You must have noticed that so many public figures are guilty of excesses of the grossest kind. Moderation is out, self-indulgence is in. Hate and acrimony have become the coin of the realm. No wonder antisemitism is on the rise.
The top newsmakers are all masters of excess, as they parade their unique versions of cultural debauchery: Putin’s historically induced fantasies of conquest verge on madness; Musk raises egotism to new heights; Greene glories in her own idiocy; Santos gives new meaning to the concept of truth; Bankman-Fried tries to outdo Bernie Madoff. Trump, to be sure, is godfather to them all.
For sheer cultural excess, the scourge of guns in America outdoes them all.
About a year ago in a sort of whimsical piece I took to praising Oscar Wilde and his notion that “nothing succeeds like excess.” Maybe I should have thought twice about endorsing this idea. The common American culture has become excessively debauched in so many ways, and not only by the far right.
Liberal identity politics has sometimes assumed that people from red states are culturally and politically backward—and so it offers a kind of “cultural imperialism” to help these benighted souls. This is a sort of culture shock, often just another form of chauvinism like American exceptionalism. American life is full of such examples, as in the half-century it took to finally give women the right to vote. Racism is an extreme form of cultural chauvinism.
In my Oscar Wilde piece, I took on the truism that nothing succeeds like success, the notion that Oscar parodied. Another way of saying this is that “North Americans commonly believe that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the value that wealth is good and important.” Mm-hmm, and do we really believe that the wealthy deserve all their privileges?
The values of our society, which used to represent ideal conditions or accepted truths, seem to have lost their power. The norms that enforce them, like expecting fairness in a transaction, are consistently breached. How are we supposed to judge the controversy over Hunter Biden’s laptop? Or the immigration debate, which has been clouded over with years of ranting on both sides?
My rant here is not going to change anything. To expect us to return to Aristotle’s golden mean—avoiding extremes, the measure of virtue—is a fool’s errand. Most people don’t know who Aristotle is.