Red Alert: A Cultural Flatline


One morning in late December, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan seized my attention by violating the most sacred of all taboos that constrain mainstream media—-he confessed his lack of confidence in the American electorate.

“The American people,” writes Egan. “Had my doubts. Still do. I mean, climate change a hoax? Obama a Muslim?” But he goes on to acknowledge a spark of hope, rekindled by a poll that showed 50% of American voters, of all political persuasions, “embarrassed” by the prospect of Donald Trump as their president.

“In this age of the rude and the crude,” he concludes, “a glimmer of decency.”

In my morning paper, a glimmer of honesty. But Egan stands nearly alone, among throngs of journalists who dither over the dreadful candidates pursuing the presidency and never ask, “What’s wrong with a country that produces and encourages them?”

In a wilderness of fraud, there are few myths worn more ragged and disreputable than the wisdom of the American people. I remember an NPR program years ago when my segment followed an interview with David Broder, a legendary Washington reporter who had just reaffirmed his faith in the electorate, in the common people who could, he claimed, see through the rhetoric of political charlatans and demagogues.

The interviewer asked me if I agreed with Broder. As a reluctant disciple of the great anti-democrat H.L. Mencken, I blurted truthfully, “In my experience, anyone who praises the wisdom of the people is trying to get away with something.” I probably owe an apology to the late Mr. Broder. But all the evidence still stands with me and Egan, and with Mencken, who published his corrosive Notes On Democracy in 1926. (“Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fears. It is piped to central factories, and there it is flavored and colored, and put into cans. … The notion that the mob is wise, I fear, is not to be taken seriously; it was invented by mob-masters to save their faces.”)

I also clipped a recent cartoon by Jim Morin of the Miami Herald. A TV screen is filled with the swollen face of Donald the mob-master, open-mouthed and braying. The woman watching says to her husband, “What I would support is a national registry of people who would actually vote for this guy.”

That registry would be so useful, and so disturbing. For campaign coverage it’s time to reverse the bright lights, turn them away from the posturing buffoons onstage and onto the happy faces in their audience. In 1995, the Washington Post— David Broder’s paper — published an essay, “Secrets of the Cultural Elite,” from my book Unarmed But Dangerous. I argued that America’s culture was banking into a death spiral. My metaphor was the death of a tree: “Each season there are more dead limbs. The foliage grows mangy, the bark turns dry and scaly, creatures burrow deep inside and eat away at its heart. The tree’s profile changes, its roots contract. And then one spring there are no new leaves.”

Poetry, right? But the quotation I chose for an epigraph, from the media prophet Neil Postman, was brutally to the point: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

Twenty years later, Postman’s warning sounds like a voice from on high, a prophecy realized in each excruciating particular. We can scroll back the years, another two decades, to the ’70s when I was living in Manhattan. Donald Trump was the local laughingstock, a bloated ego unmoored from reality, unaware or unconcerned that every wit and pundit on the island was making fun of his absurd ambitions. His New York contemporary Howard Stern, whose stock in trade was the sexual humor of a sixth-grade masturbator, had been busted repeatedly for obscenity by the FCC and fired by several radio stations. Howard seemed destined to be sleeping in his car, at some point not too distant. Today, Howard Stern reportedly earns $100 million a year as the anchor personality for Sirius satellite radio. Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was thrilled to be invited to Stern’s A-list birthday party. Today, all the polls indicate that Donald Trump is a serious candidate for president of the United States.

The point, the heart-crushing, hope-obliterating point, is that Trump and Stern have not changed, evolved or grown up in any way. Our culture, on life support in 1995 and close to plug-pulling organ failure in 2016, has simply descended to their level. It’s not Trump’s fault, what appears to be happening here. It’s our fault, for breeding repulsive citizens who think he’s cool.

When you offer such a depressing assessment, on such a sweeping scale as the one I’m offering, you look for the one fact that closes the case, that ought to silence all objections. Try this one: Researchers now scan the American psyche, at any given moment, by the number of Google searches any topic or personality is attracting. Currently Jesus Christ averages 4.7 million searches annually, the popular new pope 2.95 million. Kim Kardashian leads all celebrities—-all search subjects—-with an average of 49 million. On Facebook, Kim’s “likes” total 26.3 million to Christ’s 5.6.

If you don’t think that’s culture death, my friend, go find me a corpse-sniffing dog. It was “reality” television, of course, that created both Kim Kardashian and the new, unimproved but empowered Donald Trump. Giddy success in these “entertainments” that Neil Postman prophesied required no assets or virtues beyond narcissim, shamelessness, and relentless self-promotion. Social media, which have revolutionized culture and politics since 1995, are the perfect complement to entertainment without shape or content. They’re only and all about you—-you, a nation deaf to irony and addicted to mirroring, to obsessive, aimless self-expression, to comical extremes of solipsism like the “selfie” epidemic (just typing the word “selfie” is as painful as butting out a cigarette on my forehead).

