Friday, March 24, 2006

The Seventies: When Americans became dumb?

One of the great paradoxes of our age is how the US can be so dimly complacent and so sharply fearful in the same breath.--James Wolcott

On my flight home from Orlando, Florida last night (I was visiting a friend), as I was opening my airplane reading, historian Bruce Schulman's The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, the woman in the seat next to me opened a Rush Limbaugh newsletter. Not fully believing my eyes, I glanced over surreptitiously at the articles every so often, only making myself more disgusted as I saw headlines like "Why Joe Wilson is Wrong" and clearly made-up quotes attributed to Bill Clinton and Al Gore (when will Rush get over his obsession with Clinton, anyway?). As a result of forces that have polarized our society, such as commentators like Rush, Bill O'Reilly, and Ann Coulter who get what seems like unlimited airtime to spew their usually unsubstantiated invective, people like me have tuned out of much of what passes for debate within the mainstream media. In a way, I live in a state of denial: I flip past Fox News as fast as possible, I live in a college town where even (most) Republicans scoff at O'Reilly, and I certainly don't meet a "dittohead," a person who listens to Rush and unquestionably accepts what he says as the truth, very often.

As I sat staring at The Seventies, I wondered how the United States has become a land within which two separate worlds exist: an educated, socially liberal world with faith in science and the less educated, socially conservative world with faith in religion. More importantly, how has the latter world become the more influential in politics and culture? In Schulman's book, I found part of my answer. In The Seventies, it is argued that as a result of frustration with the lack of progress of integrationist movements like Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Leadership Conference (SLC) and traditional feminist movements like the National Organization for Women (NOW), activits increasingly agitated against American social and political structures that they had once used to try to win equality. As an example, compare then-lawyer Thurgood Marshall's successful efforts in Brown v. Board of Education to prove that legally separate institutions could by definition never be equal circa 1954 to Stokely Carmichael's "black power"movement where he urged "a complete rejection of American society." With this distrust in the ability of America's public structures to achieve equality came a larger distrust in a government that had up to then been relatively successful at achieving its aims since the 1930s: aims of fighting depression, winning a war, and creating prosperity. In the late '60s and early '70s, however, the war in Vietnam and finally Watergate fomented distrust of government not only among minorities and women but among Americans who hadn't felt as disaffected during the civil rights era.

This, however is where things get muddled. Why, for instance, didn't Americans connect Watergate more directly with its perpetrators rather than with the entire federal government, and why didn't it become a lesson against invasvive government and the accumulation of executive power? Well, I believe it was a lesson against these things for awhile, but soon became a justification for Republican power in a contradictory sense: Republicans claimed they were the party against government and therefore were able to accumulate governmental power and do very corrupt things with it. In the meantime, as The Seventies suggests, Americans were looking to individualist experiences to define their being, their meaning. Schulman suggests that with public institutions in question, traditional organizations that fostered civic belonging waned in membership while membership in New Age movements and evangelist religions took off. This is also where Rush Limbaugh, in my view, could gain his following: from a bunch of people desirous to distrust government, to blame all of their problems on forces far from them, and to try and understand societal upheavals today.

In a recently published book called Retro vs. Metro by John Sperling, et al., the thesis is in part that the U.S. is currentlymade up of two distinct, polarized regional political mindsets (the former being the South, Midwest, and Mountain states, the latter the more populous East and West coasts and Great Lakes states): "one traditional and rooted in the past, and one modern and focused on the future." However, there are a few attributes of so-called "Retro" or red-state, suburban sprawl America that are nothing if not anti-traditional. The almost hedonistic belief in doing everything first and foremost to please oneself, the yes, liberal attitude towards our natural resources that come with driving SUVs and H2s and living in areas that are un-walkable, the unhealthy diets that lead to Type 2 diabetes and obesity: this is a red-state America. I'm not saying there aren't Democrats of this lifestyle or Republicans not of it, but that it is almost synonomous with the ideals of the New Right, which are in a nutshell: me, me me. Distrust of education based on an uninformed cynicism towards scientific reason is a fundamental attribute of the New Right and is in part behind our country's low achievement rankings in education (for instance, in 2003, 15-year olds in America finished 24th out of 29th in math and problem solving abilities).

Religion has become the "opiate of the masses" only because there are large segements of the population today who are unwilling to believe anything else. These are the same people who criticize the ideal of diversity, but when they argue that creationism should be taught in schools, they are employing the exact principles that they are purportedly against by suggesting a diversity of "views" must be taught. By appeasing this group of people and shying away from criticizing their lifestyle in fear of being called "elitist" or "liberal" can only lead to further decline in the direction of our country.


Anonymous said...

Hi, found your blog just now doing some research. I was just thinking about this the other day when I heard a radio commercial saying, "Who's going to take care of you and help you succeed? The government certainly isn't going to help you (scoff)." 10 to 1 there's a conservative agenda behind that advertiser.

Check out the Rockridge Institute if you haven't already.

Elaine said...

Thanks for the tip. Rockridge looks like a great organization!