6 October 2020   1 comment

Thanks to a link from a former student, Megan van Frank, I read an essay in the Atlantic, by David Brooks, an analyst with whom I often disagree. The essay is entitled “America Is Having a Moral Convulsion“, a title which gave me the willies. But I trust Megan, who was a brilliant student, so I read the entire essay. There are many points in the essay where I took out the proverbial red pen, but, I will confess, that when I got to the end of the essay I found myself thinking furiously about Brooks’s argument that US citizens are going through an epidemic of mistrust.

“When you look back on it from the vantage of 2020, moral freedom, like the other dominant values of the time, contained within it a core assumption: If everybody does their own thing, then everything will work out for everybody. If everybody pursues their own economic self-interest, then the economy will thrive for all. If everybody chooses their own family style, then children will prosper. If each individual chooses his or her own moral code, then people will still feel solidarity with one another and be decent to one another. This was an ideology of maximum freedom and minimum sacrifice.

“It all looks naive now. We were naive about what the globalized economy would do to the working class, naive to think the internet would bring us together, naive to think the global mixing of people would breed harmony, naive to think the privileged wouldn’t pull up the ladders of opportunity behind them. We didn’t predict that oligarchs would steal entire nations, or that demagogues from Turkey to the U.S. would ignite ethnic hatreds. We didn’t see that a hyper-competitive global meritocracy would effectively turn all of childhood into elite travel sports where a few privileged performers get to play and everyone else gets left behind.

Brooks is myopic when he uses the word “we”. I, and many others, had no such illusions about the social, economic, and cultural impacts of what is loosely called “neoliberalism”. But misidentifying the audience does not vitiate the argument. In my own case, however, mistrust settled in before the age of neoliberalism which is usually associated with US President Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s. For me, the unwillingness of the political system to be truthful began with the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, and Watergate.

I do not think that we should assume that politicians should be truthful. But trust in a political system depends on the ability of the system to coerce truthfulness if necessary. For most of human history we depended on the concept of honor and oaths to provide truth. Apparently we no longer believe that truth is necessary.

Ron Suskind, writing in the New Yorker, quoted a George W. Bush Administration who justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in these terms: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”

We now dress up the celebration of lies with phrases such as “alternative” or “fake” news. The argument was best articulated by White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway with journalist Chuck Todd:

“This Kellyanne Conway exchange with Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, on whether Sean Spicer was lying yesterday when he said Trump’s inaugural was the most-watched ever, will dominate Twitter today.

“Conway: ‘You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.’

“Todd: ‘Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.’

“Conway: ‘If we’re going to keep referring to the press secretary in those types of terms I think we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.'”

The willful creation of ignorance seems to be a feature of life in the 20th century. It was perfected by the totalitarian regimes on the left and the right. It now seems to be a tactic of anyone who wishes to stay in power. Accepting this reality because of fatigue is an irresponsible act.

Posted October 6, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

One response to “6 October 2020

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  1. Wow. This is a really powerful post. I agree that David Brooks has a myopic screen, but when his commentary launches further critique, this can lead to a more helpful perspective. Thank you.


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