G.K. Chesterton observed after his return to England from a lecture tour in the United States that America is a nation with the soul of a church. That is hardly surprising, the northernmost of the original thirteen colonies having been established by a fervently religious sect. All religions are exhortative by nature, none more so than the sectarian ones which have a solid history of being noisier in this respect than the established churches, partly, I suppose, because one encourages the burning of witches in louder tones than one solicits a bigger collection plate for the relief of the victims of territorial rebellion in Ethiopia.
It is true that the first generation of Puritans in Massachusetts were a more dignified lot than many of their successors. It is true also, however, that to summon your brethren to raise a City Upon a Hill as a beacon to all mankind is a pretty tall order, no matter that the scratch of the quill pen writing these words carried no farther than the main cabin of the Mayflower. It is a matter for debate whether John Winthrop’s ambitions for the Plymouth Colony exceeded Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s for the complete transformation of the United States. Winthrop was as serious about his mission as AOC and her fellow progressives are about theirs, though the latter are more boisterous and obstreperous in pushing it. Still, with Winthrop and his holy squad of religious dissenters, the project of the totally mobilized society was already under way.
The exhortative tradition in America has a long history, beginning with the Pilgrim Fathers and proceeding through the Great Awakening, abolitionism, the Old Progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the War to Save Democracy and the anti-Red campaign that followed immediately upon it, Prohibition, the prolonged “Happy Days are Here Again” ideological camp meeting, the anti-communist crusade in the decade and a half after World War Two, the holy wars of the Civil Rights movement and the imperialist wars for global democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union, all the way down to the current You Can Stop the Spread! effort perpetrated by the Centers for Disease Control and the White House.
These are the salient exhortative campaigns in our national history, always accompanied by a swarm of less obtrusive — though still highly irritating — ones that include the anti-tobacco annoyance, the endless get-out-the-vote drives and other national and local summonses to political awareness and the performance of civic duty. Most of these stern exhortations to progressive patriotism are issued in the commanding tone of the old “Uncle Sam Wants YOU!” posters of twentieth-century wartime, including such risible absurdities as the slogan (originating, no doubt, in the Department of Health and Human Services and supported by busybodies lodged in the various innumerable NGOs) “Every American should know what his cholesterol numbers are.” Me, I say it is enough that every American should be able to write and speak the English language correctly. In any event, it is in the spirit of this intolerable habit of mind that no American can board a bus or walk down a city street without being affronted by an array of similarly idiotic messages slapped on billboards and the burnt-out shells of abandoned buildings.
Evangelical Christianity, mass democratic politics, and advertising — aside from sports, the three chief institutions of American life — are all ideally suited to the culture of popular exhortation where they flourish, and which flourishes with them. Of this obnoxious symbiosis, television advertising is the most notorious example. The geniuses of the advertising agencies are masters of the practice of subliminal messaging and the manipulation of the scores of millions of morons who are their natural prey. It cannot have escaped the perception of intelligent viewers that nearly every one of the odious commercial playlets shown on television is an exercise in exhortation employed as propaganda on behalf of such social and political causes as anti-racism and inclusion, environmentalism and the children’s crusade to save the planet, an implied responsibility for maintaining health and fitness on behalf of one’s personal health and the wellbeing of society, and civic involvement, among many other things. The ad people are, as they say, onto something, and that is Americans’ fondness for mass public enterprises, including rhetorical exercises reminiscent of the ones described by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It is odd, actually, that an English writer should have imagined such a phenomenon as being a part of his country’s future, since what remains of the aristocratic reserve and the quietly but stubbornly independent spirit of the British people tends to resist the vulgar hysteria of the sports stadium, or at least to confine it to that uproarious and sweaty arena. “Virtue-signaling,” a phrase that originated in England and spread from there to the United States, is as suited to a certain kind of personality on this side of the Atlantic as it is across the pond, but virtue signaling, as a snobbish assertion of one’s own personal superiority does not invite agreement, preferring not to find it instead.
It is true all the same that the exhortative gene in the morally earnest type that has never been known for its humor may on occasion display an unintentionally humorous — and human — side that can seem, if only for the moment, to redeem it. The fatuity of “Build Back Better!,” for example, is almost, though not quite, compensated for by the hilariousness of “Let’s go, Brandon!”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.