There is a quote that is often attributed to former U.S. Representative Barney Frank: “’Government’ is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”
When Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick quoted Rep. Frank at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, I just rolled my eyes. First, “we” often don’t get to “choose” what government does. And second, that overlooks the hundreds of ways “we” do things “together” other than through government -- joining clubs and other voluntary associations, working, participating in religious or social service organizations, or even being with groups of friends.
The never-ending battle for control of the government is a function of law insidiously creeping like a choke vine into every aspect of our lives. You want a wedding cake? Gotta have a law for that. How about the way your toilet flushes? We have laws for that, too. Light bulbs? Laws. Flower arranging? Laws. Hair braiding? Laws!
But it isn’t just government that is making life insufferable lately; it is the politicization of everything in the post-2016 presidential election era, and the difficulty of finding any place to tune it out.
Before the Super Bowl this past Sunday, millions of people were holding their collective breath -- not in anticipation of the exciting gridiron battle, but because they dreaded a Meryl Streep-esque halftime lecture or anti-Trump tirade from the featured performer. This year’s star was Lady Gaga. Lo and behold, she gave a powerhouse performance, with nary a condescending word to be heard. Most viewers were relieved by the respite and awed by Gaga’s voice and acrobatics. Of course, you can’t please everyone; Mikael Wood from the LA Times complained that Lady Gaga “missed her Super Bowl moment to say something profound.”
Please, God, can’t we just watch the football game?
Apparently not. In the eyes of some, their candidate lost the election and now it’s their sacred duty to subject the rest of us to harangues about their displeasure in every possible forum: Sporting events must have political messages. Commercials must have political messages. Entertainers must use their visibility to spout political messages, and every awards show should be a platform for political messages. Family holidays are opportunities for political messaging (if you’re still speaking to your family, that is). And social media? Why, that was made for political messaging! (That’s why many of us have abandoned Facebook; pictures of vacations and happy birthday wishes have given way to an unceasing parade of inflamed posts about Donald Trump’s plans to destroy the universe.)
Of course, no discussion of the politicization of everything would be complete without mentioning our institutions of higher education and the left’s war on freedom of speech; that whole “political messaging” thing only goes one way. As we saw at University of California, Berkeley last week, those like Milo Yiannopoulos who dare give voice to opinions that are not approved of will be silenced. Ideally, they can use a law to shut you up and shut you down. Or create one. But if that doesn’t work, riot.
Not only has government not been the primary way we’ve chosen to do things together, it has not traditionally compelled public or private behavior. There were familial values, cultural norms, general courtesy, etiquette and propriety, and Judeo-Christian morality. But these have lost much of their influence, and in their place we now have a schizophrenic secular morality that points to no authority but itself, demands adherence without question and seeks to use the power of government as an enforcer.
I am not persuaded that this is an improvement.
It’s true that many laws in American society are motivated by a desire to improve things. But the demands for groupthink and the obsessive need to wrap the law into the minutiae of daily life betray the uglier human impulse for domination and control. In individual relationships, that impulse is stifling. As a societal practice, it quickly gives rise to authoritarianism and to the furious, pitiless mobs of people who swarm and attack anyone who disagrees with them -- and who consider themselves justified in doing so.
A free, democratic and pluralistic society must leave room for people to disagree and to express their opinions without fear of violence or obscene name-calling. And a society grounded in liberty should have wide swaths of life in which government and politics play very little role at all. Mandating uniformity of thought, and insisting that every human activity have a political objective is not an exemplar of “things we choose to do together.”