There’s a whole lot of people suffering tonight From the disease of conceit – Bob Dylan
The Tea Party/CNN Republican Presidential Debate was conducted on September 12, 2011. The Fox News/Google iteration followed on September 22nd. I’ve watched both contests again and again, always with fascination and sorrow. Fascination at the passion, pageantry, and predictability that surround the nominally quadrennial, increasingly continuous American presidential campaign. Sorrow at the dominant impression inadvertently created by each of the candidates – the impression of absolute, infinite conceit. All the candidates projected at every moment of these exceedingly long television discussions an imperturbable conviction of their own virtue and value. Their self-satisfaction was exceeded only by their sense of prepotent ability: their unequivocal certitude that she or he readily can solve every mammoth, multifaceted problem that besets our nation and afflicts the world. Throughout the two events’ mooting of dozens of Gordian questions, no debater ever said: “I don’t know.” Not once did any visage reveal an iota of perplexity, a fleck of fear. Never did anyone from her or his podium evince one instant of awe or a whit of temperate gravity. No. Each face, eye, motion of body, each inflection of personality, every enunciation of soul force declared again and again: “I have my being in an entirety of unqualified conceit. I, and only I, can be president of the United States. Indeed, I deserve to be. I’m born to be. It’s my manifest destiny. My entitlement. Hurry up and finance me, you fools. Then hurry up and vote for me.”
When the word conceit entered our language in the 14th century it didn’t mean an attitude of regarding oneself with favor. It didn’t refer to narcissism at all. It meant, rather, a result of mental activity; thought. In particular it meant a fanciful idea or an elaborately developed metaphor: what we today might call an organizing theme or a concept. It referred especially to the inventive use of a fanciful theme in writing or speaking. Conceit came gradually to mean a notion or mannerism strained and bizarre. As the focus of ideation and activity in industrialized society grew ever more devoted to the individual person rather than the collective civilization, the term became pejorative. It referred progressively, then entirely, to an exaggerated valuing of oneself. Conceit came to mean an overweening and noxious vanity. The presidential debaters unconsciously combined both these etymologies. They played a whimsical comedy. They pretended their exchanges of rehearsed set-pieces constituted forensic dialogues. They enacted a conceit of debate. They also preened. How they preened. They trumpeted their intrepidity, blared their brilliance, extolled their worth, exulted in their preternatural capability. They danced with vainglory, hoofed brazen minuets of self-proclaimed merit. Swaggering, strutting, bowing, toe pointing, these debaters looked like nothing so much as well-tonsured, expensively tailored mountebanks: marionettes jerking and jolting at the behest of strings hidden but controlling.
The strings to which they’re so manifestly yoked were apparently invisible to the candidates themselves. They acted as if their postures of aplomb were elements of identity. They behaved as though their shams of confident potency were internal and intuitive, aspects of character rather than concoctions crafted by their entourage of counselors, custodians, watchdogs, duennas, gaolers. They performed such a pretty parody of perfect qualification. It’s not surprising that the candidates seemed unaware of their conceit. Amour propre always is as unconscious as it is vapid. Self-importance never recognizes the actuality of its arrogance or the charlatanry of its presumptions and poses. Sensate or not, the magnitude of conceit on display during these two evenings was astonishing. Have a gander at the photograph that precedes our essay. Does not smugness radiate from each of these poised, polished persons? Limitless, unalloyed, evidently indestructible self-love? As I watched the candidates stage their studied set-pieces I asked with wonderment: does this woman and do these men in fact adore themselves? Can this be? Is their complacency veritable, and veritably unbounded? Do they truly believe themselves to exceed all others in qualities and skills? Do they indeed conceive themselves to be worthy – uniquely worthy, each of them repeatedly told us – of the immense burden and privilege of our presidency? Selected by their God for election? Anointed, and thoroughly deserving of anointment? Who knows what they think. Maybe they don’t even know. A more important question is why we permit the ever more baroque masquerade of American politics to continue unchallenged. In the 14th-century sense, the conceit of our process is patently preposterous. In the modern sense, the sheer vainness of our candidates is absurd. Every nominee on those two stages was a living monument to smug, insensible inanity. And let us remind ourselves the Republicans have no monopoly on the disease of conceit. They’ve just been the only ones debating so far. In due course the Democrats will affect to believe their sitting regent is omnificent and omnipotently capable, even though none of us any longer can identify with certainty a single belief, ideal, or even mundane goal President Obama verily holds in his distinguished intellect and immortal soul.
