America Is Becoming A Big, Fat Joke. What Is One To Do?

Let me be clear…I am not, nor have I ever been, a cultural dystopian, aka, “doomsdayer” whose pessimistic outlook of our country spells certain future disaster.  Nor have I ever been a cultural utopian who believes our future is a yellow brick road leading to Nirvana.  I like to believe I am a critical thinker who calls it as I critically see it—dystopian or utopian be damned.

Thus, when I contend that America is turning into a big fat joke, perhaps some context is in order.

In my Critical Thinking course I teach the 1985 classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by author Neal Postman. In this 31 year-old insightful piece of literature, Postman posits that the television is turning our country into a culture of entertainment addicts: A world in which all of our areas of supposed serious cultural discourse—our news, politics, education and religious institutions, to name a few, are transforming into conduits of entertainment while providing fodder for the amusement-feeding frenzy of the American populace.

I first taught this book circa 1989…when I believed it to be an interesting argument. I continued to teach the book through 1999…when I then believed it was on to something fairly huge.  In 2009 I believed it was more relevant than ever. Now, in 2016, by simply including that television also means the internet, I believe it to be a cultural prophesy that has tapped into the present zeitgeist of a generation. The older the book becomes, the more relevant its application. My students clamor for it… other than the movie, “Back to the Future,” what else from 1985 is clamored for by today’s 20 somethings?

Postman has no problem with entertainment. In fact, he would likely argue that entertainment shows are the best shows on television. Why? Entertainment shows do not pretend to be anything else but entertainment. The danger, he suggests, are those programs which purport to carry meaningful substance and are, in reality, portals of amusement under the guise of serious discourse.

Postman bemoans the political debates of the 1980’s, yet, by today’s standards, those were exhibitions of the highest intellect—a political candidate referring to the size of his genitals? I doubt even the great cultural cynic Neal Postman would have ever predicted that one on even his worst, pessimistic day.

CBS president Leslie Moonves, referring to our current state of insane politics, could not have said it more clearly, It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Spoken like a man clearly leading the charge in a country bent on amusing itself to death.

Of course I thought I did see the presidential silliness writing on the wall when the state of California elected an action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to run one of the largest economies in the world, though, alas, I was wrong. It was when the great state of Minnesota conveniently one-upped us Californians with its electing wrestler, Jessie “The Body” Ventura, to its highest office, that the writing on the wall became truly legit.

We had to see this coming.

Oy vey. And I’m not even Jewish.

Moonves continues, “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

According to Moonves, CBS profit “Trumps” our nation’s dignity and decorum.

Contemporary politics is only one example of our big fat joke. Our nation’s biggest star is only known for a porn video, a reality show and a fat ass. Today’s pop music largely centers around “niggers,” asses, bitches and hoes. Now is when my grandpa Jimmy rant really gets good: In my day we used to play video games for fun, today we watch hours and hours of others playing video games for fun.

When I was growing up the greatest threat to our country came from outside influences, namely the Cold War and Russia. Then President Ronald Reagan proposed a “Star Wars” defense shield that literally would be a dome-like structure over the nation to protect us from incoming missiles. However, today’s greatest threat, save for isolated terrorist attacks, does not come from outside missiles but from inside insanity. Our country is not set to explode due outside forces, rather, we are on the course to implode due to inside sources. Who is going to save us from us? Does there exist a protective shield for that?

A friend of mine, Dominick, recently wrote sarcastically on his facebook page “that it’s some kind of shocker to learn we live in one big Jerry Springer episode set in an enormous Walmart…” Believing in this cultural milieu is one thing, yet what am I to do with this understanding of America becoming one big, fat joke?jerry-springer-large-643x441

Do I grow a beard and stand on street corner shouting the end is near? Do I laugh? Do I cry? Panic?

Please understand that when I say I will do absolutely nothing -outside my normal daily routine and life- is not a sign of apathy nor concern, rather a sign of accepting reality on realities terms.

I could argue with gravity or with the necessity to breathe or with the entropic nature of the universe, but I would lose all of those arguments.

I could argue against the decay of western civilization…but what would be the point? It is what it is.

Perhaps my cultural observations might lead some to sorrow and despair, yet for me it leads to the necessity to live life with a fervency and passion; to continue to take responsibility for opening minds and educating those around me to critically think; to write my thoughts and communicate my mind to others; to spread positive energy to all those within my small sphere of influence while being eternally grateful for each breath I take on this floating round ball in space; all the while continuing to know the difference between observing, complaining and truly living.

