Hey Chuck –

Both of your recent forwards read like companion pieces. The New Yorker column shows us how nuts we’ve become, and the Houston Chronicle piece suggests a way—albeit a dangerous way– to sort us all out (I mean, Palin could win, then we’d all have to move to a commune in Norway).

Both are terrific reads.  The Surowiecki piece is terrifyingly accurate, though I think he’s a bit too forgiving of our countrymen.  “The anger is understandable,” he says, but what I find hard to understand is Americans’ refusal to invest even the least bit of intellectual effort to go past the soundbites and slogans to get a better fix on what’s really going on.  I can’t remember who said this, but his perfect answer to “I’m not really into politics ” was, “Oh yeah?  Well, politics is really into you, my friend.”

No wonder we don’t make sense; we don’t have any.  There is a long list of things pundits tend to blame for “The Dumbing Down of America”–TV, bad schools, busy schedules, blah, blah–but the real culprit here is a populace that is content to have reduced its political outlook to three categories: “Things That Save me Money,”  “Things That Piss Me Off” and “Things I Don’t Understand”–with the third category being the dominant influence on the first two. That’s why Tea Party types can call Obama a Nazi and a communist, and not get laughed out of the room.

However, there was an encouraging turn in the mid-2000s (for a discouragingly short period) when people became politicized during Bush’s reign.  He had scared the hell out of them. They began to look up terms like “fascism” and “unitary executive.” Friends who had never had a political thought in their lives began emailing me with their takes on the latest outrages of Bush and crew.  Sadly, many of these political tyros had zero grounding in modern American or world history so they were easy pickings for lunatic, politics-as-entertainment theories, like Bush planned 9/11, etc.  Their enthusiasm continued all the way up to Obama’s election, but then sort of petered out when, I suppose, the next season of American Idol began.  But other political novitiates really began to do their homework, making a real effort to wade through the crap to find out what was actually going on.  I still get email from them–sensible, thoughtful stuff.

There has always been a trace of anti-intellectualism flowing through our American veins, which I suppose began during our revolution against the sesquipedalian, be-wigged, English elite.  But, today, dumb seems to have grown into a movement, or at least an important part of what Surowiecki calls “the new populism.”

Though education does require effort, it is also naturally rewarding.  Evolution has hardwired us to fill our brains with new stuff– unless something gets in the way, like defeatism, hopelessness and good, old apathy.  A documentary called “The American Ruling Class”  suggests much of that hopelessness and defeatism felt by so many “average American Joes” is the result of a concerted effort by the American oligarchy to regain control of the nation from the grassroots movements of the 60s.  I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but so many of this film’s premises–from the successful corporate attack on organized labor in the private sector, to the continuing, destructive status of corporations-as-citizens are convincing enough to make me believe that a lot of the mess we find ourselves wallowing in is no accident.

I better go before this letter gets long.

Too late,

RB

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Comments
  1. Rosemary says:

    Here are a couple of interesting comments I read recently from Andrew Sullivan’s column in “The Atlantic” , as I have been avoiding all the punditry about the election while I vomit, uncontrollably…

    Republicans, Fox news watchers and the so-called “populists” better be careful what they wish for…

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/

    The Conflicted States Of America
    28 Oct 2010 02:45 pm Andrew Sullivan

    What to make of the findings of the latest NYT poll? I have to say it makes me scratch my head. It portends a big Republican wave election, buoyed by a new conviction that people want smaller government that does less rather (55 percent) than a bigger one with more services (36 percent). At the same time, 71 percent oppose reducing social security benefits for future retirees; 54 percent oppose raising the retirement age (42 percent support it); 57 percent oppose not giving social security recipients a raise in benefits this year; and a small majority 45 – 41 do not want the health insurance reform bill repealed.

    So Americans – surprise! – want smaller government in theory, but when forced to make any hard choices on spending, balk. Taxes? Surprise! They don’t want them raised either – except for those earning over $250,000 a year, but even then only by 48 – 43 margin. They also prefer the Democratic party to the Republicans – the GOP’s unfavorability gap was 11, the Dems was 2 – but are going to give us the most hardline conservative House in living memory. So go figure. A bunch of adolescent whiners? More grist for the Kinsley meme that they are just “big babies”? Or just completely confused and disgruntled and lashing out?

    Whatever the explanation, I think all this portends a much better future for president Obama than for the Republicans, even as they cruise to victory next week. People are deeply frustrated by the economy, but they do not take Bill O’Reilly’s position that Obama owns the recession because after 18 months in office, and a stimulus decried as too much by the right and too little by the left, he still has 9.6 percent unemployment. Only 8 percent blame Obama for the current economy. 30 percent blame Bush; 22 percent blame Wall Street; 13 percent blame Congress. They’re not as delusional as Fox News wants them to be.

    As for future politics, Americans overwhelmingly trust the Dems on healthcare, favor the GOP on debt reduction (go figure) and split between the parties on creating jobs. But here’s the critical thing: a whopping 78 percent want the Republicans to compromise with Obama rather than stick to their positions in the next two years; 76 percent want the Dems to do the same; and a slightly lower percentage, but still overwhelming, wants Obama to compromise too: 69 percent.

    In other words, this looks to me as if the public wants to force a deal by both sides to grapple with the long-term debt, the economy and healthcare. Now, who do they think is most likely to do that?

