To be sane in a mad time
is bad for the brain, worse
for the heart. The world
is a holy vision, had we clarity
to see it—a clarity that men
depend on men to make.
Grove City, PA. These lines from Berry’s “Mad Farmer Manifesto: The First Amendment” have been running through my addled brain in recent months. Friends and acquaintances across the political and cultural landscape seem to have fallen down one wormhole or another. Writers and thinkers I admire have been pulled toward some ideological narrative, and their rigorous logic put in the service of an ever-narrowing sense of reality. I have more and more conversations with people who exhibit all the symptoms of G.K. Chesterton’s madman:
Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
This is the kind of insanity that can be so disorienting to encounter. And as this insane logic becomes prominent within a public discourse, our information ecosystem becomes “bad for the brain, worse / for the heart.” In such a context, it is increasingly difficult to glimpse the whole and holy vision of the world. There remain faithful holdouts, for whom I’m grateful, but they are thinking and speaking within a polluted environment. Hence the already arduous search for truth—a search that should be marked by charity and humor—becomes more difficult. As Berry reminds us, this is a serious problem because the search for truth, the effort to see clearly, is a communal task: we depend on one another for this clarity of vision. Berry puts the matter this way in an essay: we depend on each other for “a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it.”
In many respects, these challenges are old ones, though recognizing historical precedents may not be particularly encouraging. Writing to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville bemoaned the pressure he faced to spin an entertaining adventure story rather than craft an imaginative work of literature that wrestled with thorny problems:
Truth is the silliest thing under the sun. Try to get a living by the Truth—and go to the Soup Societies. Heavens! Let any clergyman try to preach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his own pulpit bannister. It can hardly be doubted that all Reformers are bottomed upon the truth, more or less; and to the world at large are not reformers almost universally laughingstocks? Why so? Truth is ridiculous to men.
The dynamics that exacerbated this problem in Melville’s day are akin to the ones that incentivize distortions today. In both cases, new communications technologies bypass gatekeepers and amplify the shrillest voices rather than the most thoughtful. Melville’s character Frank admits in The Confidence Man that “sour sages” regard the printing press not as the handmaiden of truth and democracy but as a spreader of misinformation and chaos: “While under dynastic despotisms, the press is to the people little but an improvisatore, under popular ones it is too apt to be their Jack Cade. In fine, these sour sages regard the press in the light of a Colt’s revolver, pledged to no cause but his in whose chance hands it may be; deeming the one invention an improvement upon the pen, much akin to what the other is upon the pistol; involving, along with the multiplication of the barrel, no consecration of the aim. The term ‘freedom of the press’ they consider on par with freedom of Colt’s revolver.” The “sour sages” may be onto something, and some have argued that improved communications technologies in antebellum America contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. It seems inarguable that the digital platforms of the twenty-first century consecrate the aim no more than did the industrial printing press of the nineteenth century, and they may have as deadly an effect.
How might we cope when information multiplies beyond our ability to consider it carefully and assess it wisely? How might we discern the truth in a mad time? Strategies abound, but most of them are flawed in one way or another. Chad Wellmon writes about encyclopedias and research universities as methods popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Fact checking of various types has been tried for decades. L.M. Sacasas has argued that we increasingly turn to (ideological) narratives to filter and make sense of the vast troves of information we have at our fingertips. All of these methods may have a partial role to play, but they all have limitations.
Take, for example, the reliance on narratives to impose an order on the welter of data. Sacasas offers a more nuanced account of how they function, but, in brief, ideological narratives—and their agonistic narrators—predominate in a chaotic information ecosystem because they make a kind of sense out of the noise. We need narratives to live: Alasdair MacIntyre rightly calls humans “story-telling animal[s].” The problem is when we rely on simplistic, reductive narratives that exclude crucial aspects of reality because they are inconvenient. Chesterton’s diagnosis of insanity is helpful here. He acknowledges that the madman’s logic makes perfect sense, but it is a narrow sense: “A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.” The ideological narratives that are popular now offer just this kind of terribly cramped sense. They account for all the facts within a very small circumference, one typically marked out by the chatter of the extremely online, but they exclude much that is required for healthy, sane judgment: local particulars, affection for neighbors, and good humor, to name a few.