Bob Dylan, one of our country’s most reliable compasses, rightly reminds us that conceit isn’t just ludic and it certainly isn’t comic. It’s diseased. Its pathologies are virulent, and they have viral impacts. Their impacts grow, they multiply, and they become grossly toxic to mind, spirit, and the body politic. Conceit isn’t a benign foolishness. It’s horrible, and it’s horridly agential. It’s a causative agent of individual disorder and social degeneration. We daily experience its contamination. We hourly note the increasingly pervasive failure of our communities, the exponential deterioration of our country’s constructs and consequence, the swiftly growing erosion not only of our nation’s economy and currency but – far more important – the tragic atrophy of our citizens’ confidence and creativity. We all realize we’re living in an era of emergency. In this crisis of our culture, nation, and individual identity we don’t need fake exchanges of sham ideas among lifeless idols of excellence. We need true distinction. We need gifted, truthful, modest, ebulliently communal leaders. We need inspiring champions: authentic, humble, and reverent heroines and heroes, not empty pilasters of vaunting conceit.
There is no point in ascribing blame for the current state of presidential politics in the United States. There is no point in assigning fault to one party or another for the shocking condition of our society, economy, and collective state of mind. There is every point in striving collaboratively to repudiate the prating nonsense of our nation’s politics. We must move beyond the dangerous morass in which we find ourselves. We need to evolve. When? Now. Right now. Who is to do this? We are. Not our useless, self-involved, frantically pandering leaders but we ourselves. Each one of us, individually and together, alone and united. We need to see the shame of our society’s inequities. So many people in desperate trouble, whilst a few wallow in senseless and unfulfilling excess. We need to recognize, ache about, and effectively work to reduce the joblessness that is destroying millions of our sisters and brothers. That’s not all. Not by a long shot. We need to make a broad, deep, persistent healing. We need to salve our communities’ wounds, and restore our commonwealth’s health. We need to see our awful disunity. We need to acknowledge that, and make it well. We need to alleviate the vile conflict among our races, between our genders, betwixt the peoples and nations with whom each one of us shares this single planet. We need to confess and cure the interrelated crises that assault us: the crises of our vast disconnection from one another, our own best selves, this earth, the natural processes of life and living. We must behold and rectify the flaws and failures that lie plainly visible all about us. Children unloved and untended. Families fracturing. Schools floundering. Jails bursting. Homes foreclosed. Neighborhoods collapsing. Villages, towns, cities fissuring. Multitudes of our sisters and brothers giving up, despairing, forsaking their own sacredness and power. Women, men, and children all around us defining themselves as victims, hapless, aggrieved, helpless, done for. What a waste.
And what are we investing in? What are we doing? We’re waging combats we don’t comprehend. We’re warring, maiming, killing for no clear reason – while closing many of our traditional pathways to the future for our soldiers and their families when our warriors return home, if they return home. We’re protecting and expanding Cyclopean wealth for a tiny minority, even as worldwide our governments render money every minute less valuable. We’re securing cosmic empowerment and colossal consumption for some folk in some countries, authorizing wanton debauch, even as scarcity crushes so many across this globe – this one earth upon which we reside as guests, not overlords. What are we doing? We’re plunging our beaks beneath desiccated sand. We’re ignoring the wrong and the misery we’re spawning. And the fear. Fear is rising everywhere. It surrounds us. It’s acute, it’s growing expansively, and it’s coupled as fear so often is with a burgeoning lust for reductive simplicity. This is dangerous. We know from history that, when people fear, they experience a somehow compensating anger toward their fright’s imaginary causers. We also know from history that wed with anxiety and anger is often a primordial yearning for a simplistic savior: a terrible demagogue who will adroitly channel our fear and fury, laser it, unleash it. Fix things.
We need inspired healers, hosts of them, not a vicious demagogue. But what do we find? Affluent interest groups, dubbing themselves impartial social engineers. Media groups pretending to analyze and animate. Hucksters churning malarkey. Nude ambition naming itself impassioned call to selfless service. Ciphers seeking to become czars. Conceit all about us closely aligned, as so often it is, with dishonesty and treachery. The relationship of conceit to deceit is as proximal in life as in language. We can find falsity and malevolent intent, but we don’t need to yield to it. Nor need we surrender to fear and its workings. We haven’t the time, because we’ve got a job to do. Our job is to evolve. We’ve must haul our beaks out of the sands, see our mess roundly and plainly, and create remedy, make repair, rebuild and renew. We must become fully conscious about and try our level best to cure the terrible injustices, chaos, sorrow, and escalating despair our polity confronts. We must do this work. We’ve got to, because in great numbers real people are really suffering out there tonight. We’ll need to do this work on our own, locally, together, because our current crop of presidential aspirants can’t help us. They don’t even want to. They’re confined in the sad disease and feeble demise of conceit. We don’t have to follow them there. We don’t have to follow them at all. We don’t have to follow anyone. We can lead. Each one of us can. We can lead ourselves, our neighbors, every sister and brother in our reach. We can lead ourselves and our loved ones away from all that is failing, and set course together straight toward the light that glows within us all and shines warmly all around us. Humming softly to ourselves another lovely line from Bob Dylan: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”