“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think.”
So sang Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson in the opening lines of the prolific rock group’s Thick As A Brick.
Made up of a single song consisting of two 20-minute tracks, the album is an epic poem, written by genius schoolboy Gerald Bostock, wise well beyond his years, whose jaded, anti-establishment observations provoke outrage and lead the leaders of his village to brand him a social freak.
The album was conceived as a tongue in cheek nod to the often overwrought concept albums of progressive rock groups such as Yes but hits the mark on a number of social critiques, namely the inability of the “powers that be” to conceive of the lifestyle and values of the less privileged masses in whose name they act.
The populism of this message, and Anderson’s observation about the nature of emotion and thought, are more than a piece of wry artistry; they capture perfectly the crux of the American political crisis.
Alarmingly, neither the bathroom rights issue nor the economic discussion pays even the slightest lip service to constraints on government power at any level.
Just as poor Gerald is sacrificed to the standing social order for his contrarian views, so too are any voices that are at odds with a political ideology immediately subjected to personal, not intellectual, smears. The result is a national dialogue which is nothing but a cacophony of histrionics. On one side, the cultural gatekeepers wail about the suppression of hegemonic privilege entrenched firmly within American institutions. On the other, the traditionalists dig their heels firmly into the ground and double down in their defense of status quote values that are the backbone of America. Venal emotionalism, not sober thought and measured responses, are the sum total of the public dialogue.
Now, if this were purely a matter of dominant cultural trends, it would be easy to dismiss the hand wringing. After all, the digital age has, blissfully, made alternative media of the past and present readily accessible.
But the same frenzied verbal sparring has also transformed politics into an emotional war of attrition. Take, for instance the stories which have dominated the news cycle in the last week alone.
Transgender rights activists have proclaimed unfettered bathroom access the next wave of the civil rights movement. In response, religious conservatives have taken to social media to proselytize about how this represents a threat to the safety of women. Both of these arguments are ridiculous. To suggest that bathroom access is akin to physical assault and denial of service is not only absurd but denigrating to those who suffered because de jure discrimination was upheld by the highest levels of American government. And for the right to make an argument that focuses on a threat supposedly proposed to a specific group is rhetorically lazy; it is overly narrow and evades the real issue. Yet, the public policy position taken by the Obama administration and various state governments is grounded in these emotional positions. Nowhere has anyone brought up the only relevant legal point- that private property protections clearly allow individuals to exercise discretion in setting the policy for their businesses.
What is perhaps more egregious than the stupidity of this debate is that it occurs in the midst of and has drowned out a political race utterly devoid of content. The Trump and Clinton campaigns spent more time this week trading barbs over allegations of sexual misconduct, somehow relating the past actions of a former president to current economic statistics and leadership qualities, than discussing actual legislative proposals and how they would exercise legitimate uses of presidential power.
Alarmingly, neither the bathroom rights issue nor the economic discussion pays even the slightest lip service to constraints on government power at any level. The basic assumption at the root of the paltry logic encapsulating these issues is that the individuals involved, because they have good intentions, have the authority to act. Traditional ideas of local control and individual sovereignty are dead and buried. The only so-called principle guiding debate on both the left and right is in competing ideas of what is good for society.
Those whose minds can somehow overcome the contrarian logic of espousing social control for the betterment of man and descrying the fractionalism created by pitting social groups against each other should take note- politics has become solidly rooted in jaded emotional worldviews, meaning feelings, not thought, govern discourse. Consideration of other viewpoints under such a system is not only irrelevant, since one must assume they alone have the right solutions and any opposition is opposed to social good, it is irrational. Critical thinking- which means examining all viewpoints to determine which is correct- is something to be discouraged and even feared.
Again, Anderson’s lyrics ring true:”the doer and the thinker, no allowance for the other/ as the failing light illuminates the mercenary’s creed.”