(Fill In the Blank) Derangement Syndrome is Bad
Derangement, generally, ain't great
Trump Derangement Syndrome is real. I spent Trump’s presidency writing for a late night show in New York; TDS ripped through my community like AIDS went through the bathhouse scene in the ‘80s. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, obsessive, unfunny, self-serious, dragging themselves through the streets of Brooklyn at dawn looking for a Trump tweet to stoke their outrage. And I was arguably one of them (except for the “best minds” part).
Wokeness Derangement Syndrome is starting to look just as real. More than a few critics of wokeness (or “left illiberalism”, if you want to be insufferable) have gone off the deep end. As with Trump, the concerns are real. But as with Trump, those concerns seem to make some people’s brains unable to process any other information. I think that for every new example of lefty overreach that enters Jordan Peterson’s brain, some cognitive function gets pushed out. I’m worried that one day Peterson will be driving his car, news of some stupid AOC tweet will come on the radio, and he’ll spontaneously forget how to drive.
Come to think of it: Obama Derangement Syndrome was a thing. We just didn’t have a name for it. Being incensed by Obama is a sure sign of madness; you should not be pushed over the edge by a man who was to radical politics what The Monkees were to death metal. It’s one thing to disagree with Obama’s politics, but another thing to view a guy who makes your average ‘80s sitcom dad look like Hunter S. Thompson as the first horseman of the apocalypse.
Why is this so common? Why do so many politically involved people turn into Howard Beale from Network? I think it’s because there’s a link between politics and anger. In fact, to say “there’s a link between politics and anger” is probably a massive understatement; politics and anger seem to be connected by a big red Bat Phone. ALTHOUGH…that’s not necessarily bad. Anger is good sometimes; some of our most revered political figures had a pretty major badger up their ass. But I think we should acknowledge the connection between anger and political involvement so that we can think about how it sometimes fries people’s brains.
Let’s back all the way up: Why do we even have governments? To issue stamps and declare a national bird, sure. But what else? Their main function is to save us from chaos. When we were living in societies where the strong preyed on the weak, we sought out strongmen who would provide a security-for-fealty arrangement. And sure: The strongman would probably murder you and take your stuff, but that beats having bandits take your stuff and murder you. That’s what constituted choice back then: The ability to choose who would turn you into a corpse and rummage through your pockets.
What’s relevant here is that we were acting out of fear. Fear and — one assumes — anger; if someone clubbed me and stole my amphora full of millet, I’d be angry. Politics is about organizing society, and from the very beginning, fear and anger have spurred us to seek better societies. The connection between fear, anger, and politics seems to be natural. It also strikes me as somewhat healthy; better to translate your angst into political action than to turn it into violence or — far worse — rap metal.
Most things we see as political advancement were the product of dissatisfaction. People didn’t like being ruled by foreigners, especially British foreigners, and now even the Brits recognize that a people should rule themselves. Women didn’t like being second-class citizens, and now they have triumphantly won some of what they deserve some places sometimes. After only 200 years, African-Americans convinced white people that “all men are created equal” means that all men are created, ya know…equal. Anger can be good; dissatisfaction can spur change. I am not Pollyanna; I am not arguing, for example, that Ukrainians should play the Glad Game instead of being miffed about their country being invaded.
But anger’s usefulness is limited. All of the examples in the previous paragraph involve a group fighting for equal rights. Historically, that’s the shape that many political fights have taken; it stems from our unfortunate habit of dividing humanity into factions, a practice that somehow persisted beyond the 1961 publication of Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches and Other Stories. The fix, of course, is simple: Society's rules should apply equally to everyone. No special knowledge is needed to get behind that idea; nobody in the movement needs to know anything about economics or sociology or the Dewey Decimal System. When a group is fighting to be treated like everybody else, a sense of injustice plus the occasional pitchfork is pretty much all that’s needed.
But modern challenges often require a different skill set. The big topic in American politics right now is inflation; inflation cannot be solved with a pitchfork and a pithy slogan. I believe that the free movement of people and money makes things better for most people, but explaining why I believe that requires a white board, an Econ 101 textbook, and a hollowed out tooth with a cyanide capsule in it so that my subject can bite down when they can’t stand my lecture anymore. Zoning is important, but it’s also as exciting as a can of wax beans. Climate change is complex and abstract, which is one of 50 reasons why Don't Look Up didn't work for me. Modern issues often require deep knowledge and careful analysis. Unfortunately, anger is like cocaine: It gets people moving, but when sober-minded reasoning is needed, it’s unhelpful to say the least.
