When I was younger, I enjoyed the American teenage drama The O.C., set in Newport Beach, California. It was a somewhat cheesy, teenage-angsty drama involving love, teenage rebellion, and a poor and criminally burdened high-school kid thrown into the spoiled lives of remarkably wealthy Californians. The puns were fantastic, the one-liners were great, the soundtrack absolutely perfect, the characters beautiful and captivating, and more importantly, there was quite a lot of social wisdom to be found.
In one scene in the second season, Alex Kelly (played by a young Olivia Wilde) gives advice to one of the show’s main characters, Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), about how to endure conflicts with her mum.
Alex: “You know, my mom used to drive me crazy too, and then one day, I just decided that I was not going to let it bother me anymore.
Marissa: “You make it sound so easy…”
Alex: “No, every time my mom channels Satan, I take a deep breath, count to three, give her a big smile and say something like ‘Interesting idea, Mom, I’ll give that some thought.’”
Marissa: “And that really works?”
Alex: “Women like that, they thrive on confrontation, but if you refuse to engage, there’s not really anything they can do.”
These days, I advise people to do the same, with occasional exceptions made only for people who you truly trust and whose meta-values you fully share. This is in contrast with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s line “Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself.” It runs entirely counter to the New Year’s wishes I offered for the Swedish libertarian site Cospaia, translated here:
The challenge before us [is this]: strike back against evil whenever it reveals itself, in the familiar form of ruling from above or the sinister form where we ourselves go astray. Speak truth. Create value. Make your immediate surroundings a little better than how you found it. Undermine evil whenever you can; avoid tax whenever you can; ignore immoral laws when nobody sees – or, if you dare, when everyone sees.
Enough such tiny acts of rebellion and we’ll get a better world.
Then, I still thought that the madness and incompetence of 2020 was a parenthetical on a long-run trend of reason’s conquest over irrationality, stupidity, and ignorance. Something clicked in the months since then, and I’m starting to seriously consider that this new normal won’t end. It may have been the increasingly infected conversations (or rather disconnected monologues) over the Coronavirus and the measures supposedly enacted to contain it, or the blatant power grabs and controlling nature of politicians from one end of the globe to another. Other definite candidates are the unscientific claims ruling the show about everything from the virus’s origin, the cringe-worthy measures to prevent its spread, the reinstitution of masks despite ostensibly perfectly-working vaccines, the inability of vaccinations to liberate us from the controlling grasp that was supposed to last only for a few emergency weeks, or the deeper and harsher crackdowns on dissenters that were creeping up everywhere.
A few weeks ago, Jon Sanders in these pages quoted John Stuart Mill to say that passivity by the rest of us allows bad men to flourish. The full passage reads (Sanders’ extract highlighted):
Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject. It depends on the habit of attending to and looking into public transactions, and on the degree of information and solid judgment respecting them that exists in the community, whether the conduct of the nation as a nation, both within itself and towards others, shall be selfish, corrupt, and tyrannical, or rational and enlightened, just and noble.
This, I believe, is right. If everybody follows my conversational advice above, evil will thus triumph. We do need to hash it out, and we do need to object to obvious falsehoods and abuse of power.
What we don’t need is to knowingly turn ourselves into martyrs. Note Mill’s qualification (“depends on […] the degree of information and solid judgment respecting them that exists in the community…”); he is not simply saying that good people ought to speak up against atrocities and it’d be a moral failure not to. He is saying that a nation where good information and solid judgments are not respected becomes “selfish, corrupt, and tyrannical” rather than “rational and enlightened, just and noble.” America and its fellow Westerners are way past that already, well on our way to that corrupt and tyrannical place Mill feared.
To have an honest conversation with somebody whose point of view you disagree with requires both of you to live in a universe of shared commitment to truth, of “solid judgment respecting them.” Changing another’s mind – or changing your own on the basis of another’s argument – requires your mind to be open, for a person to consider, if, ever so slightly, that they might have it wrong. It requires both participants to agree on truth and the search for objective knowledge to be the highest goals. If they do not, arguments serve no purpose. Anything less, and your skeptical opposition to the One True Faith will only strengthen the fervor with which others hold their convictions, with the full arsenal of dehumanizing treatments unleashed upon you.
Thus, each and every one of us must weigh whether ousting one’s concerns and raising one’s objections are worth the societal and personal scorn one is thus likely to receive. Yes, we can all find reasons not to stand up to unjust tyranny, but perhaps those reasons aren’t so “glib” or “little” (though if anybody would know, it’s Solzhenitsyn). Perhaps madness has won, and perhaps the best we conquered believers in reason can do is to endure the night and gather our strengths for another day. Arthur Herman, in the book on the Viking legacy on today’s Scandinavians that I reviewed last month, showed that this is how many Scandinavians approached World War II – a global disaster they could not avoid yet neither could do much to prevent. Still,
[m]any Scandinavians chose the route of resistance: sometimes quiet, sometimes violent, but always with the aim of remaining true to their national and personal honor, a choice dictated by the imperatives of the Viking heart.
Perhaps this is merely my stoic Scandinavian origin speaking (and perhaps my O.C.-inspired advice is the opposite of psychologically sound) but avoiding conflicts that don’t have (much) upside and plenty of disastrous downside just seems prudent to me. And practical: honestly, nobody cares what your uninformed reasons are for the hysterical position you’ve embraced on the latest Political Proposition handed down from above.
The alternative to willingly immolate oneself “in a government town square to the sound of a government trumpet blaring,” as Judge Napolitano tells it, is to embrace the advice that Alex gives Marissa: when faced with infectious disagreements, stare down political zealots and opponents with your friendliest smile and say “Interesting idea. I’ll give that some thought!” Deflect and hide; don’t engage.
Politics, I’m starting to believe, best belongs in the closet – rebranded and brought out for the specific occasion. Or perhaps the bedroom, with those you most trust, love, and respect. Not in public, not with strangers, not with friends, and most certainly not with other people in your community. Purge it from your being as much as you possibly could, and refuse to let political issues invade the areas of our lives that we cherish; politics and political disagreements don’t belong there, and our lives are too important to let them be ruled by (mostly contrived) political disagreements.