I recently re-watched the movie version of William Golding’s classic story Lord of the Flies. It chilled me in high school. What’s most disturbing is to see the story’s dynamic play out over and over again all of these decades. This is especially true in politics and cultural evolution. If you’ve never read Lord of the Flies or at least watched the 1963 film, you really should.
The lesson of Golding’s story is that in time of crisis, people often abandon logic and reason in favor of perceived strength. I emphasize “perceived” because all too often, the person exhibiting strength is often much weaker than the façade he puts out there. More importantly, they are more likely to be weak in character and ethics. And those two qualities are strengths absolutely essential to leadership. Leaders who make a huge show of “strength” often have little or no sense of moral obligation to those the purport to lead.
Those “leaders” who appeal to fears, who abandon reason and common sense, they are also likely to be make crucial mistakes. It Golding’s story, the boys become so caught up in the savage games of their “strong” leader, that they neglect their signal fire. They allow their rescue beacon to go out right before a search plane passes overhead. The boys were so distracted by “strength” that they lost a chance to be rescued.
Since Vietnam, America hasn’t faced a political schism like today’s. What makes this worse is that so many people have abandoned common sense and common decency. It’s a mystery why 74,000,000 people perceived a crude, cruel, schoolyard bully of a septuagenarian “reality” TV star as a good leader, but here we are.
Perhaps the extreme partisan divide that grew out of Obama’s election made so many forget that—while there was no shortage of political disagreement before the 2008 election—at least we had a sense of decorum and manners, even among rivals. No candidate made penis references on the stage during a presidential primary debate before 2016. We acted more like grownups before that.
For those who wonder what’s so great about maturity, recall the reason why we don’t punish teenage criminals like we do adults. It’s the reason we don’t let teenagers vote until 18: they aren’t emotionally mature or experienced enough to sort out all the conflicting choices that a voter is presented with. Considering how many American voters have devolved into—pardon me—fucking children devoid of couth and class, perhaps we should raise the voting age. I know that will never happen, just the same way I know that we will always have grown-ups who act like children.
The real tragedy of the last five years is how many people were seduced by the headiness of acting immature, of abandoning good manners and common sense in favor of “strength.” Trump is nearly gone, but Trumpism still runs strong. That spray-tanned reality TV star is no better than Golding’s savage character Jack, who gains the allegiance of the other boys with promises of adventure, and whose only solution to deal with the monster on the island is to slaughter a pig and mount its head on a stake.
Aren’t we better than that?