It was just about midnight, on the night before my wife and I moved back to New Hampshire after our brief stint in rural Michigan. I was saying goodbye to our porch, where I’d spent the better part of eight months smoking endless bowls of cavendish and drinking endless cups of gin. It was my home office, my library, my living room, my parlor, and (once or twice on a warm afternoon) my bedroom.
Suddenly, a roar broke the silence of our sleepy little neighborhood. Down the street came a vehicle that looked and sounded as though it had been stolen off the set of Mad Max. Its purple underglow could be seen from space, and its muffler roared like a lion that’s just caught his wife in flagrante delicto with the cat that played Mufasa in the 2019 reboot.
The guy’s speakers really were turned up to 11, though I couldn’t tell what kind of music he was playing, because the bass registered at about a six on the Richter Scale. The vibrations tore up the pavement beneath its wheels. Governor Whitmer declared a state of emergency for about eight minutes, though she attributed the damage to a spike in the novel coronavirus and has since taken the opportunity to extend the state’s shelter-in-place orders for another two months.
Once the vehicle had passed out of range, another ear-shattering noise split the night. It was my neighbor’s newborn son, who’d been woken from his sound sleep. His dad is the minister of the local Presbyterian church; no doubt the boy had (quite reasonably) assumed the Rapture was upon us and wasn’t quite sure that three months was enough time to get on Jesus’s good side.
It took half an hour for his mother to get him back to sleep—half an hour during which the Reverend Mister and his four older children must have laid awake, folding their pillows over their heads like hot dog buns. And sure: that’s not a new experience for any household with a baby in its number. But sleep is a precious commodity for the family of a newborn. And they don’t have a minute to spare.
All things considered, parents are usually happy to lose sleep for that little bundle of vomit and feces they bring into the world. Older siblings are even known to muster a noble tolerance for its odd smells and sounds. But I imagine there were some cranky faces around the Rev’s breakfast table the next morning. What exhausted mother or father, brother or sister, can help but resent the idiot bachelor who tools around in his post-apocalyptic cannibalmobile at half past eleven?
They do it on purpose, too, you know. Here’s the chorus from “I Love My Country,” the latest hit by Florida-Georgia Line:
Up loud and proud, rollin’ into town
Hangin’ out the window, like a Bluetick hound.
Ain’t sorry. Ain’t nothin’ to be sorry about.
I love my country, and I love my country up loud.
I’m old enough to remember when country music was about busting your ass to put food on the table, drinking a cold beer at the end of a hard day’s work, and loving your mama. Now it’s about the joys of noise pollution.
Now tell me: what civilized society places a selfish moron’s right to be a public nuisance above a young family’s right to a good night’s sleep? Is that why the Founders threw off the British crown? Is that why we fought the Nazis and the Reds and the Jihadis? For the freedom to wake up sleeping babies?
A lot has been made about the rise of “illiberalism” lately, and I don’t want to pile more empty words onto that nothingburger. When folks began seriously talking about Marco Rubio leading a Catholic integralist faction in the Republican Party, I tuned out. (As it happens, Mr. Rubio was just tapped to lead the Senate Intelligence Committee. I look forward to reading his new essay “Common Good Waterboarding” in the next issue of First Things.)
Having said that, I think there’s more than enough room in this country for a kind of non-liberalism, a politics that basically throws out the whole post-Enlightenment paradigm. It doesn’t argue against it; it simply ignores it. As in the Middle Ages, laws would fall into one of two categories: good or bad—or, if you prefer, just or unjust.
I know that’s not possible anymore. Pandora’s Box has been opened; all the nasty little bat-winged -isms have been unleashed upon the world, and they’re not going back in. America is doomed to spend the rest of her life making distinctions between capitalism and “common-good capitalism,” socialism and “democratic socialism,” conservatism and “national conservatism.”
But just pretend for just a moment that our politics was about making just laws, not keeping newspaper columnists in business. How great would that be?
