February 22, 2020

Instead of Hysterics, Can We Talk?

Two weeks ago, I was having lunch with a prominent Hollywood writer in Santa Monica (to be more accurate, I was having a glass of water and he was having lunch). Politics came up; he happens to be a Trump supporter. We discussed the various permutations of the policies pursued by President Donald Trump, as well as Trump’s unfortunate lack of character. The sun was shining cheerily through the windows; the atmosphere was light and airy. All around us, wealthy people deliberately dressed down in California casual sipped their $40 glasses of chardonnay while playing with their $300 sunglasses and tapping their $400 loafers and $700 high heels.

Which is when it occurred to me that if we had taken a poll of the room, we’d surely have found that nearly everyone there thinks that we’re living in the middle of an existential crisis in the United States. This, of course, was Santa Monica, which means that virtually everyone in the room voted for Hillary Clinton; most of those people probably feel that Trump colluded with Russia to undermine our democracy. Most of them probably also believe that we are living on the verge of a fascist dictatorship, and that only wearing pussy hats and shouting about #Resistance will prevent the emergence of this fascist dictatorship.

Yet everyone was spending the afternoon supping on the finest America has to offer, while complaining that the sparkling water was just a tad flat.

All of which isn’t unique to Americans on the left. When Barack Obama was president, the economy was pretty good, even though I disagreed with his policies; his foreign policy, I thought, was far more disastrous, but America wasn’t involved in any earth-shattering wars. Yes, I thought Obamacare was awful, invasive policy, but I still had my insurance through my employer. Overall, American lives didn’t change all that much under Obama. Nor did they under Bush. Or Clinton. Or Bush I. 

We’re so convinced that crisis will be immediate and triggered by circumstance that we refuse to talk about serious issues with those on the other side. 

Politics, in fact, infuses us with a sense of urgency that is sometimes useful. Those who are obsessed with politics worry deeply — and correctly — about preventing black swan incidents, outstanding episodes with world-changing impact. We can’t predict them, which is why so many people are worried about them — and they do, in fact, occur. We have to guess what actions reduce the probability of serious black swans. Is it minimization of conflict with foreign actors, or a policy of peace through strength? Is it less government regulation or more?

But sometimes our worries about the future prevent us from recognizing that everything doesn’t actually seem to exist on a knife’s edge — that perhaps the black swan is further away than we think. Perhaps our worries ought to be not about the latest headline, but about deeper systemic change. And examining what systemic change is necessary isn’t a question of daily controversies, but of deep ideas that require deep examination. Trump’s latest tweet might bring about the apocalypse, but it’s almost certain it won’t. But deeper crises of character and direction could.

Those conversations, however, are foreclosed by the crisis nature of our politics. We’re so convinced that crisis will be immediate and triggered by circumstance that we refuse to talk about serious issues with those on the other side. That means that the chances of a black swan event are actually heightened, not reduced, by a mentality of panic. The longer we focus on the supposedly urgent (which won’t turn out to be urgent) at the expense of the important, the greater the chances we screw up the important.

So, no, we’re not facing a crisis. Which is why we should stop with the crisis talk and start actually talking with one another. If we don’t, we’re closer to the apocalypse than we think.

Ben Shapiro is an author, podcast host and editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire.