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Communication, the Public Sphere, WikiLeaks, China, Obama, Lord Voldemort, and Why America is in Deep Trouble

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I was struck this morning by Thomas Friedman's op-ed column, "From WikiChina" in the New York Times. Imagining a cable from the Chinese Embassy in Washington about the state of America, the piece begins with the observation:

"America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world's most powerful economy and nation. But we're particularly optimistic because the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things. " Americans just had what they call an "election.' Best we could tell it involved one congressman trying to raise more money than the other (all from businesses they are supposed to be regulating) so he could tell bigger lies on TV more often about the other guy before the other guy could do it to him. This leaves us relieved. It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent."

Although Friedman is making up the cable, it's truths ring truer than any fiction. For all Americans his observations should be deeply troubling, but I fear they will be ignored. Instead, we will remain blissfully in denial, so consumed with putting the royal "me" back center-stage in our lives that we collectively embrace a post-election, pre-Christmas "suspension of disbelief" at what we read and see happening in Washington. The result is that we are, when we take time away from the gilded mirror on our wall to look out the big global window, appallingly amused but not called to action by the spectacle of the mediated unraveling of our political system, our economy, and perhaps even of our democracy.

So deep is our personal narcissism, so widespread its influence on our personalities, it now constitutes "the new normal" in our culture. Doubt me? How then would you explain the fact the newest edition of the official medical manual for mental disorders has removed "narcissistic personality disorder" from its list of issues/illnesses in need of professional treatment? That removal ought to tell us something about ourselves, not just about our politicians.

I know this is bad news. I know you don't want to hear it, much less believe it. Perhaps those of you old enough to remember it are too much reminded of Jimmy Carter's 1979 pronouncement of "a crisis of confidence" in our country caused by political assassinations, an unpopular war in Vietnam, and the political scandal of Watergate that critics identified as a "malaise," although that word never appeared in his speech. What he said was this:

"I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. . . . I do not refer to the outward strength of America " The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. . . . In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. . . ."

Carter's indictment was of the internal corruption of consumerism as our national problem and threat to the American Way of Life, and not--in the words of poet Allen Ginsberg--"those Russians, those Russians, them Chinamen, and those Russians." One result of his speech was that the Republican right, under the burgeoning popularity of Ronald Reagan, was able to turn Carter's honest assessment into a "blame America first" strategy against the Carter re-election bid and Democrats in general, its signature coming in Reagan's famous debate question that affirmed our narcissistic right to consume at will, regardless of global or local consequences: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

But these times are not those times. They are measurably worse. It is not advisable to mention Carter's speech, so please forget that I did it.

Nor is it advisable for our president to talk honestly in the public sphere about what needs to be done to fix the broken economy, create jobs, or invest anew in the infrastructure and innovations necessary to compete with China, India, or even the Irish or Italians, if their bankruptcies leads to really cheap labor that greedy U.S. corporations can once again abuse.

Obama is not about to make the Carter mistake. It is safer not to. It is safer to seek political compromise on camera, while behind closed doors caving in to the big money. It is safer to avoid the idea that all Americans will need to sacrifice if we are to pay our way out of debt. It is safer, particularly when campaign donations from corporations are now equated with free speech, to not talk openly or honestly about who is really to blame for the bad shape we are economically in, much less change the rules of the game.

Just as in Harry Potter, "they" who must not be named are truly evil and we have learned to fear them. They not "too big to fail." They are too evil to be named. They are Lord Voldemort, rising form the bailout, stronger than ever. And their evil magic is in their ability to incessantly feed our narcissistic Muggle need as debt-enabled, credit-card carrying customers to continue to consume.

Until we can't. Until the Ministry of Magic that we call the U. S. Government has been fully taken over by those who serve them, not us. Until we lose more jobs, more homes. Until more of us see our children graduate from good schools into uncertain futures, lower wages, and lesser dreams. Which is to say, until right now.

Will we fail because we are afraid to speak the truth to power? Or because we no longer trust those who we elect to represent us, because they won't?

Trustworthy communication in the public sphere, and the will to speak truth to power, has long been a growing problem in American politics. This week's WikiLeaks scandal, if nothing else, confirms two things. First, our suspicions that secrecy in the practice of diplomacy is not limited to diplomats or spies, but that it represents a common practice among world leaders is loudly affirmed. And second, investigative journalists not in the pockets of media tycoons are necessary because they can provide information relevant to the public's interests, even--and perhaps especially--if it makes those in power squirm. Yet the net result of these revelations is unlikely to make communication more open or honest, just less traceable. Less shared between and among government agencies. Rarely recorded in any form, but especially rarely written down. All of which is to say information vital to citizens to make better-informed decisions will be less available for critical scrutiny and therefore less accountable to the public.

We are in trouble. Deep trouble. I had hoped that following the "shellacking" that our president would realize the obvious: that the other side thinks the only game in town is ensuring his demise in 2012. Slapped with that rude fact, I had hoped he would become, finally, the man I voted for. The man who would dare to speak truth to power. The man who would deliver change. The man who would use his oratorical skills and superior reason to win the war of ideas in this country with his words.

Maybe I am naïve. I still believe that people can be persuaded and that when threatened our country can push aside political differences to act in unison for the public good. I am holding on to that belief. At least for the time being. Why not? The new Harry Potter movie ends with Lord Voldemort seizing Dumbledore's wand, but in the spring the real battle for the world will begin and one can only hope there is an American parallel to that film script's happy ending. Besides, Christmas is coming and I still have some shopping to do. Got to get that new iPhone.

 

H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)
 

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I voted for him and I still support him, but I hav... by Bud Goodall on Wednesday, Dec 1, 2010 at 3:08:26 PM
The USA's blatant disregard of its own laws with r... by kevin walsh on Thursday, Dec 2, 2010 at 4:51:13 PM