Politics Won’t Fix Us

[Yet another blog post hammered-out the night before and set-up to auto-publish the next day—jpb]

We’re waking up this morning to the political punditry reading the tea leaves and parsing the results of the anachronistic Iowa caucuses. Pre-caucus polling had Trump and Sanders holding substantial leads, with a snowstorm bearing down on the Hawkeye State Monday night, which may or may not have kept Iowan caucus-goers home and skewering the prognostications. It’s now high political season in America.

Once again, the half of America that pays any attention to the process is getting all huffy about why Bernie’s 1930s labor communism shtick is superior to Trump’s bluster about re-establishing American greatness. Whether you’re “feeling the Bern,” or Trump’s your man for turning America back to some perceived golden age, you’ll be just as disappointed as Obama supporters were back in 2008, falling for his hope and change rhetoric. But that’s exactly what politics has been reduced to in the 21st century.

I read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 over the weekend. It’s a book I’d heard about back in 2012 when it came out. As happens a lot with me, I went to Curtis Memorial Library on Saturday looking for another book, came home with Murray’s, and plowed through it Saturday afternoon.

Not that one man has all the answers, but Murray’s explanation about what’s happened to America over my lifetime made some sense. The book resonated with me in much the same way George Packer’s book did, which I also made a big to do about here at the JBE.

Murray’s concern about America has nothing to do with immigration, race, or tax rates for the very wealthy. Instead, he focused in on class—considering both the very top and bottom rungs of our socio-economic ladder. Both of these classes are increasingly ignorant of how the other half lives.

In many ways, Murray’s book looks at America in much the same way that Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort did. Murray’s treatment however adds a layer of depth that Bishop’s is lacking, drawing on five decades of statistics and research.

One aspect really stood out amidst the 350+ pages of Murray’s narrative. It was what he highlighted as America’s “founding virtues.” Murray delineates four of them: honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religiosity.

I realize that to many liberals (and even some conservative types), a list like that is sure to have you rolling your eyes and tuning out. That’s fine. Your solution of wealth redistribution via either Sanders or Clinton won’t stop the cultural rot from eventually causing the whole American enterprise to come crashing down, whether it’s five years out, or even 25, if we can continue stumbling along towards collapse.

Trump supporters think that simply building a wall across the southern border of the U.S. and turning off the spigots of immigration is all that’s necessary in rolling back the clock. Both the left and right prescriptions are doomed to fail.

I’m not saying that America pre-1960, or even going all the way back to 1776—or even further—was a perfect place, or a City on a Hill, either. But it was a better place and functional—something that we aren’t any longer and haven’t been for the past 50 years.

Plenty of observers who came across the pond during our early days as a nation to view the American experiment, pointed out foibles. But there was a remarkable order that men like Francis Grund observed.

Grund, the seventh son of a German baron, spent a year in the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. A decade later, he’d publish his two-volume, The Americans, in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations, his appraisal of America from a European perspective.

He was struck by how the morals of Americans made their system work. Recognizing the simplicity of the American Constitution, he saw that it only functioned in part because Americans were “habitually correct in their actions.” The American experiment only worked given the unique combination of those four values.

Tocqueville observed the same things and wrote extensively about them in Democracy in America.

We live in an age where people don’t read, can’t think, and rely on scriveners and journalistic lackeys to tell them what’s what. I know I’m way over the word count that the average Twitter-addled American can follow so I’ll get to wrapping things up for today. But try to read to the end, okay?

Just for the hell of it, find some older photograph of a group of Americans gathered. Take a 1940s or 1950s baseball crowd for example. Look closely at the people in the stands. Notice the men nattily attired in suits and hats. See the woman dressed to the nines, also. Think about the last time you attended a similar type of sporting event, and the louts all around you, getting up every five minutes, and returning to spill beer on your shoes, or worse.

Fans at a Seattle Rainiers baseball game at Sicks Stadium (circa 1950).

Fans at a Seattle Rainiers baseball game at Sicks Stadium (circa 1950).

Or consider this.

