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Our Republic of Outrage and Its Assault on America’s Public Square

“I am convinced.”

“Let me be clear.”

“There is no question about it.”

“The stakes could not be higher.”

“Make no mistake…”

These are the signals, unintentional signals, of course, that what’s about to come is personal, merely personal, and therefore of little or no value to the civic endeavor the speaker is purporting to explain. And yet in our country today, these are the ways most utterances of civic import, uttered by our elites—the politicians, academics, and journalists on all sides of each and every issue of national concern, are prefaced. Invariably and likely within seconds, a “sort of” will be thrown in to modify some noun, verb, or adjective, as if the unconscious (or conscience) of the speaker is demanding retraction and thus linking itself to the very forces to which the speaker is so vociferously and breathlessly opposed. These are not the honest efforts of a concerned citizen-thinker to understand the political and cultural phenomena that he or she is describing, and yet this phenomenon appears with astonishing regularity on the shows and stages frequented by these self-styled experts, brought in to lend ballast and gravitas to discussions of the relevant issues of the day. That their gravitas is usually mere pontification is easy to see and, thanks to HDTV, the viewer is able to see with the laser-like clarity of a 19th century portrait painter into the speaker’s soul to an earlier time when he or she actually believed in the things he or she is now so vociferously pushing.

It is said that by age fifty one gets the face one deserves, but even in these faces, covered as they are in pancake makeup and self-regard, one can still see back to the time that the speaker might once have died for the things that he or she is flacking. To see this same figure now, loudly demanding dialogue, without any evidence of the capability of carrying one, while at the same time looking on at the person he or she once was, can be heartbreaking. It is the sadness of so-called media and political “dialogue” today that the rapid-fire back and forth of monologues, always prefaced by the same “I am certain,” “I am convinced,” “there is no question about it” that masquerade as argument, is honored when all that is really at display is, at best, poor epistemic hygiene.

And writ large, the saddest thing about this is that it means that our current problems come from the very people, and therefore the very institutions we turn to for expertise, on all sides of every issue of contemporary concern. When a “mistake” is made, that is to say when a member of one of these elites goes “off message,” public relations is pressed into service to rescue appearances, and is, therefore, tragically the embodiment of the pretend “spirituality” of the highest places in our culture. The joint labor to understand one another that our public square requires, that our founding enshrines, has been tossed aside for the laziness and self-regard of a PR parlor game. The once heroic effort to create a permanent public square, a dialectic of information, opinions, and ideas, is left in the hands of a ponderous and meandering commentariat sharply dressed for TV where even the most serious stories are presented as variations on the theme of “from the perspective of,” “outrage expressed by,” and “fingers pointed at.”

Again, it is in the highest places that these filters are set and, therefore, our civic problems created. If the news media, for example, can only talk about the political season in terms of strategy and bruised feelings, then it is the news media that is placing the filters that obscure the commons. Their “experts,” with that signature faux gravitas identified by its pungent mixture of breathlessness and self-regard, offering “commentary” on the always “unprecedented” decision—always argued “terribly damaging” by one side, “indisputably beneficial” by the other—while spending not ten seconds on the principles, constitutional or otherwise, upon which the decision derives, leaves the viewer, and therefore the community, with nothing more than another injection of the drug upon which our culture thrives and is dying from at the same time: outrage, personal outrage, dressed up as commentary, which, in sum, is the Republic of Outrage upon which our commons is now being obliterated.

For in America the commons is not a given. In fact, it is always in need of being performed. This performance, moreover, requires the very education that the filters do not allow in, and whether those that place the filters are doing this deliberately or not, they are responsible for the civic incompetence of the polity, and most tragically, of the younger generations, those for whom it is customary to ascribe apathy and lack of commitment. It is tragic because in America the performance of the commons requires not only competence but cadence, and because the commons in America is a performance, a kind of dance, it is the young who are uniquely equipped to add this energy. To have a legislator “reach across the aisle” requires a muscle developed over time — a time when, writ small, a young man or woman performed a spiritual dance that allowed him or her to see the value in an opposing or mysterious way of life or opinion. And it is only when this mutual dance is accomplished, this public dance, that the commons is created, that the commons can take place.

