Fiddling While Washington Burns

When a culture puts frivolity over survival.

fiddle[Illustration by Frontpage's cartoonist Amir Avni].

In an August 20, 2013 article for FrontPage Magazine, Howard Rotberg deplores the “growing cultural emphasis on fun” which, in the midst of the current crisis brought on by fiscal irresponsibility and by Islam’s war against the West, distracts us from understanding the various forces that threaten our way of life and from “taking up arms in defense of [our] own liberty.”

Not that the warning hasn’t been sounded before. In his perennially relevant study of an increasingly frivolous intellectual culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman addresses the subject from the standpoint of the electronic media that entertain while detaching viewers from the social, political and economic issues and consequences of “real life.” Fun, so to speak, has become fundamental, superseding both specific and contextual knowledge and leading to what today we call the “low-information voter” or, just as likely, the no-information voter. One recalls Lewis Mumford in The City in History, who referred to a historical episode dating back to the 5th century A.D. that has always struck me as an exemplum of a culture in terminal decline. The citizens of Augustine’s city of Hippo, Mumford writes, were too busy attending the games in the local Forum to defend themselves against the Vandals at the walls, whose defense they had left to a contingent of hired mercenaries, with the inevitable result that the city was razed and these distracted citizens put to the sword.

When a culture puts fun over the demands of survival, the writing is on the very wall that is about to be breached. Mutatis mutandis, our condition today is not structurally different from that of our fifth century precursors. “Fun” in all its ramifications—the circus atmosphere enveloping election seasons and the media cosmeticizing of party candidates, the transformation of the electorate into spectators seeking entertainment, the concomitant refusal to pay attention to the pressing issues of the day, the free rein of appetite as a societal “right,” the reluctance or even inability to look beyond the narrow perimeter of immediate caterings, the hypertrophic emphasis on pleasure and gratification at the expense of civic responsibility, the valorizing of and enchantment with violence as a means of escaping boredom, a tendency, as most of us know but are chary of acknowledging, called the “thrill kill,” that is fast becoming a signature of the black subculture—has come increasingly to predominate in the sensibility of the age. What goes along with it is a general sense of mental stupefaction that incapacitates and disqualifies the person so afflicted from making informed decisions about matters of social and political import or considering his own long-term interests.

According to the satirical magazine The Onion, 38% of people are not entitled to their own opinion. Tongue solidly lodged in capacious cheek, the magazine reports: “In a surprising refutation of the conventional wisdom on opinion entitlement, a study conducted by the University of Chicago's School for Behavioral Science concluded that more than one-third of the U.S. population is neither entitled nor qualified to have opinions.” The Onion may not be that far off the mark; indeed, the percentage is doubtlessly higher. The article continues, citing the renowned ersatz authority Professor Mark Fultz: “While people have long asserted that it takes all kinds, our research shows that American society currently has a drastic oversupply of the kinds who don't have any good or worthwhile thoughts whatsoever. We could actually do just fine without them.” Professor Fultz’s conclusions are obviously a tad exaggerated, but knowledgeable experts, like the late Milton Friedman and the late Andrew Breitbart, and probably respected commentators like Mark Steyn and Ann Coulter, would surely agree. Of course, the so-called “intellectual classes” are, for the most part, equally dysfunctional, playing with ideas that have no more bearing on reality than the pursuits of their less privileged counterparts.

But it is not only a question of amusing, tweeting, texting, sexting, video-gaming, i-poding, Biebering, downloading, raving, drugging and golfing ourselves to death. No less damaging are ideological considerations, formulaic convictions, and self-inflating preoccupations with issues that, by any mature standard of value and importance, would be judged as manifestly trivial or, if not wholly inane, indulgently misguided. Many people, for example, particularly among the “elite,” invest their time and energy in taking up the cause of the transgendered or in asserting the social construction of gender, in renaming Muslim vandals as “Asians” or disaffected “youths,” in accusing whites of crimes committed far more often by blacks, in arguing about the status of gay marriage, in misrepresenting Israel as guilty of the very atrocities that define Islamic culture, in trashing neighborhoods in the name of social justice, in legislating the size of soda pop bottles, in prescribing the composition of school lunches, in mandating diversity training programs, and so on—all this while the Middle East is aflame largely due to American policy incompetence, while Russia and China are flexing their muscles in the international arena, while the Muslim Brotherhood is undermining nation after nation and unbridled Muslim immigration is changing the face of Western civilization for the worse, while dedicated enemies like North Korea and Iran are advancing their nuclear ambitions, and while the economy is imploding as we speak. We are like the grade school children for whose benefit the authorities have required bolsters to be placed at the bottom of playground slides to cushion their landing; meanwhile, youngsters in Gaza are learning to fire AK-47s.

Plainly, it is not only the fun culture that distracts and decontextualizes us from matters of national concern, rendering us helpless before our enemies; it is the low-education citizen, the entitlement parasite, and the strident, high-self-esteem ideologue among us who are fiddling while New York, Washington and Detroit burn. And perhaps they must burn if we are ever to come to our senses, to put fun in its proper place as a recreational ingredient of life, to restore the conviction of responsibility for defending a millennial tradition, to cure the pathology of encapsulated indifference, and to expunge the frivolity, appetitive or intellectual, that a comparatively pampered existence has allowed to colonize the Western mind.

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