(Watch the video for a monologue on this article and an interview with The Federalist Culture Editor Emily Jashinsky on finding what matters amid all the noise.)
Remember the Capitol riot? Of course you do. It happened eight months ago and it’s still in the news every single day. They call it an “insurrection.”
It was the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, and the corporate press’s main way of remembering that awful tragedy was to call it a grim foreshadowing of what they now say is, “The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” That’s even what George W. Bush wanted to talk about, and his performance in the days after the attack is just about the only good memory we have of his entire presidency.
Remember, this is a country with the news-cycle attention span of a sugar-high child: Twitter can deplatform a president and Jeff Bezos can murder the American Dream on live TV, and 48 hours later it’s not even a story; yet the Capitol riot lives on. The level of obsession devoted to this one event is astounding. So what else?
Remember COVID? Of course you do, because it is literally the most important thing in your entire life. It’s more important than being with your family, it’s more important than your parents visiting their grandkids, it’s more important than burying your dead, and it’s more important than your children’s education. You better believe it’s more important than your little Sunday God hobby.
Or how about racism. Remember racism? Of course you do, because it is the defining characteristic of the American experience. Everything is racist. Objectivity is racist, being on time is racist, sandwiches are racist, history is racist. The Constitution is 100 percent racist, and of course there’s you — you’re definitely racist.
Like the Force in “Star Wars,” racism is invisible yet omnipresent; it binds the universe together. Only a national mobilization on par with a world war will root it out, but instead of leveling Germany or Japan, we’ll be flattening our own traditions and institutions.
But do you know what’s weird about these things? About the Capitol Riot, and COVID, and even our big racism panic?
In the long run, they don’t matter that much. That might seem insane until you realize that if all of these things — that riot and that disease, and the ever present specter of racism — were to disappear right now never to be seen again, this country would still be very, very sick. The United States — our home — would still be feeble compared to five years ago, let alone 10, 15 or 30.
Our culture would still be decayed. Our political leaders would still be rotten and cowardly. Our churches would still be misled by hired hands. Our working poor would still be dying of fentanyl. We’d still have cities that are covered in homeless encampments and beset by an exploding crime rate.
So why do we talk about those other things so much, and not the problems that are literally killing us? The answer is to distract.
This is not a conspiracy theory; there is no grand plan here. When people want to know how D.C. operates, it’s a lot more like an episode of the comedy “Veep” than the drama “House of Cards,” but stupid people are dangerous, and as the quip goes, never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups — in other words, Washington, D.C.
Here’s how it goes: The boss doesn’t want to talk about something he’s doing because it’s bad, it’s awful for the country, and it’s not working, but AOC or whoever else made him to do it anyway. So what would he rather talk about? How about instead of the day-to-day burden of government, he just reacts?
React to the latest news story; puff up the flashiest issues, even if they’re totally symbolic or don’t matter at all. Use those shiny issues to convince the public that, hey, things might be terrible, but it’s more the other guy’s fault than mine. Use this tactic, and congratulations, you’re ready for a decades-long career on cable news or in politics.
So, what are the traditional jobs of government? Are they to destroy Donald J. Trump or to stop all disease or end all discrimination?
Not so much; the actual reasons government exists are a lot more modest. Government exists to defend our borders and our nation from dangerous, predatory people who might harm us. Government exists to establish fair laws, and enforce them. It exists to create the infrastructure we all benefit from, but which no single one of us has enough resources to build. In short, governments exist to do things that allow their citizens to flourish.
So look around at this country. Regardless of party, be honest with yourself: Do you think your government is as good at any of those things as it was 20 years ago?
The press and cable news have whipped this country into a frenzied crusade against racism, but what does more to rob non-white Americans of opportunity? Is it racism, or is it the city governments that let the murder rate of our largest cities go up by one-third last year, and which allow shoplifting, rioting, and lockdowns to proliferate until successfully running a business is nearly impossible?
That’s not an exaggeration: In Chicago, murders went up 50 percent from 2019 to 2020. They’re on track for even more this year. In Atlanta, murders went up 58 percent. In Boston, 54 percent.
In St. Louis, there was nearly a 1:1,000 chance that you were murdered in 2020. That city is more dangerous than any city in South Africa or in Brazil. It’s more dangerous than Caracas. What do you think is doing more damage to the lives of people in St. Louis: A riot on Capitol Hill, or all those murders?
And what do you really think caused those murderers? Omnipresent-yet-mysteriously-invisible racism, or a local government that decided to stop enforcing the law (except against homeowners who brandished guns to defend themselves from a mob)?
Speaking of racism again, when people in our poorest cities struggle to find jobs, is it because of bigotry, or because our elites have spent 40 years cutting out the bottom of the labor market with nearly unlimited illegal immigration that we could easily stop but choose not to?
We’re on track to have 1.7 million illegal immigrants be apprehended at the border this fiscal year. About half of those people will simply be released into the United States until they have their “day in court,” for which they don’t actually have to show.
This isn’t some fact of nature. We know what’s really happening. We’ve chosen to have a broken system. Our leaders choose every day not to fix it.
And how about at the other end of things? In many parts of the country, small businesses say they can’t find people who will show up to work. Is that because everyone suddenly decided they hated being employed? Or could it be that our own governments have paid millions of people just as much or more to stay home than they used to earn working?
If you could earn the exact same amount for doing nothing, would you? A lot of people said yes.
We hear that the Capitol riot was an assault on our democracy, but what puts our democracy in more danger? Some unarmed 50-year-old men cavorting in the Rotunda, or a government that sits paralyzed while private equity loots small towns, tech behemoths monopolize free speech, and H.R. departments force you to pledge allegiance to a rainbow flag?
And let’s be clear: Conservatives can be just as guilty of consuming the junk food of daily news-cycle distractions. How many Republicans are talking about Nikki Minaj three days after Gen. Mark Milley told Bob Woodward he committed treason?
Or how about the war in Afghanistan, which ended in cataclysmic national humiliation? How many Republicans bashing the Biden administration’s handling of that retreat are just using it as just an excuse to hurt the other guy and hope they win in 2022? How many are willing to confront the deep, decades-long rot that is the actual reason we lost in Afghanistan?
Not many. That would require admitting that our military has been badly mismanaged by Republicans as well as Democrats.
Good government is hard. It’s often boring and unrewarding. Some of the most important policies we can enact won’t make for a good cable news hit — but we need them.
It’s difficult to stay focused: We exist in perpetual distraction entirely dictated by the latest news item or communication flashing across our smart phones. We’re connected (and addicted) to flashing images, to remote work, to easy lust and self-affirming outrage; and all we need to do to release a dopamine hit is touch a button on our phone.
It’s distracting us, it’s making us stupid, and it’s taking our eyes off the ball. There’s no grand conspiracy here — we choose to consume the junk food, the junk news, the junk entertainment. Now, it’s time to disconnect.
America is sick. It’s a sickness that started years ago, but we still refuse to acknowledge it. Instead, we talk on and on and on about COVID or racism or a riot, like an ill person blaming the weather or smog or our neighbor’s dog keeping us awake at night.
But the problems don’t care about our excuses or our explanations — they simply are, and they’re getting worse every day. If we don’t make the choice to confront it directly, it will kill us.