Friday, February 26, 2016

Just How Bad Is It?

     I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be.

     We know things are bad — worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'

     [From Paddy Chayevsky’s screenplay for Network]

     The above is one of the most memorable passages from Chayevsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. I’ve used it before, of course. Despite being off-target in a couple of specifics, it’s quite applicable to conditions around us.

     I wrote yesterday about the secrecy dynamic that’s turned “us against them” from a suspicion to a certainty. Time was, adult Americans would occasionally be heard to use the phrase “our government.” You don’t hear that any more. Nor do you hear ordinary Americans expressing a conviction that government will “get us out of this.”

     Things are bad. How bad is the question of the hour.

     A metric for something like socio-economic and political quality is a hard thing to compose. It will always lack the simplicity of a scalar quantity. Moreover, the weighting of the various factors will always be a matter of opinion. Despite that, there are approaches to it that will draw the assent of most persons.

     Among the elements that make such comparisons plausible, perhaps the most important is the selection of a base year, whose conditions can be compared, item by item, with those of the present day. My preferred base year is 1964: the first full year of the Lyndon Johnson Administration.

     I could present a good case that 1964 was the best year America has ever had:

  1. The national economy was roaring.
  2. There was little to no social or political unrest.
  3. The surveillance society hadn’t yet been germinated.
  4. The racial disturbances and “summer of love” nonsense were still to come.
  5. Urban areas were still relatively safe, despite the slow emergence of the drug plague.
  6. There wasn’t yet a “social justice” movement, and “political correctness” had not yet hatched.

     It’s true that only a year more was required to turn much of that idyllic tableau upside down. There were already some harbingers of darkness, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan would later delineate in his famous “Defining Deviancy Down” essay. Nevertheless, 1964 was a very good year for America and Americans.

     Now let’s look at 2016:

  1. The national economy is faltering and might have been permanently crippled.
  2. Social and political unrest are everywhere.
  3. The surveillance society is in full swing.
  4. Racial disturbances are common, and prominent politicians often excuse and defend the perpetrators.
  5. Urban areas are categorically unsafe.
  6. “Social justice” and “political correctness” have acquired a quasi-authority used to squelch free expression.

     By all the standards that I used to classify 1964 as a good year for America, 2016 is worse. Indeed, item by item 2016 is much worse. Moreover, the collapse of America’s educational system, the permeability of its borders, and the deterioration of its international standing should be considered as well.

     There have been years since 1964 when one or two of the items in those lists were far better than they are today. For example, the economy of the Eighties was excellent, as was America’s international influence. Racial tensions abated to a considerable degree during the late Nineties and early Naughts. However, no year since 1964 presents a picture that’s item-for-item superior to my base year. As for 2016, America of today presents a picture of a society in a sharp, possibly irreversible decline.

     Things are bad enough that there’s talk of secession, of massive civil disobedience, even of revolution. Trust in government and the political system has evaporated. Police forces and other law enforcement agencies are viewed with increasing suspicion – often a fully justified suspicion. People are building disaster stockpiles. Middle class men are arming themselves and banding into cadres for the defense of their neighborhoods against an anticipated wave of racial and ethnic violence. Women are becoming fearful of being alone in public. Parents of minor children seldom allow them to be alone outside the family home.

     That’s how bad it is.

     "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
     But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

     [Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II]

     I’ve been seeing the following sticker in an increasing number of venues:

     There’s a lot of truth in that. Yet the problems delineated above aren’t all soluble in gunpowder. We have surrendered meekly to several of our most difficult problems, as if we individual Americans had no responsibility for taking part in their correction.

     Consider the collapse of American education. This is a multi-pronged problem, to be sure, but at one level – the government-run “public schools” – local control was once a reality. Yet American parents, the very people who should have stood firm against the removal of that control, acquiesced to its loss. That loss is the principal cause of the dilution of the schools’ educational mission. Don’t take my word for it; study the history of special-interest intrusion into primary and secondary education and decide for yourself.

     A related problem, the explosion of real-estate taxes to the extent that they often exceed the mortgage payment, is another case. Those taxes are set by school boards, town, and county governments, all of which are directly within the control of the localities they albatross. Where were the voters who had it in their power to “throw the rascals out” and install a fresh, hopefully better set? The majority of them didn’t even bother to show up at the polls.

     Those things, and others I’m sure any Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch can enumerate, were within Americans’ control. We simply failed to control them.

     There is no Last Graf. Things are bad. They might not be reparable by peaceful means. That often unarticulated sense is what propels the burgeoning disaster stockpiles, the accelerated purchases of arms and ammunition, and the informal neighborhood-defense militias. It also animates a great deal of conservative sentiment as it’s expressed on the Web.

     Of one thing I am certain: the political system as it stands, having been massaged over the decades into a servant of the interests of political elite against those of the citizenry, will be of little use to us in correcting our social, economic, and political maladies. More will be required of us. It was not always so, but then, this is 2016: a year the Founding Fathers would surely look upon with sadness.


RichJ said...

Good one today, Francis. It is indeed remarkable that things have gotten this bad.

2 Timothy corroborates your depiction of our world, perhaps offering a slightly different personal remedy (see the last two verses).

Unknown said...

Spot on. Excellent synthesis of our malaise. Some people (me included) have decided to join a movement. Hence the popularity of Trump. Probably will come a cropper. But worth a try.

Anonymous said...

Hi Fran

1964 is probably a good base-line for our living memory.

However, the administration of Calvin Coolidge is probably a better reference if you consider your metrics 1 through 6.

Then again, the administration of Andrew Jackson would be hard to dismiss on the basis of those metrics ... and he eliminated the national debt.

in Liberty, Hans

Liberty4Ever said...

As you said, I no longer refer to "our government". I don't want us to suffer the blame, even though we certainly are at least partially to blame. About 3% of the American people have been trying to fix the endemic problems of government, but the other 97% sweep us along for the ride over the cliff. I may no longer refer to "our government", but lately I do frequently refer to "our Constitution".

We are living during the era that future history books will describe as The Fall of the American Empire. It was our liberty that made our nation great, and as we abandoned that liberty and allowed it to be replaced by nanny state government and its attendant wealth redistribution we doomed our nation to the same fate as the others. It didn't need to go down this way.

Sadly, we are not voting ourselves out of this mess. The time for that has long passed. It's going to get worse before it gets better. Probably, much worse.