The story of America: what’s wrong and how to fix it

Summary:  Let’s start the week with an explanation of why the Republic has come to the brink of death, and some possible reforms. It’s a simple and clear story, with an open ending. There are so many possible reforms; all difficult, complex, and of uncertain effect. This post summarizes the major themes during the past few years of the FM website.

Alberto Brandolini

Slide by Alberto Brandolini (software development consultant; bio here).

At the 15th International Conference on Agile Software Development,
26 – 30 May 2014, Rome, Italy. Hat tip to a tweet by Captain Crom (@TheAgilePirate).

(1)  Tribal propaganda

There are deep force at work producing the daily headlines.  Sometimes during the past generation our leaders (both left and right) discovered that they can successfully lie to us. Insights of that kind change the course of nations.

The result was a revolution in American politics:  the increased use of outright propaganda by both Left and Right. We accepted it. Truth became tribal for us.

Every society has this to some extent. Leaders tell distorted versions of events to better meet their needs. Histories include myth and erase dark deeds of the past, becoming “Whig history” — a tale of progress leading to the wonderfulness of today.  But, as always, magnitudes matter.  What distinguishes 21st C America is the degree of falsehood in our view of both the past and present, so great that it degrades our ability to see and understand the world.

This steady diet of fantasy has led to an atrophy of our minds, the pervasive “dumbing down” seen in so many aspect of America life.

To see how far we’ve decayed, I recommend a look at the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (also see the Wikipedia entry). They read like term papers of today’s college sophomores.  They are longer, more complex and sophisticated than the political “debates” of today, where candidates volley sound-bites with journalists.  The L-D debates gave tangible evidence of a vibrant democracy.  American will be back on track when we produce something like this.

Let’s not point the finger of blame (or any other finger)  at our political activists. Activists do what works. Political debates consist of exaggerations and lies only to the extent that we passively accept them. We have the tools to become well-informed, and minds with which to balance competing theories.  We we have become gullible, that’s our problem — not theirs.

Better communication technology only lets us shout our tribal truths faster and louder. We follow our leaders down the easy road …

“… the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
— the demon Screwtape describing a road to Hell, in The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis


(2)  Fighting back

Competition provides the remedy of western society to myths and lies. Truth emerges from the clash of ideas. Left and Right challenge each others’ views, so that over time the public can see what’s real. This process no longer works for us.

Left and Right no longer live in overlapping intellectual worlds. They dismiss facts and reasoning from opponents as a priori invalid. Their opponents cannot convince them because they do not listen. They know.  Hence the comment threads of any website with a diverse audiences usually sounds like a monkey house.

What about the great Middle between Left and Right? The Middle has the advantage of greater numbers, but numbers mean nothing by themselves. Resources and commitment produce results. The Left and Right have the people that donate time and money, and the machinery to convert those into candidates and votes.

Worse, the propaganda of Left and Right rules our minds because, as Brandolini says, it takes far more effort to debunk propaganda than it does to manufacture it.

So people become apathetic as the waves of misinformation wash over them, alienated from society and its challenges. The Middle remain isolated atoms, unable to commit to either tribe, unable to resist the propaganda of the Left and Right, unable to generate their own truth, and unable to organize against the extremes.

There are solutions. We have the tools to regain control of America. It starts with the man in the mirror.

  1. Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America.
  2. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
  3. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.
Unicorn politics
There are no easy solutions. Just hard work.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about reforming America, about propaganda run against us by our military, the Left & Right, and especially these about tribalism…

  1. At the Tampa Convention Right & Left display our great illness: Tribalism.
  2. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.
  3. Facts are the enemy of both Left and Right in our America.

13 thoughts on “The story of America: what’s wrong and how to fix it”

  1. It looks like you’re trying to ignite a “Radical Center.”

    The last time that happened was when Perot created the Reform Party. That almost worked and did move the agenda, even if Perot didn’t get a single electoral vote. Too bad Perot came off as such a nut and his movement withered once Pat Buchanan took it over.

    The closest we’ve come lately to that was Americans Elect, which got ballot access in a majority of states, but ended up not running a candidate because no one earned enough votes in their online primary. The closest anyone came was Buddy Roemer, but Americans Elect wanted Bloomberg instead. Bloomberg wasn’t interested. Roemer also turned down what was left of the Reform Party. Too bad, he’d have been a good fit for them.

    On another note, I’ve collected our previous conversations in comments into two entries at my blog. I hope you don’t mind my doing that.

    1. Neon,

      Thank you for that reminder of history. One lesson I’d derive from that: leaders of any effort against the two-party hegemony are unlikely to be shiny sensible people. Only in fantasy do strong handsome well-balanced people join hopeless crusades.

