02 August 2016

In the Words of David Byrne: How Did We Get Here?

I have been tempted in the past six months to write a blog regarding the political atmosphere, but I hesitated because, first, it will be dated by next year (perhaps), and because there are more educated, informed, and motivated people out there who could do a better job. However, I have finally given in to the temptation because I have the need to say a few things.

Wading In

The current political climate in the United States is a combination of many developments in our recent history, even our long history. I do not pretend to offer an exhaustive list, but some of those are the civil rights movement, racial equality and racial profiling, the evolution of crime (in the sophistication of gangs and the weapons they use), which makes the job our first responders – especially the police – have to perform ever more dangerous. It’s the education system that acts more like an unqualified babysitter than a place of learning, more concerned (because of the way we measure “success”) with standardized tests results than teaching our children to think critically and logically. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of the trend toward anti-intellectualism, examined in Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, in which he wrote, that Republican candidate Eisenhower had a “conventional mind, [and was] relatively inarticulate,” compared to the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history.” It is the bastardization and development of the attitude that intelligence and learning are something to be avoided, that feelings matter more than facts, that the educated person is somehow a threat. It’s the knee jerk reaction to “political correctness,” which began as just an extension of how to behave in polite society and became something to be rebelled against because it was seen as some kind of infringement on speech and behavior.

All of these issues deserve a book, or a series of books, in order to investigate how they developed into the cultural changing attitudes with which we are now contending. But, because of time and space, I’m going to simplify it – perhaps doing the explanation an injustice because these are some complicated issues.

The Anti-Intellectual Movement

The Republicans took the ball of anti-intellectualism and ran with it. Nixon sided with the “silent majority” and “hard hats,” and his Vice President Spiro Agnew referred to protestors and critics as an “effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Spiro Agnew – the only Vice President to resign in disgrace, pleading no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion in order to avoid charges of political corruption. He was fined $10,000, sentenced to three years’ probation, and disbarred by the Maryland court of appeals. Reagan (remember, his background before the governorship of California was movie acting and radio) asked us if we wanted to abandon the idea of self-government in favor of the “intellectual elite” in “a far-distant Capitol” running our lives for us. We should remember that.

Conversely, Eisenhower might not have been quick with a quip, but as a five-star general, he had a keen knowledge of national security. Nixon knew to rely on Henry Kissinger and Daniel Moynihan for foreign and domestic policy, even though he was keenly aware of these topics and well-read and Reagan wrote his own speeches. And if the evidence shows George W Bush to be somewhat lacking in intelligence, at least he surrounded himself with people such as Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz. But as talk show hosts and the Tea Party have slowly taken over the role of heralds of the conservative movement, the overall push from the Republican Party, in spite of a few remaining thinkers such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, is one of “indiscriminate, unthinking, all-consuming anger” (for more on these ideas, see Max Boot’s July 31, 2016 NYT article at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-the-stupid-party-created-donald-trump.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0.

The Civil Rights Movement and Reality TV

The civil rights movement brought racial inequality and the injustices of segregation and Jim Crow laws to the forefront. It resulted in laws that corrected wrongs that had been permitted to exist for far too long. But, in the end, it could not change prejudices. And while the laws that were enacted discouraged systemic bigotry and inequality, they could not change people’s hearts. There’s a song from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, the lyrics of which note that one has to be “carefully taught” “to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade.” So in those homes with unchanged hearts, the teaching continued. My parents told me that everyone was equal, but sometimes their words or actions did not bear that out.

Somewhere in there, our entertainment industry became lazy. There was the studio era, when big stars like Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, John Wayne, and Maureen O’Hara made movies that were (usually) well-crafted, evocative, and profitable. Television came along and we were entertained by hokey sitcoms and big production “variety shows,” such as The Ed Sullivan Show. Movies such as Ben-Hur, Hawaii, and The Sound of Music, cost a lot and didn’t always deliver (although those three did). Star Wars became the boilerplate for the modern big-production movies, and syndication in television became a way for companies to keep making money from old television shows. With the rise of cable, there just wasn’t enough talent – or syndicated shows – to go around. Scriptwriters and others began to demand higher pay. So television resorted to “reality” TV – little or no writing required, no actors, no sets, just televised voyeurism. And while movie producers still came out with The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, there were plenty of Dumb and Dumber and Sharknado. Reality television isn’t real at all. Television producers cast these shows for maximum conflict and entertainment. They put the “cast” in situations that will embarrass them and humiliate them, and then the producers reap the profits. Art is supposed to uplift and educate; it is supposed to remove us from the everyday and expose us to the beautiful, thoughtful, and intriguing. But that takes effort; it takes intelligence. And, in spite of rising numbers of high school graduates and college degrees, many Americans have no concept of history, geography, politics, or economics.

