Tag Archives: national politics

Do We Still Know Who We are?

We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but it is obviously a rhetorical covering for a far more varied collection of individuals.

A recent survey by Politico asked 35 “thinkers” to summarize what these last few years has taught them about our society.  What had they learned that they did not know? The most common response was about the deep social and political divisions within the nation. But I was especially struck by what Stanford Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama concluded at the end of his statement:

“At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Many of us can only add a sigh of acknowledgement that, indeed, the mental pictures we have of our collective selves is badly in need of revision.  The reasons are perhaps less about the mendacity of this hapless President than about the millions of supporters that thought he was on the right track.  Most of the rest of us continued to believe that we were moving away from America’s original sins of racial exploitation, nativism, and our perpetual devotion to paranoid and conspiratorial fantasies. These traits all have their own markers in the nation’s recent and distant past. And many of us hoped beyond reason that we were finally breaking free of them in the Obama years. But it is disheartening that these core features still can make our political life toxic. Our public rhetoric is now filled with statements that implicitly disenfranchise, devalue, or deny Americans that have a right to be acknowledged.  Note, for example, that Trump only wanted a Wisconsin vote recount in liberal Dane County and in Milwaukee, where many African Americans live.


Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.

The President as the vessel for many of these conspiratorial and racist views polled weaker than what was actually tallied after the election. One explanation for this discrepancy is that there might be some shame in revealing support for a demagogue. Poll respondents may not want to “own” that kind of association to a questioner. Perhaps it is just my own fantasy, but there may be a level of embarrassment that comes with supporting a candidate intent on ripping up the social contract.

Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.  By now you know the catechism of complaints: jobs taken by immigrants, crime festering in racially diverse cities, “socialism” fostered by our allies, and so on. These ideological dinosaurs can be embarrassing to publicly express. Indeed, the very idea of a full-throated defense of a position with evidence and good reasons has itself become an “elite” standard: a liberal ruse that people filled with more opinions than evidence won’t accept.

Fukuyama’s candid admission is also reminder that any nation-continent is not reducible to personalistic descriptors like “compassionate,” “fair-minded,” diligent,” or other terms that we might use to describe an individual.  We can’t easily use terms of character to describe a mass comprised of millions of people. The nation is too big and too diverse.  We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but the phrase is a rhetorical covering for a far more heterogeneous collection of individuals who are variously rich and poor, inner-directed rather than other-directed, honest and manipulative, educated and suspicious of educational institutions, thoughtful and willfully ignorant, generous and selfish. We are all of the above.

It would also be the same if we lumped the nations of the European Union together into a single political entity. As we now know, a plurality of the British will have none of it; their divorce from the EU is almost final. Even Italians have their own problems reconciling the common idea of “sophisticated” northerners sharing a state with more flamboyant citizens living in the south.

These days it  should not be a surprise that many Americans barely recognize the beliefs and attitudes of their compatriots. Our foundational documents are under greater scrutiny for their own biases;  we sense that there is less accepted common ground.  We are also used to mediating our world through digital devices rather than direct personal contact.  All of this makes it more likely that the attitudes of our neighbors may make them seem like strangers.

Internet Contagion and Communities of Outrage

Cecil, Wikipedia.org
                                Cecil                                                               Wikipedia.org

The vagaries of online news coverage and bad timing mean that it’s now possible for a private person to be the object of unrestrained global rage.

Because we live more of our lives online, and because it takes so little effort to magnify almost any event into its own moral drama, we are now awash in messages of unfiltered rage all over the internet. We accept that almost any combination of bad judgment and a video that documents it can “go viral.”  The vagaries of online news coverage and bad timing mean that it’s now possible for a private person to be despised and vilified around the world for making a bad decision.  As with so many trending internet topics, a reasonable sense of proportionality is swept aside.  Youtube consumers revel in videos of mostly nameless individuals captured at a moment of a serendipitous and sometimes cringe-inducing miscalculation.  These “fails” are hard to ignore, feeding a primal need for the shock and awe stimulation of the unexpected. The smallest moments put us and millions of others in a loop we sometimes would have done well to have missed.

True,  the idea of a local news event surfacing as a national obsession is not new. There are many accounts of stories even in the first half of the last century that became the preoccupation of American radio and newspaper consumers. Some of the best known were accounts of children who had fallen down wells or suddenly disappeared. Radio listeners tuned in by the hours to listen to breathless chronicles of rescuers trying to save Kathy Fiscus, who died before being reached in 1949. A happier conclusion with even more coverage occurred in Texas in 1987.

The difference with a viral story is that it is far easier to tap into the river of digital media originating from billions of internet users who contribute to the flow of potential viral content.  Figure in the social variable of an event that arises from the apparent irresponsibility of one party, and the viral story takes on the outlines of a global morality play. The child-in-a-well stories today would probably focus equally on the neglectful homeowner who left lethal pieces of open ground in harm’s way.

We love the idea of culpability. It gives focus to some of our easily-stoked rage.  And In some ways it’s become one of the least attractive features of our wired world.

This capability to link strangers who have viewed a single story into a community of outrage means that far too many of us are willing to save our energy to muster disgust for an event we do not fully understand involving individuals we do not know.   As with our national political life, we seem to prefer pouring our free-floating anger into events over which we have no control, and with little more than indignation to offer.

 We love the idea of culpability. It gives focus to some of our free floating rage.  And In some ways it’s become one of the least attractive features of our wired world.

Such was the case with the deaths of two rare mammals well represented on YouTube: a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo and a well-known male lion in Zimbabwe.  Both illustrate how low the flash point that will ignite cycles of hate can be. Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla were justifiably mourned after being shot by individuals: in the first case,  by a Minnesota dentist with too much cash and too little common sense, as well as a pathetic need to bolster his ego by claiming another creature’s life.  In the second instance, it was a parental  miscue that resulted in a zoo official making shooting a gorilla to rescue a child who entered the primate’s domain.

World reaction to the dentist’s behavior forced him to close his practice and make himself scarce.  Many of us took pleasure in his shame. The twist in the second instance was that the target was the mother, who momentarily took her eye off of her young son just long enough to miss his disappearance into the gorilla’s habitat. The woman received thousands of hate notes which found their way to her social media sites and e-mail, though authorities declined to call this anything more than an unfortunate accident. She probably behaved no differently than most parents with young children in constant motion.

This case is a reminder of the power of digital contagion completely swamps the logic of proportional reaction. Who knew that living in the global village would also mean being an involuntary witness to even the minor sins of other strangers? That clearly puts a lot of wear and tear on our psyches, especially if it means that we need to take on the alleged moral failings of even a tiny fraction of the estimated 3.2 billion wired inhabitants.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu