If you do anything in today’s age of phone cameras and CCTV, you will likely be recorded. Break into the U.S. Capitol building while surrounded by TV crews, and your documentation on video is all but assured. The deluge of pictures and videos from the January 6th riot document a public, brazen crime, but one clip from the event stands out in its own bizarre way.
In the short video clip, a woman talks to a reporter from Yahoo News. With her eyes streaming and voice pitched, she describes how she broke into the Capitol and was maced by law enforcement, all with a tone expressing indignation at her rough treatment. When asked why she wanted to enter the building at all, the woman replies “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!”
Beyond being just a snippet of the day’s havoc, the clip hints at an attitude that has implications beyond just the insurrection itself. The woman genuinely views herself as a revolutionary and the riot she is participating in as a revolutionary act, but she is still surprised that she faced resistance of any sort from the authorities. She is disappointed that the opposition in her thrill-ride of an experience carried things too far and ruined the fun. Her understanding of “revolution” relates less to the Parisian Communards than it does to children on a playground.
This strange attitude was not limited to the woman in the clip. The most surreal images that emerged out of the riot, from a black-clad figure doing parkour on the Senate balcony to the grinning man lugging around the House Speaker’s lectern, all portray people who appear to be more exuberant thrill-seekers than murderous assault troops (though such violent people were certainly in attendance). What is the cause of this bizarre behavior? How can these pseudo-revolutionary adrenaline junkies be explained? The answer for these pressing questions might come, out of all places, from a Portuguese ex-politician.
Bruno Maçães, a former European diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a scholar who is focused on the American ability to go beyond reality. This is not meant to say that he is somehow focused on ghosts or the supernatural. Instead, Maçães is focused on the American tendency to insulate oneself from real events and to imbue the mundane with excitement.
In his recent book, History Has Begun, Maçães goes over the creation of America’s hyper-relativist attitude, which enables individuals to determine an “ultimate ideal” by which life should be led regardless of the wishes of the government or other societal institutions. Maçães finds the seeds of the country’s love of self-construction throughout its history, from the writings of Emerson and Sinclair Lewis to the radical pragmatism of William Blake, who asserted “if there is a life that is better for us and if any idea will help us lead that life, then that idea is true.”
The rejection of universal truth in favor of personal empowerment, Maçães writes, has informed almost every aspect of the American mentality. Whereas the decay of established authority across Europe led to the existential stoicism seen in the novels of Camus, in America it sparked a frenzy to pursue individual meaning outside of the rules set by the weakened institutions. People view themselves, Maçães writes, as “creators anxious about the coherence of their plots and the meaning of their experiences.” The determining factor in most decisions is not whether an action respects the rules of reality, but whether it is compelling enough to become a mental reality. The American insistence on a dramatic plotline in personal life and politics might seem excessive, but, for Maçães, it is necessary. The only alternative, in a society where all lasting institutions that could give meaning have been leveled, is the “truth that nothing is real,” which is far “too empty and abstract to appeal to American sensibility.”
Viewed in this light, the unreality of the scenes at the Capitol was not a bug but a feature. Like amateur social media stars who see themselves as celebrities, the people inside the building were fulfilling grand personal narratives. They were living out fantasies to be William Wallace or Katniss Everdeen, acting as Hollywood freedom fighters instead of being political actors. The woman in the aforementioned video was shocked at her treatment because it did not match up with how the story is supposed to go for the main character of the revolution. Fictional heroes, after all, are not maced and tossed unceremoniously out of government buildings. For the woman, as for the various people currently being rounded up nationwide for their involvement in the riot, the unreal personal narrative of excitement and importance is meeting with the cold, legal world of reality. The people wanted by the FBI are finding that grand fictional narratives are fictional for a reason.
Understanding the Capitol riot through Maçães’ focus on the unreal and seeing it as a political band’s fulfillment of a hero narrative is comforting insofar as it is explanatory, but it is also alarming. When enough people make individual decisions to buy into a compelling story, it ceases to be a harmless personal focus and becomes a mass delusion that could very well become violent.
In History Is Begun, Maçães devotes plenty of time to the dynamism and personal happiness created by allowing society to fragment into individualistic narrative-building, but he sometimes seems unsure of how to address the potential downsides of this development. In the book, Maçães seems to expect that the energies of unreal thought can be safely contained by a shell of robust law-enforcement institutions, but the evidence for this is quite lacking, especially in light of how the American government has failed to contain revolutionaries on the left and right. Though Maçães lays out a convincing case for the prevalence of unreality, he seems unable to answer the question of what to do with that knowledge.
Though the current situation is concerning, it is clear that any actions by any powerful group, whether the government or media, must be tactful and careful. The widespread calls for strict limits on online communication as an easy fix ignore the prevalence of such measures in the past. Whacking random conspiracy Twitter accounts as they are created is not a viable long-term strategy, and could exacerbate the issue. Similarly, recent calls for government censorship of speech should be rejected outright, due to the blatant unconstitutionality and restrictiveness of such measures. Instead, if unreality is an integral part of American life, the best way to deal with it, rather than trying to either silence or contain it, is to redirect it by creating a different story that people will freely prefer as the plot of their imagined narratives.
Providing an alternative reality that feels more compelling, more fulfilling, and more societally healthy than a host of competing conspiratorial realities addresses the problem of societal tumult at its root without trampling over the rights of citizens. Though the exact way to go about this is admittedly unclear, it is evident that a world of unreality must be respected and addressed through its own terms — a sentiment Maçães has come to agree with. In a recent article about the Capitol riots, he writes that “at this point, the best one can hope for are better fantasies, better attempts at world-making than our current political dramas.” We should all agree with him and hope that, though our collective dreams run wild, we can avoid creating an inescapable nightmare.
Categories: Domestic Affairs