The Middle East and Fear-Mongering

All this was going on while things were heating up in the Middle East, the economy was getting ready to tank, manufacturing and other businesses were escaping overseas to avoid paying taxes, petroleum prices skyrocketed, and Wall Street and banking took on a life and morality of its own. And don’t forget 9-11. Nothing is the same as before 9-11. And when times get tough, people often turn to religion for answers and comfort. Except people weren’t flocking to churches like they used to, so preachers took it upon themselves to politicize the pulpit, to try to explain the hard times in terms of religion, in terms of their sometimes limited view of the world. People who never learned to think for themselves, to research questions, to question authority, began to fill the coffers of those churches (in many cases) that gave them easy answers for their fear, their unemployment, their bad health, their descent into poverty. People who couldn’t tell you where Israel or Palestine are on the map, listened to those who told them what to think about those countries. They might know that Iran was at one time Persia, but they know it only as a Trivial Pursuit answer, not as a cultural and historical fact.

An African-American in the White House

Then, in 2008, the United States elected an African American to the White House. They even re-elected him in 2012. This did not sit well with those who had been “carefully taught.” While much of America celebrated this milestone in our growth as a nation, some saw it as a threat. And when the witch hunters couldn’t catch him or his family in corruption, scandal, or secrets – in spite of birthers and other campaigns – they just blocked his efforts to bring about the change he promised. If he managed to make change, they kept hammering away at it. For example, Congress attempted to repeal ACA – “Obamacare” – about 60 times (counts vary – it could be as high as 62).

The Stampede for the Republican Presidential Nomination

When events started to gear up for the 2016 Presidential election, the Republicans had a herd of moderate and conservative candidates who thought they were the answer to all the political, economic, religious, cultural, societal, and educational problems our country was experiencing – 17 of ‘em! And they ran the gamut from weird, Dominionist Ted Cruz to moderate Ohio governor John Kasich (who the NRA hates for his support of an assault weapons ban in 1994). Trying one more time (but not for long) was former Texas Governor Rick Perry, yet a third Bush, and – who can forget – the enigmatic Dr. Ben Carson. But the one who no one gave any credence to was rich-guy, reality show host, beauty pageant creep, and all-around blowhard, Donald Trump. In his announcement for his candidacy, he managed to insult people of Mexican heritage in the U.S., and the country of Mexico itself. He claimed to know a lot about everything. And he worries about Obamacare because “…Obamacare kicks in in 2016, really bigly.”

As other Republican candidates fell away like the scales off a dead fish, Trump referred to the size of his johnson at a debate, expressed his admiration for tyrants such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. He mocked a disabled reporter and degraded women. While the media broadcast their daily “Ha-Ha Look What Trump’s Done Today” bits, Trump’s popularity grew among those who felt alienated from their government, who have feared for nearly eight years that Obama was going to take away their guns, who distrusted politicians for reasons that their preachers and Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and Fox News asserted without verification or grounding in fact. Their fear escalated as Black Lives Matter movements grew in the wake of black deaths in police custody or during arrest. They worried about things that Duck Dynasty told them to worry about. They could tell who was genuine because Dr. Phil “taught” them. While reciting to every veteran they could identify, “Thank you for your service,” they called for ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria and re-escalation of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. While nodding in agreement while Fox News condemned civilian deaths in the Middle East, they listened to Trump call for a return to waterboarding and the killing of terrorists’ spouses and children. While calling Clinton dishonest, they lauded Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns and his business-by-bankruptcy philosophy of personal finance.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

And suddenly, because people don’t know how to think critically, because of this screaming, angry anti-intellectualism, because the world is now experiencing life with terrorism – as people in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine have experienced for decades – because of people whose jobs depend on spreading hate and discontent, suspicion and  distrust, because people have been encouraged to believe that feelings are as valid as facts, because – whether they realize it or not – some would do anything to keep another black president from living in the White House – because they see “Black Lives Matter” as meaning “Yours doesn’t matter,” because of a host of events and circumstances that have all collected, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” Trump became the Republican presidential candidate. And if you point out the facts, if you catch him in an untruth (which is pretty easy to do), especially if you provide proof that Trump is lying or contradicting himself, then it may be that you are being an elitist, a snob, a know-it-all. Or you’re met with a sweeping generalization or an irrelevant conclusion. Because, in some horrifying echo of Pol Pot’s concept of Year Zero, when teachers and other educated individuals were stripped of their rights and starved, it is now those intellectuals, critics, and protestors who are being vilified. Remember, Pol Pot refused to purchase any goods or services from foreign entities – sort of “Making Kampuchea Great Again.” Of course, it didn’t work, and Cambodia was starved back into a rural, subsistence-only society, and the cost was between 1.7 million and 2.2 million lives, about half of those being executions. But that’s a slippery slope argument, isn’t it?

