MONDAY, JANUARY 11, 2021
Plato, Achebe described it: We foolishly thought we'd seen it all. Then we watched the first two hours of today's Morning Joe.
Who knows what may have transpired during the program's third hour? That said, by roughly 7:52 A.M. Eastern, Joe Scarborough had us thinking of an earlier "red-faced shouter," MSNBC's Chris Matthews.
Matthews served at the top of this crackpot army in 1999 and 2000, when the war which brought Donald Trump to the White began within this guild. The lunacies he broadcast at that time were tolerated and ignored by one and all, year after year after year.
"Cable news" was much less extensive back then. That said, it was a major way to build careers, and Matthews was one of its gatekeepers.
(In May 1999, he almost got one journalist killed. Everyone ignored that too.)
Matthews went on and on, for quite a few years, helping create a set of demonologies. Those demonologies allowed two Republican presidents to reach the White House in the narrowest possible ways, while losing the popular vote.
The second such president was Donald J. Trump. This morning, the red-faced shouting from the Morning Joe gang sounded almost as crazy as the lunacies Trump has been spewing since 2011, when he began his birther campaign.
We foolishly thought we'd seen it all. Then we watched Joe and Mika, and Kasie and Yamiche, and Jonathan and even Rick Wilson.
At one tiny point, Joyce Vance may have suggested that the gang should consider toning their fervor down a notch. We think she may have done that. Taking notes, we weren't entirely sure, and MSNBC leaves no transcripts.
Last Wednesday, a mob of crazies entered the Capitol and taught an anthropology lesson. This morning, Joe Scarborough, a red-faced shouter, conducted a similar class.
It's an anthropology lesson in the limits of human discernment. According to anthropologists, our human discernment has never been especially strong—except in our flattering self-portraits, in which we tend to cast ourselves as "the rational animal."
The Morning Joe gang was crazy today, but the lack of discernment has been general over the guild in the past five days. We'll be discussing this problem all week.
Today, we'll start with Plato, then with Yeats. But first, we'll start with Achebe:
Who was the late Chinua Achebe? The leading authority on his life and work starts by telling us this:
Chinua Achebe (16 November 1930 – 21 March 2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic. His first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), often considered his masterpiece, is the most widely read book in modern African literature....
"Things fall apart!" Achebe's title was a reference to Yeats' famous and famously gloomy poem, The Second Coming, which starts exactly like this:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.Surely some revelation is at hand...
Full disclosure: The best do not "lack all conviction" today, though it's hard to be sure who they are.
Yeats thought he saw things falling apart—mere anarchy being loosed on the world—in the aftermath of World War I. He thought the best no longer cared, while the worst were on the prowl.
Achebe chose to refer to that poem when he wrote his widely acclaimed first novel. For whatever it may be worth, we all saw a great deal of intensity last Wednesday at the Capitol building—but also this morning, as a red-faced shouter and his followers explored the limits of careful, considered discernment.
We'll link Achebe back to Plato as well. Achebe wrote about the cultural problems attendant upon European colonialism in Africa. The leading authority on his life reports this part of his experience:
When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Achebe became a supporter of Biafran independence and acted as ambassador for the people of the new nation. The civil war that took place over the territory, commonly known as the Nigerian Civil War, ravaged the populace, and as starvation and violence took its toll, he appealed to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid. When the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved himself in political parties but soon resigned due to frustration over the corruption and elitism he witnessed...
Once again, it might be said that things were falling apart! We thought of Plato's Seventh Letter, in which Plato describes his experience as a young man after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War produced an oligarchic revolution (404 B.C.).
In Athens, a group called The Thirty ascended to power; they began to settle scores. Many years later, Plato described the disgust he felt at the human, all-too-human behavior he saw occurring around him (Professor Lee's translation):
PLATO: The existing constitution, which was subject to widespread criticism, was overthrown...and a committee of Thirty given supreme power. As it happened some of them were friends and relations of mine and they at once invited me to join them, as if it were the natural thing for me to do.
My feelings were what were to be expected in a young man: I thought they were going to reform society and rule justly, and so I watched their proceedings with deep interest. I found that they soon made the earlier regime look like a golden age. Among other things they tried to incriminate my old friend Socrates, whom I should not hesitate to call the most upright man then living, by sending him, with others, to arrest a fellow-citizen, and bring him forcibly to execution; Socrates refused, and risked everything rather than make himself a party to their wickedness. When I saw all this, and other things as bad, I was disgusted and withdrew from the wickedness of the times...
Already, things were falling apart; before long, things would get worse. When he saw those things, and others as bad, Plato said he was disgusted and "withdrew from the wickedness of the times."
We've long assumed that Donald J. Trump is some version of mentally ill. Tomorrow, as a point of reference, we expect to start with his niece's published account of his various "psychopathologies."
It's also true that we the humans, as a group, tend to have very poor discernment. We're strongly inclined to divide into tribes and march ourselves off to tribal war. A certain segment will always be prepared to rally behind The Thirty when things seems to be falling apart.
The reigning commander-in-chief seems to be crazy or ill. So too with the craziest of his followers. That much should be easy to see for people who live in Our Town.
That said, for at least the past thirty years, similar types have engaged in red-faced shouting all through the mainstream press corps. We actually thought we'd seen it all. Then we watched Morning Joe.
We focus on the press corps' behavior at this site. At present, they're teaching anthropology lessons through their excited behavior. We'll start that discussion tomorrow.
Our conclusion for today:
"The worst are full of passionate intensity?" For the record, we prefer to judge actions, not people.
But a group of people were very intense inside the Capitol building last week. The same can be said for the people we saw shouting agreement with each other on today's Morning Joe.
Their guild has been shouting for at least thirty years. The demon tales they constructed over the years played a very large role in placing Donald J. Trump where he currently is—and in creating the fever dreams inside insurrectionists' heads.
For everyone who lives in Our Town, it's easy to see that the one mob was wrong. But how about the other mob, the one on today's Morning Joe?