[Kudos to Terry Corcoran for coming up with an alternative title for this blog post: Brendan's Grand Unified Theory of PANIC!!!!!! Hahaha. Brilliant. -ed.]
I had an interesting conversation with Melissa Clouthier (and, chiming in at one point, Doug Mataconis) on Twitter today. It started with me criticizing Melissa for, in my view, propagating patently unfair criticisms about President Obama, primarily or exclusively in the name of pointing out alleged media hypocrisy (i.e., for making similarly unfair criticisms of Bush, but not doing so with Obama). I argued that emulating the media’s unfairness made Melissa part of the problem, not part of the solution. Melissa responded, if I may paraphrase, that I was missing the forest for the trees, and failing to focus adequately on the media’s “abdication of duty.” It got heated at times.
Eventually, however, the conversation turned to something broader, and I filibustered a bit, as I am wont to do, even when I’m limited to 140 characters at time. :) The end result was, I think, a pretty good summation of my global beliefs about the state of the nation right now. So I wanted to post it here. WARNING: It contains some profanity.
I won’t link to the individual tweets, as that would be too cumbersome. Also, I changed some Twitterspeak abbreviations to more readable prose, and excluded a few irrelevant asides. And I’ve had to re-order and re-shuffle parts of the conversation so that it will make sense to the reader and will accurately represent what Melissa and I were responding to. This was difficult because, at times, we were “talking over each other,” and responding to earlier points even as new points were being made. But I think this reproduction is faithful to the substance of the conversation, on both ends (although, see the “editor’s note” at the end). Anyway, I’ll pick it up at the point where the topic started to broaden…
[NOTE: Conservatives won't much care for roughly the first half of the quoted discussion below. It gets broader, and more trans-ideological, starting with Melissa's comment, "There isn’t nuance in politics. I don't believe there ever has been." And what follows after that is the really important part, IMHO. I included the earlier parts for context, and because there are a few choice quotes in there. But the trans-ideological stuff is what I'm really getting at here. So, feel free to respond on the narrower ideological issues, but understand that they don't drive my overall thesis. Whether the Right or the Left is more to blame is, for me, sort of beside the point. I see the rot in society going much deeper than any ideology or party. To the extent that one party or another is "worse," that's more a symptom than a cause. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's my take.]
Melissa: I bristle at the moderating tone argument. It always benefits Democrat ideology. They want the opposition to shut up.
Me: I’m not asking you to “moderate tone.” I’m asking you to make defensible arguments based on facts, rationality and logic. To un-ironically propagate concededly unfair criticisms of Obama, whatever your motive, is to further the cause of divorcing political discourse from reality and reason. This is not an issue of “tone,” but of substance. So much of the discourse, on both sides, is based on sheer bullshit, propaganda, nonsense, obvious illogic and outright lies.
Melissa: Okay, then let’s argue substance. But the sides you speak of are lopsided. Horribly. The Press does not present facts.
Me: Neither does the Right-Wing Alternative Media, for the most part. Nobody’s presenting facts, and the public isn’t demanding them.
Also, the meme of conservative powerlessness vs. the Almighty Liberal Media is soooo 1990s. Bias remains real, but the biased old guard (NYT/networks/etc.) have far less power than they once did. And the new guard is as bad, if not worse. Instead of promoting a truly fairer and more balanced discourse, we’re splintering into increasingly unhinged sub-discourses. As an archetypal example of said unhinged discourse once said, “I fear for our country.”
It honestly makes me feel almost hopeless. The Obama Administration has done nothing to change this. If 2012 is Obama vs. Palin, it will be the perfect shitstorm of rhetorical ridiculousness. I honestly may shut the blog till it’s over. I can’t handle it! :|
*Melissa: I hate it too. It’s horrible. But I don’t see any sign of rhetorical or ideological coming together. President Obama policy divides.
