About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process

The news media proclaim continuous change — each chapter equally surprising — in the American political soap opera.  The real story is one of continuity, like the changing of the seasons.  Campaigns reflect in magnified form the irrational concerns of the alarmed cattle that the American people have become.

About American political campaigns, an excerpt from “Social Hygiene”,  Money and Class in America, Lewis Lapham (1988).

Transferred into the political arena, the doctrines of social sanitation oblige all candidates for public office to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores. Even the meanest of politicians has no choice but to present himself as one who would remove the stains from capitalism’s bloody clothes and wash the sheets of the American conscience. The post of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food and endure the scourging of the press.

No candidate can say, with Talleyrand, that he is in it for the money, or that it is the business of politicians to add to the wealth of their handlers. The system in place is always assumed to be corrupt, and the electorate expects its once and future Presidents to tell wholesome lies — to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows (not too dissimilar from high school football coaches) who know little or nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice or greed. The more daring members of the troupe might go so far as to admit having read about such awful things in the newspapers. But the incidents in question invariably have to do with a foreign country or with somebody belonging to the other political party.

…the vast majority of the American people prefer the purity of its illusions. The society choose to believe that the world’s evil doesn’t reside in men but exists, like the air, int he space between them. To the extent that drug addiction can be defined as a foreign conspiracy — a consequence not of the ancient human predicament but of new export strategies in Bogata — the Americans can take comfort in their righteousness. Like the late Howard Hughes hiding on a roof of a Las Vegas hotel from the armies of invading bacteria, the innocent nation affects a sensibility grown too refined for the world.

The media cater to the affliction by their incessant dwelling on the fear of disease, crime, foreigners, drugs, toxins (in earth air, fire, and water), poverty and death. Urgent bulletins about these seven deadly contagions constitute most of what passes for the news.

During the spring and summer of 1987 the media promoted the fear of the AIDS virus into a near panic. The vest evidence suggest that in the US the virus almost never accompanies the act of heterosexual love. between 1981 and 1987 no more than 18,000 people had died of the virus (as opposed to 900,000 people who die annual brom tuberculosis), and of the dead, all but a tiny fraction (.012%) were homosexual, intravenous drug users or persons infected by blood products. The media nevertheless insisted on a n epidemic certain to affect the general population.

The concern with pollutants of all kinds — in the atmosphere, the sea, the slums, the Thrid World — also governs the shaping of American diplomacy. If a foreign country doesn’t look like a middle-calls suburb of Dallas, then obviously the natives must be dangerous as well as badly dressed.

An excerpt from “The Precarious Eden”, a chapter in the same book:

Certainly it is fair to say that as a people Americans suffer from acute hypochondria, which is, of course, an expensive and delicate condition of the sort available only to the rich. So virulent are the symptoms of our uneasiness that we can become inordinately frightened of the nations likely to do us the least harm. Who can image the British empire in the 19th century, or the Russian empire in the 20th, being so terrified of states as weak as Libya, Nicaragua, Grenada and Vietnam?

The feeling of being vulnerable increases with the feeling of self-importance, and pretty soon the heirs to the American fortune come to imagine themselves as fragile as antique porcelain. Their counselors observe that with enough effort it is possible to avoid a specific risk, and so they go on to assume that with even greater and more costly efforts they can escape all risks. The fear of death sponsors the need for more regulation, more bureaucracy, more weapons …

Afterword

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6 thoughts on “About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process

  1. I really need to pick up some Lapham. Read about him before but the excerpts you’ve been posting have sealed the deal.

    There’s a brilliant montage in Bowling for Columbine contrasting U.S. and Canadian newscasts. In the U.S. it’s breathless reporting on impending doom approaching from every angle; north of it, intelligent discussion of civic matters. Having never seen a Canadian newscast I can’t attest to the veracity of this, but I’m inclined to believe it.

    On the rare occasions I come across an American television news broadcast I have to keep my amazement in check that: 1. This is not a parody, 2. Some adults think this is what they ought to know about the world, 3. The people on the screen seem to be able to say these things with a straight face.

    That’s all for now, but . . . what you don’t know about toothpaste could be killing your children . . . more on that . . . at 11.

