Hardly a day has past these last six years that didn’t leave my mouth gaping at that day’s new step in the descent of our political dialogue into rot. As I’ve watched this unraveling – given the mission of The Village Square to re-civilize our civic discourse – I’ve formed some opinions.
My ultimate conclusion: I believe we’re firmly entrenched in dangerous forces that already have enough momentum to push us past the point of no return. And I hope we can view the Obama birth certificate fiasco as the warning it is for us to step away from the edge.
True enough, there have been some low points in the history of America’s public square. Among them was that unfortunate brouhaha where a sitting Vice President shot and killed a former Secretary of the Treasury. And it’s also true that the majority of what is ailing us is firmly entrenched in basic human nature, so it’s not going away anytime soon.
Our founders were nothing if not astute students of our flawed nature. So they gave us checks and balances and branches of government and all sorts of ways to keep us from messing it all up, as we’re apt to do (history being replete with proof of just how good we are at that). All this checking and balancing of human nature can be exhausting though and not all that much fun.
Add to the mix technology which makes all things bigger and faster and easier and just more. Technology has also applied all those forces to our flawed human nature as well. So now we’re dealing with human imperfection writ large.
The internet and television easily gives us what we want to hear when we want to hear it. We can be right about everything easily, simply by only listening to people who think we’re right about everything. If anyone challenges us, we turn them off. Technology has turned us into intellectual couch potatoes.
And as we find ourselves increasingly in the most comfortable places spending time with the people we’re most comfortable with, the inevitable result is that we grow more sure that we are right and “they” are wrong – even to the point of denying factual reality to do it. Bill Bishop presents all sorts of evidence of this phenomena in his landmark book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing us Apart.
There has been evidence – hard, believable, vetted and fact-checked evidence (and by credible sources) – that Barack Obama was indeed born in America since shortly after the rumor first reared its ugly head. That’s over two years of various efforts to fact check, confirm sources, view raised seals and the like. But this is all a moot point if tell-me-what-I-want-to-hear-because-it-feels-good is the dominant sensibility in America. The birther story should be seen as a strong warning of just how far this can go and just how many of us can get caught up in it. If you go to the places where some of your neighbors hang out on the internet, birtherism will be alive and well for a long time to come. And if you’re the one who frequents such places, you might want to step outside your box and reassess the facts from a new vantage point.
If you’re not someone who has ever believed in the particular group fiction of birtherism, congratulations to you (this time). Before you get smug though, know that most of us are highly vulnerable to engaging in delusional group think, being the human beings that we are with the technology to make easier than ever to avoid the hard work of achieving our higher nature as our founders called us to do. You are fairly likely engaged in it elsewhere.
George Washington would want us all to occasionally flip the channel.