Time To Rescue Our Young Adults?

The crisis afflicting young adults in America today is a well-documented phenomenon that statistics sometimes seem inadequate to document.  Rising rates of drug and alcohol use, STD’s, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thought and action cannot in and of themselves adequately describe the desperate state of those who should now be living the most exciting years of their lives—not gulping pizza and Prozac while blearily staring at their phones.

Many commentaries have been written to attempt to explain this generational problem that affects many—but certainly not all—young American adults.  Explanations run the course from poor parenting that is (depending on the writer) either neglectful or overly involved, prevalent racism, rampant sexism, toxic masculinity, violence, intrusive technology, or even Donald Trump.  Although young adults can be negatively affected by these factors and many more too numerous to count, the systemic problems seem to suggest a more global explanation is needed.

How broad based are the problems affecting those who are just starting their life journey—and often crashing and burning?  According to a 2017 Pentagon study, only 29% percent of young adults who are eligible to join the military actually qualify; the other 71% are disqualified because they are obese, have no high school diploma, or already have compiled a criminal record. The American Psychological Associations Journal of Abnormal Psychology reports that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of 18-25 year olds reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 63%, and serious psychological distress and suicide-related thoughts or actions rose by 70%.  A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that Millennials, who today are 18 to 34 years old, make 43 percent less than what Gen Xers made in 1995 when they were under 35 years old.  “Don’t be a fool, stay in school”?  The average young adult now accrues over $33,000 in student loan debt, and roughly 4 of 10 will never actually complete the degree they seek.

When all is said and done, maybe firing up a doobie and binge watching Game of Thrones with a bag of Cheetos isn’t such a bad idea, but the question now is what can we do get our troubled young people back on track.  I have three proposals:

Stop medicating our young instead of helping them

The rise in the number children who are growing up with the handy help of a doctor’s prescription pad is startling—in the extreme. Data from the IQVia Total Patient Tracker Database for 2017 shows that well over 15 million children and adolescents were receiving psychiatric medication for diagnoses ranging from ADHD to anxiety during just that year alone.  Given that these are powerful mind and mood altering drugs being pumped into immature and developing brains—and researchers have long been aware of the unpredictable (and largely unstudied) dangers posed to young minds by these drugs—our extraordinary reliance on substituting pills for patient and consistent adult protection and guidance is simply beyond belief.  

Pharmaceutical companies have misused the inherent trust of the public for the medical profession to convince tens of millions of parents to turn their children into guinea pigs for the most amazing uncontrolled experiment with mind-altering drugs in the history of humanity.  The long term consequences for the children unwillingly enrolled in this stupendously lucrative drug trial are unknown, but it does not take much imagination to guess at the catastrophic—and perhaps permanent—effects powerful psychoactive drugs can have on the fragile chemistry of young minds as they develop into young adulthood.

It might be just a little more difficult to grow up healthy and happy after a childhood and adolescence spent as a lab rat for Big Pharma.  Are we, sad to say, sending chemically damaged brains careening into the many challenges of young adulthood—and do we need to immediately stop doing this?

Accept the fact—finally—that our current system of public education is beyond repair

John Wayne is often erroneously credited with stating the obvious: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”  The academic outcomes of our K-12 public education system, the deficiencies of which have been chronicled with mind numbing regularity for many decades, have been impervious to reform because our schools are paycheck, contract, and pension machines—and lots of people are making buck on mediocrity.  Ensconced behind an impervious wall of legislation and regulation designed to ensure that the adults are well served, public schools provide daycare, food, recreation, and places for students, staff, and faculty to charge their cell phones.  We should expect much, much more.  

Although some students certainly still succeed and pockets of educational excellence still exist in our public schools, the students who most need their schools to provide a hand up—those who are poor, those who are minority, and those who have difficult lives—are often ruthlessly shoved down after being shunted into Special Education or remedial classes where their chances of catching up with their peers academically are vanishingly small.  A typical arc after receiving a worthless high school diploma is an unsuccessful semester or two at college followed by a lifetime that is severely circumscribed by the academic deficiencies that were never addressed.  To fail so many students is a national scandal, and to continue to blame students and their families for these failures is nothing other than sublime cruelty.

As part of a commentary posted on December 13 of 2015 on my blog (andrewmwilk.com), I wrote the following concerning what I thought would be the most effective way to improve Illinois’ public schools:

“I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our states entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school—public, private, or religious—anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their [standardized test] scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.”

