Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal yesterday took down “President BuzzFeed” for doodling around in the LOLcats section of the Internet while our foreign and domestic policy lies in flames.
But that’s not what the BuzzFeed clip is chiefly about. What it’s about is showing just how totally relatable and adorably authentic and marvelously self-aware is this president of ours. ‘Can I live?’ the president says when caught shooting imaginary hoops in his study by a young visitor. ‘You do you,’ the visitor gamely replies before walking off…
‘You do you’ is the ultimate self-referential slogan for the ultimate self-referential presidency. It’s the ‘be yourself’ piety of our age turned into a political license by Mr. Obama to do as he pleases. It’s what drives his political choices: the immigration amnesty; arbitrary rewrites of the Affordable Care Act; the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal rules; the $128 billion in settlements the administration extorted from six banks convicted of no wrongdoing.
This is a fair criticism of a man we elect to execute our laws, not spice up our social lives. But our president’s demeanor implicates quite a lot of other people Stephens doesn’t discuss (perhaps for lack of space). Count among them the 65 million who voted for Obama in 2012. But even those of us who didn’t vote for President Obama are guilty of behaving similarly, and not in trivial ways. If one believes, as I do, that “politics is downstream from culture” (or at least that the two have a symbiotic, sometimes parasitic, relationship), then it’s not just President Obama reveling in “you do you.” It’s all of us.
Don’t Like Politics or Culture? Blame Yourself
In his Republic, Plato famously constructed a fake city, then used it as an analogy for the inner workings of human beings. By magnifying and labeling the human mind and soul this way, he asserted, we could more easily discover the meaning of justice. There are lots of debates over whether he really meant it all, or specific parts, but I do think it’s clear that a body politic reflects its composition. What our politicians assert is reasonable and just are generally what the polls tell them we think is reasonable and just. There are a few statesmen who attempt to “refine and enlarge the public views,” as Madison (perhaps too optimistically) predicted in Federalist No. 10, but my close interactions with politicians and their staff have indicated nearly all follow, rather than shape, public opinion.
President Obama and his far-Left allies may be genuinely far afield of public opinion on almost every major issue, but he keeps getting elected despite this, and that is our own damn fault. That so many in the electorate either don’t know or don’t care that Obama voted to protect people who kill babies delivered alive is a genuine moral problem with us as a people. And that’s no excuse for blame-shifting or attempting to “otherize” the “bad people.” We’re all bad. We all participate in and perpetuate this situation.
A portion of the blame for traces directly back to the “you do you” attitude. Americans have grown unwilling to tell or hint to family and neighbors when they’re not living up to the best possibilities open to them, or making choices that create a better future for us all. “You do you,” we imply or forthrightly chorus when confronted with friends who live on borrowed money, couples who delayed childbearing to near physical impossibility so decide to destroy a few embryos for the sake of snatching lost time, or bums who won’t get out of mom and dad’s basement. “You do you” we nod along with TV personalities when they celebrate Bruce Jenner’s psychological confusion. “You do you” we imply when friends run through a series of live-in boyfriends and moan to us about why they can’t ever get a man to commit, while we never drop a hint about why that might be. “You do you” we tell high school students (and their parents) aiming for college, when tech school or an apprenticeship would be a wiser choice.
Try Developing Some Accountability Muscles
I’m not suggesting we start marching around condemning everyone else for all their stupid decisions. God knows we’ve all made them. But the fact of our brokenness doesn’t mean we shrug our shoulders at it, or deny it exists. It doesn’t mean we give up and withdraw. It doesn’t mean that we succumb to mass despair. Can’t we be authentic about the reality that our authentic selves are in need of continual improvement?
We all could use some assistance in learning and carrying through on what is right. So, for example, I’ve authorized my little boy to point it out me when I’m losing my temper at home. His little finger pointed at me while he says, “Stop, momma!” does make a difference, and bless him for it. There are some stores I don’t set foot in any more now that the family budget is graduate-school-sized. I’ve taken license a few times to advise young married and first-baby friends about financial and child discipline, hoping to pass on what we’ve learned from our mistakes. Sometimes they don’t listen, but at least I said it. At least I delivered the message in as loving a fashion as I could figure. And, remember, telling the truth means love. Your real friends inform you when there’s spinach in your teeth, and they tell you when you’d better get back there and apologize to your husband, because you’re being an idiot.
In short, if we want accountability at the highest levels of politics, business, and culture, we have to start creating the social infrastructure for it from the ground up. People talk a big game about accountability, but nobody likes to have a friend commissioned to ask them how many times they swore in front of the kids this week, much less whether they’re strictly following tax laws (as best they can figure them out) or how they are saving for retirement so they don’t have to burden taxpayers. But if we have attenuated accountability muscles for our own lives, how can we ever expect to exercise them upon politicians, too?
Our Deep-Rooted Narcissism Requires Restraint
Narcissism can only be dispelled by its opposite: humility. Not false humility, but a genuine openness to learning what we’re doing wrong, and in correcting course, because the truth is there’s no way we’re doing it all (or even very much) right.
This is the humility, by the way, at the heart of conservatism (by way of Christianity): The belief that man is inherently flawed. This leads us to restrain government because, by necessity, all its laws are created and carried out by inherently messed-up human beings. So we limit their power. This same principle applies in private life. We need limits. We need friends to bring it up when wife is distressed because husband spends too much money on his boat, or not enough time helping out with the kids. We need that little boy with his upheld finger shouting, “Stop!”
There’s basically no chance we’re getting humility or restraint from the most defensive president in history, who projects the Progressive belief in the perfectibility of mankind (especially his). But if a few more of us think about letting down our defenses, and living what we say we believe about human nature, maybe someday we can get a president whose defensiveness applies to our national security and not to his precious little ego.