Victor Davis Hanson
America is in another of its Salem moments. Frenzy is almost a living, breathing monster. It moves from host to host, fueled by rumor, gossip, and self-righteous furor.
The Greeks knew well of the transitory nature of these mass panics. They claimed such fits were inspired by the Maniae, the three daughters of Night who were the goddesses of insanity, madness, and crazed frenzy. We’ve seen all three of them in action throughout the past year.
Collusion Everywhere and Nowhere
For about six months, cable news shows, the internet, and the major newspapers ginned up the charge of “Russian collusion”—as a means of explaining the otherwise inexplicable and unacceptable defeat of Hillary Clinton by someone without either political or military experience.
Pundits and talking heads without evidence echoed each other with ever more preposterous charges. Voting machines supposedly had been rigged by a monstrous man who later had stooped to remove the Martin Luther King bust from the West Wing. We were also told that all good souls of the Electoral College clearly should have vitiated their constitutional duties and denied Trump the presidency.
We were lectured at the height of the collusion frenzy that Trump would be 1) impeached, 2) removed by the emoluments clause, 3) forced to resign under the 25th Amendment, or 4) simply quit in shame.
If not, how many ways could (or should) one kill Trump? Hanging? Decapitation? Dismemberment? Combustion? Shooting? Stabbing? Jet crash? As the madness grew, no obscenity from Stephen Colbert or physical threat from Robert DeNiro or Johnny Depp or Kathy Griffin or even Snoop Dogg seemed to suffice to express hatred of Trump.
The font of this 24/7 hysteria was the Clinton campaign’s purchase of a leaked smear job from an opposition research firm, which in turn had hired a disreputable former British intelligence agent, who had paid for concocted Russian slanders designed to disrupt an election. The Fusion GPS/Steele dossier was peddled to U.S. intelligence agencies, some of whom may have seen it as valuable political fodder and thus used it as an excuse to surveille members of the Trump campaign and in turn, unmask the names of American citizens and allow them to be leaked to the press. “Collusion” may turn out to have been sired, grown, and spread from a single, fake, and partisan document.
But now suddenly the hysteria is cooling. Robert Mueller’s own possible ethical conflicts of interests and increasingly bizarre agendas, the Clinton Uranium One scandals, the strange exemptions given the Clinton email debacle, and House Intelligence Committee investigations into unmasking and the origins of the Steele dossier dialed back the frenzy.
Sages in Helmets and Pads
The hysteria then moved on to the once dormant NFL “take a knee” protests, which were reignited by Trump’s public castigation of the players.
Soon the players’ incoherent messaging was passed off by the media as some sort of grassroots Rosa Parks civil rights movement. But as viewers turned their channels and stadia emptied, the hysterical outbursts began to cool.
Money, not the cause of winning hearts and minds to the cause of social justice, became the greater player and owner concern. It is hard to sustain outrage about NFL racism when twentysomething multimillionaires, in a league of over 75 percent African-Americans, insult the sources of their income by refusing to stand for the National Anthem—and belatedly come to realize that the logical trajectory of their supposed principled demonstrations is their own irrelevance and eventual impoverishment.
What cooled the NFL hysteria was the reality that the hyped story of “taking a knee” was morphing into the scarier narrative of less money, an absence of politically correct proportional representation among players, looming league downsizing, pampered athletes, traumatic brain injuries, and a public weariness with everything from ESPN to Colin Kaepernick. In other words, taking a knee reminded about 20 percent of NFL fans that there were already reasons enough to turn the channel. And so they did.
The Maniae then passed on to more new prey.
The Statue Busters
About the same time came the statue hysteria. America woke up one day and decided that century-old statues of Confederate generals or archetypical southern soldiers were proof of pernicious racism. So they had to be removed—by the dead of night and by the mob if necessary. Once these iconic impediments were gone, then social justice would be achieved, as if mute stones, not beating human hearts, explain deteriorating racial relations.
As the frenzy spread and the virtue signaling characteristically escalated, the sin of 2017 was no longer just the 156-year-old Confederate secession from the Union, but politically incorrect sin in general—a remark from Lincoln deemed racist, or the slaveholding of the Jefferson and Washington families, or indigenous peoples mistreated by Columbus. Apparently, the mob reasoned that the present generation alone could best judge the past by its own transitory standards of probity—while being exempt from future charges that it, too, will be culpable for all sorts of moral lapses and pathologies. A generation that cannot even walk in safety at night in many of its major cities or fears contracting Hepatitis A from city sidewalks does not have the pre-tech, material excuses of a Dickensian London.
The internet, cable-TV, and social media mob predictably soon tired with statue smashing and moved on. After all, when one’s negative traits alone define a person, and present morality supersedes time and space to become the arbiter of the past, then everyone stands condemned—progressives perhaps most of all. Was not the liberal saint Margaret Sanger a eugenicist racist? Was not Woodrow Wilson a segregationist reprobate? Was not Leland Stanford a white supremacist? Are the names of such progressive icons to be Trotskyized too from statues and universities on the principle that the worst of a man defines his totality—or are there suddenly to be found extenuating circumstances?
From Harvey to Everyone
The next collective furor arose over Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Sometime in October 2017, the progressive film titan was abruptly condemned as sick, evil, and unhinged—after 30 years of common knowledge that he routinely sought to use his power of hiring and firing to leverage or force sexual gratification.
