Big Government, Trivial People

Protesters burn a paper Confederate flag during a rally on June 23, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. The protesters were supporting the call by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol.
Ringo Chiu/Getty Images

Big Government flourishes with small citizens. This is true as a matter of ideological cause and effect: by definition, the more powerful you believe the centralized State should be, the less respect you have for individual citizens.

Big people don’t need a pervasive nanny state with vast power, money, and manpower to micro-regulate their business transactions and personal life choices. A larger public sector inescapably means a smaller private one. This is especially true as power shifts from elected officials to the permanent bureaucracy, which voters have very little influence upon.

It’s also true as a question of attitude. While people are focused on trivial matters, and spend a great deal of their beating each other up over frivolous issues, statists beam happily and grab huge chunks of power and money. A nation that grows accustomed to squabbling like children over perceived insults is more likely to accept the domineering power of the Mommy State. Children reflexively yell for adults to solve their problems. Big Government is happy to answer those calls.

Another reason Americans have been manipulated into getting so worked up over minor issues and sideshow distractions is that trivial issues can swiftly produce victories, which hot-blooded, childlike “progressives” can celebrate as evidence that progress is being made, and people they don’t like have been chastised. This attitude is painfully obvious to anyone who spends time on social media. The big social issues are complicated and intractable. Proper analysis requires far more than designating sympathetic victims and shadowy villains to hate. Discussions of personal conduct, individual responsibility, spirituality, and social factors such as the deterioration of American family life are complicated. Contemplation of the social fallout from massive, ostensibly well-meant government programs is painful, especially for people that truly believe government can scientifically resolve social problems.

But why think about such things, when you can celebrate the banning of the Confederate battle flag? That wasn’t complicated or nuanced at all. Outrage mobs were formed, demands were made, activists were activated, street theater was performed, and many fiery Tweets were Tweeted and Re-Tweeted. The flag came down, and not just on government property, where it’s obviously fair game to hold a political debate over which flags to display. A great rolling avalanche of outrage came thundering off the Internet, scrubbing the flag from the roof of toy cars, sweeping it from the shelves at retail outlets, and mutating into a crusade to wipe out every memorial associated with a member of the Confederacy.

Not surprisingly, beating the cheese out of the long-dead rebels who lost the most terrible conflict in American history is far easier than dealing clearly and effectively with contemporary problems. The same can be said of all the little sideshow victories achieved by outrage mobs, from shaming astronomers over their shirts to forcing out corporate CEOs over tiny political donations they made a decade previously. The quick little jolt of adrenaline from an outrage-mob win is exhilarating. Tiny victory dancers over ephemeral triumphs keep activists limbered up for fresh battles to come.

They lose some fights, to be sure, but that’s another nice thing about keeping the public distracted with vicious battles over piddly junk: there is very little cost associated with failure. Just shake off the defeat, try not to think about how that politically-incorrect restaurant chain is now the most popular in the land, and move on. It helps that the opponents in most of these sideshow battles are healthy normal people with busy day jobs, not bitter activist warriors, so they’re unlikely to press any advantage they might get from a tactical victory. Outrage mobs are never pursued and defeated in detail after they break and run.

Some of their troops are phantasmal, anyway. Time and again, we’ve discovered that outrage mobs turned out to be fairly small groups of people, adept at manipulating social media to make themselves look like vast hordes. Even when their supporters are real people, there is very little passion, commitment, or thought involved in banging out a two-sentence war cry in the mangled syntax of social media. It takes even less energy to click the Like or Re-Tweet button on someone else’s semi-automatic burst of exclamation points and emoticons.

In times gone by, even the business of signing a form letter, preparing an envelope, and affixing a stamp involved a tiny amount of real effort and expense… just enough to make some people think about what they were doing, and decide their flash of irritation wasn’t worth expressing. A certain amount of time was needed to work up grassroots campaigns, which gave both public and private institutions a chance to deal with controversial situations in a measured fashion. Often they could resolve those situations to public satisfaction before snail-mail outrage campaigns got off the ground, and when they didn’t, there was a certain degree of legitimacy and commitment behind groundswells in which each of the thousands of participants had to do a little work to make themselves heard.

Not any more, thanks to the Internet. Now the outrage mob forms up in a matter of hours, sneaks up behind victims while they’re still working at their desks, and blows them out of their seats by screaming in their ears. It’s like the jump scares in a horror movie. One of the most disturbing stories of the Internet age remains the doom of Justine Sacco, a young woman of no ill will who made a clumsy joke to her tiny circle of Twitter followers before climbing on a plane, became the target of a massive worldwide outrage mob while in flight, and strolled off the gangway at her destination to find herself unemployed.

The tasteless jest in question concerned AIDS – the 12 words that ruined Sacco’s life were “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!” – and were meant as a slam at her fellow white people’s attitudes, not Africans with AIDS. The problem of AIDS in Africa was not even slightly affected by making this director of a corporate comms shop into a human sacrifice, not one tiny little bit. But it felt like a victory to the horde, for a couple of hours at least, and that’s all that mattered.

In a similar vein, the problems of racism and violence against black people will not be perceptibly affected by the official erasure of the Confederate flag. It’s a rush for the people who feel like they won something, but it doesn’t last for long, and they tend to get cranky when the momentary high fades. It’s already difficult to find anyone who thought banning the flag was a good idea who looks happy at all. Some of them seem madder than ever. Flash-mob outrage is a hell of a drug – the rush is fleeting, but highly addictive.

For the people who participate in these wild hunts, beating up on people and symbols who have no effective means of fighting back is far more satisfying that seriously contending with big problems that don’t have quick and easy solutions. It’s no coincidence that the obsession with trivia has grown stronger as centralized American government grew vastly more powerful in the Age of Obama, because sideshows distract his supporters from comparing his performance to his campaign promises. On the ideological scale, they help progressives forget about how very little “progress” they have achieved, despite seizing money and freedom from so many decent people across the decades. Their ideology insists that government can swiftly fix X problem if given Y billions of dollars to spend, but it doesn’t work that way at all – the problems don’t get fixed, or they even get worse. But swarming on Twitter to force a company to change what a character in a video game looks like? That’s how this Power to the People stuff is supposed to work! Voices are raised, power is exercised, change happens, hooray!

Of course, in their lecture halls, the gurus of progressive ideology always describe it as constructive. In practice, it’s one of the most destructive forces ever unleashed, and the rise of the Internet flash mob illustrates why. Destruction is quick and fun. There are immediate results to celebrate. The sense that people you don’t like have been made to feel defeated and dismayed is exhilarating. The victors are told they don’t have to feel bad about the methods they employed, or the suffering of the target, because they’re monsters who deserve no respect or compassion.

Outrage swarms are fun, and virtually cost-free. People will always show up for fun, free entertainment. It would be helpful for more of the targets to remember that children frustrate easily, and wander away from games that aren’t fun any more. Standing firm against them might even help some of them grow up. If a critical number of American citizens don’t grow up, and fast, their rulers will finish building a crib they can never climb out of.