      As in the Revolution. It was begun by misfits and crazies like Samuel Adams. Only after it was running did mainstream people join (with a few noteworthy exceptions from the 1%, such as John Hancock).

  2. Do you think Larry Lessig might be on to something here?

    Government has failed us. More than 90% of Americans link that failure to the influence of money in politics.

    Yet the politicians ignore this influence. While America decays, they spend endless time with their funders.

    These funders hold our democracy hostage. We want to pay the ransom, and get it back.

    We’re going to kickstart a SuperPAC big enough to make it possible to win a Congress committed to fundamental reform by 2016.

    Or at least we’re going to try.

    This Citizens’ SuperPAC will be funded through a series of contingent pledges:

    We will set funding goals.

    We will refund your money if we don’t hit our goals.

    The idea is simple: Unless there’s enough to make a difference, you don’t pay.


    They met their first fundraising target ($1M by the end of May) and are now working on the second target ($5M by the end of June). If they reach it, they will use that to focus on five Congressional elections in 2014, as a prelude to a more comprehensive effort in 2016.

    1. Coises,

      Thanks for the link to this. However, I am unhappy with the presentation given. It is, IMO, representative of our problem — it’s “the hair of the dog that bit us”, not reform.

      (1). “Government has failed us”

      It’s our government, which our negligence has allowed to fall into other hands. That is our responsibilities. Whining about the quality of service, as if we’re consumers, displays the very essence of the problem.

      (2). “Politicians ignore this influence”

      Whining about the staff doesn’t help. Elected officials respond to the people on the field, not the couch potatoes watching on TV.

      (3). Is sending money a solution?

      Like voting, it is a necessary part of a program. But it assumes us as passive elements in politics, the equivalent of folks buying super-sharp knives from late-night programs.

      (4) what is the program?

      This is just content-free buzzwords. I have no idea what they intend to do.

      In summary, this looks like the fund-raising cons that skim money from conservatives — with large fees and salaries extracted, producing little impact. They are the equivalent of releasing sterile fruit flies, neutralizing citizen efforts.

    2. Fabius,

      As far as I can tell, they do have a program. Rather than quote extensively, I’ll link the FAQ and leave it at that.

      I do, however, have doubts that Lessig is right about the way campaigns are financed being “the critical problem” in American politics today.

      I think that big money is largely just filling a vacuum left by citizens who do not believe that politics can offer a path toward improving their lives. We are convinced that two kinds of government are possible: bad and worse. This might be a self-fulfilling prophecy; but, like the feedback loop by which inadequate aggregate demand maintains recession/depression, its circular nature does not make it any less true while it is happening.

      Frankly, during my lifetime (born 1958), I can’t recall becoming aware of any government (in this country or elsewhere) that didn’t appall and disgust me. Yes, government has done and does do some good things; but this is a bit like noting that the neighborhood child rapist attends church regularly, and sometimes volunteers to help out at the soup kitchen.

      Normal people, who just want to lead decent, meaningful lives and be part of a healthy community, aren’t attracted to holding the reins of power. They have their own lives to live. Figure out a way to construct a government that isn’t primarily made up of psychopaths, narcissists and megalomaniacs, and maybe I’ll have some hope for it.

      I have greater hope of finding ways to sideline government and make it irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people; and I don’t have much hope of that, because one thing the psychopaths, narcissists and megalomaniacs can’t stand is to be ignored. They’ll burn the world down before they let that happen.

      Is the preceding a bit over the top? Probably… but it’s how I feel about two-thirds of the time, and I think it’s but a little more extreme that what most Americans feel. If you want to incite us to change, you have to cause that feeling to change. We would need the experience of meaningful self-government to demonstrate that the lesson we’ve learned is wrong. That’s the circularity problem again: how could we come to invest enough of ourselves to gain that experience, when all our experience leads us to believe it is impossible, as well as exhausting, disheartening and often somewhat dangerous?

      1. Coises,

        I guess you have adapted well to being a subject, and will find a government worthy of you in Heaven. Better yet, it is an absolute perpetual Monarchy, so you still will not have to assume responsibility. A win-win.

        Please just don’t get in the way of the those of us trying to fix things. But my guess is — emphasis on guess — that most people with such views will, when forced by events, stand with the 1% and the status quo.

  3. They actually used to teach American students in school about how to deal with such issues as part of our Citizenship training. I actually saw this film in Jr. High School, still valid for today IMO even if it is a little dated for the digital generation.

    1. CHUCK: Mr. Brown… there’s something I still don’t understand. If propaganda and advertising are really effective, how are democracy and the free market supposed to work? Instead of choosing the most capable leaders and the most useful products, wouldn’t we just be selecting the ones that are backed by the best marketing campaigns?

