Divided We Fall

The late United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This perfectly reasonable bit of wisdom seems lost upon our perfectly unreasonable age. Those with opposing beliefs see no event the same, so we are now defined by our disagreements and revel in the different and—as far as we are concerned—superior nature of both our own opinions and the sometimes questionable facts that inform them.

My worry is not only about our degree of political atomization, which is now so abundantly visible that it has almost descended to cliché. I also worry about the regional divides that have been building for many years—and which were starkly revealed on Election Night in 2016. Today’s Democratic coalition is mostly located on the coasts, college towns, and urban areas—elsewhere it is largely a sea of red.

This harsh reality explains a good deal of the unreality of the expert predictions leading up to Donald Trump’s thoroughly unexpected election victory. Pundits always live in big cities filled with like-minded Democrats on the east and west coasts—a scant 4% of voters in Washington, D.C., for example, cast their votes for Trump—so they were stunned down to their socks by the outcome. Call it the revenge of “flyover country” if you will, but the slack-jawed and occasionally tearful shock of the talking heads on network television spoke clearly and loudly on Election Night. We are, unfortunately, two nations living in two entirely separate worlds.

These divisions are exacerbated by media coverage that demonizes and denigrates those who hold opposing opinions. I am rather exhausted from reading articles that entirely skip reasoned analysis and instead focus on how someone has (these are, by the way, just from a quick browse of today’s online articles) “attacked, burned, scorched, destroyed, clapped back at, called out, or fired back at” another human being because they are a “kook, crook, dupe, hater, fascist, criminal, Nazi, fool, or idiot.” No wonder so many people now shudder when they see the front pages. Hurtful and harmful invective is now so thoroughly woven into our daily conversations that it is remarkable when we encounter grace and consideration, which is as about as sad an observation about the state of our nation as I can possibly imagine.

Inflammatory headlines and copy, sad to say, attract viewers and readers, so there is a built-in economic incentive that benefits media that are routinely rude, insulting, and unfair. In addition, the political interests of the most extreme are well-served by dehumanizing their opponents in order to attract equally outraged donors and followers. The unfortunate synergy that consequently arises between hungry media and angry partisans reinforces the worst in each, and those who adopt more moderate positions can expect to be ruthlessly and endlessly attacked by those at both fringes of the political spectrum—which serves only to squeeze the moderation right out of them.

My concerns have been increased by hearing accounts of people ditching social media because they simply cannot stand the levels of venom and vindictiveness that so many routinely display in their posts. The net result is to leave the dialogue to those who have the least interest in actual dialogue. What we see today is that famous couplet from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming, in real life: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are lost if thoughtful and fair-minded Americans, who are those most likely to forge and support the consensus solutions our nation needs to survive, retreat from our public forums. The grim solitary comfort to be found in growling at our glowing televisions pales in comparison to taking part in a national conversation that involves listening intently, speaking respectfully, and caring intensely. As much as we may sometimes be discouraged by the wild anger of others, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven to the political sidelines by those who care for little beside the sound of their own brittle voices. A chorus is most robust when everyone sings their parts together, and we should not be afraid to raise our own voices to create America’s song.

For those who frown upon such foolishness, please forgive my little flight of poetry. It is an outcome of my fears regarding the foreboding path ahead if we do not—I hope—find it within ourselves to remember that we are all Americans.

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Conspiracy Theories Or Reasonable Questions?

As long as humanity has had a toehold on terra firma, we have looked for someone to blame for our woes. Our many problems, which for much of our history were blamed on either the disfavor or caprices of the gods, now are typically blamed on human agents—who are usually part of some cabal out to fool and manipulate us.

Whether we are seeking those behind the JFK assassination, the true story behind 9/11, those UFOs parked in Area 51, or the UN office behind Agenda 21 (perhaps our better conspiracies end with the number 1!), many are convinced that dark forces with malevolent motivations are controlling our world in pursuit of one dastardly agenda or another.

It is, of course, simple human nature to demand a simple explanation for catastrophe. Placating powerful gods at one time consumed those portions of our short and often brutal lives when we were not already engrossed with scratching our meager livings from the earth. Those who claimed to be able to divine and communicate with forces beyond our understanding always were able to win favor, and if some degree of protection from pain or horror might be secured through either ritual or avoiding proscribed behaviors, there would always be a ready audience for such notions. Our compelling interests in avoiding famine, flood, fire, and disease baked a certain degree of easy credulity into humanity’s DNA over the course of many thousands of years, and we must recognize this inheritance is within us all.