    72 percent say that Obama will compromise; but only 46 percent say the Republicans will. I’d say that gives Obama clear edge in future politics, and helps explain why he remains more popular than anybody else in politics, has a solid 46 percent rating even in a deep recession and has higher favorables than anyone else.

    He is right and the lefties are wrong. He will be a much stronger and more transformational president if he sticks to pragmatism, avoids culture war fights, and keeps his focus on policy as much as politics. This is the GOP high-point; and as you survey the attitudes of Gingrich, Pence, Palin and McConnell, you can’t help but think they are walking directly into the same hubristic trap as Gingrich before them.

    They have campaigned on no compromise; yet the public wants them to. If they don’t, they look obstructionist; if they do, they lose their base. As long as Obama keeps his cool, and the economy continues to recover, he’s looking good in 2012.

    Lincoln vs Limbaugh, Ctd
    04 Nov 2010 04:54 pm Andrew Sullivan

    Limbaugh asked who on earth came up with the idea of progressive taxation? In America, Lincoln established it. In theory, Adam Smith proposed it, as several readers have noted:

    “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expence, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in proportion.”

    I’m sympathetic to Limbaugh’s general argument – although I believe the debt and alarming inequality should temper one’s preferences in this respect in the current circumstances.

    But it tells you something about today’s “conservatism” that it is fiercely opposed to both Abraham Lincoln and Adam Smith on taxation and Friedrich von Hayek on universal health insurance.

    Rosemary here: I have reached some rather harsh conclusions about the ” Big R” Republican Party.

    In a modern distortion of Max Weber’s “protestant work ethic” OR a neoconservative belief in “Dominionism” is dominating Republican and so-called “tea party politics.

    “And God blessed [ Adam and Eve ] and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” —Genesis 1:28 (KJV)

    People ( those every living things) who are not in the elite status of wealth in this country, including so-called”little r” republicans of the lower and middle class status are soylent green for those elites and oligarchs and rightly so, according to this dominionist Republican political and economic philosophy. “The poor will always be with us, so why waste resources on them? In a sort of Calvinist philosophical view, revived by the Christian right and the secretive, conservative Republican network-“The Family” ( see Jeff Sharlett’s investigative journalism/ books) , people who are not in the pre- destined elite oligarchy, given to us by God, are to be exploited, used up and trashed for their benefit.

    The Family’s belief system, allows them to protect the most corrupt politicians, because they are considered “ordained by God” for a higher purpose. And that purpose is to dominate, everyone and everything else.

    I think the new Republican slogan, should be “EAT OR BE EATEN, PREDATORS RULE.”

    Like

  2. Rosemary says:

    Speaking of “populism” on a different plane– here is an interesting perspective from the columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates of “The Atlantic” who makes some very good points about Americans.

    Toward a Populist Obama
    National Nov 4 2010, 1:00 PM ET 162
    Michael Eric Dyson issues the call. I thought about this some reading this John Judis piece yesterday. I think I’m deeply uncomfortable with any sort of populism. No matter the target–bankers or the poor–it seems to require its leaders to say, “There’s nothing wrong with you America.”

    In saying that I don’t mean to ignore the difference in power, but to contest the notion of powerlessness as some sort of moral cleaning agent, and finally to contest the notion of powerlessness itself. There must be some way to acknowledge, all at once, the outer crookedness of deceptive lending, and then the inner crookedness of trying to get something for nothing.

    I was trying to get at some of this in the Jon Stewart thread, but the notion that Americans are pure, and what’s really wrong with this country, has everything to do with aliens–the media, the Muslim, the poor, the illegal, the rich, the elites–but nothing to do with the natives strikes me as comfort food.

    Moreover, it stands in direct opposition to much of the patriotic rhetoric we hear. If America is so mighty, if its people are so dynamic and great, how can it be that they are so often and so easily deluded? Perhaps repeatedly telling voters “You’re a good person. It’s not your fault.” is essential in politics. I don’t know. I voted for Obama precisely because I thought he would resist the call to Willie Lynch the people he’s supposed to be serving.

    Populism Cont.
    National Nov 4 2010, 4:55 PM ET 40
    Chris Orr flags another factor that might hamper Obama’s populism act:

    Even when Obama has been at his cucumber-coolest–and has earned abuse from the left and center for it–figures on the right have aggressively tried to hang the “angry black man” label on him. A June editorial in The Washington Times (entitled, bluntly enough, “Angry Man Obama”) cited his “tough guy” persona and “bullying undercurrent” and tied him to Spike Lee. A year ago, Rush Limbaugh described the school-bus beating of a white student by black students as typical of “Obama’s America”; in the run-up to the midterms, Glenn Beck accused the president of “inciting people.” The idea that Obama is driven by fury is prevalent enough on the right that Dinesh D’Souza could take it as a given in the title of his Amazon bestseller The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Idiotic though it may be, this is not a narrative the president wants to fuel.

    Appeals to populism and displays of anger are not, of course, the same thing. But they’re not unrelated, either, particularly in the current political environment. Indeed, if anything, the mainstream Obama critiques along these lines have tended to emphasize personality over policy.

    Let me not presume to read the collective brain of white America. Perhaps race would not matter. But I doubt that Obama, being a black man, is eager to find out. In the broadest sense, becoming a corporate Negro means accepting certain limits. Frankly, I would not bet on the consistent returns of any black man who regularly employed anger in a room full of white people.

    Granted it’s been decades, but I think Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis are still instructive here.

    Like

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