Is America a Serious Country?

by Rebecca Bynum (April 2012)

In one of the Presidential debates, Newt Gingrich said something that struck me, “If we were a serious country, we would…” the remainder of his sentence involved the assertion that we would make a serious effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the beginning phrase contained an important observation; that America has become a non-serious country. We seem to have reached the point of decadence when everything is suited to satire and nothing is sacred. Or perhaps there is little left which is regarded as very important anymore, with the exception our own individual fortunes, of course, “my economy” as a recent advertisement so aptly puts it. The idea and ideal of America seems to be crumbling before our eyes, so that perhaps our enemies are correct and a few really hard blows will be enough to take us out, or at least to remove us from the world stage as a superpower – a role we are increasingly reluctant to fill anyway. There is no Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan on the horizon; someone truly serious about fighting on the side of civilization against barbarism. How can there be, when we ourselves are becoming ever more barbarous and are reveling in that barbarism?

Perhaps because I came of age during the cold war when nuclear annihilation could result from the slightest political miscalculation, political realities born in seriousness have actually grown in seriousness in my mind while they seem simultaneously to have shrunk in the minds of others. I often feel like William Holden’s character in Network watching the rest of the world playing Faye Dunaway. News is entertainment, politicians are celebrities, issues are subordinate to personalities and no matter how critical or complex the subject, it must be reduced to a sound bite or a one minute answer in a “debate.”

Serious discussion of the news on Sunday mornings has been supplanted by a kind of gossipy tone in which the interviewer seems to be perpetually going for the sound bite that will make the nightly news or the YouTube/blog circuit. Ratings are what bring advertising revenue and advertising revenue pays for the program including overheated salaries. And just like the rest of the entertainment industry, news shows chase after young viewers who fetch a premium from advertisers. The overall attitude of the newscasters seems to be: inform the public, yes, but do so in an entertaining way. Where once we had Lawrence Spivak and Edward R. Murrow, now have Chuck Todd and David Gregory (whose perpetual smirk declares, “I cannot possibly take politics or politicians seriously, so neither should you.”)

The press is also culpable in perpetuating the silliest myth of our age, and that is that the President is singlehandedly in control of the economy, is personally responsible for the national debt and is able to set the price of oil and bread. As it happens, former Speaker Newt Gingrich had a practical plan that could affect the price of oil as well the debt, but as this involves drilling for oil on government land (a very un-green thing to do), the press allowed very little airtime for him to explain it to the American people. And this is true even though our dependence on foreign oil is a critical national security issue which must be dealt with in 5 to 10 years, rather than blithely placing all our hope in green energy which could easily be 30 to 50 years away. Eventually, we will have to convert from fossil fuel to some other form of energy production, but we cannot allow our nation to be vulnerable to foreign blackmail in the meantime. Was Newt Gingrich really the only candidate who understood this?

Another recent myth the press has precipitated is the idea that health insurance is equivalent to “access to health care” which is utterly false. I have had health insurance very rarely and sporadically in my life and yet I have always had perfectly adequate health care without it. Something few people know is that hospitals and centers that give health tests routinely offer 1/3 off the regular price when you pay in advance (at the time you receive the test or procedure). Apparently skipping all the administration involved with dealing with insurance companies is worth that much to hospitals and doctors. Nor do all hospitals charge the same rates so that shopping around can result in considerable savings. However, the press plays up stories of hospital costs causing financial ruin as though this would be the inevitable result of sickness or injury for someone without insurance, but this is simply not the case. The one major operation of my life actually cost less than a used car even though I had an excellent surgeon and hospital facilities.

On the other side, the right wing blogosphere makes it seem that any concern about the extreme disparity in the distribution of wealth, and all that that entails for future of our society, makes one a socialist, or at the very least, an anti-capitalist. An entire political party, the party of Lincoln, has become the defender of privilege under the guise of being the defender of liberty. Teddy Roosevelt would not be amused.

Particularly unpalatable is the fact that many Democrats, while championing the rights of the poor and immigrants, actually pay starvation wages "under the table" to their nannies, housekeepers and gardeners. We are rapidly developing a two tier culture and this is the very opposite of what it once meant to be an American - when it mattered much more how you lived than how much you had acquired. For American idealists, wealth was once a paltry and unworthy goal, fit only for small and grasping souls. Now it is a major defining factor, determining a wide range of attitudes and life decisions.

The increasing separation of the classes is a serious problem, but we are too unserious to address it. On the one hand, we have a President, who promotes and thrives on the resentment of poorer Americans (so the growing economic disparity actually helps him), running against a businessman who, because he is personally extremely wealthy, claims to hold the key to wealth creation in the general economy – a dubious proposition at best. And though this hope is the result of pure speculation and wishful thinking on the part of the electorate, those who provide him financial backing are quite certain he will help to protect the wealth they have accumulated. Of course, in actuality, our economy runs in cycles and there is very little a President can do to change that fact. That Presidential candidates run on or against the economy is pure political posturing and nothing more. Yet the press focuses on economic statistics (to the exclusion of almost all other important issues) as though these candidates will seriously influence them simply by being elected or re-elected, thus reinforcing a fantasy and becoming active participants in "the madness of crowds."

The unavoidable conclusion is that America is no longer a serious country. We are a fracturing country, a crumbling country. And while it is indisputable that we do not take our enemies seriously, more disturbing is the fact that we no longer take ourselves or our country seriously enough to defend her.

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