Me: I already acknowledged that Obama has done nothing to change it. Though saying his “policy divides” misses the point. When you say “Obama policy divides,” what you mean is, “I disagree with Obama policy.” Bush policy “divided” too. Americans will always have disagreements about policy. The key is to air and discuss those disagreements honestly and logically.
Melissa: There isn’t nuance in politics. I don’t believe there ever has been.
Me: Perhaps not, but there weren’t always so many actors so effectively and purposely trying to drown out any and all nuance.
As a country, we increasingly aren’t [airing and discussing disagreements honestly and logically]. It wasn’t some utopia before, but it’s getting worse and worse. I see little hope it will improve.
I fear meta-trends in all sorts of fields are moving us inexorably toward a very bad place. Someone way smarter than me should do a multidisciplinary Ph.D. thesis tying it all together. Suggested title: “Hell, Meet Handbasket.” Dishonest discourse, polarization, propaganda, endless debt, personal and government irresponsibility, bad governance: all are related.
Melissa: They are. America is at a cross-roads. Americans have to decide what they want. I don’t feel the question is settled.
Me: Yes but they’re deciding among various non-viable, fairy-tale choices. I think, or at least fear, that America is at something closer to an event-horizon than a cross-roads. #pessimism
Melissa: I hope not. But I fear you may be right.
Me: There was a time when we, as a nation, could take on truly big challenges and overcome them. I’m no longer sure we can.
Doug: Brendan, in an era when every crisis is used as an opportunity for partisan attacks, I know we can’t.
Me: When there’s always someone convincingly telling you fairy tales about the world, and distracting you from real problems with shiny objects and faux-outrages, and telling you everything’s a false choice, and you can have your cake and eat it too, who is ever going to make a tough decision? What will inspire voters to demand it? And if we don’t, why would our representaives?
Politicians know that anything necessary but potentially unpopular will be effectively demagogued to death. Thus, little is even attempted. So we will continue to live in fairy-tale land, until it’s too late, and maybe even then. #greece At least that’s my fear.
And, by the way, I dearly wish the Tea Partiers were the antidote to this. But alas. They “get” a tiny part of it, but miss much of it, and spin their own fairy tales that ultimately make them somewhere between useless and part of the problem.
My only solace is the generic belief that crises are usually overstated in pessimists’ minds. Grumpy Old Men are usually wrong. Doom is always imminent, The End is always nigh, and yet somehow we muddle through, and in the end, actually thrive. But in this case, I feel the crisis is so profound and foundational and trans-ideological, my generic optimism is outweighed by specific pessimism. And thus have I become a Grumpy Old Man at the tender age of 28. #GetOffMyLawn
*EDITOR’S NOTE: When Melissa said “I hate it too. It’s horrible,” she was responding to the paragraph immediately preceding that statement in the above rendering of our conversation (beginning “It honestly makes me feel almost hopeless”). However, I had not yet written the two paragraphs before that. Because of the “talking over each other” problem, I couldn’t find any other sensible way to present the conversation, but in fairness to Melissa, I don’t want to leave the misimpression that she was acknowledging that I’m correct about the flaws of “the Right-Wing Alternative Media” or the “increasingly unhinged sub-discourses.” She didn’t respond directly to those points. What she was apparently saying she “hates” and agrees is “horrible” is “the perfect shitstorm of rhetorical ridiculousness” and (possibly) the fact that “so much of the discourse, on both sides, is based on sheer bullshit, propaganda, nonsense, obvious illogic and outright lies.” That, at least, is what I had just said when she responded with “I hate it too. It’s horrible.”
