Killing America

On Saturday, January 11, 1964, LBJ was in the Oval Office, The Kingsmen sang Louie Louie to the top of the R&B charts, and Brigitte Bardot was a transatlantic bombshell. It was also the day that Luther Terry, the Surgeon General of the United States, declared that cigarettes had dangerous effects including lung cancer and heart disease. A product that had been advertised as assuring good health had finally been realized for what it was: an American killer. Decades later, we look back on those days of the Marlboro Man and wonder how could those Americans have been so stupid?

Late last week, a pivotal moment in American history also occurred. It was the day that our current Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, declared that misinformation and lies being spread across social media about Covid-19 vaccines was a public health hazard. Our president, Joe Biden, was more blunt. He told reporters that Facebook was “killing people.” Of course, Facebook feigned outrage and FOX News mocked the president as an alarmist that was trying to take control of our lives. Coordinated by American tobacco manufacturers, a similar campaign of deceit followed Luther Terry’s declaration about tobacco in the 1960s—one of the best funded campaigns of deceit in American history—and millions more died.

One day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, I expect we will look back at social media and the largely deleterious effects it has had on our lives and view it as we now view cigarettes: how could we have been so stupid? Facebook has done to us what Phillip Morris, et al, did to us sixty years ago: they got us hooked, then lied to us to keep us hooked. Are Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg less dangerous than the tobacco titans of yesteryear? Is Rupert Murdock’s FOX News really serving the public interest when they fill the heads of their viewers with lies that could cost them their lives?

There is a much larger problem, however, than the simple deceits promulgated by Facebook and FOX News regarding Covid-19 vaccines. Throughout our history, Americans have been bound together by the stories we embrace about what it means to be an American. These stories were the social glue that enabled unity, regardless of our particular political persuasions, ethnicities, religious affiliations, race, gender, sexual preferences, or national origin, we could all subscribe. In the last twenty years, due to a fundamental degradation of American values, and the culture of deceit fomented, nurtured, and sustained by politicians and social media companies, we have lost those stories. They have become dead letters.

The first story is called the American Dream. It holds that anyone can become anything they want in America. That their destiny is in their own hands. That it does not matter from whence they came, or whom their daddy is, or what god they pray to (if any), or what color their skin is, or even whom they choose to love; they can become whomever they want to in America. This story is fundamental to our heritage. Like all stories, it does not stand up under the lens of empiricism. It is easy to discredit its validity as many, including the authors of the 1619 Project, have done. Yet, it has prevailed since John Winthrop landed the first settlers from Europe in modern-day Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century. It endured, less so because of its certainty than because of its allure.  We wanted to believe it. Why? Because it was aspirational.

The second story is only about seventy years old—a relative baby. It is the story of America as a superpower—as a font of exceptionalism. To be clear, it has its roots that also date back to John Winthrop when he claimed to his parishioner/colonists that “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” (That’s right, the 1980 Reagan borrowed it from the 1630 Winthrop.) But it was far from credible until after World War II when, as the United States benefited greatly as being the last intact nation-state in the civilized world and the only one that had the industrial capacity to rebuild the world, gained tremendous wealth and stature in the free world. The United States became one of two superpowers, then the only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We became exemplars of freedom and democracy and the world’s champion of those who sought the same. Again, does the story hold up under the microscope of empiricism? No. But, also again, it endured due to its aspirational nature.

If you ask an American under forty years of age today if either of these stories ring true to them—if they believe in them (as my generation does)—they will likely look at you with either pity, or scorn, or a weird mix of both. For they have largely, or mostly, lived their lives during the Age of Deceit where lies and shame and guilt have been shoved in their faces to the point that there is no longer any American story. All too often today, they are being taught that they are not individuals who can become anything they want to be; rather, they are simply members of tribal groups with grievances that excuse them from any sense of patriotism whatsoever. They should be allegiant to their group—however narrowly defined—and must subscribe to groupthink. And, moreover, that their principal right is to blame-and-shame anyone who stands between them and their desires.

This blame-and-shame trap is an ugly one and it is present on all sides of the political spectrum. The religious right expresses it as condemnation; the liberal left as cancellation. It is toxic and it will defeat one of the greatest empires in the history of the world. The key thing to acknowledge and correct (if it is not too late) is that blame-and-shame never succeeds in building a stronger more resilient culture or nation. It may feel good in the moment, but it festers and rots and destroys. Blame-and-shame movements have occurred throughout American history, but none succeeded (absent bloody conflict) to make America great. Abolition, Prohibition, and Pro-life are examples of blame-and-shame movements. Today, Occupy Wall Street, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Defund the Police are blame-and-shame movements.  All were, or are, destined to fail in reaching their objectives. Why? They are not aspirational.

In contrast, go back and study the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Granted, many of its successes are currently being undone by the Trumplicans, but it succeeded in many important ways. Why? Because it was aspirational. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., never, and I mean never, sought to blame-and-shame anyone. Rather, he gave everyone—regardless of race—a reason to belong to the movement. To become better human beings; to become something greater than they were under the old Jim Crow laws. He practically defined the word aspirational. In some of his last, and perhaps most famous words, he implored us: “I have seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So, I am happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

My American stories are dead letters. It breaks my patriotic heart, but I accept that there must be new stories for a new America. But please people, I beg of you, drop the blame-and-shame game. Choose aspiration over shame. Summon the spirit of King, and F.D.R., and Lincoln. They may be long gone, but they understood what young leaders today do not: if you want to succeed unity is critical, and there can be no unity without giving people hope through aspiration.