“But there are no good targets in Afghanistan.”
-Donald Rumsfeld, after being told that the 9/11 attacks came from Afghanistan, instead of some place more fun, such as Iraq
America is deep in the throes of its presidential campaign season, never a time noted for its celebration of reasonable proposals, respectful counter-arguments, or civilized exchange between adults. But in the past few weeks, the United States has been the host to a national debate so bizarre you would have thought it was perhaps all a Saturday Night Live skit destined to go viral on YouTube.
Starting with a proposal by the Catholic Church to allow it to remove contraception coverage from the national health plans offered to its employees, the renewed debate over birth control has quickly snowballed into a Battle Royale stretching from Presque Isle, Maine to San Diego. Congress convened a committee, thoughtfully comprised of nothing but old white men. Rick Santorum’s main benefector Foster Friess, actually suggested that women just keep their damn hussy legs shut. And the political equivalent of the boy in your class who farts really loud to get attention, Rush Limbaugh, upped the ante and went on a multi-day rampage calling all women who want birth control giant sluts who need to video themselves having sex and post them all so we can all laugh.
All of this debate is about the housing market. And unemployment. And Afghanistan. And health care for Baby Boomers. And Netflix. And drones. And the bankruptcy of Greece. And more. None of this spontaneously vomited national debate has a thing to do with healthcare or birth control or morals. It has everything to do with a nation that is afraid to discuss its real future, so it would much prefer to re-fight the great debates of the 20th century.
As somebody who discusses the future professionally with leaders of organizations, I will tell you that people everywhere are so terrified of what is coming next that they are fundamentally incapable of having a discussion about it. The American Mindset is almost entirely about Growth and Winning, and the simple fact is that we are likely unable to grow geographically or economically due to fiscal and demographic constraints. Thus, our steady-state economics, or even steadily receding economy, will not look like winning, either on a balance sheet or in people’s minds. Americans are addicted to seeing the Dow Jones go up every year. They want their houses to be worth more and more, forever. They want to stay “number one,” whatever that means, at all costs. And virtually none of that is likely in the near future. It is so difficult for Americans to consider that they are reverting to all manner of fantastic, irrational thinking to avoid the painful realities that may be ahead.
So, imagine that you are unwilling to discuss the future – but you have lots of meetings scheduled! There are conferences to hold, policies to debate, Presidential elections to run! You are thus going to do all of those things, but you must very carefully avoid any discussion of That Which Is Too Painful to Face. You will then begin having surrogate discussions to channel your passions, because heaven knows, you can neither stop having debates nor discuss what the real issues are.
America is thus falling reflexively into its comfortable old battle lines, the decreasingly valid Left-Right political spectrum. The fact remains, on most issues of The Future the Republicans and Democrats have nearly identical platforms – get this country back to Growth, led largely through banking and housing and financial products, with the goal of delivering the Baby Boom generation safely into retirement. This is so subconsciously ingrained that neither party even knows enough to bring it up. But there is a whole media/political machine designed to create catfights between the two parties, and it’s 2012 – an election year! – and thus the Machine must be fueled up and set to tear up ground from coast to coast.
But where to aim the Machine? Like Donald Rumsfeld after 9/11, the Machine is having trouble finding any appropriate targets. Surely we can’t bring up the fact that America’s healthcare system is going to crumble under the weight of the Boom generation in the next couple decades – what about the healthcare stocks and the lobbyists and AARP? And naturally, we can’t bring up the fact that we quintupled the amount of college debt for young people in the span of a decade – young people don’t really vote and they don’t have enough money to make a big noise politically anyhow. Surely the Left-Right jalopy can’t deal with the fact that housing prices will likely be stagnant for the next decade or so, until that back supply of speculated housing is slowly digested after millions more foreclosures. And what of the fact that our military is still stuck in Afghanistan? People don’t like talk of defeat or weakness on foreign policy matters come election time. What about the fact that we still appear to have no rule of law when it comes to banking, with everything from systematic foreclosure fraud in the housing markets, to the utterly strange bankruptcy of MF Global, where thousands of farmers lost millions of dollars while the firm was suddenly called a different type of institution at the last minute, and $1.2 billion “disappeared” the same week the CEO was shopping for a castle in the Loire Valley of France. Nothing good to discuss there with the Left-Right Machine either…
And thus we arrive at our collective decision to re-fight the great battles of the 20th Century, a reminder of when Boomers were young and vital and combating The Man effectively. In those debates, lines were drawn clearly between the Progressives and the Conservatives. The only problem is, those battles were won long ago, statues were cast of the generals, and songs written in honor of the fallen. Sorry, but birth control in America is not up for debate – ask any of your bewildered 19 year old daughters and sons. Also, we already settled the issue of whether Blacks and Whites could eat in the same restaurants. Or whether beer should be legal. And whether Vietnam was a good idea. And if colleges could treat men’s and women’s sports differently. And whether being gay was such a shame that it should never be spoken of. The 20th Century is finished, and its great debates were fought and decided.
And back then they were real debates. The birth control debate was legitimate forty years ago. The Pill was a brand new technology that would allow women to engage in sexual relationships without the specter of unplanned pregnancy labeling her a “slut,” consigning her to a nunnery or shunning her from the community, as had been done for centuries before. The nation asked itself if this social evolution – and it was a significant one – was worth the public shift in morals to accomplish the greater good of social stability and reduced poverty that comes from planned parenthood. And after much debate, the answer was, “Yes, it is worth it.”
Today, there is no such debate. So why is this in the news? Because it is comfortable. Everybody knows their role and they have their lines memorized, practiced diligently during a century of turbulent technological and social upheaval. That’s how this thing can play out so quickly and loudly in national media, moving from some policy debates over health plans to screaming that all women are sluts in the space of weeks.
But all of this is psychological transference, the fake discussions of a nation that badly needs to explore its future, and is afraid of the pain that will accompany those new conversations. Until we get the courage to have fresh, important and relevant discourse, I fear we’ll be talking about the threat of Communist Cuba and of the danger of saucy rock and roll lyrics for too many years to come.