Unexamined Premises

Where's the Outrage? Look in the Mirror

Where’s the outrage?” asked Bob Dole back during his hopeless presidential campaign against Bill Clinton. But few enough folks were outraged by Slick Willie’s friskiness with both women and the truth that Clinton was easily re-elected. Back in the days when “everybody lied about sex” and Democrats were extolling the virtues of hypocrisy, nobody had much time for outrage; the old moral order was changing and iconoclasm ruled the world. Dole may as well have been spitting into the wind:

Appearing at downtown performing arts center, where he stood before a giant mural depicting the glory days of the Lone Star State, Mr. Dole continued: ”Can you imagine former President Bush doing one of those things? No! And you never imagine Bob Dole doing one of those things either. So where’s the outrage? Where’s the outrage? When will the voters start to focus?”

At another point he asked: ”When do the American people rise up and say, ‘Forget the media in America! We’re going to make up our minds! You’re not going to make up our minds!’ This is about saving our country!” Singling out The New York Times for the second straight day, Mr. Dole went on: ”We are not going to let the media steal this election. We’re going to win this election. The country belongs to the people, not The New York Times.”

As things turned out, the election did belong to the New York Times, and pretty much did for the next 20 years; Dole’s words look pretty prophetic now. The irony is, the media — both journalistic and social — have now become the primary driver of the new outrage culture, seizing on every little incident as long as it conforms to the overall Narrative regarding race, sex, class, and “gender.” It’s as if our whole popular culture has become one vast, endless back-fence gossip session, unsourced and malicious.

So I was pleased to read this essay by my old friend and former Time magazine colleague, Lance Morrow, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal:

People have been mad as hell for much of the 21st century, starting roughly with the stalemated Bush-Gore election in 2000, followed quickly by 9/11. Fundamentals have been changing fundamentally: marriage, sexual identity, racial politics, geopolitics. Outrage flourishes also because of the rise of social media—the endless electronic brawl—and because it plays so well on our screens. Cable news draws pictures in crayon, in bold primary colors that turn politics into cartoons. On the left, “stay woke” means “stay outraged.” Trumpians want to “lock her up” or “build a wall.” Outrage is reductive, easy to understand. It is an idiom of childhood—a throwback even to the terrible twos.

The various tribes have broken off negotiations with all differing points of view. They excuse themselves from self-doubt and abandon the idea of anything so weak as compromise or, God forbid, ambivalence: No other perspective could possibly be valid. Americans have lost tolerance for the 51%-to-49% judgment call, even though that’s about the margin of their disagreement on almost everything. People give themselves over to the pleasures of self-righteousness and self-importance that come with being wronged when you know you’re in the right. Among the civic emotions, outrage is a beast of the prime; to harness outrage is to discover fire.

A healthy society reserves its outrage for special occasions: Pearl Harbor, say, or the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. But in the 21st century, special occasions—mass shootings and other random eruptions of the id—occur regularly. They have turned outrage into a ragged, all-purpose national reflex, with side effects of disgust and despair.
Outrage often emerges when an anecdote about a particular drama becomes generalized into a hashtag, as when that masterpiece of unshaven phallocratic beastliness Harvey Weinstein was dragged before the public gaze, and, in an instant, the #MeToo movement arose, drawing forth the squalid secrets of other famous men. After many a summer dies the swine. But the greatest casualty of outrage may be judgment itself. It’s dangerous when indignation abstracts itself, as when charges of sexual misconduct become generalized in phrases like “toxic masculinity,” which may condemn all men regardless of facts. They are guilty one way or another. If you cannot convict a man of rape, then you may get him for “mansplaining.”
Pretty soon absolutely everything becomes an outrage. Anything that isn’t an outrage is Jeb Bush… Outrage presents itself as an assertion of conscience, but in practice it mostly bypasses conscience and judgment, and goes straight to self-righteous rage, by way of self-pity.
In short, we’re driving ourselves crazy. But this is what a steady diet of moral relativism gets you: when there are no fixed points of reference, the ship runs adrift and then runs aground. Even the master of moral equivocation, Bill Clinton, has now fallen victim to his own lodestar; what was viewed back in the Nineties as “that’s just Bubba being Bubba and it doesn’t matter because he’s protecting abortion” is now seen as Bubba being a pig, a cad, a bounder, and a possible rapist. Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey have waited decades but it looks as if their #meToo moment is finally on its way and with it, the end of the Clintons. Maybe every clod really does have a silver lining.
Still, the continued application of Saul Alinsky’s famous Rule No. 4 has stripped our institutions bare: nobody trusts or believes anybody, and everybody is awful. Twitter, the Id’s running sewer much beloved by professional journalists, projectile-vomits across the ideological divide, particularly from left to right, and of course the reporters lap it up. Anonymous cretins wish rape, death, dismemberment, and destruction upon their enemies — people they don’t know and will never meet. This, of course, is the very definition of cowardice.
But who cares about that when somebody somewhere said something about somebody or other? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” used to be a childhood mantra for kids learning to deal with verbal bullies. Who cares what some dope thinks about you? Today, however, the words themselves are the sticks and stones, capable of ending a career or, in extreme cases, a life.
The mainstream media, which once knew better, has joined in the fun, pumping out story after story based on anonymous sources, hearsay, and the politically correct opinions of generic “experts.” Keep track, if you will, of how many stories from the Times and other propaganda organs masquerading as news sources include the words “is said to have,” “reportedly,” “might” and “possibly.” It’s no longer the function of the newspapers to relate what happened but to forecast what’s going to happen instead; they’ve become like the sports section, predicting the outcome of this week’s NFL games, and enjoying the same total immunity for failure when they’re proven wrong.
And so the Outrage Machine continues to sputter along in high gear. As the Left creates ever-crazier counterfactuals about the most fundamental verities of life, institutional emasculation prevents the traditional side of the ledger from responding effectively. When even dogma is subject to discussion and revision — the end point of Critical Theory — then literally nothing is sacred.
Where’s the outrage? The outrage lies in what’s happening, and our inability to put a stop to it.