Since it must have an –ism, let’s call this philosophy “sensibilism,” because its only philosophical basis would be common sense—that is, sense that is common to human beings, but not to journalists or congressmen or political theorists. Under the sensibilist regime, laws would not be judged by magazine editors or Twitter mobs, but by ordinary men reading the newspaper with a cup of coffee. If they say, “That law seems sensible enough,” it stands. If they say, “That law doesn’t make much sense,” then it is struck down.
The Chronicles of Narnia is more or less a sustained meditation on sensibilism. C. S. Lewis tells of how the Pevensie children “made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.” That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
The words “centrist” and “moderate” immediately drums up visions of men wearing suits without ties and reading The Wall Street Journal. This centrist doesn’t especially want the government getting itself mixed up in social or economic issues. And yet it’s not libertarianism so much as indifferentism. Its slogan isn’t “Give me liberty or give me death” so much as “I really can’t be bothered.”
That’s why moderate Republicans and Democrats never get elected. Somehow blending red and blue doesn’t create a majestic purple, but a kind of sickly beige. When the least of three evils is Lincoln Chafee, evil starts to look pretty good. John Kasich isn’t a “compromise candidate,” except in the sense that a Pomeranian is a compromise between a cat and a dog: mean like a cat, stupid like a dog.
And yet I think sensibilism has the potential to unify normal, well-adjusted adults in both the Democratic and Republican parties. There’s a whole slew of commonsense laws we can all agree upon.
For instance, nobody likes the pop music that’s piped into some sidewalks. Nobody likes television in bars unless there’s a game on. (Really, most people don’t even like it then. That’s why we have sports bars.) When you take your wife and kids out to eat, you don’t want to have to shout so you can be heard over Tom Petty’s “Free Falling,” which has been playing on loop in every American restaurant since 1989. So why not put an end to it? We could ban it outright, or charge a putative tax, or require an expensive license. We could pass a law saying that only 50 percent of bars may have televisions, and only 50 percent of restaurants may play music, and dole out permissions by lottery. I’m sure publicans would notice how much more business they do when it’s quiet and throw away their speakers altogether.
Or take architecture. Study after study shows that the public unanimously prefers traditional architecture: Georgian or Victorian or what have you. Absolutely nobody likes Modernist or Brutalist designs—those great slabs of concrete and glass that litter every city from Boston to Hong Kong. So why not create nationwide ordinances saying all new buildings must be aesthetically pleasing? Why not set up a fund to create attractive facades for ugly ones?
Senator Josh Hawley’s “Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act” is a model of sensibilist legislation. Every Easter, we’re treated to a flood of articles and tweets and Facebook posts saying how nice it was to give up social media for Lent. Yet then everyone goes right back to spending two hours before bed flicking through photos of their aunt’s parakeet and their college roommate’s trip to Cancun. That’s how addiction works. If an alcoholic decides to celebrate 40 days of sobriety with a little drink (“Just one,” he says, “now that I have it under control!”) he’ll be under the table in an hour.
Mr. Hawley’s bill would therefore require these apps to alert users as to how long they’ve been using their platforms every 30 minutes. It would ban the infinite scroll: the endless generation of content that ensures you can never really finish “catching up” on your Instagram feed. And it would ban autoplay on videos, which is just annoying. That seems sensible, doesn’t it?
Once America has been fully devulgarized, I think we’ll find that most of our old squabbles were meaningless. All of our hatred and anxiety is born of a deep, festering discontent with the world around us. The American people fight, not like two armies in a civil war, but like a husband and wife who can’t agree on whose turn it is to wash the dishes. We find things to squabble about because we’re angry, only we’re not quite sure what it is we’re angry about.
The truth is that the modern world is practically designed to make us anxious. Put Mr. Rogers on a New York subway and watch how quickly he becomes Attilla the Hun.
“Life is too short to be ugly.” This is the motto of sensibilism. We have 80 years on this planet if we’re lucky; it doesn’t make sense to spend them drowning in loud cars, bad music, ugly buildings, mean tweets, and a never-ending deluge of selfies.
The sensibilist regime will guarantee that all peoples—whatever their class, race, or creed—have equal access to beauty. It will implement a full redistribution of peace and quiet. And then it will leave you alone.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).