Monday, July 9, 2012

The Doltification of America

Today I was going to write a piece on equality as it relates to the fervor over the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) I think we need to start somewhere else, though. Americans aren't ready to have a debate about equality in opportunity without the added decoration of taxation arguments, little girl with cancer memes and all the visceral, emotional rhetoric that comes along with it.

I said Americans aren't 'ready.' I should have said Americans aren't capable. There is something wrong with us culturally. Something is stopping us short of accepting factual material and forming an opinion of that material based only on those facts. We seem to need external input and injections of drama in our political soup. Without that stimulation of our entertainment nerve, we just don't seem able to pay proper attention to important issues. We need someone to root for or we change the channel. Are you on Team Sparkly, Angst-Ridden Vampire or Team Angry, Angst-Ridden Werewolf? Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears?

Teenage love triangles and football games are not good examples of how to run a government, but the American electorate has come to expect behavior from its politicians that is eerily similar to the two. We want grand gestures and long, meaningful eye-contact from our electeds. We want them knock the other guy out. We don't want boring trips to the library, chaste kisses and post-game handshakes. We want our team to win.

Politicians aren't stupid and neither are the people who manage their campaigns. The trend has been picked up, the gauntlet has been thrown down and elections stopped even pretending to be about ideas and cultural advancement. Instead of debating the cost/benefit/cultural equality implications of a national healthcare plan, paying our bills or even whether or not to fight wars, these people we elect immediately choose a team and go to the mattresses. They do it because that's what we've told them we expect, they do it because they are victims of our drama-crazed culture. We made them that way.

We are the good guys, they are the bad guys.

Don't be on the wrong side of history.

(Insert idea here) is un-American.

Politics is not a teenage drama. Politics is not a sport. Culturally, we have to come to terms with that. We must prepare to be bored by our government or we will be doomed to hate it. Government should be a documentary, not an action film, brain-surgery, not Jersey Shore.

The jokes about politicians being liars, thieves and insipid mouthpieces for special interests have been around forever. Vicious, American self-efficacy perpetuates the narrative.We have set the bar at the level of terrible and corrupt. There has been no need for our representatives to raise themselves up above our expectations. In fact, we punish the ones who try. Why? What is it about our culture that wants the worst of what we are to govern us both literally and figuratively? Are we too dumb to understand the kind of damage we do to ourselves? Are we too lazy to fix it?


A 2003 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) study ranked America's 15 year-olds 25th among the 30 participating countries in problem solving skills. I'm using the 2003 study because these children are now 24-25 years old. They are voters, college graduates and members of our labor force coming into their own as citizens. On a related note, The United States ranks 26th among those same countries in the ratio of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to teacher salaries and 15th in total education spending as a percentage of GDP.

Here we have the perfect unsolvable problem, a voting population that isn't great at viewing data and making decisions about it responsible for electing representatives whose job it should be to create policy using that same data. Instead of well constructed debates about how we should go about improving our public education system so our children are better prepared to compete in a world that is surpassing us, our system has left us with two emotional arguments that in no way challenge the electorate to make a decision about reality based on fact.

On one side there is the conservative meme that this is all about money and government spending. Because it is the conservative meme, we understand it to mean that if we join this team we are signing up for less of both. So, despite evidence to the contrary, if we side with the conservatives we are telling the world that we think spending less money on teachers and public education, somehow our 15 year-olds will get smarter.

The progressive side has given up on talking about education entirely and instead uses an argument about jobs e.g. employment rates, etc. in order to counteract the conservative meme effectively turning their education policy debate strategy into a numbers game rather than arguing about the quality of our teachers and schools.

Neither side's policy views have anything to do with the real American educational product. They don't address the quality of schools, teachers or students; there is only some ethereal argument about cash and job numbers. Meanwhile, our kids are having trouble deciphering the information contained in the basic graphs that outline the real problem.

How did we get here? It's your fault. Yes, you. You bought tickets to the football game.

Somewhere along the line, one team realized that people don't really like paying taxes, at least not if you can convince them they're not getting a return for their money. This ad campaign worked so well that the other team jumped on defense, but they weren't defending their own policies. Instead, they bought into the other team's game plan and rearranged their own accordingly. Suddenly we weren't having a conversation about what level of government spending on teacher's unions, salaries and public schools had a related benefit to the education product, we were arguing about whether any level of public expenditure on education was just a bad thing or the worst idea possible.

Even a populace as prone to bad ideas in good packaging as ours wouldn't fall into that obvious trap without a little extra help. The emotional idea of bettering our children through education is too strong even in the older demographics that no longer have children in school. The best way to counter an emotional response that you don't want is to introduce an issue that will create the emotional response that you do want. Enter religion.

The public education system had already been vilified for spending a enormous amount of taxpayer dollars and the progressives had already given up defending those expenditures in lieu of a more esoteric argument designed to counter the opposition rather than defend their own philosophy. The conservatives were suddenly able to say things in public like, "Well, we can all agree that the public education system is too expensive," without being argued with or corrected. With that battle won, they were free to attack from another emotional angle. Suddenly it wasn't how our kids were taught, but what.

Conservatives reached out to the fringe of their base and created a new meme: Not only are you paying too much for your kids' education, you are also sending them to public schools that teach them that your personal beliefs are wrong. They are taught in science class that the things they learn in church on Sunday are incorrect so, logically, they are learning that their parents are incorrect.

Once again, progressives failed to argue the correct point. Instead of defending our secular society as laid out in the law of our land, they came back with a mealy-mouthed argument that sounded something like this: "Look, we love God just as much as anybody else, but...., hey, we're Christians too, don't accuse us of being anything else," and down went the American educational system.

We chose teams. We fought about spending money, not about where and how, but about how much. We slipped further down the rabbit hole after a huge voting block decided that the education debate was also about faith vs. fact. The entire argument was suddenly emotional and divisive and no one wanted to talk anymore about the best way to teach children how to read or do long division.

We are living inside the American idiom, while the literal, fact-based world passes us by with incredulous looks on their faces.

Every debate we have about policy devolves in the same manner as the one we had and are still having about education. Healthcare, military action, the economy, drug laws, gun laws and even our established electoral process are now subject to these arguments where emotions are the proof and opinion is favored over fact.

It's more fun that way for an American citizenry that is getting provably worse at critical thinking. We are caught in a web that we created for ourselves and we are not going to escape it without shifting our thought process completely and I'm not sure this is a society that is capable of doing such a thing.