Accepting the big, fat joke for what it is does not at all mean that I am pleased by it, nor enjoy it, nor embrace it.

Perhaps if I were aboard the Titanic I would be one of the guys enjoying the wonderful sounds of the violinists as the ship slowly makes its way into the watery grave that awaits. The ship is going to sink whether I panic or not.

In the paraphrased words of Henry David Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Hey, things could change, or not. Or, hell, I could even be completely wrong about all this.

I want to live a rich life and make a difference with those with whom I am able. Perhaps if we all did so, the course can be changed. Or not.

A cultural dystopian? Perhaps, but in a clearly utopian kind of way.

Podcast With SBCCD Chancellor, Bruce Baron, Part I

Jimmy sits down with a San Bernardino Community College District Chancellor, Bruce Baron, for a frank talk concerning the San Bernardino shootings, the vote of no confidence, perceptions of people, and quite a few other issues. This podcast ends rather abruptly due to technical difficulties though part II is coming soon! Enjoy the first part of this two part interview.

 

Voting…Or Not

I preface this blog entry with the qualification that I am not a political expert in any way, shape or form (are you listening Holliann?). However, I do know how to structure sentences and do have an opinion…not to mention I pay WordPress $100 a year for this domain name…so read on!

The 2016 presidential election is still over 14 months away and the party nominations are beginning to heat up in a big way. It is around this time of year that I hear people discussing the candidates and for whom they will vote.  Oddly, it seems most of us have a feel for who we like and do not like–yet really have no real, legitimate “grounded” reasons why. I hear things like, “Trump seems like such an asshole,” or, “Hillary is a bitch,” or, “Bernie Sanders reminds me of my loving grandfather.”

Hardly astute political observations when deciding on who shall be the next “Leader of the Free World.” Or are they as good as any other observations? Stay with me here people. I have come full circle on my former harsh critiques of a superficial voting base. I suggest 3 basic unpopular options -well, kinda 4– for those of you considering voting in the next election…and please read on before you judge me too harshly and cast me as un-American. I do have my reasons.

1. Don’t vote.vote151

2. Vote for whoever makes you feel better about life.

3. Close your eyes, point down, and select the candidate at your fingertip.

We’ll get to number 4 later….

Yes, I’m dead serious.

First off, two of my favorite thinkers, economists Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt from Freakonomics, would tell you straight out that voting is the biggest waste of time a person can spend. In a New York Times article they wrote in 2005, they claim following:

 Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at the voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost — in time, effort, lost productivity — with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your “civic duty.” As the economist Patricia Funk wrote in a recent paper, “A rational individual should abstain from voting.”

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim. This was documented by the economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, who analyzed more than 56,000 Congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898. For all the attention paid in the media to close elections, it turns out that they are exceedingly rare. The median margin of victory in the Congressional elections was 22 percent; in the state-legislature elections, it was 25 percent. Even in the closest elections, it is almost never the case that a single vote is pivotal. Of the more than 40,000 elections for state legislator that Mulligan and Hunter analyzed, comprising nearly 1 billion votes, only 7 elections were decided by a single vote, with 2 others tied. Of the more than 16,000 Congressional elections, in which many more people vote, only one election in the past 100 years — a 1910 race in Buffalo — was decided by a single vote. 

So, according to them, why do people vote? They provide 3 reasons:

1. Perhaps we are just not very bright and therefore wrongly believe that our votes will affect the outcome.

2. Perhaps we vote in the same spirit in which we buy lottery tickets. After all, your chances of winning a lottery and of affecting an election are pretty similar. From a financial perspective, playing the lottery is a bad investment. But it’s fun and relatively cheap: for the price of a ticket, you buy the right to fantasize how you’d spend the winnings – just like you get to fantasize that your vote will have some impact on policy.

3. Perhaps we have been socialized into the voting-as-civic-duty idea, believing that it’s a good thing for society if people vote, even if it’s not particularly good for the individual. And thus we feel guilty for not voting.

I once was of the strong opinion that not voting was better than casting an ignorant vote. However, for the following two reasons -my 2nd and 3rd options-I have changed my mind. Funny what a little research can do.

My second possible option concerning voting -vote for who makes you feel better about your life- is grounded in the following principle concerning the logistics of the presidency: The actual power of the president.

I believe that one of the most important considerations when considering presidential candidates is to understand the nature of the presidency and the actual power he or she possesses.

