Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.

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We’re Living In A Weird, Weird “Weiner” World

I recently sat down and watched Weiner, a documentary about the improbable attempt by disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner to run for the office of Mayor of New York City in 2013.

Mr. Weiner’s problems with sending sexual text messages and crude selfies to women other than his wife Huma Abedin, a Hillary Clinton aide and confidante, followed him right into this foray at political redemption. The New York news media had a field day publishing articles during his failed campaign about his continuing problems with probity, as it turned out he was still sending lewd text messages and selfies. The documentary is, at its core, an excruciating examination of a deeply troubled narcissist, his sexual pathologies merely the most visible manifestation of his desperate and demented need for affirmation and attention.

We are, of course, now finding out that Anthony Weiner was not an aberration—he was a harbinger. The recent flood of sexual abuse scandals among elected officials has become a fixture of political discussions. Apparently many of those entrusted with the highest offices in our nation possess the social graces and sexual maturity of 13 year old boys, the now famous photo of future U.S. Senator Al Franken mugging for the camera while reaching for a sleeping woman’s breasts perhaps best encapsulating the puerile idiocy of behavior that runs the gamut from insulting to assaultive.

The question we need to ask as we confront the startling dimensions of the sexual abuse scandals enveloping our elected officials is just how did we end up with these exceedingly damaged individuals leading our country?

It may be possible that the public attention afforded by national electoral politics—which with the decline of political parties has become much more of a one man (or woman) show—has now become the drug of choice for those with unhealthy needs for self-aggrandizement that many times manifests as misconduct. Where once politicians were vetted by powerful party structures and bosses, which meant those who rose to the top often were loyal and dull—although there were still plenty of jerks to be found—we now see more and more candidates who chase the bright spotlight that follows the powers inherent in national elective office in just the way that an addict hunts for a fix. Rather than stolid back room operators, much of our current crop of leaders rises to the top thanks to an ability to capture all the attention of the electorate with their antics, which is perhaps not the most helpful skill when it comes to actually governing a country.

The operatic and outrageous nature of so much of our current national political discourse is obviously a function of a 24/7 news and social media cycle that craves controversy and disdains complexity. Judicious, measured, and cautious individuals are put at a disadvantage when flamboyant, shocking, and sometimes outright goofy comments and behavior are now the all-access pass to political fame and—amazingly enough—electoral success. Unfortunately, this deeply destructive outcome of 21st century communications technology is catnip for ambitious but troubled individuals who need the personal recognition the non-stop media attention provides in order to fill the gaping holes in their own damaged psyches.

This is the new reality of contemporary American politics that perhaps helps to explain why we now have a reality television star in the White House. However one feels about Donald Trump’s policies, it must be acknowledged that he is a master of 21st century political theater, and those who are still stunned by his upset victory last November must recognize that he is a genius at manipulating the full spectrum of the sprawling media environment. Even when the coverage is negative, it is all about him all the time—and this type of attention seems to be enough for a lot of others who are now running for (or currently occupying) national elective office.

Love or hate his tweets, bombastic comments, or arguments by insult, Donald Trump dominates our national discourse and robs his political opponents of the spotlight that he keeps firmly upon himself. He will lose political battles, but he will always win the war for media coverage, which provides him with the platform he needs to whip up the enthusiasms of his loyal base and reduce his enemies to sputtering and ineffectual rage. Given all this, as much as we may desperately wish for more leaders like George Washington to help us through these troubled and dangerous times, we are today far more likely to end up with elected officials who share much with Anthony Weiner—sad to say.

To be moderate and modest is to be a “loser” in a news and information landscape that rewards the sensational while shunning irksome rationality and details. The earnest and enlightened leaders waiting in the wings, carefully crafted position papers lined up inside their briefcases, are likely going to be in for a shock when they find themselves losing elections to shameless provocateurs who excel at tossing off entertaining put downs and pithy yet empty comments—and know just what to say to always keep the cameras pointing their way.

All of this may somehow work out well despite the wounds it inflicts upon our national dignity and world standing (though I still well remember wincing my way through the “blowjob years” of the Clinton administration) because the mythic common sense of the American voter will eventually drive the idiots from office—just as it did in the case of Anthony Weiner. This may be true, but it does little to repair the long-term damage done to the credibility of our country by fools and their foolishness.

We need sober and serious leadership to face the many challenges ahead, but our bizarre celebrity and scandal-obsessed media culture might saddle us with a long and dismal line of “Weiners” as we stumble through this difficult point in our nation’s history, which probably means yet more embarrassing scandals until we learn to stop confusing fame and flippancy with either virtue or competence.

