27 September, 2011


 This article by Walter Russell Mead over at the American Interest is quite intriguing. One thing that I've increasingly begun to notice over the past few years (so consistently that I don't think it's a jump to conclusions at all) is that liberals and conservatives in the USA both come off as rather desperate. Read the conventional news sources instead of say, something a little less headline-oriented and more thoughtful (Real Clear Politics, some of the New York Times' better editorials, The American Interest, some of The Atlantic), and you'll get one of two impressions:
  1. America is descending into a cesspool of communism, all Christians and libertarians are being catalogued by the nefarious Federal Government, to be actively hunted down and eliminated within the next few decades.
  2. America is being taken over by intolerant bigots who want to crucify homosexuals and bring back lynching, which, you know, they must, because all Christians hate anyone who is not white and northern European (so confusing to me, given where Christianity began and the distinctly non-European character of more than one place--Ethiopia, parts of India, the Philippines--where it has remained the strongest for at least several centuries).
Well, you can understand why those are the headlines. News is a business. Which unfortunately means that in a society where pride in the quality of one's work exists basically as a figment of the romantic imagination of company slogans, newspapers and other mass media survives on headlines that sell. And if you hype people up into a state of thinking "we are at war with X", they're going to buy more. That's the way we work. Make us think there's a battle to be fought, and we'll fight hard for a few minutes--reading newspapers and ranting at the coffee shop or on blogs or at work about the evils of the other side. Then our interest will turn to something entirely unrelated and we really don't care (in practice) any more until the next inflammatory headline catches our attention.

Now I'm hardly one to condemn that human impulse to fight, despite the rather anemic character of modern, safe, comfortable Western Civilization's method of attack. After all, what everyone is "fighting for," in their various views is "the truth," "justice", "good", etc. --although oddly enough one side insists that they are not fighting for "truth", because there is no truth (then why the fight? Even if tolerance is your highest goal, really, that at least must be true...another example of what David Brooks was pointing out in the New York Times a few days ago). Anyway, I'm not against the impulse, because it only reveals one of the elementary characteristics that humans have in common: however we misunderstand it and attenuate our search for it, we want truth, we want everyone to have access to the truth, and we are intensely dissatisfied, enraged even, when other people believe what appear to us to be lies.

Of course, that impulse can be catastrophically misdirected, because we're notoriously bad at understanding what is "true". Give people the wrong idea and they'll usually go too far. When an entire society becomes infected with a misdirected idealism, that's precisely when the worst atrocities and injustices of history have been committed. Because an ideal, an "ism" as Chesterton puts it, is the most dangerous of things: a piece of the truth. No one is going to fall for an "ideal" that is entirely contrary to human nature. (At this point I'm not going to attempt to defend the idea that one can talk about "truth" or "human nature", though I know that's the most controversial part of what I'm saying--I'm already getting far more in depth than I'd intended, and anyone interested would be better off reading the Greeks or the Bible anyway.) The problem comes with the bits of falsehood inserted into the truth. Take the cliched-but-useful examples of Nazism and Stalinism. True: Germany shouldn't have been so harshly punished after WWI, and Germans starving in the streets is not good; any oppression of the poor by the rich is bad, and the socio-economic problems of Tsarist Russia were severe. False: Jews are responsible for Germany's misfortune and so they must all be killed; all of the rich are evil and should likewise be killed, and you must unwaveringly support the communist regime or else be eliminated as a co-conspirator with the rich.

Anyway, this is getting away from the original topic, but essentially my points thus far are that 1.) News headlines attract our interest by turning all political issues into matters of moral urgency, whether they admit doing so or not; 2.) people are very susceptible to this because of a laudable common impulse to establish a true, just and good society; 3.) despite the appropriateness of the impulse, misinformation--whether incidental or malicious--perverts the action resulting from the impulse.

Now, I'm not at all intending to equate either side in the current political debate, nor even the extreme versions presented by the media, with something really evil, like my two examples. The cases are similar only in the way that a perversion of a truth is able to appeal to a whole lot of really decent people; the degree of perversion is obviously vastly different (except in the abortion case, but that's another whole article waiting to be written). However, I do think, essentially, that both sides of the media have got things quite wrong, and that we have to be very careful about sifting through claims intelligently, rationally, carefully. That we have to remember that America is not controlled by radical feminist-socialist-pro-abortionites, though that's what you'll see in Hollywood fairly often. And it's certainly not (and I really don't see how anyone with the slimmest contact with actual people in America could think otherwise), a nascent fundamentalist-Christian-lynch-mob state. (Again, really, has anyone been to a Tea Party? Talked with a real Tea Party sympathizer?)

I don't think people are all in some felicitous state of equilibrium either though. For one thing, that's impossible. For another, there are plenty of very obvious problems with American society today. Foremost among these in my opinion is actually the tendency of people to just...not care. About much of anything. (Interestingly enough you could argue that the hype in the media is almost necessary in such a lazy, individualistic society--a gadfly prodding the lazy horse into action sort of thing.) Generally as long as problem X doesn't affect me immediately, I won't care enough to get up and do anything about it. Notice that the only thing that really tends to get certain sectors of the population interested in politics is a mention of limiting welfare programs. Individualism. Self-centerism. Just what Tocqueville predicted, actually. And interestingly enough, what Mead points to in the above article as the "real America" that is obscured by the media hype on both sides.

To avoid misdirecting our efforts towards fighting a communist conspiracy or a nascent lynch mob, I have a suspicion it might be worthwhile to look at simple selfishness as the core of the problem. To realize that Americans are losing the vocabulary of ethics as "I want X" becomes an increasingly acceptable reason for doing anything. That socialist policies are more plausibly the outcome of self-interested lawmakers' desire to give immediate gratification to lazy, greedy constituents. That the more extreme comments coming out of mega-churches in the south stem from the fundamentalist tendency to preach a prosperity gospel and consequently involve themselves inappropriately in political-economic matters--or to appeal to a sector of the population that feels its legitimate moral beliefs to be under attack in today's America, often with suspiciously large fiscal gains for the pastors of said churches.

Which is all a bit of a dark outlook, but it's at least part of the truth. And since when has selfishness been not a problem?

1 comment:

Annette said...

What is truth to me is not necessarily what is truth to another, that includes my reality versus someone else's.
Media hype and selling a story that will hopefully be talked about is the bottom line.