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.

By |2021-08-02T15:36:47+00:00July 19th, 2021|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The MAGA Hoax

When the history of the Trump era is finally written, those who will have lost the most will not be immigrants, or the “enemy-of-the-state” media, or liberal elites, or Democrats, or objectified women, or even the Republican Party, it will be those who were his most fervent supporters: the MAGA hatters.  These are the folks who lose the most when the Affordable Care Act is gutted, opioids are distributed like M&Ms, school funding is eviscerated and teachers migrate to urban areas, fracking and industrial waste ruins water supplies, middle-class take-home pay falls to subsidize tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, infrastructure projects (especially broadband) never advance beyond rhetoric, and plentiful guns become the weapon-of-choice to settle family feuds and end the hopelessness of the forlorn—the so-called deaths of despair.  In this age of deceit, Trump’s swindle of white, mostly rural, Christian, MAGAs will amount to one of the greatest cons ever perpetrated on a group of citizens in American history.

His trick?  Making sure MAGAs remain fearful of, and enraged at, all the wrong things: collectively Trump’s stalking horses.  Mexican “rapists,” all people of color, immigrant families, working women, all non-FOX media, Democrats, sanctuary cities, and virtually everyone and everything beyond the borders of the Unites States—especially Muslims.  Trump’s next ghost-written book should be titled, The Art of the Con.  Deflection, distraction, dishonesty, and his ultimate goal: disorientation, are easily achieved in the stew of fear and anger that he and FOX news work tirelessly to foment among MAGAs.    His relentless campaign that utilizes Twitter, FOX, and revivalist-styled stadium rallies have one target: MAGAs.  Fear begets anger, which begets more fear and anger such that the spiral of disorientation is assured.  The result: a disorientation so extreme that its victims can no longer discern truth from lies and, ultimately, right from wrong; they become so disoriented as to approach the clinical definition of mental illness.  More specifically, MAGAs suffer from Trump-induced psychosis: a severe mental disorientation in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality, which is exactly what Trump must maintain to keep his fascist fantasies alive and, moreover, Trumplican congressmen and senators in line.

Emerging studies now show the reality of Trump’s stewardship of white rural America.   Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, by, Jonathan Metzl (Basic Books, 2019), reveals the extraordinary costs inflicted on white America by Trump and the Trumplican Party.  Metzl studies public health and the “intersecting histories of race and health in Southern and midwestern states.”  He observed an array of conservative political movements like “starving government funding, dismantling social programs, and allowing the free flow of most types of firearms” that originated with the Tea Party, funded by the Koch brothers, legislated by the Freedom Caucus and given voice (particularly to the alt-right) by online outlets like Breitbart.  The effects on “state agendas, national GOP platforms, and, ultimately, policies of the Trump administration” resulted in what he calls “backlash governance.”

Metzl further found that the principal appeal to garner support from the folks who now proudly wear MAGA hats was simple, but intoxicatingly powerful: white racial resentment.  White backlash politics gave MAGAs “the sensation of winning, particularly by upending the gains of minorities and liberals; yet the victories came at a steep cost.”  Specifically, rapidly increasing rates of white death.  The numbers are disturbing.  For example, in Missouri as gun laws were liberalized at the insistence of the NRA, gun deaths spiked among white people and, incidentally, not among African Americans.  He concludes that “lax gun laws ultimately cost the state roughly $273 million in lost work between 2008 and 2015 and … the loss of over 10,506 years of productive white male life.”  In Tennessee their refusal to expand Medicaid “cost every single white resident of the state 14.1 days of life.”  In Kansas, the Tea Party economic experiment of slashing state education budgets resulted in a sudden rise in high school dropout rates that correlates with an average reduction in life expectancy of 9 years.  In all, in Kansas, in just four years: “6,195.51 lost white life years.”  MAGAs are, quite literally, dying for Trump and the Trumplicans at rates much higher than other demographic groups, including African Americans and Hispanics.  Trump claims he is the only one who can save them and yet, his policies are actually killing them.  Some savior.

It is difficult to predict if saving MAGAs from Trump and the Trumplicans is even possible.  When one observes the rage in their eyes, directed at all the wrong targets, changing their minds about Trump may be impossible.  Like trying to convince an addict they will feel better once they take the needle out of their arm, white racial resentment feels too damn good in the moment to be convinced that the rush, however transient, is supporting politicians and policies that are actually killing them.  For MAGAs, such data, such intelligence, likely emanates from the deep state boogeyman they have been taught to fear by Trump and FOX News.  To them, the underlying fear of being displaced from their historical position in social, political, and economic order by persons of color, women, and those who praise a god (or no god) unlike their own, is terrifying and, apparently, worth dying for.  We can only hope that other voices—maybe even a Democratic candidate for president—will be able to reach enough of them with arguments and policies that might provide them a better path to a better life before they die from Trumpism.  If you believe in prayer, send a special one to a MAGA in your life; that they may see the proverbial light before they are buried, MAGA hat in-hand.

By |2019-08-06T19:33:38+00:00May 1st, 2019|General|0 Comments
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