From Liberty Street: Linkage

John Turner


CBS's 60 Minutes last night had three seemingly disparate episodes, one about Bob Woodward's description of White House decision-making, another about a radical treatment for the swelling epidemic of depression, and the third about groups of teenage boys who attack, and sometimes kill, homeless men just for the fun of it. There was no obvious connection among them, yet having watched all three I was left with a strong sense that they all pointed to the same story.

There are now in our society strong forces of social decay, stronger probably than we have seen for decades. A number of my older friends think the United States went bad during the 1960s with the hippy movement. I have never been able to agree with them. There were some abuses and much silliness associated with the so-called alternative culture of that time. But there was also idealism and intensity. By contrast, in all three of the episodes last night, the telling symbol was the blank face.

We've had innumerable photographs of the president's face over the past five years when somebody asked him a question that required him to think. The same drained-out look he exhibits on those occasions could be seen last night in the expression of people for whom life has become miserably meaningless and in the response of a young man sentenced to prison for thirty-five years for the senseless killing of a homeless man in Florida. The latter appeared to be bewildered by what he had done. He didn't know why and he clearly couldn't explain it. The best he could offer was a mumbled note about how it must have been exciting at the time.

Last week in the New York Times, Judith Warner had an article titled "Why Voters Like Values." She based the piece on a conversation she had a couple years ago with the social psychologist Jerome Kagan who told her that in politics "values" sell  because they're an antidote to depression. "Humans," he said, "demand that there be a clear right and wrong."

The essay annoyed me because though I agree that people need something to believe in and stand up for I also think it's snotty intellectualism to imply that it doesn't matter how simple-minded or divorced from reality the people's belief structure is. The message seemed to be that if you'll just believe something, no matter what it is, you'll be okay. This is the sort of rot that has been fed to the American public for years, and it's beginning to hollow-out our brains.

Whether George Bush knows it, or Jerome Kagan, or Judith Warner, we do live in a real world where actual forces are at work, forces which bang up against our lives. And the only counter force we have to protect ourselves and negate some of the destructive powers around us is our intelligence. For a long time now Americans have been soothed with a propaganda campaign which proclaims that intelligence is something for Europeans or Asian scientists but that we don't have to worry about it because we can roll on under the care of mythical entities like the free market or a god whose nature few have ever given ten minutes thought to. That's what it means to be Americans. We're special.

This is not a functional doctrine for people in the twenty-first century, and so long as we hang on to it, and continue to believe we can avoid the burdens of thought, we're going to see increasing numbers of blank faces among us, and disgusting deeds.  The title of Bob Woodward's book, which was discussed widely but not very intelligently on the TV talk shows this weekend, was State of Denial. The book is about the president's inner circle but the title could just as well be applied to much of the country.

The time has come to be not only amused but concerned about H. L. Mencken's much-quoted quip from the Baltimore Sun in 1920:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely,
the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the
land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a
downright moron.

The thing we need to be most concerned about though is not the president's mental condition. After all, he's temporary. The serious question is whether, when we look at the faces that come out of the White House from time to time to tell us who we are and what we should do, we're really looking into a mirror. If that's the case then the tone of 60 Minutes last night was just a prelude.



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Harvard Square Commentary, October 2, 2006