Saturday, July 28, 2007

Cindy Sheehan on the Triumph of the Idiot Culture
At Expense of Concern Over Mounting War Deaths

I've gone back and forth about the subject of Cindy Sheehan for a long time. As a parent, your heart naturally goes out to any other parent who loses a son in war, and doubly so when it's a war waged with criminal negligence for questionable purposes. To her credit, she transformed her grief into something larger. Like many, I was impressed by the way she forcefully took her protest to the source, camping out near President Bush's Texas ranch, and even buying property there when she was challenged by the authorities for staying around without being a resident. A couple of years ago, I went to Washington to join her and thousands of others in a protest march against the war, and sidled up to her to take this photo of her resting her weary head on Jesse Jackson's shoulder, the first image ever to appear on this blog.

But that march seemed to bring together some questionable elements of the extreme left, as I hinted at in that post. The New Republic later documented how extreme the event organizers really were, raising what I thought were legitimate questions about why she would get into bed with people such as these. Later, as she began to publicly meet with South American strongmen, under the age-old belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I started wondering if she had lost her way a little.

Still, when she publicly resigned a couple of months ago from her leadership position in the anti-war movement, she did say something that really struck a chord (I happened to stumbled upon the comment only this morning). "Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months, while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives." A sad thought, indeed. But unfortunately a true one.


At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

Your mention of idiot culture reminds of Mike Judge's movie "Idiocracy".

A regular guy accidentally becomes part of the Army's suspended animation project. He thaws out 500 years in the future, where he is now the highest IQ human.

Judge overshot a little. His world of 2505 looks more like today. It's worth a summer rental.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks. I may check that out. But as I survey all that's going on in this country, the phrase idiot culture increasingly seems apt.

At 3:03 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

It's funny: I just emailed a friend, in the wake of a ridiculous contretemp over nothing during which my friend rose to my defense, and asked him: Is it just me, or are people in general really getting stupider?

You'll understand if I say that I have mixed feelings about the fact that my question seems to have become a zeitgeist question. ;)

At 9:47 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Zeitgeist, indeed, Art.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I ahve a theory about the zeitgeist:

The current political administration is so blatantly stupid, so anti-intellelctual in their bones, and so openly proud to be stoopid, that lots of other voices of stupidity have begun to feel empowered to speak out, and be openly stupid.

Thus is revealed the real power of whoever's in the White House: setting the tone, and setting the style of discourse, both by example.

A smarter White House tends to elevate teh level of discourse nationwide. I dumber one, well, look about ye, and despair.

At 11:30 AM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

Art, I think you're onto something there.

No one felt we could afford to field an obvious dunce during the Cold War era. Perhaps being the lone superpower went to our collective heads.

It seems to me that there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in America that blooms into full expression when conditions are right.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art makes an interesting point. But it could be argued (and I would argue it) that the times define the leader as much as the leader defines the times. I think they work in both directions. It is a little eerie how closely the two match sometimes, though.

Eisenhower has of course come to symbolize the '50s. But smart people now know that that decade wasn't remotely as quiescent as pop legend would have it. James Dean's youthful existential ennui and Marlin Brando's free-ranging biker anarchy (in 1953's "The Wild One," he's asked “What’re ya rebelling against, Johnny?” He famously responds: “Whatta ya got?”) were certainly suggestive of the upcoming cultural upheavals of the '60s. And for his part, Eisenhower was hardly the amiable caretaker dunce of legend, (witness his foresight in warning against the military industrial complex).

JFK symbolizes the promise and youthful optimism of the early '60s, Carter the seemingly genial, mushheaded malaise of the '70s.

Clinton encapsulates all the physical energy, intellectual dynamism and emotional intelligence of the economically ascendant '90s (with all the accompanying personality deficits you already know about). G.W. Bush, alas, seems to have signaled (and presided over) a return to the American Dark Ages, a kind of second wave of Know Nothingism, a celebration of our basest instincts over intellect. It would have seemed impossible to have predicted this turn to complete anti-intellectualism just a decade ago, but American history also suggests you just have to wait it out before things swing back again.

A sociologist (or perhaps better yet, a behavioral economist) might say that this seemingly bizarre metronomic swing between opposites is all part of our national DNA, and a necessary part of our cultural dynamism. The same dynamism that creates growing gaps between the rich and poor and higher crime rates than the rest of the industrialized west. While it creates and harbors those socially unwanted extremes, it also comes along with greater openness to immigrants (yes, that too will swing back eventually) and greater receptivity to creativity and social mobility than elsewhere. I suppose we have to learn to accept (and moderate) the bad parts while enjoying and building on the good.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

There has indeed always been a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in US culture. It's not new, but I think it's feeling empowered to flair up now more than it is has in decades. It becomes overt when the conditions are right, as you say.

John, I do agree that the system is a dynamic equilibrium, usually. All parts of the system all the other parts. What I think is different with BushCo.—or perhaps just more blatant—is the lengths to which they have gone to make it overt and even part of national policy. Which of course is ironic when you remember he used to call himself the education president. I know several school board members, teachers, and school administrators out here in semi-rural Wisconsin; and not one of them, even the most conservative of them, has anything good to say about the whole "No Child Left Behind" program. Which was a fisaco not because of its basic idea, but because of the idiotic way in which it was implemented.

So, while I agree with you in general about system dynamics (as it were), I think in this case there IS an exaggerated and pernicious influence coming directly out of the White House. If you couple that with the rest of their policies that are essentially totalitarian—the White House secrets, the Patriot Act, the attempt to fortify power in the Executive and take it away from the other Branches—there is a whole pattern here of actions that have really thrown the dynamic system out of balance. All of which, I do think, empowers like-mind proto-fascists to feel that they can speak up too.

In other words, I'm not disagreeing with you in essence, just in detail. I really do think the system is the most out of whack it's been since Watergate—although in some ways it's worse now than it was then.

This is an intersting discussion. I rarely get the chance to talk intelligent politic mechanics with folks. Thanks for making it possible.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art: no, you're right, we're mostly in agreement. Your point about the Bush years being qualitatively worse than anything before it has begun to dawn on most progressives. It happens in this way: you think back to the Nixon years, for instance, and it dawns on you that the EPA was begun under his administration, and the Clean Air Act passed during his administration, and that not only did he not fight them, but seemed to welcome them.

And when you look at the Reagan years, for a more recent example, even though at the time we might have thought of it as a new low water mark in politics, the guy actually responded to bad press and low opinion poll ratings after Iran-Contra by cleaning house and even apologizing (apologizing!!) to the American public for trading arms for hostages (even though he still argued he never thought of it as such). Reagan was disconnected from reality in deep and unmistakable ways (though we now recognize some or possibly even much of it was because of early onset of Alzheimer's), but he and his White House weren't remotely celebrating that disconnection, or raising a retreat from reality as a new reigning paradigm of the American empire, as these current thugs do. But then, I lay equal parts of the blame on the American media, which wouldn't have let Nixon or Reagan get away with it, but has let Bush, at least till recently.

Anyway, I too enjoy this dialogue, and it's all the cooler that we get to carry it on despite never having met, and living three or four states apart. I'm glad you've found us, and that you've chosen to take part in the conversation.


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