America has always been a place of strange people with strange ideas. From the kooky and irritating Puritans washing up on the shores of Massachusetts, to witch burners, to slavers, to utopians and firebrand preachers marching West across the plains, America is a place you can stretch your legs, surround yourself with wide open spaces and think any damn fool thing that comes into your head. Back in Europe, you had popes, kings and Torquemadas watching every word that came out of your mouth to see if, for only one option, you required a nice burning at the stake. But in America, there was always a frontier, however dangerous and alone, to run to for the purpose of getting your intellectual freak on. Think what you like – we’re all busy trying to survive the winter with enough crops.
One of my favorite books, Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America, goes a step further and actually surmises that the room to be crazy is what makes America great. Our grand tradition of batshit conspiracies is actually a crucible for better, more logical ideas to emerge. While the structured Old World was too preoccupied with its intellectual roots, America could innovate by letting the insane duke it out with the reasonable, to see which camp emerged stronger. Who else, argued Pierce, but the unruly Scots and wayward Americans would actually suggest that small enterprise and democracy could actually outshine mercantilism and monarchy, which resulted in such riches at that time? And yet, it was the freaks who carried the 18th century and years after to the virtues of the Enlightenment. And thus was born America’s romance with the mistrust of conventional wisdom.
The central thesis of Pierce’s book is that all this, in recent years, has been carried too far – that the nutjobs have, through lucrative media businesses, acquired a glossy credibility to which they are not due. He depicted the distracting antics of creationists (with their museums depicting Stone Age Man riding dinosaurs with English dressage saddles), “pro-lifers” losing their minds over the withdrawal of care from brain-dead Terry Schiavo, and many other denizens of the American fever swamp of the mind. And all this in 2005 before Sarah Palin emerged on the scene! How prescient he was!
The economic roots of crazypants
Recently, it seems America is crossing into an area of insane that would require a brand new color if it were a weather map. From Obama’s SECRIT BIRTH IN INDO-KENYA, to the 55,000 years of petroleum lurking under Phoenix that Democrats don’t want you to have, to Obamacare having Death Panels, there is, on our Facebook walls and in semi-legitimate media, a resurgence of all manner of paranoid persecutions. Yet I saw one today that crossed the line for me – Sandy Hook Truthers. Apparently, a kindly old man took in six students and a bus driver after the massacre that occurred near his house. And now, in defiance of everything that is decent and holy and associated with this species, people are actually accusing this man of participating in a grand conspiracy to…what? Help Obama grab our guns? New World Something or Other? 9/11? Gold standard?
Horribly depressing, right?
I never leave any major change at “I guess people are horrible and selfish now.” Read some history. Try the Romans. The Chinese will do. Seljuk Turks as well. We’re not the descendants of saints, my friends. There is usually a reason that behavior changes so sharply. Economics are never a bad place to start.
Check out this chart of trends in compensation of high school versus college graduates going back as far as 1980, measured in constant 2009 dollars.
I have this chart as part of my research on the diminish returns in higher education – but it tells an important story about the widening socio-economic divide in America. Pay attention to the column of high school diplomas. Note the precipitous drop in salary, and bear in mind the dramatically increased cost of living in America, for everything from housing, education, healthcare and gasoline. As we can see in a variety of other studies, the working class in America is being squeezed.
One wonders how the people who comprise this slice of society see their situation. While college does not guarantee an insightful perspective and a high school education does not preclude a worldly view of changing economic structures, from an anecdotal point of view I’ll say that the working man does not spend a lot of time pontificating about macroeconomics. He just knows that he used to support a family with one job; now he needs two. He knows that things suck. He knows that they used to be better. He may not know why they were better, what we did different, or how we might get back there. This isn’t condescension, in that he is joined by much of the executive class.
The conspiracies now infecting America are usually illogical, counter-factual – and in the case of Sandy Hook Truthers, disgusting. But they are, in their own way, a cry for help. American myth tells us that hard work is tantamount to morality, and that it shall be rewarded. Never mind the external factors such as cheap and available petroleum, reduced global competition after World War II, demographic booms creating a homogenous consumer culture. In America, we focus on the individual, for good and for ill. If we are working hard, we don’t want to hear that the fruits of our labor won’t be coming this year due to some crap about Brazilian and Indian demand for light sweet crude, or sagging demand from the housing bubble, or the end of the Boomers as major consumers. I work hard, I prosper – you don’t prosper, you didn’t deserve it – period.
But the brain doesn’t like holes in a narrative. This is actually a biological fact in the human – when dementia sets in because brain cells are lost due to, say, mini-strokes, wide swaths of memory will be erased. And then brain does this amazing thing – it begins to fill in facts just to complete the story. The human mind abhors a vacuum, and believing something fantastical and wrong is preferable to leaving that hole just sitting there, the most uncomfortable silence imaginable. I can’t remember Tuesday? Screw that – I went shopping with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Aquaman!
So we have a serious epidemic of The Crazy, but we also have a major case of Narrative Failure. America’s countless and often-useful myths are being met with an inconvenient new set of facts. Your hard work may not be good enough to get ahead. Your kids may have less than you had. You and your wife may be working two jobs into your 70s. Oh, and your health insurance premiums just went up another 11% to finance a system that isn’t remotely the best in terms of health care outcomes.
This is a moment where being a pissy, cynical member of Generation X has its advantages. We always thought that the system was kind of screwed and that our parents were going to drive the whole thing into a ditch. Call it the philosophy of the latch-key kid. It gives us some psychic armor against disappointment. (It also makes us morose and annoying, a topic for another essay.)
But I think that the Baby Boom generation has another psychological architecture. They were raised in a period of economic boom and moral certainty. Television broadcast messages of triumph, certainty and homogeneity – at least until the late 1960s. Things were supposed to work out. People are supposed to get their fair share because they work hard, darn it. And today, it’s just not happening that way – though nobody is stepping forward with a credible reason as to why.
So now we are treated to conspiracy after conspiracy. The Gubmint wants your guns so they can have the tyranny instead of the 1776. The new provision to compensate doctors in Medicare for having end of life discussions with family members, often saving weeks of suffering and hundreds of thousands of dollars, is called a conspiracy to kill economically weak Americans. Oh, and FEMA will run it. On and on it goes.
It is sad – yet beware of falling into the temptation of seeing these people are somehow suddenly evil. There’s a hole in the narrative. There’s a hole in their bank accounts, quite possibly. One or both needs to be filled. In the absence of money and logic, the brain fills in whatever seems expedient. It’s ugly and it may be here for some time to come. Try for compassion, if you can. It will be a challenge for me, too.