Meta is meant to be better — better than Facebook, better even than reality. In the future, a second Edward Gibbon may wonder not just whether it was a good idea for the federal government to encourage Mark Zuckerberg and a handful of talented techies to launch a Revenge of the Nerds coup against the minds and manners of America, but also what it was about reality that made us want to escape it so badly in the first place.
There has never been a society more blessed than that of the United States. Possessing every resource — natural, constitutional and above all, human — with a friendly power to its north, a weak one to its south, plenty of water on either side, and enough space to allow them to escape each other with ease, Americans have enjoyed a freedom and prosperity unparalleled in human history — despite the barbarities of conquest, slavery and Jim Crow. Yet there has never been a society more successful at creating alternatives to reality, from Hollywood to the Great Society to the metaverse. The power of the social media companies might be the price of freedom, or a free market that has produced a cartel.
“Too much liberty leads both men and nations to slavery,” wrote Marcus Tullius Cicero, who tried to uphold the standards of the Senate in the first century BC as the Roman republic was falling into civil war. Like Joe Biden, Cicero was a lawyer who entered the Senate at thirty. Unlike Joe Biden, Cicero had trained in rhetoric in Athens and Rhodes and was a sophisticated and principled speaker who saw no need for bluster. He made his name, and won the people’s trust, first by fixing supply-chain problems — Rome imported much of its food — and then by organizing public entertainments. Like Donald Trump, he knew the business of bread and circuses from the inside, and saw how it worked in a democratic republic. The Founders learned a lot from Cicero — “True law is right reason in agreement with nature,” he wrote in On the Republic in 51 BC — and our leaders should too. He opposed Rome’s forever wars and warned against what we now call militarization, the importing of military attitudes and methods into civilian society. Unlike other senators, Cicero chose not to recruit a private army or menace the Capitol with a mob. Violence, he wrote, is “more ruinous than anything else.” The fixer of bread and circuses may have been in the business of giving the people what they want, but Cicero knew when to say what needed to be said. In 43 BC, it cost him his head, and also his hands, which were chopped off by Mark Antony’s henchmen. But then, all political careers end in failure.
Technology enhances the natural impulse to dodge a reckoning with reality, whether with voters or budgetary limits or rival powers. The Biden administration, like the Obama administration, is fixated upon realizing an impossible dream — impossible, that is, within the current constitutional and economic frameworks — of forcing a liberal technocrat’s great leap forward through legislation. In a parody of the old socialist revolution, the crisis of Covid-19 was adopted as an opportunity to purge human nature. The Democrats hector us to shed the habits of the old Adam — racism and red meat, meritocracy and the SAT — or succumb to the green apocalypse for our collective sins.
This is a vindictive and petty view of human nature, so its appeal is understandable. But it is not what a majority of voters wanted in 2020, so Joe Biden’s popularity has collapsed. That is a positive sign. So is the Senate’s rejection of the Build Back Better boondoggle, which was packed with more pork than an Iowa pig farm. Despite political pressure from the extremes and the woke pandering of the institutions and corporations, the majority of Americans have not lost touch with reality. Debt, inflation and the prospect of relegation from the middle class do focus the mind.
Coleridge, whose opium dreams gave us “Kubla Khan,” noted that getting into a work of art requires the “willing suspension of disbelief.” The American people have not forgotten the “willing” part. Just as they have chosen their entertainments, so they choose to put up with the incompetence and mendacity of their leaders — for now. By the end of Biden’s first year, only 30 percent of Americans felt the country was heading in the right direction. The disquiet and dissatisfaction are almost palpable — and that’s just in the White House.
This administration has taken up permanent residence in a metaverse of its own fantasies. But reality is biting, from Ukraine to the southern border to the rate of inflation. Watch the daily exercise in passive-aggressive surrealism that is a White House press conference, and you realize Cicero had a point: “Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties.” This administration, in its flight from reality and its forcing of unreal ideology, is courting those penalties at home and abroad. As Cicero found out, there are worst punishments than being shellacked in the midterms.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2022 World edition.