The Tedium of Passion

Thoughts in and around geopolitics.

By: George Friedman

I normally try to forget the books I write, at least for a while. They can be a trap, enclosing you forever. 

But I can’t escape the last book I wrote, “The Storm Before the Calm,” about the anger that would encompass American life for at least the first part of this decade. 

I drew my conclusions from moments like the Great Depression and Andrew Jackson’s assault on the eastern banks. But to a great extent I got my bearings from the 1960s and 1970s for the obvious reason that I lived through them.

It was a time of intense outrage at anyone who disagreed with you, a time of utter certainty of one’s own view. Lyndon Johnson was regarded as a baby killer, and the war in Vietnam as a tool to enrich defense companies. Opponents of the war were viewed by their critics as tools of the communists and haters of America. Entwined in this was a culture war. 

On one side was what was called the counterculture, which saw America as fundamentally corrupt, combining the dehumanization of the suburbs with insoluble racism. On the other side was what was called middle America, viewing the counterculture as degenerates who were destroying the fabric of America by rejecting everything that was decent and honorable.

I recall members of the American Legion and members of construction unions confronting hordes of anti-war demonstrators dressed bizarrely, I suspect because they wanted to show contempt for the middle class and a sense that they had transcended the World War II veterans into a higher truth. 

I was young and dressed like a slob, still my preferred sartorial statement, and went into a 7-Eleven in Boone, North Carolina, during a best forgotten road trip. The person behind the counter called me a “hippie degenerate punk” and threatened vague mayhem if I didn’t leave. 

I was in similar clothing when I denied that the Viet Cong were the heirs of the American Revolution to a young lady I thought I was getting somewhere with. She grew enraged and refused to talk to me when I called them Stalinist thugs, the latter a far greater loss than a storekeeper in Boone.

I found myself in trouble. Socially I belonged to the baby boomers, who, like the millennials today, thought of themselves as having the mission to perfect humanity. But I was born in Hungary and lived with a family that remembered its recent past. For me, the perfection of humanity was not the goal. The goal was avoiding the power of tyranny. I saw tyranny through my parents’ eyes. 

That era was a moment of great passion, with evil masquerading as the good, and people expressing it by hating anyone who disagreed with them. I love the United States because it was better than where I had come from. It did not demand perfection. 

To the radicals of the 1960s, America had to be reconstructed through revolution. To middle America, the nation had been penetrated by monsters trying to destroy it.

It all became very personal. Someone who opposed the Vietnam War did not socialize with someone who supported the war. The basic assumption that normally controls the United States – that reasonable people can disagree without loathing each other – was suspended, replaced with a passionate belief that anyone who differed from oneself was deeply flawed and likely despicable. 

Things changed only after Richard Nixon was driven from office, the anti-war activists started looking for jobs and the pro-war movement realized the war was a waste.

Passion is an overrated virtue because it has no sense of proportion. Passion makes everything look more significant than it is and sees disagreement as sacrilege. Passion makes it seem that this is the worst of times. 

Because of my parents I knew the tales of European passion, but unlike my parents I wasn’t frightened by it. I was bored by it. The core certainty of each side was not merely that it was right but that the other side was wicked. 

Passion and self-righteousness blended with a rage at those who disagreed.

The passion of Hitler or Lenin, of course, was not boring. It was evil, but there was never a boring minute around either side. 

The idea that I have mentioned in the past – that civilization is the ability to believe something, yet be open to the possibility that your belief is in error – is boring. 

Constantly drawing in your horns when your passions demand that you gore your opponent is tiring, and the inability to hate because your opponent might be right takes a glittering moment and turns it into duller shades. 

Being moderate is the foundation of civilized life, yet it’s one that always repels those who are certain that they are self-evidently right.

We are of course in a moment where respect for the views of those you disagree with has withered. This happens in America with some regularity. But the time we live in is not as exciting, tense and fraught with danger as the media might suggest. It is simply tedious. 

As Shakespeare put it, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 

As we have seen in the past, the United States is far too robust, and far too resilient, for the passions of the moment to destroy it. If it weren’t, it would have been destroyed long ago. 

Robert E. Lee couldn’t break the union, and he had a powerful military behind him. Joe McCarthy and the anti-war movement couldn’t do it. The current cast of characters certainly can’t do it. 

The founders knew that the best solution for political passions is boredom. 

Eventually the actors take a break, and the audience needs to get home, pay the babysitter and get some sleep.

For those who have never lived through this, they have never seen passion like this. 

For those who have lived through it before, it’s more of the same.

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