Donald Trump is the perfect president for this America, the president it deserves — the 50% of America, that is, who would not be embarrassed to see him sitting in the Oval Office. What about the rest of us, the 50% in whom the columnist Egan sees “a glimmer of decency”? We’re passengers on the same ship that’s listing so dangerously, the same 747 losing altitude so rapidly. And we appear so helpless, in most instances, to avoid our fate. Optimists yet abound in this country, not all of them dimwits or schemers. But I challenge them to show me what America has achieved, what it ought to boast about, since my depressing assessment in 1995. Idiot ingenuity we have in spades, manufactured by the blue-jeans billionaires of Silicon Valley—-a thousand solutions for which there were no problems. An astonishing Internet haunted by hackers, pedophiles, pornographers, jihadists and worse, offering fraternal support for every form of perversion and psychosis and almost infinite knowledge to a generation of underachievers to whom none of it seems to stick. (Only 14% of professors rate their students as decently prepared for college; only 29% of employers rate them prepared for careers.) A quarter of a billion primates with cellphones virtually sutured to their hands, stumbling into potholes and driving into trucks and billboards while they text and answer email. Average household debt that has risen far beyond 100% of personal income. Outrageous figures for economic inequality.

If this is the good life, it doesn’t seem to agree with everyone. Among the signs that morale is slipping were the record 50,000 deaths by drug overdose in 2014. Fatal overdoses have doubled since 2000. Suicides are almost as common, a record 41,000 in the most recent year tabulated, half of them committed with firearms.

Statistics like these oblige us to look at deaths that—-unlike culture death — are neither abstract nor subjective. Taste, education, modesty, courtesy, and public refinement may be losing causes, but the gross flip side of the American decline is violence. It’s hard to build a culture when you’re hiding under a chair. The City of Durham, N.C., ten miles from where I live, just completed a calendar year saddened by an all-time record 42 murders, the most traumatic a year-old infant shot in her mother’s arms on Christmas. (In Cleveland, the same fate befell a 5-month-old girl in her mother’s car). Nearly 200 citizens were shot in Durham in 2015, more than twice as many as in 2014. 2016 looks equally frightening for the Bull City. This morning’s paper records a woman shot to death on Main Street, a man found dead from gunshot wounds behind a home on Ashe Street.

Christmas Day gunfire killed 27 Americans this year, and wounded 63 more. (“All is calm, all is bright …”) Everyone’s familiar with the national statistics — an American is 300 times more likely to be shot to death, by someone else, than a citizen of Japan. We know from samurai movies and World War II that it’s not because the Japanese are a less violent people. Though 400,000 Americans were killed in World II, that toll will be exceeded this month by the number killed in domestic shootings since 2001. (The saddest in my file: In Winter Springs, Fla., 62-year-old John Tabutt opened fire on what he thought was an intruder in the hall and killed Nancy Dinsmore, 62, whom he planned to marry the next morning.)

There’s a mass killing nearly every day. An unarmed majority of Americans are forced to live in an armed madhouse where NRA-programmed legislators pass laws allowing concealed- and open-carry firearms in bars, restaurants, airports, churches and soon—-news flash from Ohio—day care centers.

It’s ironic but not surprising that the most deadly state, ranked by gun deaths per capita, is Wyoming, where we’d find very few of the professional criminals or minority gang-bangers from whom gun cultists pretend to be protecting their families. These are just good old white cowboys gunning down each other, the proverbial circular firing squad. The rest of the allegedly civilized world watches this comic-book carnage with amazement, with pity and contempt.

Racism is America’s original sin, its unhealed wound, perhaps its terminal cancer. Anyone who tells you that the Deep South didn’t turn rock solid Republican because Barack Obama won the presidency is a liar or a simpleton. One of the few positive things in the current mix is the Black Lives Matter movement, focusing critical media attention on rogue police officers who beat and often murder unarmed black men with impunity. In the future, body cameras and community awareness will save a lot of black lives, and others. But the police, who like all professionals run good, bad and indifferent, have been made scapegoats, trapped between increased racial sensitivity and America’s insane proliferation of guns. Every day, in every state, crazy people of all races and creeds open fire on law officers answering domestic violence calls or making routine traffic stops. In Winston-Salem, N.C. yesterday, officer Adam Gardner pulled over a Nissan Sentra for speeding — and ended up in Baptist Medical Center with multiple handgun wounds, which he is expected to survive. Are policemen nervous and sometimes quick on the trigger? Would you be? And of course, as a socio-economic legacy of decades — centuries — of institutionalized racism and violent ghettos, many armed and dangerous characters are non-whites. The long-term problem will be recruiting intelligent, competent police officers. Only cowboys with wild streaks will want to wear those uniforms, and even more innocents will be caught in the crossfire. Unless President Obama and a Democratic successor can find better strategies to end the reign of the National Rifle Association, the future is not bright at all. And I might not be here in 20 years to offer another assessment.

Violence trumps vulgarity, and venality too, but when the Three Vs all come together we make a prophet of Oscar Wilde, who said America was “the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Is ours, then, an undead culture, because it was never alive? The America imagined by Second Amendment desperadoes, where government and law enforcement are superfluous and every citizen is armed and ready to kill anyone who threatens him, isn’t merely pre-civilization but pre-tribal, a throwback to an age when hominids with sharpened stones roamed the wilderness, bent on murder and meat. Why can’t Americans, who spend so much time looking at themselves, ever manage to see themselves clearly?

Hal Crowther is a columnist for the weekly Independent in Durham, N.C. He won the H.L. Mencken Award for column writing in 1992. A collection of his essays, Unarmed but Dangerous, was published by the Longstreet Press, Atlanta. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2016

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