UPDATE From comments, an even more depressing (if that’s actually possible) addendum to my thoughts on this meta-topic:
The public has seemingly lost the ability to discern the difference between facts and propaganda, between truth and lies, between real solutions and fairy tales. Or maybe the public at large never had that ability, but in ages long past, the fact that only the “educated elites” really had electoral power prevented the general public’s faults from mattering, and in the more recent past, the unwashed masses sort of trusted our elite cultural masters to make these decisions for us… but now the cultural empowerment of the “common man” has ruined that balance, and left us to the rule of the Lowest Common Denominator, the successful manipulation of which is now nearing perfection after decades of experimentation by the masters of advertising and propaganda, political and otherwise. This isn’t just politics I’m talking about: the ability of Jenny McCarthy to drive public discussion on complex scientific topics, the ascendancy of reality TV at the expense of real entertainment with redeeming social value, the success of massive corporate conglomerates in convincing us that valueless processed crap is “food” … all of these things are intimately related.
In the end, mine is a highly elitist position, because it’s basically an attack on human nature, and the ease with which human reaction can be controlled through clever, technologically and psychologically sophisticated manipulation. It’s too easy to blame Republicans, or the media, or whomever your preferred culprit is. At the end of the day, we are the problem. We, The People have made this mess. And only We, The People can get ourselves out of it. Except, actually, I’m not sure we can.
Maybe the Mayan calendar was right**, and 2012 is the end of the world, but only in the sense that it’s the end of humanity’s heretofore virtually unstoppable march toward progress. Maybe 2012 is when we start inexorably regressing as a society and a species, because of these many factors that I’m hinting at, though I’m not nearly insightful enough to really summarize them properly (like I said, I truly think there’s an award-winning Ph.D. thesis in this, but I’m not smart enough to write it). The beginning of humanity’s regression would qualify as an Apocalypse of sorts.
**Yes, I know the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually say the world ends in 2012.
I realize I’m blurring lines here, and morphing from a discussion of America into a discussion of humanity. In so doing, I’m not making the mistake of assuming that America is the only collection of humans that matters. Rather, although I don’t follow overseas developments as closely as I follow what’s happening here in the good ol’ U.S.A., I’m going off the general impression that the developments I describe are not unique to our country, but are — to one degree or another — impacting other developed countries, too. (Developing and undeveloped countries have their own set of problems, obviously. Though in the end, we’re so interconnected that, for purposes of this discussion, we are really one global “society.”)
Arguably, the core of the “thesis” I keep mentioning is that advanced societies necessarily reach some tipping point, as the adoption of democracy leads to the ascendancy of the common man, which causes the elites to eventually realize how effectively they can manipulate the common man, which leads to democracies becoming ungovernable, which leads either to dictatorships or non-functioning societies (or both). Possibly the only question is whether such societies — the plural here is multi-planetary, since again, for purposes of this discussion, Earth is really one “society” — blow themselves up with nuclear bombs before they collapse internally from cultural decay.
If this incredibly depressing theory (which I’m not necessarily saying I agree with, but it seems, at a minimum, plausible) is correct, and if it’s applicable to all intelligent life forms that come into being in the natural course of biological evolution on any planet — a big if — it would help explain why we haven’t had contact with any advanced intelligent beings from other worlds. Maybe it’s written into the very fabric of life that life-forms can’t really advance much beyond where we’re at now, because intelligent beings will naturally gravitate toward some form of democracy (it being, by far, the most facially just form of government), and any form of democracy will naturally implode eventually, because it would take a helluva lot more biological evolution before the masses are actually ready to handle the sort of power that they will inevitably grant themselves once they reach a minimal level of intelligence and interconnectedness and cultural sophistication. And — at this point, a religious person might add — maybe this is all part of God’s Plan, as it is ultimately what prevents us from becoming rivals to God, and/or from creating Heaven on Earth. Or something like that. I’m not a religious person, so I’m on shaky ground there. Hell, I’m on shaky ground with all of this. Like I keep saying, recruit someone smarter than me, and get them working on the damn thesis already. The future of our doomed society may depend on it. Now GET OFF MY LAWN, YOU DAMN KIDS!! :)
P.S. Do you see what I mean about how the thesis would have to be “multidisciplinary”? I started out talking about politics and the media (Political Science, Journalism and Communications would be the relevant disciplines, with a dash of History perhaps), but eventually, you get into Sociology, Psychology, Economics, Biology, Astronomy, Philosophy, Theology… and a bunch of others I’m not even thinking of, no doubt. Oh, also advertising and marketing, if those count as disciplines. And the study of advances in technology, of various sorts — not sure what discipline that falls into, but it’s a huge part of this.
