Thursday, December 3, 2015
by Reed Galen
Days Until Iowa Caucus: 61
Quote by A Smart Person: "Blind certainty - a close mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up." David Foster Wallace - 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech
Welcome to the American Singularity.
The American Singularity - Week 37: Infinite Jest(ers)
Earlier this week on a long, late-night flight home I took a couple of hours to watch The End of the Tour, a movie that catalogs the five-day journey of a Rolling Stone reporter (portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, who to me will always be Mark Zuckerberg) and the late author, David Foster Wallace, during the end of his rounds promoting his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Wallace is played by Jason Segel, known mostly for his comedic acting and writing. He's terrific in this role.
Early in the movie, set in 1996, Segel's Wallace illustrates an uncanny intuition of what technology and its ultimate (and current) ubiquity will do to us individually and thereby as a people writ large. Wallace posits that though we've created a collective digital nervous system, that it will cost us both our individuality generally and our ability to think for ourselves specifically.
The American political environment is an unfortunately excellent example of what Segel's character describes. Unending digital inputs have allowed us to be connected and informed like never before; but they’ve also made it too easy for us to retreat to our most comfortable microcosms - either ignoring the outside world because we can turn it off, or only going to those "safe places" where we know our beliefs, complaints and gripes will be validated by others with whom we've chosen to associate. We escape only when something goes “viral” – an ironically positive term for something the human race for eons tried to avoid letting happen.
We reinforce our thoughts and views because it’s so easy and it feels good. If it’s not our fault, we don’t have to take the responsibility for it. If we see only what we choose to see and nothing else, in our world it doesn’t exist. It allows us to shut down a vital and necessary function of our brain: thinking.
It’s easy to be angry and indignant. They are base emotions, like fight or flight. They provide a quick and superficial release from the first decade and a half of the American Uncertainty. Things aren’t what they were and aren’t what they’re supposed to be. They likely won’t be what they should be in the future, either. What’s going to happen? Our college campuses, rather than being the place where young minds are challenged on their belief systems and inherent biases, are turning into unsafe places for free speech and disagreement.
These students, full-fledged members of the first truly digital cohort, have never had to look up and out at the world around them. Instead, they’ve spent years sitting next to their friends, heads canted forward as the warm blue-light glow of a superficial online existence has allowed them to escape the real, sometimes ugly and often mundane world that confronts most of us on a daily basis.
And the politicians of both major American political parties understand this phenomenon; in fact they count on it. It is no surprise that fundraising spikes whenever the latest outrage is committed by the other side. Get them fired up, get them angry, get them to hit the donate button. Why do campaigns send endless angry and breathless emails? Because they work.
Candidates in primaries have always thrown their hardcore supporters pounds of red meat. But rather than exciting them with ideas and new innovation, they incite them to anger and reaction with inflammatory rhetoric that charges up the faithful but leaves the “only on holidays” folks shaking their heads and remembering why they don’t go to church every Sunday.
This race to the bottom is on full display regardless of the issue. Whether it is the environment, social issues, or a horrifying event like that in San Bernardino, California, the parties run to their respective corners, point their fingers, scream at the top of their lungs and bang their shoes on the desk. Sufficiently sure that they've communicated their vitriol, they move on to the next outrage. But they've done nothing to solve the problem at hand. The US House of Representatives voted 50+ times to repeal Obamacare fully aware that it was a milquetoast piece of political theater at best and as much for their own benefit as that of the people whom they're elected to represent.
Just down the street at 1600 Pennsylvania, there is similar behavior. To be president means to lead all 300+ million Americans, whether they agree with you or not. President Obama, a constitutional scholar, expressed surprise recently that the Oval Office wasn't more of a throne room from which to dispense favor here and autonomous authority there. In 2008 Obama told us he wanted to go to Washington to change the culture. He wasn't lying; but many of us misinterpreted what he meant. He wanted Washington's culture to bend to his will and ideology. And for 24 months it did, if reluctantly. Faced with opposition on Capitol Hill, he's chosen, as much as Republicans, to retreat to the edges of political discourse where blame is currency and victimhood is heroism.
In just about two months, voters will begin the process of choosing the next American president. As we enter this political red zone, time and space will begin to compress and the rhetoric will escalate accordingly. Listen to both parties’ candidates. They don’t speak the same language. They don’t espouse remotely the same values. They don’t see some problems as universal. It’s a mixed up state of affairs when the only candidate to have a “Sister Souljah” moment is Donald Trump – and that is on taxes within the Republican party.
By next spring, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and the Republicans may still be fighting it out. But one thing is for sure, tens of millions of voters will be watching the election unfold and more and more of them will be looking at each other asking, “This? This is the best we can do?” It’s a good question. Is it the best we can do? Or is it the best we’re willing to expect from ourselves. So long as we can escape back into our iPads and wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of righteous indignation, the rest will take care of itself.
Wallace’s award winning book contains the quote: “The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you.” Truth, objective or subjective, is often no fun. But ignoring or denying basic truths, political, moral, or otherwise, doesn’t make them go away. It just makes them harder to deal with when they finally stare back at you in the mirror.