Murray drew upon an incident from The Philadelphia Story (on pages 287-288), starring Katherine Hepburn (Tracey) and Jimmy Stewart (Mike). Tracey gets so drunk the night before that she passes out. Mike carries her to her bedroom, deposits her in her bed, and leaves. She can’t recall exactly what happened the following day, but worries why Mike had been so chivalrous and gallant. She asks, “Was I so unattractive, so distant, so forbidding, or something?” Mikes responds, “You were also a little the worse—or better—for wine, and there are rules about that.”

The Philadelphia Story (Jimmy Steward and Katherine Hepburn).

The Philadelphia Story (Jimmy Steward and Katherine Hepburn).

Yes, in 1940, there were rules about how men were to act if their date was too drunk to fight off their advances. In 2016, things are markedly different.

On Friday, I heard something on Democracy Now that made the hair on my neck stand up. The outcome for a young woman who was in a situation similar to Tracey didn’t fare as well. Today, there is no code for men.

From the Friday, January 29 transcript at Democracy Now:

On September 2nd, 2012, Audrie Pott, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Saratoga, California, went to a party with a small group of friends. After she got drunk and passed out, three boys, who had been her friends since middle school, undressed her, sexually assaulted her, wrote all over her body with permanent marker. They drew on her breasts. They wrote “anal” above her buttocks with an arrow pointing down. Throughout the assault, they took pictures on their cellphones.

When she woke up, Audrie had no idea why her body was covered in marker. Her Facebook messages in the aftermath show her desperate attempts to piece together what happened. She pleaded with one of the boys to delete the photos. She said, “I now have a reputation I can never get rid of,” she wrote. Her peers taunted and bullied her. “You have no idea what it’s like to be a girl,” Audrie wrote in one of her final messages.

Eight days after the assault, Audrie hanged herself. Her mother, Sheila Pott, found her daughter dangling from a showerhead. 

I can’t think of any two more opposite contrasts than between The Philadelphia Story and 1940s America—a place where a premium was placed on honesty, industriousness, and a culture that valued marriage (rather than maligning it), while understanding that there was a role and place for religiosity—and the sickening story of Audrie Pott.

None of the presidential candidates in 2016 have the tools in their toolboxes to fix this kind of moral breakdown that’s been happening for 50 years, or longer. Our foundations are too rotten to fix.

10 thoughts on “Politics Won’t Fix Us

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful blog. Your dedication to reading has inspired me to start plowing through the collection of books I have in my library at home. Just have to think where to begin.

  2. I echo Sally’s words in thanking you for writing your blog. While OF COURSE technology makes everyone an expert, blathering away, the actual writing of the idea, (much like the college essay) is only the first step of the post.
    There’s the self-editing, then putting the content on the platform, jiggering it, and then self-editing again, formatting things, deciding on pictures, on and on and on. In general, a blog post can take about two hours for me.

    In regards to the 2016 Horserace, I’m fascinated by the caucus process. I remember doing this when I lived in Portland back in the late 80’s and while I didn’t realize it at the time, it was “community.” You had to get together with your neighbors, face to face, and “discuss” things. You couldn’t hide behind a FB personae or a screen name and blast off.

    Sitting in a school classroom and “discussing’ with your neighbors? How barbaric! I’m so glad technology has relieved us of this habit, much akin to the horse and buggy.

    Stop by the old retrograde house on the hill any time you want to have a discussion.

    Let me end by sharing something my philosopher friend “At Your Service” wrote to me about my latest blog post:

    “If you desire leisurely, civilized conversations, full of substance and intellectual value, you’re only wanting a bit of heaven. Here on earth, we must create our own heavenly occasions. It means doing some triage, making some hard decisions, and choosing the best while leaving the rest. To paraphrase Saint Paul, ‘Keep what is good and do away with what is evil.'”

    Peace, my brother.

  3. The first thing I noticed about the ballgame photo? That they were sitting on folding chairs but they weren’t engaged in a full-on brawl swinging them at each other.