UPDATE 2: Upon further reflection, with regard to my speculation about other societies on other planets, it occurs me that the “big if” I mentioned is probably even bigger than I initially thought, because of a discipline I failed to mention: Geography. Even if the basic principles of evolution are the same everywhere, as seems likely, the geographies of other worlds would have a profound impact on how their species evolve and their societies develop, in ways I can’t begin to imagine, but that could very well significantly alter my premises.
More broadly, I’d say the apocalyptic/decline-of-humanity stuff at the end of my comment to David, and the alien worlds/biological determinism stuff at the end of the above “UPDATE,” are the weakest parts of my “thesis,” or anyway the least provable and most subject to legitimately strong skepticism. I think those ideas make for some very interesting thought experiments, but perhaps not much more than that.
But it isn’t necessary to believe that humanity at large is entering an irreversible civilizational decline, one that probably necessarily afflicts all advanced intelligent life in the universe, in order to get at the core of my point. If the meta-trends I’m observing, or think I’m observing, point “merely” to the decline of America — empires do, after all, fall — and perhaps to a global decline of democracy itself (consistent with my dim, Derbyshire-esque view of human nature writ large, and with my elitist hypothesis about the inherent frailties of the common man, and also not inconsistent with, say, the potential rise of China), that’s plenty sufficient to warrant pessimism.
And that pessimism is personal for me, because I’ve got kids. It’s a long-cherished American ideal that we want our kids to have a better life than we do, and I certainly want that for my girls. But I fear for the state of the country, and the world, that they’re going to grow up in. I hope I’m wrong about all this, and the Grumpy Old Man all-is-lost, the-end-is-nigh, we’re-doomed-DOOMED hypothesis will be disproven yet again. That’s certainly happened plenty of times throughout history. But I worry.
P.P.S. I mentioned Derbyshire. Here’s a cheery quote, from the linked 2002 article: “We are living in a golden age. The past was pretty awful; the future will be far worse. Enjoy!” Heh.
UPDATE 3: Here is Melissa’s take on our conversation. It’s well worth reading in its entirety.
P.P.P.S. Somewhat related, from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, this quote about the Gulf oil spill — “If we cannot stop this, what else can we not stop?” — and a reader’s reply:
Exactly my own response these last few days. Honestly, I have not reacted to anything with this much impotent despair since 9/11. Not even Abu Ghraib and our collective, in effect, non-reaction to it made me feel more negative about the likely course of our society in the remaining decades of my lifetime.
I don’t participate in the apotheosis some baby boomers indulge of the so-called Greatest Generation. But the thought keeps coming to mind that if today’s American society were faced with situations as complex and terrible as the first half of the 20th century, we’d probably be living with a Nazi Europe and the aftermath of having preemptively nuked the Soviet Union.
Collectively we have lost any ability to make a hard decision, to accept that every action has consequences (as does every refused call to action) and to actually sacrifice, individually and collectively, to keep a terrible situation from becoming more terrible. If we can’t drill anywhere on the planet in pursuit of unlimited oil without destroying entire regional ecologies…well, then hey I guess we’re just screwed. If we can’t just invade the next country on our shit list and stop global Islamic terrorism…well then WTF are we supposed to do? If it turns out that the “wealth” we thought our households possessed was just a temporary accounting fiction…well that doesn’t mean we should have to quit spending money like it’s 2004.
The reader concludes that “there is truly nothing to be done about anything.” Sullivan titled the post “The Audacity Of Hopelessness.”