How To Face A World That Has No Boogeymen
While on the patio of a favorite restaurant, having my wine and enjoying the rare sunshine that comes to these parts, I overheard a conversation among a group of three middle-aged men seated next to me. One of them was especially loud and quite violent in his protest against the school his daughter attended. He spoke with a rather thick Scottish accent so I could not discern the exact nature of his complaint. In between what I took to be brief explanations of the various aspects of his trouble, he kept saying “It’s the system! It’s the system!” By cobbling together a few more pieces of his narrative I was able to determine that something terrible had happened in his life and that he held the institutions of society responsible for it. At some point the man got up to use the bathroom, and my hypothesis was confirmed by one of his friends who said to the third person at their table that the ranting Scotsmen blamed the world for his troubles.
This incident is indicative of a larger trend in society: the need for all-powerful boogeymen to explain difficulty, disappointment, setback, and hardship. Such boogeymen come in all forms and change according to who you are speaking to.
Both the left and the right share an obsession with the global institution boogeyman. Every job loss, every plant closure, every failure of career advancement, every ecological misfortune is blamed on banks, global corporations, free trade agreements, and the World Bank. But it doesn’t stop there. The followers of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the racist and xenophobic National Front in France, believe her every claim about powerful elites who collude and conspire to keep the truth from ordinary people. This is the same kind of feeling that powered Donald Trump to the American presidency. It is also prevalent in Turkey, going so far as to drive people to give that country’s leader dictatorial powers, as well as India and the Philippines, both of which have authoritarian presidents who enjoy popular support.
Atheists, scientists, gays and lesbians, foreigners, Jews, blacks, Muslims, Latinos, financiers, intellectuals, journalists—these are just a few of the forms that the boogeyman takes in the minds of millions of people throughout the world.
Blaming your problems on the boogeyman is not a manly way to face the world. Being a modern man means cultivating the power of facing the world as it is, not burying your head in a sand heap of myths and superstitions. It means taking a critical view of society and making an effort to understand its complexity, not repeating the canards and stupidities of hucksters and fools.
The simple fact is there are no boogeymen. Public problems rarely have single causes; and when they do, it is not owing to the conspiracy of entire groups of people.
The main idea driving the current wave of populism is the existence of an elite group that controls the levers of government and industry. They are seen as a small and cozy club who enrich themselves and shit on ordinary people. There is some truth in this. And even if someone were to counter that the group is never composed of the same individuals, and that people from poor and working-class backgrounds are part of it, one need only read George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm to understand how little difference that makes.
I do not contest that elites exists; I only contest that they are in a permanent conspiracy against the public. As Gore Vidal (who was born in the American ruling class) said, elites do not have to conspire, because they all think alike. Again, I think there is some truth to this.
But an elite class has existed in every civilization in history. Elites seem to be a natural part of organizing human society. It does not follow, however, that only bad things come from them. Many of the great material comforts and humane norms that we enjoy today are the product of elite groups. Even those individuals who are venerated as champions of human freedom, men such as Martin Luther King Jr., did their work through rather exclusive social cliques.
The bottom line is that it is better to grasp and examine the particulars of public problems rather than trying to pawn them off on some villainous boogeyman. Our politics and our society would be a lot better and a great deal saner if people like the ranting Scotsman I introduced in the beginning of this article would accept that.
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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.