    Let’s consider the next thing about the two photos as examples: one of these things is not like the…. no, wait, all of these things are just like the other.

    I wasn’t familiar with Grund, but indeed, Tocqueville discusses at length how, in America, religion was “reduced” to moral behavior, how people should behave and get along; the fine points of dogma, angels on the head of a pin and all that, was not its central focus here. On the whole, this reduced religious strife (compared to Europe) and improved the general moral quality of Americans such that crime was largely non-existent among our settlers.

    Which leads to the four points: honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religiosity. Much can be made of them, but industriousness has been systematically bred out of us by industrialization and schooling–work when we tell you to, sit when we tell you to, here’s your paycheck. Honesty, meanwhile, very rarely translates across groups of different types. If all of you are not like each other, trust and security take great effort to achieve, and the effort usually fails.

    In the old days we’re speaking of, Audrie Pott would have had a father, uncles and brothers, maybe cousins, too, to settle these things. Certainly a bunch of fifteen year old boys would have thought twice about that alone. We would never have thought of doing such a thing when we were fiteen. But Lawrence Pott, even though he will financially benefit from the court settlements, was not Audrie Pott’s father. Michael Lazarin was, and over the years family court stripped Audrie of her relationship with her real father. Maybe if she had her real father in the first place, she would never have gotten shitfaced drunk at age 15. Are we really more “civilized” by turning over our responsibilities to our children and our families to Big Momma government?

  4. Thought provoking as always. I admire your dedication to reading, thinking, and blogging. If politics won’t fix us and if, as you conclude, “Our foundations are too rotten to fix”, what do you propose that we do? I’m serious about my question. People who consider these issues seriously (I include you and I and most of your blog readers in that group) need to come up with and work toward some solutions. Or is it too late and collapse is inevitable?

  5. @David Solutions that involve the federal government are useless. I also don’t think I’m required to offer any other prescriptions than I have, by pointing out where we’ve fallen short. The solutions that I have proposed are unpopular, with few takers.

    First, I don’t believe technology will save us. That puts me on the other side of the techno-utopians waiting for Godot to ride in on some new app. Perhaps the solution they’re waiting for is autonomous machines (self-driving cars and robots).

    The govt as it’s currently configured is far from what our founding fathers envisioned. Things are too far gone, I’m afraid to simply bring them back by electing “the right candidate,” or tweaking the tax code, or populating the Supreme Court with the right judges, depending on what your ideology happens to be.

    Last year, I read James Kunstler’s fiction trilogy, and it really changed how I thought about the future.

    Whether Kunstler’s vision of the future arrives in 10 years, or 50, it’s inevitable at this point, when every foundational institution in government is dysfunctional and beyond reform.

    • @Jim I didn’t mean to imply that you were required to provide solutions when you are pointing out problems. I’m just really truly interested if you had any solution ideas. I think about this stuff a lot, but I don’t want to get stuck in my own echo chamber. I tend to be a bit more hopeful about the ability for technology to improve things, but I do not believe that technology is the ultimate solution. I think you and I would agree that local actions are very important. A lot can be accomplished, and quickly, if local communities are committed to change.
      Some problems seem to me to be beyond the scope of local solutions — climate change, wealth inequality, etc. Local efforts are important, but without a larger unifying strategy, I think they are doomed to failure. I don’t know what organizing force for change there should be other than a political one. At least, I certainly prefer a political solution to a military and/or theocratic solution.
      I guess I’m in the camp that believes in local actions when effective and political solutions on the state/nation/world level for some of the over-arching issues. What I don’t think will work is the Libertarian blind faith that markets provide the best solutions. For proof of that, we have only to look at the free market’s two greatest disasters, climate change and rampant wealth inequality.

      • Dave, if I may, neither the ridiculous wealth inequality we have today nor climate change are the results of free markets. I am sick to death of the term “free market” because there is no such thing, neither the libertarian wet dream or the lefty boogey man.

        Markets are like playing fields, and someone, usually governments, draws the lines, draws the boundaries, sets the rules. Some agency ALWAYS is involved in creating the rules (what is money but a set of agreed-upon rules), and in enforcing them. Or not, depending on which way the graft is flowing.