I still believe it is the best course of action for Illinois—and I believe the same is true for every school in our nation—but I am not counting on it happening any time soon.  As long as the National Education Association has a single dollar left in its bank account to use to bribe legislators (in the form of campaign contributions), we will continue on just as we have for decades regarding education reform—all talk and little or no action.

Refocus our attention

There are plenty of engaging and urgent concerns affecting every square inch of our planets flora and fauna, but perhaps we need to lift our eyes and focus more of our outrage and concern on a much broader canvas of human behavior and human pain.  To continue to note the struggles experienced by many young adults but not make addressing them a top national priority seems a short-sighted and self-destructive course of action that will harm individuals and families, weaken our economy, place our national security at risk, and destroy the fabric of our democracy and civic life.

It is astounding that so many Americans are more likely to respond to the struggles of a distressed tree or injured dog than those of a overwhelmed young mother or traumatized young man, but perhaps it is simple human nature to prefer issues that avoid human messiness or contradictions and so seem more easily managed and solved.  The task of rescuing our troubled young adults is an enormous undertaking.  Even the most cursory examination and discussion of the catastrophe afflicting so many of them reveals that the problems are both complex and multi-faceted.  

However, with all due respect to the problems experienced by whales, wild flowers, and wildebeests, it might be time to concentrate our energies on assisting a huge segment of our own human population that is in deep distress right now and in need of our help and understandingbefore it is too late.

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Our Many, Many Addictions

This year the World Health Organization decided that playing too many video games is a bona fide addiction deserving of medical treatment. This newest certified addiction is tagged onto a very long list of daily behaviors and activities that have over the years joined alcohol and drug use as problem behaviors. We can apparently now be addicted to eating, collecting, cleaning, gambling, anger, sex, golf, clutter, work, pornography, sunlight, sleep, exercise, shopping, guilt—and so much more. However, our many “addictions” raise a variety of questions regarding our self-perceptions and how these impact our own lives and the lives of those around us.

In addition to the more recognized addictions to drugs and alcohol, which have spawned massive rehabilitation industries that provide little in the way of actual long term cures, we seem incredibly anxious to define more and more of our daily lives and life outcomes as the inevitable results of one addiction or another. Although many behaviors provide pleasure or reward and can readily turn into habits that are difficult to break, I worry that our ever-expanding list of addictions is a symptom of our society’s pernicious flight from the concept of personal responsibility. Although it is certainly more comfortable to blame our failures on forces beyond our control—particularly when “experts” absolve us of all blame—our desires to shrug off our individual responsibilities is ultimately both self-defeating and self-destructive because it excuses a willful avoidance of adult behavior that continues to infantilize our nation and culture. Moreover, an inability to take responsibility for oneself also paralyzes the ability to take responsibility for the well-being of others—which has had a catastrophic effect upon our nation as a whole.

It is impossible, for example, for an irresponsible man or woman to be a responsible parent. If a parent is irresponsible, the burdens of child rearing are typically transferred to grandparents and government—often working in desperate tandem to ameliorate the damage done by parents who are unable to adequately care for themselves or their suffering children. By the same token, those irresponsible adults will be disasters as neighbors, spouses, and employees because they will continue to perceive themselves as being unable to take full control of their own lives.

As unpleasant as the truth may be, most of the time people screw up their lives because they excuse their own immaturity and stupidity on the grounds that self-control and self-regulation is unachievable. This lack of personal agency—continually reinforced by cultural norms that insist on framing basic irresponsibility as an outcome of addictions—is a prescription for wasted lives that lay further waste to everyone else with whom they come into contact.

It is no accident that the Golden Age of Addictions and the Golden Age of Big Government have arisen simultaneously—each serves the interests of the other. The more irresponsibility is excused by our supposed addictions, the more government programs must be created to “cure” those addictions and lessen their real world consequences. On the flip side, the more government programs that are created to shield individuals and families from the irresponsible behaviors caused by their “addictions”, the more entrenched government becomes in the daily lives of our families and communities in order to hide the continued consequences of childish self-absorption. It is the perfect symbiotic storm of waste and stupidity—and taxpayers foot the bill.

There are, of course, addictions that are exceedingly difficult to break, and great personal struggles are involved. However, the signal difference between addictions and diseases is that you can stop engaging in bad or self-destructive behavior. One can, for example, stop drinking too much, but you cannot simply stop having cancer. However, now that we routinely conflate addiction and disease (these two words are even now linked in Google searches), this distinction is often lost in our day-to-day discussions of ruinous personal behaviors.