  2. The question about Lapham is whether he is a true sage or a court jester. Harper Mag’s subscriber base is relatively small (250,000 when I last checked), but it’s a fair sampling of the elite level of liberal opinion. Liberals (or Democrats) have been in power half of my adult life, and it’s remarkable that so few of the underlying issues in Lapham’s lampoon have produced any legislative initiatives. (Republicans have their own intellectual elite, and they have had equally little impact on policy.)

    Every government/society has its intellectual elite (or priesthood), whose role is not really to influence power but to rationalize it. In Western democracies there’s an inherent tension between Enlightenment intellectual values — skepticism, empiricsm, political liberty — and the complacency produced by material prosperity. This tension is reflected in the irony of a writer like Lapham, and most of us on this site, who can criticize their society while remaining inside it. True criticism, and action, comes from those outside of society, those left behind.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Can you provide support in US and British history for the following statement?

    “True criticism, and action, comes from those outside of society, those left behind.”

    Counter-examples: Magna Carta. The English Civil War, resulting in Parliamentary supremacy. The American Revolutionary War (esp the Dec of Independence and Constitution). The Civil Rights movement (e.g., Truman’s integration of the Army, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act of 1964).

  3. I don’t know if you saw this or not, but it’s right along the lines of what you’re discussing. Fed Governor Kevin Warsh gave this speech at the Institute of International Bankers Annual Meeting in NYC: Defining Deviancy, 16 June 2009. Just a taste:

    In a seminal essay delivered about 16 years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan offered a striking view of the degradation of standards in society. He observed that deviancy — measured as increases in crime, broken homes, and mental illness — reached levels unimagined by earlier generations. As a means of coping with the onslaught, society often sought to define the problem away. The definition of customary behavior was expanded. Actions once considered deviant from acceptable standards became, almost immaculately, within bounds.

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    Fabius Maximus replies: I didn’t see anything in the speech of interest. The Moynihan article is very important. I consider him one of the top American social scientists of his generation, although his heterodox views had little impact on the increasingly ideologically hidebound academics.

    The paper mentioned is “Defining Deviancy Down: How We’ve Become Accustomed to Alarming Levels of Crime and Destructive Behavior,” American Scholar, Winter 1993. The text is posted here.

  4. Fabius Maximus replies: “Can you provide support in US and British history for the following statement?

    “True criticism, and action, comes from those outside of society, those left behind.” (from comment 2 above)

    Sure. But first, “those outside” doesnt mean those physically living somewhere else, but those denied the privileges and freedoms of the society’s ruling class, or caste, or religious sect. Hence, Puritans fought to gain religious freedom. American revolutionaries initially fought to gain full rights of British citizens. Martin Luther King fought to gain equal rights for blacks. My point was that criticism without a material cause for action, a right denied, a physical grievance like hunger, is a critique not likely to lead to action.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The meaning of your statement was clear, IMO. The major actions, as I stated, were not taken by outsiders, but by mainstream members of society. As in the American revolution, clearly proven by a bio of the signers of the Declaration of Indpendence.

    Martin Luther King Jr was a great man and key figure in the civil rights movement, but the key advances came about with support of mainstream society. The 1955 Mongomery Bus Boycott was preceded by President Truman signing Executive Order 9981 on 26 July 1948 (which desegrated the US Armed Forces) and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (forcing desegregation of schools).

    To cite the Puritans as exlempars of religous freedom is absurd.

  5. Try ‘ Wikipedia , Boris Johnson , persona ‘
    A man who says he is pro-having cake and pro-eating it.

  6. Moynihan doubtless means well, but his arguments make no sense. He claims: I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation, since the time Erikson wrote, the amount of deviant behavior in
    American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.

    Yet measured by the number of per capita prisoners, America far outstrips the rest of the world. In fact, America now imprisons 1/4 of the planet’s inmates. By this measure, American deviancy has exploded wildly, far beyond any other country on earth.

    Statistical measures, however, show that crime rates have plummeted since they reached a peak in 1991. The explanation can’t be increased incarceration rates, since Canada has experienced the same plummeting crime rate since 1991, yet it imprisons far fewer people per capita than America.

    Despite these documented facts, Moynihan claims that the increase in crime throughout the 60s and 80s was due to broken homes and out-of-wedlock births. Both trends have increased throughout the 1990s, yet crime continues to decline.

    A reasonable conclude that the available evidence systematically contradicts all of Moynihan’s assertions. His arguments, while attractive and plausible, altogether fly in the face of observed reality.

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