Published July 28, 2022
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, after closing for a while, plans a comeback next year—without elephants or lions or other animals. The circus was cruel to the creatures, it was decided, so in the future they will be absent from the big top.
No matter. If it’s beasts of the jungle you want—the savageries of nature, red in tooth and claw—politics and media offer an ongoing and spectacular show replete with raging ideology, riots, race hate, store looting, police-car burning, pageant plays, Proud Boys, deadly pandemics, mass shootings, cops caught on video doing dastardly things, the Capitol assaulted by mobs. Politics and media are co-producers of the immense 21st-century moral circus. It offers Americans such grand and enraging constitutional spectacles as Roe and Dobbs, such extravaganzas as the Transgender Follies and White Supremacy vs. Black Lives Matter. Held over (though not necessarily by popular demand): The Orange Man and the Dotard.
In the meantime, Americans struggle with their private lives and sort out their private thoughts. Sometimes, it is true, they are inflamed by the tremendous agitations of the circus. How could they not be? But the private mind is still committed to the sanity and realism that are necessities of survival. What Americans worry about is inflation. Reality is an insistent thing. Grown-ups know that they are being imposed on by the big show. They understand that a circus is a circus. The sane American mind—mens sana in corpore morbido—is the best hope now, I suspect.
The issues (abortion, for example) are urgent and real, but private thought seems to understand the complexities more subtly, more responsibly, than do ideologues and performers in the mosh pits of media. The private mind can spot the public con. It used to, anyway. Private citizens know that many decisions in life—most, perhaps—are difficult and may involve 48/52 calls, even 49/51. It’s true in choosing a mate and other important matters.
Public performance inherently simplifies and falsifies—such are the ways of theater, careerism, politics and, alas, journalism, too. You have a better story to tell if the details are gaudy and vivid—and, as may happen, even false. This is nothing new. Shakespeare understood. “King Lear,” the greatest of his plays, is filled with transcendent truth. But it would be a dull production if the old man merely wound up in a mediocre nursing home in Wichita, Kan., with unpleasant daughters who complained about how much it cost. The old king must be homeless and naked on the heath. He must be eloquently, cosmically insane. The younger generation must be either saintly (Edgar, Cordelia) or monstrous (Edmund, Goneril, Regan), and before the evening is over, the stage must be littered with corpses. The monsters and saints in “Lear” are one another’s evil twins, like the political left and right in our time.
American politics and media are deeply competitive forms of entertainment, information and propaganda. Both have, since the 1960s, been Shakespearean in their stagecraft, although not in their language or subtlety of thought. The baby-boom generation, now as old as the old king, enacted the plot of “Lear”—an immense tale of supersession. That generation, when young, overturned the fathers’ authority and all their ways. It did so first with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. In time, the principle of renovation by patricide developed broader ambitions and began to assault all the “patriarchal” norms, including marriage and, after that, the very idea of man and woman. The old solidities must be dissolved. (But why, exactly?)
Such is the dramaturgy of American public culture, of a performative public mind that is addicted to its sensations and categories. The American ideologue is a drama queen. I’m perhaps kidding myself, but I suspect that Americans in the privacy of their own minds, in conversation among friends and family, remain in touch with reality. On the subject of abortion, for example, or on race, guns and transgenderism, the private mind remains fairly sensible and humane. It remains capable, among other things, of tolerating contradiction. There is such a thing as intelligent ambivalence. People in the privacy of their thoughts don’t have to be consistent. They aren’t burdened or corrupted by the demands of performance. That is true even in the clamor of social media.
The ways of performative politics and media prey on unformed minds. The danger is that, in time, those ways will supplant what we used to recognize as reality and, in its place, install their theatrical and sinister and essentially cartoonish ideas. What were Uvalde or Highland Park but instances of the (very sick) private mind enacting grotesque public performances.
For all that, it may be that the extreme divisions in America are now tending toward the sort of exhausted resolution that is suggested at the final curtain of “King Lear.” The house lights come up; it’s time to move on.
Americans are troubled, but they aren’t crazy.
Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”