This confusion also serves the interests of our nation’s many incredibly lucrative rehabilitation programs—and the corporations and agencies that run them. These have embraced and promoted medicalized models of irresponsible behavior because they can both offer the prospect of a “cure” and demand that private and public insurance programs pay for “treatment”. Unfortunately, the treatment will typically fail because the “patient” is continually told they are in the grips of a disease instead of plainly speaking a harsher and less welcome truth—you’re screwing up your own life and the only one who can change your life is you. However, given there is money to made with extended and expensive courses of monitoring and care that offer little prospect of a cure, and which are often repeated multiple times over that individual’s lifetime, it is little wonder that addiction treatment programs continue to spring up like poppies after a heavy rainstorm. The business model is a license to print money.

Very costly treatment programs are typically justified as being less expensive than the prison sentences, healthcare needs, or job losses that might result from an addiction, but it might be reasonable to ask whether spending vast sums of money to shield people from the consequences of their irresponsibility or poor choices actually impedes the development of the self-examination and self-control that is a necessary precursor to positive personal changes. Pain is a powerful motivator, and having to deal directly with the train wreck that you’ve made of your own life is about as powerful a wake-up call as life can provide. Although a night spent in jail and a screaming spouse the next morning are infinitely less pleasant than a sympathetic addiction counselor carrying a plateful of banana-nut muffins, it could well be the case both of these are far more efficacious pathways to long term improvement than any soothing, blameless, and protracted course of expensive counseling and treatments could ever be.

Adulthood is rough, maturity often comes after a few hard knocks have been delivered, responsibility occasionally gets in the way of sleep, failures are the fuel for success, and sometimes a good kick in the pants is the most effective lesson possible. All this is true, and we forget life’s realities at our own peril. Perhaps, as awful and wrenching as it might be for some, now is the time for our nation to ditch our addiction to our many, many addictions and resolve to finally grow up.

Are We On The Cusp Of A Revival In Christian Faith?

A few months ago I re-watched several Star Wars and Harry Potter movies, and they set me to thinking about our never ending efforts to redesign religious faith for our secular age.

That the Star Wars and Harry Potter sagas are actually parables of Christianity—without the religion being too overly apparent—has been noted by many. Each chronicles a confrontation between forces representing good and evil, each has their own priesthood and prophets offering moral instruction, each has a “fallen angel” of sorts that must be battled, each set of protagonists draws strength from powers beyond our understanding (either “The Force” or old school magic), and each offers a climactic battle where good ultimately triumphs over evil. You could readily substitute a crucifix for a light saber or wooden wand and not lose much in the translation.

One could have a spirited debate regarding whether stories of this sort satisfy some human yearning baked into our DNA or our enthusiastic responses to the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are simply the Pavlovian result of a couple of thousand years of Christian thought and practice, but the outcome is still the same. We exult in their quests and are validated by their triumphs. Toss in some modern marketing expertise and computer-generated special effects, and you have today’s version of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

There is no doubt that we crave order and expect justice—whether in this life or the next. Few are comfortable with a world that seems beyond our control. Although we like to believe we are far more advanced than our tribal ancestors, we still typically trust our fates to wise elders—except now they rattle jargon-filled analyses instead of bean-filled gourds to impress us. We also crave and admire strong leaders. How else to explain why so much of our popular entertainment focuses on royalty, barbarians, criminals, warriors, and dictators?

However, our attraction to brute force and apparent fascination with violence is not necessarily a sign of atavism. It seems to me to instead be a clear sign that we have lost the spiritual counterbalance necessary in our lives; as a result, the darkness within our souls tends to run unchecked and causes us to be attracted to cruelty instead of condemning it.

Across the broad scope of Western civilization, Christianity—with the Ten Commandments as its foundation—has guided humanity to connect with a purpose for living that extends beyond the mere satisfaction of our physical needs. Although there can be no doubt that great wrongs have been committed in the name of religion, the historical ledger balance is still far on the side of Christianity encouraging compassion, justice, hope, and self-sacrifice.

There is, however, little doubt that we have spent a good deal of the 20th and early 21st centuries elevating hatred, venality and egocentrism to an art form, which has damaged both our culture and personal lives. If you look at our society today, it is hard to miss the human wreckage associated with the impoverishment of our spiritual existences.

There is a hole at the center of many people that cannot be filled with video games, hook ups, and opioids—and efforts to find workable alternatives to Christian theology have nibbled at the edges of our public and private discourses for many years. No one has, however, yet provided a satisfactory alternative moral framework for our modern world, one where faith is increasingly suspect or openly derided. If you believe in nothing beyond the physical fact of your existence and your own needs, how is it possible to create community or encourage rectitude using any appeal that does not boil down—after the soaring rhetoric is dissected—to simple selfishness and naked self-interest? This is a question we have not adequately answered, and we are now paying the price for our failure.

