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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Revisionist history, and the fantasyland of Gatsby-esque pubescence have taken hold

A new book, Fantasyland, by Kurt Anderson, editor of Spy magazine, and a new film, Shock and Awe, by Rob Reiner, both address the current American cultural black holes from different perspectives. The former expresses the development of “conspiracy theories” primarily on the political right, while the latter delves into the work of the four Knight-Ridder reporters who “got it right” about the ‘official’ lies undergirding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Conspiracy theories, and the tsunami of media coverage that fails to let the truth penetrate the drowning wave of government lies, both of which play a significant role in American history, now and for a long time, are legitimate subjects of investigators who seek to expose the truth.

There is another, underlying, persistent and toxic theme in American culture that could be playing a significant role in nurturing, enhancing and proliferating both conspiracy theories and lies. Call it provincialism, parochialism, or the personalization of all things political, public and public policy.

Back in grade nine, we all went through the conversations about whom to vote for, for class rep, or class president. Epithets like “she’s really smart, or she’s really cool, or he’s a really nice guy, or he’s captain of the school team” are the criteria we all used to make our choice. (Let’s also acknowledge that we also used physical attractiveness of both genders as one of our most magnetic influences!) And we told our friends, including those who preferred another person, based also on their observations and assessments of their personalities, what we were going to do when we voted. And then we voted, and some of us actually watched them ‘do things’ while they held office, judging them, less on their decisions, and more on whether or not we continued to “approve” of their “person”.

Likeability, when we were thirteen, was everything. And, all of these decades later, polls still point to “likeability” as the primary quality in voters’ choices when they go to the polls. Admittedly, “likeability” now includes things like “worthy of trust” and our answer to the archetypal question emblazoned on billboards in 1960 with Richard Nixon’s face, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Policy, however, has, for a very long time, played a very minimal role in our discernment process of our elected officials, as compared with “personality”.

As adults, we have also learned much from management guru’s about the dangers of “personalizing” our workplaces. People who are admired by the boss escape serious sanction if and when they deviate from policy or protocol. People who serve as sycophants to the boss, especially, are not merely admired, but actually encouraged, promoted and “developed” by their admiring (and self-serving) mentors.

 Bureaucracies, we all know, are rife with the toxin of obsequiousness, under the ruse and rubric of “self-protective” behaviour, given that all workers seek to protect their jobs, pave the road upward toward more responsibility with higher stipends, and even more enriched pension plans.

Just this week, the Canadian Auditor General laid the “blame” (read responsibility, accountability and professional and personal ethics) for the Phoenix pay scheme of Canadian public servants at the feet of the principle of “people refusing to bring truth to power”. Everyone in the department(s) in which this IBM-generated program was hatched, installed, and later rolled out, under both Harper and Trudeau governments, knew that it was not going to work, that it would be a disaster. And yet, those same people refused to bring that glaring insight (fact) to the attention of their bosses. The costs, in personal losses, government payouts and public confidence in public institutions are almost inconceivable, they are so exorbitant and unnecessary.

The same can be said of the costs ensuing from the debacle that was the Iraq war of 2003. The same can be said, too, of the debacle, based also on lies, of the VietNam war in the 1960’s. Scott Peck, we remember, wrote about the massacre at MyLai in People of the Lie, after searching the Pentagon in vain for the person(s) responsible for the decision to carry out this specific massacre. At that time, “group think” apparently was the best answer he could uncover.

We have become willing, compliant, sycophantic and servile accomplices to our most base instincts in our race to the bottom of our political consciousness, responsibility and final perversion of the minimal expectations and standards of democracy. We have sabotaged, sacrificed and abused the rule of law, the premise an agreed set of facts, and our willingness and commitment to elevating our perceptions, observations, judgements and evaluations of our public figures to their policy rationales and their philosophic cornerstones. Their traditional objective arguments for their proposals and their votes, both in committee and in the final votes on laws, no longer have any “authenticity” in our media, nor in our evaluations of their performance and their legitimacy, including their warrant of another affirmative vote in the next election. We have collectively, and apparently willingly and mob-like, swarmed into the “swamp” of a tabloid news outlet, possibly fitting for our grade nine mentality, maturity and the sophistication of our insights.

Our focus has shifted from policy and political theory and ethical philosophy, as  articulated in political actors who have been subjected to the scrutiny of public questioning about those highly significant, and democracy-dependent criteria, to a highly toxic, cancerous and debasing mass-dialogue of what can only be called “smut”. Just this morning, we learn from Mike Brezinski, of MSNBC, that trump is even complaining, (his most prominent complaint about life in the White House) that he cannot watch pornography in the White House.

At the same time, he denies a sexual relationship with a porn actress (to whom he paid $130,000 in silence money), sends Giuliani out to diss her appearance, dodges charges from her and her attorney of collusion with her former lawyer, defames everything “female” and snatches young children from their parents at the border.

Meanwhile, this same thug evokes a revisionist history to “blame” Canada for burning the White House in the war of 1812, decades before Canada was a nation, as if to reinforce his use of the “national security” provision to justify his latest round of tariffs on steel and aluminum. His State Department spokesperson uses the anniversary of D-Day to support her assertion of a healthy and positive relationship with Germany, conflating D-Day with the Marshall Plan, as evidence of America’s “good relationships” with allies.

Even when we were in grade nine, we were able to discern the qualitative, as well  as the historic difference between D-Day and the Marshall Plan, and the confusion of his conflated equation of the KKK and white supremacists with protesters against their blatant racism. Even when we were in our early teens, we could and would call lies, “lies”, and “BS”. And even if and when such lies and distortions were erupting from the mouths of our class “leaders” we would and could be “in their face” with our push-back.

Nevertheless, the legal, ethical, moral, and adult perspective of civility, decency, honour and the submission to the “facts”, all of them requiring a degree of humility, modesty and interaction in similar terms, have been replaced with an extremely narrow, base, immature, frightened even neurotic and potentially psychotic titillation around the most base instincts of the human race. And the media, of course, dependent for its survival and growth, on the lasciviousness and the “locker-room” stench of the adolescent football team, have become not merely willing but eager enforcers of those base instincts.

We can not look forward to emerging from this shared morass, swamp and sink-hole in our consciousness and our public accountability, (shared equally between the most visible actors and the voracious appetite of the “gutter” media and its audience.

Of course, this piece is about “class” and its absence from our public discourse, from its public utterances on social media, from its discourse between national leaders, and increasingly from its justice system. There is, after all, a chasm of difference between adolescence and mature adulthood.* And that acknowledgement is made without apology, in the hope that we, collectively and privately, can and will look into our respective mirrors, and cry, “Shame on me!”

*As for Samantha Bee's deconstruction between civility as "only words" and  policy decisions and actions, like separating children from their parents, does anyone really think that the two are not connected, that a race to the bottom, in the tone and temper of our discourse and attitude will not lead inscrutably and inevitably to a race to the bottom in policy and the debased excuses on which such policy is based?

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