Where G.K. Chesterton and B.F. Skinner Meet: On Real Time with Bill Maher, 21 August 2015

The 21 August edition of Real Time with Bill Maher highlights the imbalance between the good politician, just yet already defeated, and the bad, given to nationalistic pandering and demagoguery.

American political life has reached an unenviable crossroads: we want government to be effective, but government has been ineffectual for so long that we can only fear what the shock of activity might bring. A line in G.K. Chesterton’s political treatise What’s Wrong with the World? aptly sums up this state of things: “We all agree that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing, but we would not want an active aristocracy.”

Americans likewise face the interlaced problems of heartless inaction and imprudent action: we complain about partisan gridlock but forget the terrors wrought by eager consensus, from The Defense of Marriage Act, to the Patriot Act and the ceaseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If solid bipartisanship can wreak irreparable harm, we might prefer despairing paralysis.

The “happy” accord that authorized those unending Middle Eastern misadventures surprises us only in retrospect. Manufacturing the consent to commit violence has always been easier than marshaling the consent to foster progress or pacifism. Without any groundwork for the future, we can only destroy the present, to prove that the future never deserved to be imagined. This is why apocalyptic religions still hold sway over American politics: apocalyptically minded zealots imagine the future by destroying the present, or at least make destroying the present and imagining the future one and the same thought — and all in the lowly name of narcissism. The apocalypse, of course, must occur specially for the zealot, and conveniently within his lifespan.

Partisan deadlock becomes our safety net, a psychological default for those who fear a future of limitless catastrophe. To differing degrees and in only slightly different shades, Republicans offer one catch-all solution to every problem: nationalism, usually colored with the discourse of pathology and infection. The economy suffers because of foreigners; culture is diseased because un-American liberals and queers pollute it; true religion must purge impurities.

You know the litany. Politics dishearten us because we know that while good politicians have only moderate faith in their own virtue, the bad ones trust completely in their own iniquity. Good politicians will strive valiantly and almost — but not quite — pull off a great feat. Bad politicians, precisely because of their well-funded immorality, handily pull off corruptions we could never imagine.

Add to this the aggravations of the Citizens United decision, which turned politics into a high-end mall, in which the average window-shopping voter peers bewilderingly and enviously through the glass at human goods only oligarchs can trash and trade. Certainly, Citizens United represents the logical end of late capitalism: politicians become swapped and refurbished dry goods, as humanity is dehumanized and corporations are personified. Or, much as the 2007-2008 corporate bailouts socialized loss and privatized gain, Citizens United affords corporations the best advantages of human rights while reminding actual humans that the rights they believed they possessed were always conditional.

When the Supreme Court decided that “money is speech”, it somehow mistook form for content (a common sin of legalistic thinking). Yes, money is a form an exchange and speech is a form of exchange, but money in itself has no particular content, nor does it have intent absent of human motives. The very existence of money (soulless paper), signifies the new plus ultra of faithfulness but, like all faith, it lacks real content and is flush with wishful thinking. Human capital can be easily silenced, but those printed green bills, the ultimate if not quite transcendental signifier of military-industrial-electoral power, can deafen us to no end.

Writing for the Citizens United majority, one Justice claimed that the decision would surely not disenchant or disillusion the American electorate, who have enough faith for both themselves and soulless corporations (my paraphrase, of course). At very least, the claim is presumptuous — how could robed elites know what will and will not disillusion the Republic? I’m not sure if it’s comforting or pathetic to know that the Justices believe we have such bottomless reserves of faith. But irreligious faith comes cheaply for the Court. Only in the Christian heart do we find truly precious faith, now so fragile and imperiled that the shifting winds of Law can easily dislodge or shatter it.

The 21 August edition of Real Time with Bill Maher began, in a sense, by highlighting the imbalance between the good politician, just, yet already defeated, and the bad, given to nationalistic pandering and demagoguery. The latter, in the shambling form of gameshow host Donald Trump (a “great American asshole” in the words of guest Marc Maron), hung around the neck of the show, much as Trump’s dubious charisma now asphyxiates every cable newscast. Senator Clair McCaskill, meanwhile, enacted the role of the just but beleaguered crusader, although no matter how much she reminded audiences that only 100 oligarchs (give or take) fund our electoral-industrial complex, she inspired little faith that a constitutional amendment would correct matters anytime soon.

Still, I don’t blame Trump for his fantasies, from repealing the 14th Amendment (which, in a wonderful bout of illogic, Trump called “unconstitutional”) to erecting a gorgeous, immigrant-repelling wall funded with the seized wages of said immigrants. Obviously, his supporters and enablers are the ones to blame, and their ignorance excuses neither their delusions nor their class-blind identifications with a plutocratic huckster. Nevertheless, Trump, a cross between Elmer Gantry and Cecil B. DeMille, knows after all his years of televised egomania that people respond to pathos, not logos.