        The problem we face is that the current market is wholly owned by a coalition of non-state corporations who manipulate states to alter the markets as they need, when and where needed. No, I don’t have an easy solution to that one except to recognize the depth of the long con being played on all of us, and to simply refuse to play whenever possible. The state is the enemy. Not government, but the state, which is a very modern and very tyrannic entity. No one, from Bernie to Trump, has the ability to change that. Only “the people” do, whoever they are. My neighbors are zombies, they’re not going to change anything. My “online” neighbors? Mebbe, but they’re not much good to me when the roof blows off my house.

        Think small. Think local. Ignore the preconceived answers that are handed down to us as substitutes for our own thoughts. While caucuses are usually made up of true believers, Julie was right about sitting down and actually talking with the people who are our neighbors. Growing food with them is even better.

        The answer is somehow getting back to that point where when a tree falls down on the road (happens often around here), someone with a chain saw cuts it up and gets it out of the way before the police even know there’s a problem. Happens all the time in Maine as well. Beats cursing the government for not doing what we should be man enough to do for ourselves.

        Beyond starting with oneself, rest assured that, as Kunstler often writes, none of the politicians are actually in control anymore. Events are in control. Oil will become unobtainable, food supplies will collapse, bacteria will eat us alive in revenge for our measly antibiotics, the seas will rise, and those bizarre creations known as states and corporations will have no power over us anymore, and we might even become human again.

  6. I want to come back to Audrie Pott for a moment, because it’s really sitting badly with me.

    Had you or I done something like that when we were 15, we would have been driven out of our families. We would not have been allowed to finish high school, not where we were. And our fathers and the other MEN in our families would have beaten us, severely.

    In those days, the police would have looked the other way had our fathers beaten us for something like that. And a fifteen-year old girl would certainly have felt horribly used and ashamed (passed-out drunk at 15?) and gotten her punishment, but suicide would not have been in the picture because she could rest assured that justice would be swift for her assailants.

    What’s missing out of the whole equation is MEN. Men being responsible for their families, for themselves, and instead the state being the substitute Mommy for all of us.

    I’ll stop here.

  7. Let me go a step further in my explanation that politics offers no solution to what have become intractable issues, IMHO.

    There was a time when I was willing to say that while I had given up on politics at the national level, I still harbored some hope and even cautious optimism that state and local solutions might mitigate what couldn’t be addressed nationally. But let’s look at Flint, Michigan and its issue of poison water—which I blogged about last Tuesday.

    Flint, in financial turmoil and receivership, was declared in a state of “local government financial emergency,” and was being run by an emergency manager, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder. I’m guessing that Snyder believed having one of “his people” in Flint allowed closer scrutiny of the financial issue. Interestingly, for all the local control fanatics on the conservative side of things, Snyder was usurping local control. But it was Flint, a black-run city, so no one in any place of power really gave two shits about it.

    In an effort to cut city spending, the emergency manager made decisions that subjected residents to water that was dangerously tainted by elevated lead levels. This, in a major American city. Flint residents are required to use other sources of water for drinking. Also another example that if you are poor (and also, black), no one really cares about you (except maybe at voting time, ala Hillary Clinton).

    I could argue that the neglect of Flint, as well as places like Gary, Indiana—which I have first-hand knowledge of and visited back in 2007 and actually blogged about it on the old Words Matter blogging platform—are all “canaries in the coal mine” of what’s down the road for the rest of us, at least those of us who aren’t part of the elite, like all politicians are.

    Look at our own state. We have a governor, elected by the people, who has shown open disregard for the rule of law. He conducts his business like he was our king or emperor, not an elected civil servant. His administration is filled with lesser lights (some of whom I worked for) who tell him just what he wants to hear. We can’t even muster enough indignation to impeach his ass and you want to tell me that electing TrumpSandersClintonCruz will make a dime’s worth of difference?

    No, I’m sorry. I’m done drinking the Kool-Aid.

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