The Potomac Review sits inside the Campus Commons at Montgomery College along with the college’s Honors Program, its International Education/Study Abroad and Women and Gender Studies programs and the Paul Peck Humanities Institute. Its mission includes serving and fostering the community in which it resides as well as demonstrating the relevance of human ties (humanities) to all aspects of campus life and, therefore, American life, because the capacity to transcend self interest and develop the public spirit necessary for the republic’s renewal, that is, to learn the value of public virtue, all happens (or doesn’t happen) in educational settings where the cultural resources required to protect the common good are either husbanded or ignored.

The American commons has a performative aspect and draping — in the election season you can still see remnants of this—but properly described, the commons would be set to a background more appropriate to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” than the nasty, poll-driven, consultant-based bonfire of the vanities as seen through the filters placed by the cable, network and online media elites.

The Potomac Review exists because the filters inserted in the highest places are not limited to the media. They are placed, again, wittingly or unwittingly, it does not matter, in the Academy as well. It is worse for us that we are no longer given the tools to recognize beauty — the particularly American beauty of the performative commons, for example — that we no longer value American literature, aren’t stopped short by a beautiful phrase and therefore aren’t stopped short by cruelty either. For only in America does the academic take place inside action — the action that the commons requires. It is true that Whitman and Emerson are the great singers of the self, and that they came out of the creation of self-government, but the mystery is that this very obsession with the self was once somehow also salvific with respect to the country. It is this second part, the part that saves, which has been lost.

In America biography is history, and history is biography. But even though Americans are more interested in the apostle than the creed, this self-reliance reaches, paradoxically, outwards. Emerson decried “noxious exaggerations of the personal, vulgar tones of preaching” even as he was extolling the individual sensibility beyond all else — and as it is best described in our literature, in the visions of Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and Hart Crane, this focus on the self is somehow salvific with respect to others. It sets a city on a hill, and has inspired at times people in labor camps all over the world to send coded messages by knocking on prison walls. The greatest paradox of the American obsession with the self is that it has the capacity somehow to allow in everyone else and, more than any other definition of the self throughout human history, encourage us to end our servitude to that very same self.

Only the poet-author of “Song of Myself,” for example, could or would devote himself as an unpaid volunteer nurse in the Civil War hospitals in Washington, D.C. That is to say that the American self is intimate and national at the same time. Once we acknowledge that the self is created in the context of the public square, we can begin to write the great American novel –see, that is, the great American novel that takes place in our political campaigns and in our public spaces, our public policies, and our memorial parades where we acknowledge the fruits, sometimes bitter, of those policies from previous generations. But over time and from the highest places, thanks to our elites, more interested in self promotion than loyalty to the students and citizens they are called to serve, we have become bereft both in our politics and our literature because they have been separated into discrete phenomena—when in reality they work off one another, reflect one another, are two sides of the same coin.

In our current political season, to claim that Donald Trump’s success is based on the fact that he always says what’s on his mind, even when it’s outrageous, and to claim furthermore that it’s the explanation for why he’s different, only hints at the fact that we have created a culture, with its proliferation of public relations apparatuses, in which the young have been taught, perhaps unconsciously, that speech has been given to us for concealing, rather than revealing, our true thoughts. Indirection and concealment are extolled and celebrated. Even college textbooks emphasize the act of writing differently for different audiences as one of the most important skills for a young person to learn. The young have been taught that being hidden means being protected and then are condemned for hiding behind their screens when we were the ones who created the climate in which such behavior is encouraged.

