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Return of the Malaise

By       Message John Grant     Permalink
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It's a sad reality of our day that denial and bullshit seem the most useful talents to getting elected and to govern in America.

Bullshit is meant in the sense used by Harvard philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his popular book titled On Bullshit. He defines bullshit as language with no basis in truth or fact focused on obtaining power. A liar knows the truth and tries to sell falsehoods; bullshitters simply don't care what the truth is.

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Some of the most popular candidates for the Republican Party (think Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman) are classic bullshitters who completely disdain rational analysis. For them it's OK to say anything, like Perry and other's denial of evolution and global warming. Reason and responsible history are for the weak.

Even "liberals" like Barack Obama are masters of bullshit. You can't be elected President of the United States as a "peace" candidate and, then, run three wars, expand the use of lethal drones and special ops assassination teams and attempt to jail NSA whistleblowers without being an excellent bullshitter. Obama's bullshit is less the counter-Enlightenment stuff of Perry and Bachman; his bullshit is the art of seeming to fight for change as he really nestles into the status-quo.

In such a climate of bullshit is it any wonder Americans are living through such unprecedented stress and difficulty? And all indications suggest it will only get worse before it gets better.

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The problem is the current raft of bullshitters insist on propagating a master narrative from the 19th and 20th centuries that no longer works for the reality of the nation as it moves into the 21st Century. Master narratives are based on national myths and are found in the nostalgic assumptions of identity that people believe and want to keep alive in the future. The key myth in this context is the Myth of American Exceptionalism that says we Americans are the best of history and humanity -- a super-nation at the pinnacle of global political evolution destined by our affluence and narcissistic assumptions of greatness to be the world's role model and policeman.

Dig a little deeper and read some responsible history and it becomes clear we're a complex nation -- like all humanity, a struggle of opposites like good and evil -- founded and sustained by ambition, violence and conquest. Now, in the unfolding 21st century, the whole project is running low on gas. The sense of exceptionalism is becoming more nostalgic, making sustaining the myth more costly and more detrimental to a good future. This means greater and greater amounts of bullshit.

What we should be doing -- the smart thing to do for a better future -- is to recognize the myth is actually harmful and begin to deconstruct it so we can face our past honestly and pull back from our global militarism and engage in much-needed fixing up here at home. The list is obvious: a deteriorating education system, a shamelessly wealth-focused justice system, a health-care system run by corporate pirates, a virtually un-regulated system of exploitation by capital and, yes, the growing effects of global warming.

It is the rare politician (Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes to mind) who has the backbone to raise any of this as an issue. Instead, we get highly entertaining and personable people who bullshit us on how things are tough but the glory days are not over. Then, we are told those who complain are to actually to blame for their failure to be good cheerleaders -- or as Spiro Agnew put it, "nabobs of negativity."

To focus on the negative is to hate America. It's like the two-year-old who covers his eyes and assumes no one can see him.

          The Real Problem Is Us

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All this adds up to one difficult fact: The onus of blame for the wretched state of affairs we're in needs to be shifted from the politicians all Americans love to scapegoat to we the people ourselves. We're all complicit (some more than others) and we have the government we deserve.

Jimmy Carter tried to break this cycle with his famous "malaise" speech. Mondale tried to be honest about the need for taxes. But the consequent ascendancy of the Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan made it clear what direction America was headed: In a word, toward more bullshit. Reagan was probably the best bullshitter ever to sit in the White House. Instead of a world-view and policies based on the tough realities of a declining America, we got an incredibly scripted and symbol-ridden master narrative that assured American there was no malaise here. No, we were "a shining city on a hill" and taxes were for chumps.

Those that followed -- the Bushes, Clinton and now Obama -- all learned the Reagan lesson well. None of these Presidents had -- or in the case of Obama, has -- any interest in making a speech that starts out:

"My fellow Americas, the fun is over. The days of glory and 'shining cities on a hill' are over -- at least for the time being. We have damage to repair. America and Americans must find a new vision based on the need to conserve our resources and figure out how to live together more peacefully with less."

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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