I do not know if we have yet reached an inflection point, but I more and more wonder whether Christianity is poised for a comeback across many regions of the world. Modern secular life, which often relies on mass consumption and mass entertainment to create a sense of belonging—while, oddly enough, simultaneously denigrating any notion of national identity—may be reaching its expiration date.

Whether Christianity’s revival would find itself in open warfare with current societal norms that equate moral judgement with hatred or reach a rapprochement with the world as it exists today is one that no one can answer. However, I believe there is a spiritual hunger in America today that begs to be satisfied, and our media and cultural mavens in New York and Los Angeles—preoccupied as always with the latest entertainment and fashion buzz—are perhaps blind to a stark change that could soon be coming. The Bible might, to the surprise of many, turn out to be the next “big thing”—which could be a help to a great many individuals and our nation as a whole.

Can We Do Anything To Reduce Gun Deaths?

Back on December 30th of 2012, after the Newtown school shooting, I published a commentary in my local newspaper, The News-Gazette, regarding gun violence, and you can find the full text in my blog archive on this website. I have excerpted a portion of my thoughts at that time below:

Inevitably, each time another group of innocents are massacred, we talk about gun control—and we have yet another opportunity to shout at one another across the political, social, and regional divides that have riven our nation for too long. 
On one side, we hear the perfectly reasonable argument that erecting barriers to gun and ammunition purchases will make it more difficult for anyone to walk into schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, and houses of worship to slaughter and maim those whose only crime is to present a target of opportunity. On the other side we have the equally reasonable argument that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who cannot understand why restrictions should be placed upon them because of the actions of the very few; many times these solid citizens land in the extremist arms of the NRA, regardless of the nuances of their beliefs about gun ownership, simply because they have no one else defending their interests.
The end result is predictable. After much hooting and hollering, our various levels of government will pass laws that make few happy and protect virtually no one.

If we put more restrictions on legal gun ownership and ammunition sales, we will create yet more expensive bureaucracies that will devote scarce resources to the task of closely monitoring the activities of those who are least likely to commit a crime with a gun. If we increase the penalties for gun-related crime, we will add more time in jail onto the sentences of those who are least likely to be deterred by the presence of a new law and give them a little more time behind bars to lift weights and become further estranged from mainstream society. If we restrict the domestic manufacture of guns and ammunition, many jobs will move to other countries, and those who are willing to import weapons into the United States—by means both legal and illegal—will become stupendously wealthy thanks to dirt cheap overseas labor and high domestic demand
.
And if government officials should seek to confiscate the hundreds of millions of weapons now in the hands of our citizens, I have only one comment to make: good luck with that.

I continued that particular commentary by discussing the need for better access to mental health care because those who commit these heinous mass shootings are simply stark raving mad—and should have long ago been confined to a secure residential treatment unit.

Now, in light of the terrible mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida by a former student, I would like to revisit this topic and, given that I am no longer restricted by a newspaper’s word limit, expand a bit regarding how our nation should respond to this problem.

Although mass shootings are certainly horrible and terrifying, they account for roughly 2% of gun deaths each year; in comparison, suicides account for about 60% of the approximately 33,000 gun deaths in the United States each year. Neither mass shootings nor suicides are, of course, acceptable or normal events, but it is easy to see how the intense media attention to a much smaller number of deaths resulting from mass shootings has skewed our perceptions and public policy discussions. Far more lives would be saved if, for example, we developed comprehensive national programs to identify and assist those at risk of committing suicide.

Nonetheless, mass shootings create far more fear and concern, particularly when children or adolescents are targeted in schools and public places. A crazed person with a gun is every parent’s worst nightmare, and we quite naturally expect solutions that will protect all from harm.

Demanding that certain types of firearms be prohibited is a common reflex. The never ending clamor to ban assault weapons, which are actually only semi-automatic rifles that sport certain cosmetic features that endow a more military appearance, is a popular but ultimately misguided response. A pump action shotgun can do far more damage in many cases, and certain types of ammunition can render a semi-automatic handgun equally as deadly as either a rifle or a shotgun.

A recent article in The New York Times confirmed that roughly 173 people have been killed in mass shootings committed with the much maligned AR-15 since 2007, which works out to roughly 10 deaths per year. This is very sad, but far more people die each year by slipping in their bathtubs. Will banning this particular weapon actually save that many lives, or has media-driven panic displaced logical thought regarding the reality of this issue?