Our commons needs rebuilding. And it will not happen as long as we teach young people that being social is merely a “skill.” When we teach young people the importance of learning how to “network,” for example, we are letting them know—at some level—that other people exist only as tools that enable them to get ahead.  The moment a shy young person stops seeing social ability as a “skill” and sees the deeper meaning of the commons as intrinsic to the community, with its special role of the public square, he or she is liberated to be social without performance fear. The young person thus becomes social by simply being him or herself, so that “being social” is seen as neither a chore nor a capability to be demonstrated. Instead, as it stands today, the shy young person assumes that sociability is an issue of “skill” and never hears the liberating truth. He stays within his circle, his silo, his bunker, assuming he has done something real when, thanks to the filters set in the highest places, he has drawn the circle of his American family too narrowly. The failure of the Academy to see education—at least at the college freshman level—in the context of civic life is disturbing. Its emphasis on the bottom line has helped create the vacuum in which we find ourselves incapable of summoning the empathy required to create the public square.

In America, as everywhere else, the chief sin is ethics—the impulse, that is, to set oneself up as judge and jury. And American ethics today takes the form of outsized outrage. Our current Republic of Outrage degrades the moral imagination upon which the commons is created. Moral imagination, the faculty that describes the only “talent” that matters, the task of real education, the education of desire, the “talent,” that is, to walk in another’s shoes — which is, in America, the talent that creates the public square, the commons that the Republic requires to endure—is thus in short supply. With slavery and everything that slavery wrought, the founding is indeed an unwieldy inheritance, but the trope that there is no American myth is itself a myth. In its stead we are now repeatedly told that in America there is no common inheritance, nothing that coheres, no bonding agent, if you will, that comes out of the past and links all of us. And like everything else that defines our contemporary reality, this wrong-minded sentiment comes from our elites. It is framed a thousand different ways — from the media to the Academy to Madison Avenue to Washington, D.C.—but it is the necessary first principle which allows these institutions to insert their particular version of the meaning of America, whatever their version may be, and you can rest assured it is something they are peddling, a trickster promise dressed up as a bright and shiny object of desire that inevitably touches in some form or fashion upon freedom, upon the freedom to choose your own American destiny by buying into a brand.

It is in this way that the proposition that there is no American myth is introduced as a feint, a magician’s trick, a PR tactic that is played in order for the political or corporate peddler to insert his or her own vision of that myth. Freedom thus is subtly redefined to mean freedom to be tethered to the peddler’s vision of reality at all times and in all places and to define oneself as an owner, user, or purveyor of whatever is being sold.

Freedom, then, not to be free.

Take a recent television ad. The artist Pharrell Williams, somebody that many young people admire and respect, is employed to sing, “They try to put us in a box, they try to categorize us.” The screen then reads, “Own Your Freedom.” The marketing slogan and the lyrics of the respected artist are marching in lockstep in the service of… the Fiat 2016 500. Thus the only thing that counts now in America, if you are an artist, a politician, a journalist or an academic, is your willingness to be scrubbed clean by the public relations apparatus, deodorized of your uniqueness in the name of a brand-name emptiness that allows in your obsession with your own “brand” and your self-regard.

The call for community implicit in our experiment of self-governance, the care and feeding of the public square implicit in our founding, is lost. The miracle that the founding gave the country, that requires husbandry, is lost because the individual, the individual defined and educated in the context of the greater community, is lost.

That the news media is more likely to cover an election or a bestseller or a popular toy with a brand expert than a real thinker means (to borrow the sense of the “therefore” from James Wright’s great poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”) that if you are carrying around a book with you today, a young person will likely assume that the book is just part of your “job,” the young person having been conditioned by us—with our insipid “good job” whenever he or she accomplishes anything, whether scoring a goal or acting in a school play—that everything has a price. Like Odysseus with his oar, you and your public spirit go unrecognized.

Our commons needs rebuilding. The Potomac Review sits inside the Campus Commons and the title of this essay, in this election season, is meant to suggest a vision for the future that combines the commons of public life and the spire of spiritual life, and is therefore a vision of inspiration that insists on and allows for the First Amendment separation of church and state while calling on the animating power of both. It is an appropriate and American way that allows and encourages the business of America to remain business, the technology sector to continue remaking the world, and the poets to continue writing our American epic, because it acknowledges and emphasizes that our only common religion as Americans is our commons, and it is our commons that needs rebuilding.

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