Every four years my mind resets the same questions: Are most American people incredibly stupid? And, does the American political system ensure that its people will ultimately make the choices that are best for the country?
I grew up believing, like many Americans, that we were exceptional. We had beaten Hitler and Tojo, we had cured polio, we were first on the moon. We believed we had the best political system and the most productive economy in the world. The 20th century was America’s century. Those historical accomplishments and attitudes have been sorely tested in the first decade of this century.
My parents’ generation have been termed “The Greatest Generation.” Indeed, they were the ones who beat Hitler and Tojo, cured polio, and financed the moon landing. But they also elected Nixon and Reagan and are badly implicated in the election of the Bushes. Many of them are also the ones, even in their dotage, who are squandering much of what they have built in casinos and in other excesses. They rose to achieve great things from their historical circumstances, but they were fallible. It is frightening to read deeper into heir history to see how close things came to going the other way, to see the blemishes of the racism, of the shortsightedness and material acquisitiveness, and of the stupidity.
As if to prove our character is not exceptional and our historical destiny is not to prove that Americans are not the “best that we [humans] can be,” along came the 21st century. We had already mistakenly believed that we had beaten the two big communist monster states and that their becoming capitalist wouldn’t be an even bigger threat. We had already misread that threat in our Vietnam debacle and in so doing rendered our polity and mortgaged our economy. By the last two decades we had retreated into some sort of mystical primitivism by rejecting what the Enlightenment won at such great cost three centuries before and flirting with the most dangerous of attitudes of history—that we are God’s chosen people.
A “perfect storm” (metaphor of the decade, and maybe the century) was brewing. We first reneged on our celebrated “free and fair” electoral process to allow an inferior man to occupy the Oval Office largely because he had not had an affair in it and because he was that most dangerous of leaders, a “saved” man of faith.
And then it came, the event that could well undo so much of that American century achievement, that could show much of the world that also had come to believe in our “exceptionality,” that Americans could be incredibly stupid—911. The “biblicality” of it is almost breathtaking. It was the great re-defining event for America that has since undergone almost continual political re-definition. No sooner did the twin towers crumble than America seem to ratchet back centuries and, although the word “crusade” was considered politically-incorrect after its first few usages, the mentality of it remained and dictated policy. Americans were afraid, they were kept afraid by lies and political rhetoric and that made them stupid. Fear makes people embrace two irrationalities—denial and desperation. It also make them run when they are on fire. And Americans were ready to deny the facts behind 911, and desperate for someone to come up with a nice simple solution to make it go away.
We had never been psychologically tested like this before—even by World War II. Indeed, distracted by our economic depression and political isolationism, it took some pushing to get Americans concerned enough about what was happening in Europe and Asia in the 1930s. The next civil war might have been between the Japanese-speaking Westcoasters and the German-speaking Eastcoasters, had not the event that is most likened to 911—Pearl Harbor—happened. But in 1941 Americans were asked to sacrifice, in 2001 they were exhorted to “go shopping.”
If it takes dramatic events such as Pearl Harbor and 911 to roust Americans, they are like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot when it comes to accretive economic problems such as rising debt, the shift to a global economy, infrastructurally–insidious fiscal parsimony, and environmentally-destructive pollution and global warming. Could anything have been more dramatic, more illustrative of craven political interest, of insensitivity and neglect, of residual racism, of betrayal of oath and public trust, than the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina? Could anything, by any American’s definition, be more UN-American, than the torturing of unindicted detainees? Would Americans ever have countenanced being spied upon by their own government and having the rights of habeas corpus rescinded? Can they have become so sheepishly stupid in their fear that, to paraphrase a spin phrase from the Vietnam ear, we would “burn [our own] village in order to save it”? Deflective blame-shifting and denial are easier than facing up to the realities, especially when you are a country with God’s “most favored nation” status.
Americans became a people who went from JFK’s notion that we must make history, to a people who have become convinced that our history is predestined, that we are ordained to be the richest, most powerful and, of course, the greatest nation the world has ever known. No pride goeth before our fall. Our destiny is to lead, to dominate, to bully if necessary, to be the exemplar of God’s mission on earth.
This has all been said and done before, and there are Ozymandian ruins and wrecked “civilizations” scattered throughout history and around the globe that expressed the same hubris, and the same stupidity. Eventually, circumstances or countervailing forces emasculated them. They all believed that they were the civilizations of destiny.
Such is the danger of biblical thinking and, when biblical thinking is putatively “confirmed” by events such as 911, faith rules over rationality and stupidity rules over reason.
America has had seven years to emerge from the denial and desperation it has lived in since 911. That’s more than long enough. The exposures of corruption in Washington, criminal neglect in the wake of Katrina, and the meltdown of an economic system mired in war debt and profiteering, and the ominous signs of unheeded global warming should be more than enough to bring the country to its senses. But is it?
There are a lot, way too many, of stupid Americans. We saw many of them at the Republican Convention (but there are many from other political parties as well). They offer nothing different than the behaviors, policies and values that have prevailed for the past seven years. They see expertise as (so-called) military heroism combined with the “intelligence” of a “hockey mom.” It is an appeal to what the present administrations has termed “useful idiots,” knee-jerk theocrats who hold their party hostage.
Are there enough really stupid Americans to elect a McCain-Palin ticket? Yes. Does America need a McCain-Palin presidency. Like a eunuch needs a jockstrap.
© James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.11.2008)