Once Weinstein’s progressive armor was pierced and he was exposed as a groper, assaulter, and likely rapist, then dozens, perhaps hundreds of similar stories of powerful media and film men surfaced. Some were not only pronounced guilty of past consensual though asymmetrical sexual relationships but of abusive sexual acts and cruelty. Apparently, the mostly progressive male entertainment and media hierarchy had long equated the 1960s-era liberal legacy of “sexual freedom” with a blank check for their own sexual coercion and phallic exhibitionism. We all had assumed a continuity of Hollywood culture of updated Harry Cohns, but Hollywood’s preemptive moral finger-pointing at others apparently allowed their hypocrisies to stay in-house.
As the collective furor grew, the net widened. More stories, but from 10, 20, 30, and 40 years past, surfaced—calibrated to the current celebrity or perceived visibility of the perpetrator. The charges initially also ranged from horrific (and quite believable) allegations of rape and gross groping and assault to what used to be called male-power rudeness and bullying—and eventually including even the occasional crudity and stupidity that can accompany seduction.
Soon, we assumed that if our celebrities, journalists, and politicians were power-hungry sexists and worse, then all of American manhood must be, too. Everyday Joes, for now, were saved from belated and embarrassing post facto accounting only by their ordinary stations that made confessions of their sins of little collective interest.
As in the case of the other hysterias, such collective fits cool when they begin to snare the supposedly exempt—marque reporters, famous authors, prominent politicians—and morph well beyond the original and quite legitimate charges of sexual assault to include rude come-ons and callous, narcissistic and cruel behavior. But when married couples of 40 years begin to think back about whether they too were ever crude in their 20s and 30s or exploitive in their own courtship, then everyone is guilty, and thus no one is guilty and the hysteria subsides.
Who Polices the Police?
Hysterias are not the same as fantasies in that they usually start with some legitimacy.
The Russians always liked to interfere and gum up American elections. It is, after all, the credo of Vladimir Putin to be mostly against what America is mostly for. But as the Obama Administration warned in a dig at Donald Trump (shortly before the election, when it was sure that Hillary Clinton was to be its picked successor), such Russian attempts at election sabotage usually were irrelevant and largely impotent. Instead, what fed the furor was not collusion facts per se, but the idea of yet another post-election weapon to take Trump out before he could dismantle the Obama bureaucratic and executive-order legacy.
Certainly, it is bothersome that the racist and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, the brilliant but diabolical slave-trading Nathan Bedford Forrest, is still worshiped in bronze and stone. But the stone smashers lacked the education and ethics to differentiate individual Confederates like a Forrest from a Longstreet, and so smashed boldly on.
The distance from Lincoln to Lee narrows to almost nothing. Every mute statue becomes a sinner and fair game for the more authentic revolutionary to outdo the latest violent act.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of women have had their entertainment careers ruined by choosing to fight off the crude assaults of the Weinsteins and their ilk, who sometimes gravitate to the top of entertainment and media, masking their depravity by claiming progressive exemptions and penances. But at this point in the frenzy, most Americans cannot keep up with whether a puffed up and arrogant Dustin Hoffman three decades ago was an uncouth potty mouth in his celebrity trailer as he sought to seduce vulnerable women. Most of the public had long assumed such creepy Hollywood behavior anyway.
What then causes often legitimate writs abruptly to explode into collective fits that end up either ensnaring the innocent or taking legitimate concerns beyond human reason? In our Jacobin frenzy, is it now still permitted to listen to folksy Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, or to hear Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” or to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Have you or have you not ever read Death in Venice?
Human nature is prone to a herd mentality and the politics of excess. Groupthink offers a sense of belonging and reinforcement to most people. Democracies in particular in their radical egalitarian culture and exalted sense of self-righteousness are particularly prone to shared frenzies. In volatile democratic culture, today’s sensational scoop becomes passé by tomorrow.
Social media, smartphones, the internet, and cable news are accelerants—as we saw in the Duke Lacrosse and the Virginia fraternity cases. They do in minutes what used to take weeks, with the added fuel of anonymity. “Sources report” blare out TV journalists. Bloggers comment on rumors with their own fake names, photos, and handles, virtue signaling to each their own greater outrage. Chain email comes from pressure groups rather than from named individuals.
In all these hysterias and frenzies, caution and moderation become proof of complicity. Calls for quiet reflection and moments of calm to weigh evidence are seen as veritable confessions of guilt or aiding and abetting the crime. To demand respect for the spirit of due process is to offer proof of one’s own culpability. One day, actor Richard Dreyfuss is furious that Kevin Spacey allegedly groped his son right under his nose. The next, Richard Dreyfuss is outraged that he is accused of allegedly earlier doing something himself far worse to a similar young aspirant.
Hypocrisy and irony become endemic: the chargers of Russian collusion are the original colluders. The loud protesters who take a knee themselves became the targets of silent fan protests. The statue smashers can put up statues worse than what they tore down. The men who swear they are feminists do so because they are misogynists. The accuser is blamed for accusing, or for staying silent so long, or for exaggerating the ordeal; the silent non-accuser is assumed to have advanced a career through willful acquiescence. Who can sort out the crime, the collusion, the conspiracy?
History is full of such frenzies—the stasis on Corcyra, the Spanish Inquisition, the Committee of Public Safety, or the strange career of Joe McCarthy. They all can start over some legitimate grievance and all can quickly turn manic. And as we play each fit out, expect the madness to come full circle as it always does, when the spell wears off and 51 percent of people finally revolt at the very thought of tearing down Washington’s statue, or lumping together a criminal rapist with a loudmouthed sexist of 20 years past, or envisioning a multimillionaire spoiled, has-been quarterback as the next Jackie Robinson—or treating a fake-news smear document as if it were the New Testament.