And yet, we live in an age in which stoking anger is big business. Fox News figured out the alchemy behind turning rage into dollars in the late '90s; with the advent of social media, the left has finally built a similar machine. Many non-profit organizations exist in a state of self-perpetuating Forever War. Most legacy media outlets have switched to subscriber-based models built on engagement, and engagement is the product of rage as surely as Country Time Lemonade is the product of nuclear waste and sand. I work in political media, so I’ve tried to state as loudly and as clearly as I can that the obvious incentive in this space is to stoke people's anger. That's not the only way to succeed — a thousand compliments to the few people who have found other ways to do things — but anger is as essential to political media as lard is to southern cooking.
Political parties also know that stoking fear of the other party is the best way to get votes. Most campaign ads are just character assassination set to whatever music pops up when you type “spooky doom bad man” into a free music database. The number of Americans who believe that the other party is “a threat” has skyrocketed. The overturning of Roe v. Wade — a disaster for the left — has been a fundraising and political boon for Democrats, suggesting that bad news is a better motivator than good news. I see no off-ramp to this endless inflating of stakes; there will probably never be another election that people don’t call “the most important election of our lifetime,” as if we haven’t heard that every four years for the past two decades.
In this environment, it's amazing that we don't all lose our minds. I probably shouldn't be surprised that some people let fear of One Big Terrible Thing dominate their consciousness; I should be amazed that anyone manages to keep their cool in this hothouse. It might also be true that the most useful thing I can do is not to support any particular candidate or policy, but simply to up-vote the idea that we should try to see problems with clear eyes and resist the impulse to inflate threats to several times their actual size. We also need to retain the ability to think about more than one thing at a time; even the biggest problem in the world isn’t the only problem in the world. Obsessive focus leads to blind spots.
Why am I only noticing this now? I've been politically conscious for a quarter century; how did I miss the connection between politics and anger for all those years? How did I listen to so much Rage Against the Machine in the ‘90s and not think “these fellows seem to have quite the bee in their bonnet”?
I think the first reason is that I've been doing a lot of scripted writing lately. Scripted writing involves reverse-engineering; you spend a lot of time trying to figure out why something worked so that you can
rip that thing off recreate that experience. Applying that process to political media has made it screamingly obvious to me that nine times out of ten, anger is the itch that's being scratched.
The second reason is that I'm old enough now to recognize this pattern in my own life. When I'm feeling angry and wronged, I often seek out content that validates my feelings. It's pretty damn pathetic: I’ll have opinion X, so I take to the internet to find people who also have opinion X, and that, incredibly, makes me think “Ha! I was right!” It's the same thing I do when I don't like a movie: I call it up on Metacritic, scroll past the positive reviews, read the negative ones and think: “See…it sucks!”
I don't think this is 100 percent unhealthy (though I might agree with “98 percent unhealthy”). Sometimes, I'm right to feel aggrieved, and finding people who share that feeling can validate opinions that are, well…valid. I've tried to be clear in this article that I think that anger can be a useful emotion. It needs to be allowed in society, and I also allow it in myself.
But I should avoid getting sucked into an anger vortex. After all: Part of being an adult is learning how to take it hard in the ass. So, when I perceive an injustice — even if the injustice is real — past a certain point, I need to think “injustice noted” and then move on. If I’m treating problems as bigger than they are and losing sight of other things, then I’m obsessing and making myself useless.
Self-awareness will help me. I need to know that content that appeals to my sense of anger will punch above its weight. That’s especially true if the issue relates to some experience I’ve had; the more personal the issue, the stronger my opinion is likely to be. I think there’s also a lesson here for those of us who craft political messages for a living: A small-but-personal injustice can do a lot to shape a person’s worldview. I think of this every time I see a poorly thought out mask requirement; those don’t really stop Covid these days as much as they create Republicans.
I do think that sanity is trending in the right direction. We hit a low point in 2020; that will probably be the craziest year of most of our lives. Whether wokeness or Trump (or both) is the thing that tends to fray your wires, 2020 provided enough voltage to test the capacity of your system. Some people short-circuited.
The good news is that wokeness seems to be down from its apex, and we’re now getting positive, boring things like a bill to boost semi-conductor production. And Trump is…well…uh…well he’s not president, so let’s take solace in that. I’m going to try to use this period of relative calm to double-check the integrity of my wiring to protect against future surges. Because politics will always have plenty of rage-fueled maniacs; the world won’t be better off if I’m one of them.