By the same token, a more comprehensive and reliable national system of background checks may stop some who plan to use firearms to attack others, but this solution is limited by the plain fact that black markets will always spring up to supply that which government seeks to prohibit—and anyone who is criminal or crazy enough to want a gun with which to kill can simply resort to theft or subterfuge to obtain what they want. Sane and law-abiding people follow the rules; crooks and cuckoos do not.

Proposals to ban the sale and manufacture of high-capacity ammunition clips and bump stocks, which can turn some semi-automatic weapons into ones capable of continuous fire—until their ammunition clips are exhausted after a few seconds—also crash into the issue of encouraging black market sales that will be impossible to either regulate or halt entirely.

Moreover, none of the gun control ideas that resurface every time a mass shooting happens adequately address the plain fact that the vast majority of gun owners are reasonable individuals who take the responsibilities inherent in possessing a firearm quite seriously and derive great personal satisfaction and security from exercising their 2nd Amendment rights.

So what are we to do?

I suggest that we stop chasing the chimera of gun control as a solution. I believe we should instead re-examine our understandable emotional responses and investigate targeted interventions designed to address different facets of the problem of firearm-related deaths and injuries.

More and better-funded crisis hotlines could be a good start to reducing the startling number of gun suicides. In addition, we need more programs in schools, workplaces, and places of worship to help identify and help those who are considering self-harm. We also need to develop resources to address the epidemic of crushing loneliness that afflicts our society. If we can help rebuild the frayed social connections that leave so many without someone to turn to for support and basic human interaction, we can perhaps begin to make a dent in the misery that makes so many believe that the only way to relieve their pain is to put a gun to their heads.

In addition, we need to reconsider a half century of progressive dogma that has expanded the “rights” of the mentally ill. Making it infinitely more difficult to commit those who pose a danger to themselves or others to mental hospitals, allowing those who could be helped by medication to refuse to take it, and leaving law enforcement virtually powerless to deal with threatening behaviors until those threats become actual harm to others that results in arrest is beyond foolish—these are criminally negligent abdications of our duty to protect our neighbors and communities. We must have both the tools and the power to save our citizens from the violently (or potentially violent) mentally ill—unless we want to keep reading the same horrible headlines again and again and again.

Finally, we need to reconsider to the level of violence in so much of our mass entertainment today. Exposure to the cruelty and outright sadism baked into so many television shows and movies is not healthy for anyone—but these constant violent images and ideas only serve to stoke the twisted fantasies of those who are emotionally unstable.

If you have any doubt that our standards have changed dramatically over the past fifty years or so, I encourage you to visit YouTube and watch a few episodes of the television series, Wild Wild West. This program was cancelled despite high audience ratings in 1969 because it was considered far too violent for a broadcast audience. Those who watch it now and compare it to our daily entertainment diet of death and dysfunction will find it as quaint as a doily in grandma’s front parlor. Our societal standards have dropped rather dramatically—and we are surprisingly blind to the corrosive effects that are evident wherever we look. It is unintentionally hilarious to remember that back in the 1950’s the U.S. Congress was busy crusading against the corrupting influence of comic books upon our children. What would those elected officials from our nation’s past think of our nation’s “entertainment” today?

I would be remiss regarding this issue were I not to address President Trump’s idea of arming trained and carefully selected teachers, administrators, and staff, who will respond immediately to active shooters inside of a school building. Although some rural schools have already taken this step because of the prohibitively long time it would take law enforcement to respond in an emergency, my belief is that this is not a policy we should implement on a national basis at this time.

I can easily imagine that students would be overly distracted by the knowledge that some in the building are armed. The inevitable guessing games regarding who it might be carrying a gun—for the identities of those who are armed would obviously need to be kept secret to protect them from becoming the first victims of an actual school shooter—could be more than distracting. Moreover, it is not too difficult to conjure up scenarios where accidents, neglect, or poor judgements could result in tragedy. Although—as we have recently learned from the tragic inaction of law enforcement in Parkland, FL—the professionals sometimes behave unprofessionally, we are still likely better off allowing local police and deputies to respond to a shooting at a school.

We have many challenges ahead of us regarding the plague of gun violence that afflicts our nation, and I hope we can work through them—reasonably, thoughtfully, and with a minimum of rancor. I would prefer that, rather than policymaking by sound bite, we convene a bi-partisan task force to evaluate all the potential solutions and make thoughtful recommendations. That which is done in haste and confusion can waste valuable time, finite resources, and have a great many unintended consequences. We owe it to ourselves and our country’s future to get it right this time.

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.