The tide has turned

Author and former CIA analyst, Martin Gurri, has a lot of interesting thoughts on our current moment. His 2014 book, “The Revolt of the Public,” examined the impact of the information “tsunami” that has engulfed the world through the last decade. He argues that prior to the internet, elites held control over the masses by curating the flow of information. This is no longer true today, he argues, with every secret, scandal, and failed policy out in the open for all to see. 

In an article for Discourse, Gurri outlines the change as he sees it. “The elites in charge once spoke from on high with the voice of authority, certain that the masses would never talk back.” But now, Gurri says, the disenfranchised organize through digital means and spill out into society, disrupting the plans of the ruling classes. “Today, the public in large numbers can challenge, and sometimes defeat, the monstrous Leviathan of modern government. And insignificant people can bring down privileged elites.”

The digital tsunami has laid bare the moral bankruptcy of our elites in a way not seen before. The deluge of information enabled by new media has revealed that experts can be wrong and shown that leaders are not in control as they would have us believe. Mowing down the tall poppies has always been a human pastime. Whether out of contempt or jealousy, elites are an easy target.

Yet as Gurri points out in a podcast with EconTalk last year, historically elites represented what was good in society. Their lives were examples to follow, they felt the weight of their station in society and used their position to benefit others. As cited in this podcast, George Washington carried out the duties of his office even though he would rather have been on his farm more than “the emperor of the world.” 

In contrast, the goal of becoming an elite in recent times is just the opposite— to get away from the deplorables and pursue your own self-interest. Gurri says today’s “digital dispensation has brought rulers and ruled into unbearable proximity. The elites have responded by fleeing ever higher into the top of the pyramid. The public, in turn, has been driven by a loathing of the existing system that borders on nihilism.”

Of the Public, Gurri says, the masses are not so much polarized as fractured. Long reflected by mass media like a mirror, society is now splintered into many different groups, who often share nothing but their perceived enemies. “The rebels have been strong in outrage but weak in organization, leadership, and a coherent ideology.” He argues that the majority of protests erupt, not out of a shared worldview, but rather, dissenters unify out of a common distrust of and dislike for the ruling classes. “They hail from the digital wilderness and are divided into mutually hostile war-bands—but they are brought together and energized by a shared sectarian loathing of what they see as the sinful status quo.” 

Many of the narratives our elites use to explain why our world is so destabilized come up short. “It’s Russia!’ ‘It’s racism!” “It’s the economy, stupid!’ Gurri maintains that many of our institutions are a product of an industrial age, and were designed with a “top down” view of the world. In academia, government, scientific bodies, and business, the few at the top laid out the agenda for the folks down below. While elites would welcome a return to that bygone era, it would seem that ain’t happenin’. At least not now.

Gurri is not certain what the fix is and humbly bows out of prescribing solutions. However he does note that the general malaise in society is rising at a time when religious affiliation, strong family formation and community involvement are waning. He still champions the “persuasive value of the truth.” 

Ultimately, for Joe Public, living in the dimming glow of the gaslight, the digital tsunami has sent his idols crashing. His favorite candidate flamed out and broke their promises. The scientists he hoped would solve the world’s problems were wrong. The athlete he admired turned out to be a jerk. The elites are also in a pickle. Repenting of their privilege didn’t stop them getting cancelled. For all their achievements, there is still someone more accomplished. The glamorous lifestyle they’ve built is not helping save their souls. 

While the white noise (not to mention our sinful hearts) will always manufacture shiny new idols, we don’t need better idols, we need the true God. Mad Christians will recognize this tune… While heroes come and go, the King who called us is faithful and does not change. Human institutions decay but the ones formed by Christ’s word endure. Empires rise and fall but we are citizens of an eternal City. For a fearful, angry and despairing world, we have good news. Christ died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

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