Has Big Government Killed Compromise?

I was reading a book the other day that discussed the internecine religious conflict that roiled England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), and Elizabeth I. Protestants and Catholics, each convinced their own values and doctrinal interpretations were right and good, fought an unyielding battle for control and supremacy over both government and nation, and neither side was the least interested in even the most basic compromises. Each conflict was filled with hatred and every speech—it would be impossible to call them discussions—was colored by apocalyptic visions of the catastrophic outcomes that would certainly result were the beliefs of the opposition allowed to gain ascendancy. It was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and region against region as each side scrambled to vanquish their blood enemies, who were, in point of fact, actually their fellow countrymen.

Does any of this sound familiar?

To say that many of the citizens of our nation seem to have a visceral and implacable dislike for one another is stating the obvious. Worse yet, because so many are convinced that those who hold differing beliefs are inherently immoral—or even just plain evil—the possibilities for thoughtful and reasonable conversations between individuals of good will seem fewer and fewer with each passing day. I am thankful that today we restrict our public burnings to social media, but the outcome remains the same: hearts hardened, hatreds stoked, and minds irreversibly closed.

I like to think that reasonable people can come to reasonable compromises regarding the many issues that divide our nation at the present time, but I am beginning to suspect that this may be impossible more often than I would like to believe for a reason some might find unbelievable: the fantastically expanded powers of American government itself.

The questions of governance that now so bedevil us are inextricably tied to foundational issues of family, faith, patriotism, and the balance between rights and responsibilities—each jostling against the other and further complicating the next. Thankfully we can still (most of the time) decide where to put a highway off-ramp. However, now that government has grown to control almost all of our daily activities, we are crashing headlong into the problems inherent in allowing legislators, judges, and bureaucrats—today’s kings and queens—to monitor and control so many deeply personal facets of our lives. Any government that holds absolute power—even if many believe this power is being used for the greater good—creates a lot of problems, and this is where the analogy to Tudor England really takes hold.

Four hundred or so years ago perfectly sane English men and women were willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter one another because government held absolute power over an aspect of their lives as fundamental as their form of worship. Not surprisingly, every conflict was fought to the death—or nearly so—because to lose any battle was to lose every bit of freedom to live according one’s values and choose one’s own life path. American government has now amplified this power to control individual human choice to a degree that perhaps even the Tudor royalty would have found objectionable—and we should not be surprised by the results.

Most of us want government to provide basic services that ensure our health and safety, maintain critical infrastructure, and defend our borders—although even these can be subject to intense debate regarding principles and practices. However, when we inject the nearly limitless powers that government can grant itself into every aspect of our personal behavior and interpersonal interactions, we should not be overly surprised at the divisive results.

Just as the Tudor royalty discovered saving souls and creating a heaven on earth backed by the power of the crown turned out to be a fairly unpopular and ugly business, so do our Washington “royalty’s” many decrees that punish attitudes deemed unacceptable to the elite cause political, cultural, and social discord that fragments our nation and stymies even the most reasonable political compromises. Our leadership could take a lesson from Elizabeth I, the last of the great Tudor monarchs. Her true genius, which transformed her broken and divided nation into a world power, was to abandon state-mandated orthodoxy and tolerate a range of inherently conflicting beliefs during her long and successful reign.

The lesson of human history is clear to any who cares to look: Nations typically flourish when they allow their people to believe as they please with only minimal common sense restraints on their behavior. If you want to understand the root cause of our inability to cooperate, you need only look inside the confines of Washington, D.C. for the answer. A great many Americans would be very pleased if those now occupying that dysfunctional zip code would just leave us alone and focus on delivering those basic services they have neglected while busying themselves with telling everyone how they should think and live.

We’re just fine with figuring it all out for ourselves, thank you. In fact, we’ll probably do a much better job at the fraction of the cost—and with a fraction of the anger. We folks in flyover country are a lot smarter and more sensible than the Washington crowd of social engineers and scolds, and we could probably teach the D.C. royalty a lesson or two—if they ever bothered to listen to what the peasants have to say.

Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment

 

The list of powerful and prominent men who are leering, suggesting, groping, fondling, and forcing expands every day. This has resulted in a necessary national conversation regarding behavior that ranges from the boorish to the criminal, and many Americans will recognize that this is both helpful and instructive.

