain of association, the ghost of Ira Hayes (a Pima Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II and died one night a decade later, alcoholic and frozen, back home in Arizona) was also in attendance.
Off to one side were the improbable “Hebrew Israelites”—wormholing from black Africa and the slave quarters, by way of the Holy Land and the Lost Tribe narrative.
Finally, there came fresh-faced white Catholic high school boys from Covington, Kentucky, some in Donald Trump’s MAGA hats. One wore a wide frozen smile that might be understood in contradictory ways: Young Nazi . . . or nervous kid? All the white boys were, at the least, little Brett Kavanaughs—or so raged progressives who watched the videos later on Facebook and Twitter. The boys were in Washington for a pro-life march, were they not? They would be obliged to carry more moral freight than they could quite manage.
All these narrative energies banged against one another. Out in the vast, dangerous American air waited the social media people—millions of hair-trigger moralists, half nuts with adrenaline, many of whom, however, might have been a little vague, if asked, about exactly who fought the Civil War or who won it. How to disentangle the knots of the story, which coalesced so suddenly? What’s the moral?
The episode may, like so much else, seem to mean a great deal while actually amounting to little or nothing. The twenty-first century lives on a hermeneutics of hysteria. Sometimes it’s best to let these things blow over. But is there anything to be learned?
The moral theater—the context, the atmosphere, the dynamics—of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last fall was high school. The Supreme Court nominee was not present at the Senate hearings in the person of the middle-aged distinguished jurist of 2018, but rather as a kid of 16, from Georgetown Prep. His accuser was a woman self-conjured at the hearings as a frightened girl from Holton Arms, channeling her high school self. All of Washington was transported back to high school—possibly its natural habitat, anyway. There it acted out the mythic morality play of the dominance of the jocks and popular kids over hoi polloi.
Similarly, the fierce discussion of what happened at the Lincoln Memorial the other day centered on the moods and behavior of high school kids. Did the boy in the MAGA hat bully the “Native American elder?” The kid bullied the adult? Is that what America is about now? Is injustice a matter as raw and simple as high school bullying? Social justice would mean . . . calling out the bullies?
It is as if progressives in the era of Donald Trump are stuck in what physicists call a “metastable state,” an adolescent condition of mind—and a ridiculous place to have one’s thoughts detained. Is it not odd for a society to argue crucial moral issues on the basis of the behavior of teenagers, debating great matters by trying to read the smile of a 16-year-old on Facebook? Do progressives understand that adolescence (volatile, experimental, mostly ignorant, and naturally running to extremes) should not be the territory on which to thrash out these issues? At work here—besides a massive failure of adult responsibility—is the cynical manipulation, for political gain, of shallow adolescent emotions.
Twenty-first-century American middle-class society indulges adolescents well into their twenties and beyond. Masses of young people move back in with their parents, deferring adult life in favor of a sort of liminal, embryonic state. Yet here we see progressives placing adolescents at the center of their moral imaginations, as if the moods of teenagers were the mirror of their most consequential thoughts.
Lincoln and King represented the most advanced and tragic evolution of moral thinking in American public life. It seems silly to have to mention that theirs were, transcendently, the minds of adults, even unto death. Could it be that the reason progressives take adolescent behavior as their model and baseline now is, among other things, that they have somehow failed to absorb mature, civilized examples in their own lives?
Rest the case by citing Bill Clinton. His affair with an intern in the White House was a high school thing, carried on by an American president with an emotional age of about 16. And he’s a paragon, compared with more recent arrivals on the political scene.
There may be other lessons to be extracted from the drama at the Lincoln Memorial. The episode exposed dangerous hatreds in raw new variations. But the most useful takeaway may speak of an essentially adolescent politics that has just about overwhelmed American public life—the metastable state of unevolved emotions.