One mark of such circumscribed narratives is that they tend to cast their narrators as the beleaguered protagonists and then ascribe all problems to some rather vague group of antagonists—the Marxists, the immigrants, the racists, the antiracists, the rural rednecks, the urban elites, the anti-vaxers. In many cases, such antagonists fill the role of what Alan Jacobs (drawing on work done by Susan Friend Harding) terms the “Repugnant Cultural Other.” And thanks to the ways in which social media amplifies the loudest, most extreme voices, these narratives tend to spread in their crudest, most reductive forms. I suppose that one of the pleasant results of such narratives is that we never have to worry about the beam in our own eye.
The ways in which “science” has been co-opted into this narrative world are instructive. The loudest voices on one side deny the evidence that human industry is damaging the ecological health of the planet, and the loudest voices on the other side deny the evidence that gender is rooted in biology. We “follow the science” only where it fits into a predetermined ideological narrative. We have reaped the fruits of this long-term abuse of science during the months of COVID debates. Some people refuse to acknowledge the reality of the disease or the effectiveness of the vaccines, while others overstate the severity of the risks, ignore inconvenient data about masking or acquired immunity, and turn a blind eye to the threat that vaccine passports and mandates pose to civil liberties. Meanwhile, shrill voices on all sides excoriate and shame those who may disagree with their understanding of “the science.”
What’s particularly frustrating to me is that my friends on both the left and the right think my “pox on both your houses” account is wrong. Each group is convinced the problems with our media landscape are asymmetric—and that the real culprits are on the other side of the political spectrum. I’m actually sympathetic to analyses of our media ecology that highlight certain asymmetries: Collin Hansen, for instance, talks about people on the right being more prone to conspiracies and people on the left being more prone to credentialism. But even if the toxins manifest in different disorders among different populations, I remain convinced the problems are not specific to one political or cultural group. They are systemic.
Why does this “both sides” framing matter? Because the diagnosis determines the prescription. If the problem is those people over there, then the solution may be more fact checking, various forms of censorship or silencing or canceling, or really anything that would bring about victory for the “right” side. But if it’s an ecosystem problem rather than a bad-actor problem, then eliminating individuals who profit from an unhealthy discourse won’t fix what ails us. If the problem is the polluted ecology of our digital public square and the insane logical circles this ecology fosters, then these targeted solutions won’t be sufficient.
The sense that the problem is systemic is part of why it’s popular to talk about grand technological solutions to these big problems: maybe we should break up Big Tech or design better social media platforms. Unfortunately, however, modern technology can create big problems for which there are no big solutions. In the face of issues such as nuclear weapons, topsoil loss and environmental degradation, or the digitally-mediated public square, there may be no grand, technological solution. Such solutions tend to multiply the barrel, to borrow the analogy of Melville’s “sour sages,” rather than to consecrate the aim of our words and acts. In response to such challenges, we will have to “think little,” as Berry is fond of saying, and address these problems in a more radical way, one which gets at their roots. As Thoreau reminds us, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
One of the ways that reading Wendell Berry over the years has shaped my intellectual habits is that I now always assume the problems are bigger, more far-reaching, and more complex than they initially appear. Yet even so the opportunities for good work still abound. Berry describes the act of writing an essay as a way of “hunting for reasons to hope.” I suppose that is what I am doing here. There are always plenty of reasons to justify despair, but the practice of hope entails finding counter examples and grounding our sanity outside the narrow confines of the partisan, ideological discourse.
Where then might we find grounds for hope? We could begin by, simply, ignoring the people who opine about the latest viral video and issue hot takes to control the day’s narrative. Refusing to engage in “the discourse” frees us to begin engaging in actual discourse. And that brings me to my primary source of hope: my friends. I have been blessed with thoughtful conversation partners who engage me in dialog and model the kind of affection and humor that sanity require.
In a similar vein we can read and patronize those voices and institutions that foster this kind of healthy discourse. In a recent newsletter, Gracy Olmstead offers a helpful list of practices that mark the kind of writing that can expand the circle within which we think. Such writing is often rooted in gumshoe reporting or careful study of old books and cultures. It may even be rooted in fairy tales, which Chesterton cited as essential to sane thought. These sources of light lead us out of a cramped, ideological logic. As Chesterton reminds us, “the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.” We need to expand the range of our responsibility rather than excluding those aspects of reality that don’t fit our neat narratives. Chesterton’s warning in this regard is apt: “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician [and the madman] who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” If we feel that our head is in danger of splitting, perhaps that is a signal we should seek to place it in the heavens. This advice resonates with Thoreau’s adage: “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” By such means we may hope to keep our sanity even in a mad time. And with a few friends to accompany us in this endeavor, we may even find the clarity needed to see the world as the holy vision it is.