However, now that we find ourselves at this cultural and social crossroads, one that perhaps has some chance of changing both our private conduct and public institutions, it is probably worth asking a single, pertinent question regarding our fifty year forced march toward ever greater freedom to act upon our every impulse: Have we been helped or harmed by the sexual revolution and those who have encouraged its progress throughout our cultural and educational worlds?

Sex has, of course, always preoccupied the human mind; few of us would be here today were this not the case. However, we have experienced a profound and fundamental break with our past because the primal urges that animate our lives have been, thanks to the signal technological improvements of the past century—photography, film, video, and the internet—commodified and monetized to a degree almost beyond comprehension.

What was once private is now very public, what was once pornography is now mainstream entertainment, what was once perverse is now commonplace, and what was once healthy restraint is now unhealthy inhibition.

The coarsening of our culture is a documentable fact, and the outright salaciousness of much of our mass entertainment is undeniable. Perhaps this is simply due to the fact that basic cable now needs to compete with 24/7 streaming pornography for eyeballs, but the graphic—and many times violent or sadistic—nature of the sexual content in shows that purport to be mainstream fare is both startling and disturbing. It is impossible to ignore both the corrosive influence this type of material has on our psyches and the frightening normalization of behavior that is worthy of nothing but our condemnation, not because I dislike sex but because I condemn connecting its beauty with the brutishness, heartlessness, and callousness that has infected so many facets of our mass entertainment and culture.

Of course, any suggestion that restraint and subtlety might be worthy of our consideration is met with howls of “censorship” or “Puritanism” from those who are profiting from producing explicit material to satisfy our natural prurient interests, and sadly it seems the actors involved are willing (if only because they need a job) to tolerate the filming or photographing of their breasts, buttocks, and whatever else is there to share. Some are, of course men, but the bodies most commonly put on public display are female—often in the most gratuitous manner possible. Perhaps the intentions are pure and movies today are trying to teach women helpful life skills—investigate every strange noise downstairs at night while wearing as little as possible and always leave the curtain partially open when you shower—but I somehow doubt this is the case.

Our attitude toward the transformation of our mass entertainment into soft-core porn is a bit of a puzzle. We celebrate the “strength” and “bravery” of the public displays by well-paid entertainers, but we would condemn the same titillation were it provided for free as being nothing but base exploitation of a person’s body. Perhaps it all boils down to the paycheck: That which is sexually explicit in word or deed, regardless of content or intent, simply cannot any longer be considered indecent in America today if the pay is good. This is a particular trap young females in the entertainment industry. Men, it seems, can still choose to keep their shirts on, but for women this possibility many times does not seem to exist unless they are already old enough to play the District Attorney.

Therefore, if only because we and the entertainers somehow need to justify their exploitation, we now celebrate the commercial display of the female form as “empowerment” as long as the women involved are well-compensated for their exertions, and those who can figure out a way to turn sex into major cash can—as long as the pay is high enough—enjoy some degree of respectability. Depending upon your viewpoint, we today live in either a wonderful nation that judges none and welcomes all or a dystopian and immoral country that worships money instead of elevating humanity.

Looking around at the epidemic of sexual battery and assault that now seems to be baked into every strata of our nation, one has to wonder whether this coldly capitalistic attitude toward a fundamental component of our personhood helps or harms both individuals and our society. Some would argue that the frequency and severity of sexual assault is the same as it always was—we are just more aware of the problem—but I find this explanation unpersuasive and exculpatory.

Any society where entertainers are celebrated for attempting to “break” the Internet by posting nude photos of themselves, female college students go online to seek out “sugar daddies”, and young women auction their virginity to the highest bidder through a website has clearly lost sight of any reasonable boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It should not be a surprise that abusive sexual behavior (typically, but not exclusively, by men) has become much more common at the same time any sense of personal responsibility or propriety has apparently flown out the window for many—but thankfully not all.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to making the cultural changes that are needed to promote more respectful attitudes and behavior; there is simply too much money to be made by the shameless entrepreneurs among us—mostly thanks to our nation’s dysfunctional status quo that continually confuses freedom with abuse. Moreover, given that our educational and social science establishments have thoroughly embraced the idea that sexual liberality in attitude and behavior will inevitably lead to personal growth and societal benefits, we are now encouraged to accept that which only a couple of generations ago was unacceptable.

Hence, our nation’s colleges provide helpful workshops on anal sex and BDSM lifestyles in order to promote more “sex-positive” beliefs—which seems a huge difference from only a couple of decades ago. Some of these activities certainly have a legitimate public health function, but there in a fine line between informing and proselytizing, and it seems to me that many involved in these efforts simply do not understand the difference.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of this to change. Encouraging restraint is nowhere near as popular or profitable as promoting licentiousness, and a “party all the time” post-secondary norm keeps the seats filled—regardless of how outrageously high the tuition bill might be—while permitting many educators to preach the “transgressive” values that allow them to believe they are freedom fighters instead of enablers.