Charity Begins at Home

So maybe I’m exaggerating and also simplifying the problem. I understand that the Clintons have been careless and sloppy. But I can’t find any proof that they did anything out of malice – like bilking employees and contractors. Sure Bill has had a problem keeping his marriage monogamous, but he’s never made lewd remarks about Chelsea. Their foundation may have some financial snarls, but it does great good. CharityWatch.org gives it an “A,” reporting that it costs a mere $2 to raise $100 and its overhead is a mere 18% of it program percentage. Compare that to the Wounded Warrior Project, which earned a “C” from the organization, with $28 needed to raise $100, and an overhead of 48%. Yes, independent watch groups are split on the effectiveness of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Foundation. Trump has no charitable foundation, in spite of his self-proclaimed great wealth, but relies on his celebrity status to attract money for various organizations, some sound, some not. The online NewsExaminer.net calls Trump as ranking among the “least charitable billionaire in the world.” 
“Although Donald Trump has described himself as an “ardent philanthropist,” he has only donated $3.7 million to his own foundation. In comparison, a wrestling company has given Trump’s foundation $5 million.”

Yes, It’s a Post 9/11 World

I understand that this world is not the world of Lincoln (also a Republican) or even the revered Ronald Reagan. It may even be decidedly different than the world George W Bush knew as President. But it is not reality television, it is not a celebrity contest, not a beauty pageant. It is not a place where, all political correctness aside, we can accept behavior or words that mock or demean minorities, religions, women, military generals, immigrants, the LGBT community, or anyone different. You can’t say you honor the soldier at one moment and ridicule its officers or the parents of the fallen in the next. You can’t claim to want to make a better place while calling for the return to torture, advocating abandoning allies, admiring despots, calling for violation of the Geneva Conventions, or – even sarcastically – inviting Russians to hack into U.S. computer systems. You can’t “fire” the enemies of the U.S., or people who disagree with you. You can’t ban the press.

Numbers Are Changing

No one’s going to take your guns. No one’s going to limit your free speech. No one’s going to make you give up Christmas or your religion or your language. But think on this. NBC News reported in June 2013, that census results project that the white majority in the U.S. will be gone by 2043.
“Non-Hispanic whites make up 63 percent of the U.S.; Hispanics, 17 percent; blacks, 12.3 percent; Asians, 5 percent; and multiracial Americans, 2.4 percent. About 353 of the nation's 3,143 counties, or 11 percent, are now "majority-minority."
U.S. Census.gov shows that as of July 2015, the female population in the U.S. reached 50.8% of the total population. I refer you to the URL below to consult FBI statistics regarding numbers of murder victims and how they died, from 2010-2014 (more recent than most Googled statistics that end in 2008). In 2014, about 68% died as the result of firearms. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/tables/expanded-homicide-data/expanded_homicide_data_table_8_murder_victims_by_weapon_2010-2014.xls

Yes, people will commit murder no matter what, but do we have to make it easier for them with automatic weapons? In semi-automatic mode, an M16 can fire bursts of 45-60 rounds (that’s bullets) per minute. When fully automatic, the M16 can fire bursts of 700-950 rounds a minute. Each projectile travels at about 3,110 feet per second. That’s about 2,045 miles an hour. To compare, the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats was set in September 2012 by George Poteet, travelling at 439.024 miles per hour. I mention this only to illustrate the magnitude of potential damage a semi-automatic or automatic weapon represents, compared to other firearms. It is a weapon designed for war, creating a curtain of projectiles intended for maximum death and damage, without the need for good aim or pinpoint precision.

Be a “High Information” Voter

With the Internet at our disposal, at home, on our tablets, on our phones, there’s no reason not to look stuff up. There’s no reason to accept much of what public figures tell you until you’ve done your research. Don’t rely on other public figures to tell you what to think. Make up your own mind after careful consideration. I know it takes time, but four years can be a long time after a poorly considered decision. Even Rush Limbaugh calls the Tea Party and Trump supporters the “low information voters.” It’s why the Electoral College was created – as a compromise between Congress electing the President and a popular vote – some of our forefathers didn’t think the average voting American was smart enough to elect a President. The “Old Oligarch” stated in Athens 2500 years ago that “among the common people are the greatest ignorance, ill-discipline, and depravity” (http://www.hoover.org/research/are-we-smart-enough-democracy).

Many of the framers of the Constitution, however, did not believe that a ruling elite could be trusted with unlimited political power that wealth and position would provide them. The expansion of governmental agencies, and the mere size of the U.S. electorate makes being a “high information voter” a difficult task. But don’t take the easy way out. Let people who know how to make duck calls make duck calls, and you decide, with facts and trusted opinions of people who you trust and respect. Don’t jump on the bandwagon because it looks like a fun ride.