      MR. BROWN: Well, Chuck, you have been paying attention! Democracy and the free market are a sham; but when people believe in them, they’re even more susceptible to propaganda and advertising. That’s why it’s so important to earn a lot of money, and make prominent and powerful friends whenever you have the chance. And remember to learn all you can about how to manipulate people with… PROPAGANDA!

  4. An alternative view would consider that the problem with America boils down to the fact that it was founded by religious nuts with guns — the David Koreshes of Europe.

    As a result, America is a puritanical sadistic society obsessed with violence and torment (“No pain, no gain!”) which despises joy and the human body. You would naturally expect such a society to go berserk slaughtering and torturing the native population, which of course Americans did with gusto, and then to proclaim itself as “having pulled ourselves up by our boostraps” after killing the native Americans and stealing their land and resources.

    When America ran out of native Americans to torture and kill, we moved on to Mexico, various islands (the Philippines, where American soldiers first used waterboarding on enemy prisoners in 1901, Cuba, etc.) and eventually defenseless smaller countries around the world, from the Marshall Islands to Bikini atoll.

    As with all groups of violent religious fanatics, Americans are cowardly bullies. This worked well for them as long as their opponents consisted of loincloth-clothed tribesmen. When they ran up against real opponents who had advanced technology (the Japanese, the Nazis), Americans developed the atomic bomb — the ideal weapon for a nation of sadistic cowards.

    Unfortunately for America, the era of international bullies had ended, and now America finds itself in possession of a vast arsenal of terror weapons with no one to use them on. Like the family buly raging throughout the house looking for small children to beat up with his baseball bat, America now threatens and rages at various impotent tiny ethnic groups around the world to the disgust and revulsion of the rest of the world community.

    Sadly for America, the era of large-scale land wars has now ended, courtesy of the exponentially increasing cost and lethality of modern weaponry (like the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or Raytheon’s microwave pain ray, the ideal torture device, capable of inflicting endless unendurable agony while leaving no marks), and this leaves America as a bully without a cause.

    Cooperation seems the theme of the 21st century, from international accords on inernet protocols to worldwide agreements banning nuclear bomb test, which bodes ill for America’s go-it-alone bully mentality. Increasingly, the traits that worked well for America in the 18th and 19th century make America look like the lone kook on the block of suburban houses who holes up with a house full of military weaponry and periodically screams crazy threats at the neighbors.

    The solution to America’s dilemma is of course annihiliation, which should arrive in due course, and will be self-inflicted. The Texas Republican party has issued its new platform for 2016, which includes enthusiastic endorsement of the death penalty along with vaccination and global warming denialism. As America’s David Koresh conteingent increases in influence to become the dominant voice in our national politics, we can look forward to a swift descent into collapse and self-immolation.

    An objective observer must applaud. America has slaughtered and tortured and raped its way across the North American continent and has so far evaded the consequences of its brutality and sadism: obliteration seems just.

    1. Thomas,

      “fact that it was founded by religious nuts with guns — the David Koreshes of Europe.”

      Can you support that statement in any way? Even on the Mayflower, only 37 of the 102 passengers were members of the separatist Leiden congregation. The Southern colonies had even fewer primarily religious settlers.

  5. Aside from the obvious documented facts of the Salem witch trials and the fact that the first person executed in the Massachusetts Bay colony was not some violent criminal but a young 16-year-old boy accused of having sex with a mare and a cow and two goats and some sheep, reams of statistics point to the overwhelming violence and religious fanaticism and puritanism of Americas compared to the populations of other countries.

    Surveys regularly show Americans to be far more religious than Europeans. America remains, according to the verified statistics, an exponentially more violent culture than other nations, with orders of magnitude more assaults or rapes or murders per capita than any other culture, and America has 5% of the world’s population but (according to the FBI) 75% of the world’s serial killers. And of course America remains the only country in the world to build Creation museums showing bizarre “exhibits” like Adam and Eve riding dinosaurs to church. That kind of religious fanaticism simply isn’t found in any other developed nation.

    The evidence is overwhelming. America is an outlier for both religious fanaticism and violence per capita. This all traces back to America’s origin as a haven for heavily armed religious fanatics.

    1. Thomas,

      “The evidence is overwhelming. America is an outlier for both religious fanaticism and violence per capita.”

      That’s totally false, just ignorance of history. These things you relate were all commonplace in Europe’s past. Spend some time with Wikipedia or, better, The Britannica. Look at the world-wide history of human sacrifice and other atrocities.

      As for the present, the world is filled with oddities. Different in each culture.

      We’re violent and strange species. Your belief that Americans are exceptional, different, or even unusual is just parochialism and bias.

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