Summary: Modern American news is best seen as a helix of semi-serious hysteric fits. That’s why our thousand and one reform movements accomplish so little; why we have almost no influence on public policy. This suggests a different path for those working to make a better nation. Post your thoughts on this in the comments. This is the second of two posts today.
Swine flu, global cooling, famine, resource exhaustion, Alar on apples, Avian Flu, North Korea, crack, Iran’s nukes, Swine Flu, Al Qaeda, Saddam’s nukes, peak oil, NSA scandal, hyperinflation, Yemen as America’s greatest threat, China controls all our rare earths, the Taliban, global warming, Ebola, now ISIS and torture and the campus rape epidemic. Some were repeated every decade: the government is going broke, the dollar is becoming worthless, Iran will have nukes soon.
Some of these were exaggerated by experts. Some were correctly debunked by experts.
Some of these were minor threats, exaggerated into dire threats. Some were largely imaginary. Some might become serious threats in the future, warranting modest sustained action today.
Each has its day in the news as the greatest crisis, then disappeared like a pebble dropped into the sea.
In few of these did the news media provide useful context for these at a useful moment; rather they stoked public hysteria — often too late for it to mean anything. Journalists need clickbait to get readers; news media companies need content to fill the space between ads. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Peter Moore wrote about this in the March 1987 Playboy as ”The Crisis Crisis”. It’s become more worse since then.
For all of them the American public policy debates consist of sequential bouts of hysteria unconnected to actual public policy. I doubt events would have run differently if there had been a news black-out so that the public knew nothing of these things, and TV news was replaced by episodes of “South Park” and “Phineas and Ferb” (the first for insights about ourselves, the second for inspiration). Perhaps we’d be better off having done so. We don’t seem to have gained anything by our attention to the vast flow of information on these issues. Consider the man-years — the person-centuries — burned uselessly.
We are led like sheep by our fears, easily aroused because we credulously accept what we’re told by our tribal leaders — and because we feel so weak. Meanwhile our serious problems go unaddressed, often unnoticed until too late (e.g., rising inequality and falling social mobility). We’ve forgotten that we’re strong when we stand together.
In the 1990s I gave 3 speeches a week, mostly to service clubs (I paid my booking agent $30 per and got free meals). The specific topics varied, all on the theme (from George Gilder) that the good news is that the bad news is wrong. During the past 7 years I’ve written on the same theme here. The feeling has grown of futility about this project. It’s like treating the individual symptoms of syphilis. Pouring more water on a rock to make it wetter.
These bouts of hysteria come like buses. They’re each different, but overall like stones on a string. The superficial news flow is clear, but I don’t see the underlying pattern driving these events. There must be one.
My guess (emphasis on guess) is that we’ve become disconnected from the organizations of collective action in America — from community to national, whether public or business (e.g., unions, associations), or private (e.g., Rotary, Boy Scouts). We’re like a wooden toy I had as a child, with a crank turning brightly colored wooden wheels — fun but it did nothing. So the news has become entertainment, untethered to our actions and so sensationalized. This is just more evidence — adding that in dozens of posts here — that we have become the weak link in the Republic. The people running everything (the 1% and their staff, our foes) have learned that they can ignore us, while the news has become all emo (like the music; see Wikipedia).
If correct, this implies that reformers must focus on re-connecting us to each other — rather than pushing specific policies (specific policy measures become tactical goals, not strategic objectives).
Marches about police violence, campaigns to save the A-10 Warthog aircraft, save the night rallies, flooding Congressional offices with mail — the whole panoply of public policy agitation is insane (except tactically). Repeating the same actions hoping for a different outcome. Which is why we are losing, slowly but steadily. We’ve been losing for several decades by most metrics.
The activists in these and the thousand other reforming movements are, in my experience, good and well-intentioned people. But we are a bucket brigade pushing back the tide. People do these things because they’re fun social activities hopefully serving the public interest. They often do good, helping individuals and families. However, broadly speaking, they have nil influence on public policy.
Enough for now. This is another chapter in a long series repeating this message in different ways (see below for links). It’s diagnosis. We’ll discuss actions on this another day.
For More Information
The opening line is an allusion to the great short story “Time considered as a helix of semi-precious stones” by Samuel R. Delany (1968). Well-worth reading; here’s a pdf.
Other chapters in this long series:
- Good news about America
- About information and disinformation
- About the quiet coup now running in America
- About reforming America: steps to political change