Dec 18, 2020

Meghan Daum On The Culture Wars, The Pandemic, And Facing Death

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Andrew Sullivan
Unafraid conversations about anything

Meghan is the author of many books — the latest being The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars — and she’s the host of her own podcast, Unspeakable. I hadn’t met Meghan until this week, but it was a pleasure. We talked about our generation; what it feels like, if anything, to be a man or woman; the truthful hyperboles of wokeness and Trump, the poison of Twitter, the lessons of facing death early, and the benefits of solitude. It was a blast.

To listen to two excerpts from my conversation with Meghan — on the difference between gender outliers and gender outsiders; and how both of us had near-death experiences — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed on multiple platforms.

Meanwhile, a reader looks back at our most recent episode:

I feel like Marusic and Hamid were the Colmeses to your Hannity; they were too polite and too bowled over to really respond strongly to your points — though Marusic did rally at the end. I should start by stating my credentials: I have none, aside from the fact that I have been teaching AP Government for about 20 years, and a course in Western political theory for about 15. That being said, I have a few points. 

1) While Trump was a norm-busting jerk that has taken complete control of his party, this is only an aberration when we look at modern politics, particularly the centrist consensus of the post-WWII era. Up until the 20th century, all sorts of crazy excesses went on throughout US politics, ranging from cooping to routine brawls on election day to paramilitaries suppressing the votes of blacks in the South. And Andrew Jackson called his defeat a “corrupt bargain” and raged against JQ Adams until defeating him four years later. All this is to say, America survived.

2) This brings me to the point of American survival. You have sounded so negative about American democracy and referenced the section of Plato’s Republic where Socrates argues that the tyrant naturally follows the democrat. You also reference the fall of the Roman Republic. But there is a major difference between our modern society and those of the ancients: the overwhelming majority of the people in pre-industrial societies were far poorer than any poor person in a modern democracy. 

These poor people (still found in developing nations) were one harvest away from watching their children starve to death. These individuals were far more susceptible to tyranny because they were desperate — just look at all the shenanigans that happened with the grain dole during the late years of the Roman Republic. To quote Bob Marley, “them belly full but we hungry / a hungry mob is an angry mob.” This is the reason why democracies were always so unstable prior to the modern era. This is why Rousseau proclaimed that democracy was a government only for angels. 

But if you want to look at the ancient world, look at Aristotle. Aristotle recognized that the key to building a successful state was a strong and robust middle class.  Indeed, Aristotle’s best form of government run by the many isn’t even called a “democracy” at all — he calls it polity or constitutional government. Again, Aristotle takes time to define democracy as rule by the poor. So, while the framers of the US Constitution were very worried about the rise of tyranny, they needn't have feared because the USA would turn out to be the first nation defined by its dominant middle class. 

This is a long way of saying that we are not nearly as susceptible to tyranny as you say. Our poor are fat and not thin. Can you show me any example of a prosperous democratic nation turning to tyranny? If it does happen, it is only after the nation in question is brutalized economically (and politically) as in the case of Weimar Germany. While the close of factories has decimated blue-collar communities, and while bifurcation of the American populace is something to be feared, our poor are not nearly as desperate and hungry as the poor plebeians of Rome or the hoi polloi of ancient Athens.

This takes me to point (3), which is that the antics of Trump turn out to be not fascism but hucksterism. Republicans must participate in his acts of kayfabe, but everyone knows that it’s all bullshit. And Trump is the consummate bullshitter. If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to watch this one-minute clip of Trump on Letterman in 2015: 

There’s one moment when Letterman nails Trump on the source of his ties. I know you are a classics man, so I can tell you that it rivals the scene in Republic where Thrasymachus blushes. This is the real Donald Trump: a bullshitter, a faker, a conman, a huckster. The fact that such a man has succeeded is alarming, but we are still a rich, comfortable, powerful nation. He’ll rant and he’ll rage, but he’ll go — just like the loser in any good professional wrestling match. And then get ready for the yawps and bellows as he gins up the views for the 2024 rematch.

I am not arguing that the United States will last forever. We are certainly vulnerable and if our economy should actually collapse (as it seemed it might in 2008) or we end up with a COVID-22 that kills 50 percent of the afflicted, then katy bar the door. But we have not yet gotten to that point. Trump memed himself into the presidency, but I don’t think that America will meme itself into tyranny. It’s not so much that American institutions are so strong as the fact that the null hypothesis usually holds — especially given the lack of the kind of hardship that was widespread and common in the ancient world — indeed in all preindustrial societies. Not to digress, but this is also the reason why the French Revolution so quickly degraded and eventually spawned an autocrat.

I have to say that is the most effective counter to my worries about our democracy that I have ever read. It’s so great to have my readers, mainly far better informed than I, make the Dish as rich in context as it is.