Today the thunder of the gods has receded somewhat, and our shamans are typically scientists. Based upon their sage advice, we gulp supplements, avoid bacon and cigarettes, run on treadmills like hamsters, slather on sunscreen, and assiduously attempt to forestall the inevitable deaths of both ourselves and those whom we love by seeking out the secrets to our ever elusive immortality. These behaviors are, by and large, fairly benign and typically work to our benefit. When, for example, is the last time you met someone sporting a large and unsightly goiter—and do most of us even know what this is anymore?

However, the flip side of our credulous belief in the wonders of science as an agent for individual improvement is our bizarre belief in the perfectibility of humanity itself. Hence our willingness to embrace ideas based on the crudest eugenic theories and our obsession with elevating ourselves—while degrading others—based upon what are ultimately the most minute variations in our genes. The hatreds and warfare that have soaked our species in blood now more typically manifest themselves in cartoonish characterizations that are more laughable than dangerous—although ethnic and racial slaughters still pop up around the world with depressing regularity. We obviously still have quite a way to go before we entirely stamp out stupidity.

Recognizing our twin desires to both avoid disaster—and to know who to blame when it befalls us—is necessary if we are to fully understand many of the political and social problems besetting our nation and our world. As our global affairs have become more complex and interdependent, the opportunities for exploitation have multiplied exponentially, and government and multinational corporations—often working hand in glove—have become the golden idols at the center of our lives. Far more powerful, intrusive, and frightening than the supposedly omnipotent gods of old, the power of government and industry to grant stupendous wealth, poison our bodies and minds, destroy our planet, provide uncounted comforts and distractions, take away our property and livelihoods, either greatly extend or savagely shorten our lives, and ultimately control every facet of our existences is unprecedented in human history. Zeus and Apollo were mere amateurs compared to Google and Goldman Sachs.

It should not be much of a surprise that our fear and wonder drives us to anxiously search for patterns and clues to help avoid the wrath of these new and implacable gods—and seek the reasons why they insist on punishing so many of us. Some call them conspiracy theories. More times than we realize, they may be remarkably reasonable questions about our remarkably unreasonable world.

Our grim awareness of the naked and shameless lust for wealth and power that drives so many who now control our lives makes the construction of the conspiracy theories/querulous narratives that animate our discussions all the easier. Understanding the extremist ideologies that undergirded so much of the Cold War, it is easier to imagine whispered instructions from a secretive group ordering the murder of a President. Knowing of the desire of multi-national corporations and their government cronies to secure control of Mideast oil supplies, one need not work too hard to see a stupendous plot to fake a terrorist attack against America in order to justify endless war. Having been kept in the dark about so many secret government military projects, little green men in flying saucers becomes a plausible explanation for so many of those bright lights in the night sky. Observing the never ending violence and drug traffic in our inner cities involving African-Americans, it is little wonder that so many are certain this is being facilitated by the government as part of a genocidal war of extermination.

Given the craven and corrupt behavior that is now so common among government officials and business executives, are we paranoid to believe that our needs come far behind the interests of those in power who are chasing riches and influence? One could, of course, argue that dishonesty and avarice have defined the leaders of every age—why else, after all, would one chase high office in government or business? However, we perhaps have a confluence of circumstances today that heightens the stench that often emanates from the halls of power.

The Information Age has been a boon to the average American citizen—and a bane to those in power. Although political scientists often trace our loss of faith in our leadership back to the twin national traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, I suspect the crux of the problem is the more adversarial style of journalism these scandals helped to create and the rise of alternative news sources—first in print and later on through the worldwide web. Just as putting a brighter lightbulb in a room causes one to suddenly notice the stained carpet and peeling paint, so has the variety and visibility of news and opinion targeted to—and now increasingly produced by—the masses led to an enormous range of information that speaks to the fears and concerns of virtually everyone.

Although muckrakers and iconoclasts like Ida Tarbell and I. F. Stone played influential roles in shaping opinion earlier in the 20th century, the 24/7 news and information cycle—and the many to whom cheap and powerful technology has now given an unsanctioned and unrestrained voice—has made it virtually impossible for the crooked and corrupt to fly beneath the radar undetected. This visibility produces a higher degree of accountability, but it also calls the motives and methods of business and government—today’s omnipotent yet mysterious gods—into question on a daily basis.

If this scrutiny produces more “conspiracy theories”, so be it. The rich and the powerful are perfectly able to defend themselves if the suspicions of impropriety are unwarranted. If we are compelled to listen to outlandish notions on occasion—only to have them later debunked—I do not find this too high a price to pay for the ongoing oversight that is now possible. If those in charge want our trust, perhaps they had best conduct themselves in a manner that is above suspicion. If not, we should be free to arrive at our own judgments concerning their veracity and good intentions.

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.

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.

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.