No one should be surprised if the trade-off for these no-strings-nor-consequences-attached cultural norms is a toxic environment that encourages the worst sort of personal behavior. These are simply two sides of the same coin, and we are now paying the inevitable price for allowing this nonsense to become our ugly daily reality. Unless we are willing to leverage this unique cultural and political moment into a broader discussion of our broken and misguided personal and societal values, we will see no end to the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse in our nation.

We have lots and lots of laws; we now need a counter-revolution of respect for ourselves and others.

 

Fragile Youth?

Cause flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth, our flag is flying higher and higher and higher
Kiss, Flaming Youth (1976)

If one is to judge from recent studies and data, our adolescents and young adults are far less fiery than they once were. In fact, those who track such trends argue that young men and women are far more depressed, anxious, and troubled than at any time in our history.

One aspect of this question that needs to be first considered is that we live in the age of Big Data, and there has never been a time in human history that had the tools we now possess to chart and graph every fluctuation in our individual and collective moods. Americans were not tweeting at Gettysburg, and nobody was using Snapchat to document their daily activities during the Great Depression.

Our incredibly outer-directed existences are a marked contrast to our more circumspect ancestors, and any comparisons between our very demonstrative present and a past where it was considered peculiar to share every detail of your life with total strangers inevitably crashes into both epistemological and methodological difficulties that are inherently unresolvable, so our collective happiness or unhappiness relative to the pre-Internet world of only a few decades ago is basically unknowable.

There are, however, those who argue that we live in times so tumultuous that it is driving our youth and young adults to the brink of madness, and this is the reason that so many young people need medication, therapy, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and soothing affirmations to struggle through to the end of each day—which tends to do nothing but make their elders shake their heads. Folding up into a quivering, sobbing heap because of the results of an election makes no sense to your grandfather, who at your same age was leaning out the door of a helicopter gunship near Da Nang and hoping not to have his head blown off before his boots hit the ground.

It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that a great many of those who have come of age in America over the past several decades have been more cushioned from harm than could ever have been imagined by any previous generation—which hasn’t been altogether good. Perhaps all the soft padding underneath the monkey bars and participation trophies have done nothing but create young adults who are simply unfamiliar with the bumps and bruises that are an inevitable by-product of life. A familiarity with failure helps prepare young people for the rigors of life outside of the nest, and parents who insist on plowing every possible obstacle from their children’s paths during their formative years should probably be less astonished if their precious offspring crash and burn when they attempt “adulting”.

In addition, we likely need to wrench the cell phones out of our children’s hands because their voracious consumption of social media has turned them into a bunch of lab rats frantically pushing the lever to obtain a food pellet. Tying your self-worth to how many “friends” you have or how often your posts are “liked” by total strangers has produced a lot of unnecessary angst for a lot of young people who fail to recognize that a life lived online is no life at all. There is much to be said for a life less-connected, and transforming the normal insecurities of adolescence into a 24/7 addiction to the approval of others via an iPhone is a prescription for nothing other than misery for millions of teens. If one were to set out today to design a system as insidiously damaging as possible to the emotional health of our young, I will wager no one could come up with anything worse than Facebook is right now.

However, we cannot blame all of our children’s problems on over-protective parenting and Mark Zuckerberg. It is a tough world out there, and misguided social experiments and government policies have quite often backfired and made it even tougher for many. Having watched a great many adolescents and young adults parade through my classroom over the years, I can readily assert that divorce is a disaster for many, the ever-escalating costs of living put incredible pressure on individuals and families, and the pathological financial irresponsibility of our leaders has had—and will continue to have—real and lasting consequences for everyone. Thankfully, I still see many young men and women who have their heads screwed on just fine, and this helps me to take all the clucking about “kids these days” with the healthy dose of skepticism it truly deserves.

This does not, however, mean that we do not have real problems that are causing real pain to our young. We are, sadly, well-past the point of easy fixes, but perhaps we can yet be convinced to roll up our sleeves, work cooperatively, and reclaim our lives and our nation for the simple reason that we honestly have no other choice. We owe it to ourselves, but we really owe it to our children most of all. We need to do what we can to hand them a country a little less screwed up than it is right now, and we must not allow their flaming youth to simply go up in flames. They deserve at least that much from their supposedly-wise elders.