Bernadette Meyler, a Cornell Law Professor, breaks down presidential power into five general areas -that I can simplify here:  

1. Leader of the Armed Forces

2. Judicial and Cabinet Appointments

3. The Execution or Non-Execution of Laws

4. Power of Persuasion over Congress

5. Foreign Policy

Perhaps a sixth power, tangentially related to power #4 above, and arguably the greatest power a president may have, is that of the bully pulpit. Whether or not a president is for or against abortion, gay rights, immigration reform or tax increases/cuts –just to name a few issues– means very little insofar as the president alone is concerned. Our system of checks and balances does not allow for a dictatorship and these types of issues are the result of the judicial and legislative branches of government, in tandem with the executive branch. That said, the president has the power to wield a rather hefty sword of persuasion towards these, and other, entities –yet he or she can never vote or judge in their stead.

So how much power does the president really have?

I would argue that the president has far less power than most of us think. Conversely, I would also contend that supreme court justices have substantially far more power than we give them credit. The president may appoint justices, yet the  senate needs to approve them (too bad for Robert Bork….look it up kiddos). In terms of my gay friends who can now marry, Justice Anthony Kennedy has far more power than Barack Obama. In fact, President Obama does not have ANY power in this matter whatsoever –other than to use his powers of persuasion to attempt to shape public and political opinion.

So, Jimmy, what is the point?

The way our system functions, the president is far more a “purveyor of political perception” over a “perpetrator of power.” Yes, the president can declare war, appoint cabinet members, and free convicted felons, yet, none of these things are ever done in a vacuum nor without weighing the political consequences of making such decisions. If the president makes grave errors in any of these types of decisions, the president will politically pay dearly for it. This is why presidents wait until their term is nearly over to start pardoning their white collar buddies, among others, in prison –to avoid political fall out. Just hours before his final term in office, on January 20, 2001, Bill Clinton released 140 people from prison (this act was known in some circles as “pardongate”). To grant these pardons any sooner would have been political suicide and he would have had hell to pay.

So, yes, the president certainly wields a strong power of persuasion yet will not commit any acts that will result in his or her own political suicide. Hence, we potentially can have a wild presidential pit bull in office, yet due to political ambitions in the great majority of cases, the president is laced with a strong political sedative to behave in accordance with popular opinion –left wing or right wing be damned.

My opinion these days? Vote for whomever makes you feel better about your life and this country. It’s as good a criteria as any.

Finally, if either not voting or voting based on feeling does not work for you, I would recommend my third option: Randomly select anyone. There are strong reasons to support an ignorant voter base, many discussed here in Harvard Professor Jennifer L. Hochschild’s article, “If Democracies Need Informed Voters, How Can They Thrive While Expanding Enfranchisement?” In this article she states the following:

If everyone was passionately and knowledgeably engaged with the issues, the losing party would not grant legitimacy to electoral results or to controversial legislative or judicial decisions, and that would threaten the existence of the state itself. As Bernard Berelson and his colleagues put it, “the apathetic segment of America probably has helped to hold the system together and cushioned the shock of disagreement, adjustment, and change.”  After all, democratic participation is hard and often unrewarding work, especially if one invests time and energy in learning about electoral or policy choices; in this view, a democracy needs the apathetic ignorant to balance the passionate experts. 

My paraphrase of the above sentiment? We need a lot of people not to give a shit or else there might be civil war and/or anarchy. Sure Thomas Jefferson would disagree, though he did not live in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Reddit –not to mention Disneyland…all worthy competitors for our precious time, attention and resources. These things keep us in a politically flaccid and mind-numbing state. We need political apathy in this country and our survival depends on a majority of ignorant voters.

I find it quite laughable when I hear either the extreme right or extreme left claim they will leave the country if a certain candidate wins. No you won’t.  Shut up. (Although if Trump wins I certainly won’t go to Mexico because I’d probably never get back over that wall). The president just doesn’t change things all that much. Flee to France if you must, Johnny Depp, though if the president mattered that much, our country would never have survived the Jimmy Carter era.

Of course there is a 4th alternative…be passionate and spend copious amounts of time studying the candidates and issues. But that would require, as stated above, often hard and unrewarding work: Having to check facts and investigate political voting records can be a real bitch. Particularly when you consider your one vote has about as much chance for counting as winning the super lotto…10 times in a row.

Yep. That’s what I thought.

I told you all I am no political expert…just a blogger with an opinion. And for a $100 bucks a year, you better believe you are going to get it.