Trump’s jingoism, however, isn’t really much different from that of his Republican rivals — it’s just more colorfully unapologetic and imbued with television’s sense of inane fun. Everything Trump utters can be filed under the rubric of nationalism, which probably explains his support from evangelicals, who normally would blanch at his gluttony and wanton libido. But perhaps Trump’s omnivorousness explains his popularity: even prudes can tire of their own chastity and sexual repression, and Trump’s the only candidate who isn’t an uncloseted prude.

As for Real Time, there are two moments worth mentioning. In an exchange with Maher, National Review’s Charles Cooke admitted that leftists should indeed gloat over Trump’s embarrassing and destabilizing success, but then only mustered a spineless rhetorical retort: “Are [Republicans] going to be a party of classical liberals (in the old sense of the term) or the party of white identity politics”? Sadly, this constitutes the oratory of the conservative intelligentsia. That his idea must be phrased rhetorically already admits that classical liberalism no longer exists on the right — but it hasn’t existed since Reagan tied the knot with the Moral Majority.

The argument continued as Maher expressed incredulity over the alleged scandal of Hillary Clinton’s email accounts, but again Cooke reverted to weak rhetorical tactics. When Maher asked, “Even if the scandal is what you say, is it as important as climate change or income inequality,” or, we presume, any of the issues to which conservatives claim blindness. Cooke answered, “Here’s why it’s important… it’s about privilege,” and went on to explain that the Obama administration prosecuted lower-level peons for lesser offenses.

True, but Maher’s question remained unanswered — Maher had asked why this alleged scandal is more important than the real scandals of income inequality and so forth, but Cooke responded by ignoring the qualifier, as if his earnest voice alone could erase the comparative framing inherent in the question.

This is a fairly good example of the state of political conversation in America: comparatives, matters of degree and emphasis, and shades of meaning are sacrificed on the faithful altar of self-righteousness. Cooke could have easily said, “Yes, we should all be paying more attention to debilitating and pervasive income inequality than to discrepancies in one technocrat’s email accounts, but the email scandal is important symbolically.” That response would have been more honest, at least, but would also have admitted that chasing after Hillary Clinton is primarily a symbolic pastime that betters no one’s lives.

We can hardly arrive at fruitful solutions if we can’t even identify our real problems. Chesterton began What’s Wrong with the World? by criticizing those who, fallaciously applying biological metaphors to inorganic social systems, create a “medical error” by identifying a disease before we think of a cure. Chesterton believed the conventional wisdom has it backwards: “But it is [for] the whole definition and dignity of man that, in social matters, we must actually find the cure before we find the disease.” This seems like a curious statement, perhaps, but it describes not only rampant Clinton-chasing (identifying a “disease” and then manufacturing scandals to keep that disease in check), but nearly every common approach to social ills.

Consider this: whether the issue is the economy, the minimum wage, trade deficits, or budget and gender gaps, the answer is always the same. “We must improve our educational system,” say politicians, parents, police officers, judges, madmen, the homeless, and everyone else. But for what end? So that everyone can be as well-educated as exploitative plutocrats? So that they, like Trump, can boast about attending Wharton?

Chesterton’s sociological approach, in which correct sociopolitical agendas are first implemented to prevent misdiagnoses, applies to Clinton’s political situation on a deeper level. A recent, well-publicized encounter between Clinton and a Black Lives Matter activist showed Clinton playing the well-intentioned crusader, but with a cold heart that put the activist and many onlookers on edge. “I don’t believe you change hearts,” Clinton explained to the activist, “you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” Understandably, the activist — young and idealistic — was taken aback, and probably resented a privileged white woman offering technocratic solutions to what seems either a profoundly moral or existentialist problem.

Though not a great fan of Clinton, Maher correctly defended her objectivity, characterizing her not as a “fuzzy-headed liberal” but as a pragmatic moderate. Consider Chesterton’s words: we are misled by our “habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug.” Such is the fight against racism: “We must win hearts and minds first, and only then will social problems resolve!” But if our “exhaustive description” of the problem is inaccurate, all of our solutions will be exhaustively useless.

I’m not a huge admirer of Clinton either — as recently as 2014 she remained agnostic on marriage equality — but she, consummate technocrat, is probably correct to say that we cannot begin by changing minds. Instead, change the policies, and minds, given enough time and generational evolution, will change as well. How do we know this is true? As Trump’s poll numbers ably demonstrate, people do not respond to logos. If they did, they wouldn’t be racists.

Clinton’s “heartless” response, unpopular with some liberal journalists, follows not simply in the fanciful tradition of Chesterton but in the behaviorist tradition of B.F. Skinner. The shadow of Freud’s genius has laid so thickly over the 20th century that even the most progressive among us must struggle to escape it. The continuing influence of Freud, who gave license to every psychic eccentricity, tells us that only after we harrowingly introspect our souls, excavate our secrets, and spill our guts, can we alter our behaviors. We must change our minds before we change our lives. That this process seldom works for individuals, however, should tell us that it cannot work for society as a whole.

For Skinner, we must do the opposite: first change our environments, and our judgments, proclivities, and preferences will follow suit, as long as the right reinforcements (in this case, laws) are in place. To be sure, this is an unromantic solution that doesn’t depend on faith, which is precisely why it is never tried.