Multiple times, playing the Higher Thought game, I’ve met with the question “If you could reactivate one political trend that seems to have stalled, what would it be?”
My go-to answer has been “Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.”
Now I have a different answer. Here’s why.
The show Frontline on PBS just produced a 4-hour episode entitled “America’s Great Divide,” in which film makers interviewed 9 or 10 of the most important American political players of the past decade.
The program is okay.
The full-length interviews, however, are amazing.
And PBS has made available, on YouTube, all of those interviews in their entirely (not just the snippets and excerpts incorporated into the program).
These are hour-long (or longer) interviews. It is revelatory and astonishing to hear these famous individuals speak at length, unedited, candidly, in their own words.
One interview moved me nearly to tears. This interviewee did cry on camera. Here are a few quotes from that interview. (Please forgive the length … in my view, they are poignant and worth reading.)
You can only be divided if you don’t understand. You can only be divided if you don’t empathize. We may not agree fundamentally. But if you have enough respect for my point of view and I respect yours, we’re not divided. We just disagree.
We don’t trust anything anymore. And I think this is really dangerous for the democracy. We don’t trust the media to tell us the truth. We don’t trust the government to manage the economy or to be involved in a positive and uplifting way. We don’t trust business to treat its employees with respect and decency. We don’t trust culture to play to the best parts of us rather than appeal to the worst parts. We have so low a level of trust, and a democracy requires at least some level of faith in the future, and some faith in the people who lead us. No democracy can survive when wrapped in skepticism and cynicism.
And that is where we are right now. And our politicians on both sides have created an environment of acrimony and partisanship and division that is not just poisonous, it is genuinely toxic! It is killing this country. And everyone who speaks in that language that dismisses a community or dismisses somebody else … we are not just trashing them, we are dehumanizing them, we are delegitimizing them. And when you get that far, that ‘you’ have no right to exist, that ‘you’ have nothing to contribute to society, when we make that decision, there is no recovering, there is no coming back, because ‘you’ cease to exist.
And that is where we are right now, and it scares the shit out of me, because you can’t show me a time when a democracy recovered. The Weimar Republic did not recover. The brief experiment in democracy that happened in 1917 led to the biggest revolution in Russia. When you lose all legitimacy because you’ve lost all credibility, you don’t recover.
And that’s where we are right now, and we have a lot to be angry about for our politicians for taking us here. This is not what was supposed to happen when Barack Obama got elected. This was not supposed to happen when we drained the swamp. We were supposed to remove all this stuff, we were supposed to clean everything up and all we’ve done is muddy it.
And don’t tell me that, ‘Well, it’s difficult” or ‘It’s messy.’ It is. But people have made it more difficult and made it more messy. And they have a lot to answer for. All of us. Pollsters, the media, the politicians, the business leaders, the cultural leaders, they have let us down.
And we have the right to be angry. But we don’t have the right to be poisonous.
Social media just makes a bad situation even worse. We already are a country at war with each other. Now overlay that with social media, which takes that criticism and puts it into every person’s home immediately, without reflection, and without editing. A negative tweet is so much more likely to be shared than a positive tweet. A hostile Facebook posting is more likely to be liked than something that’s positive. And we now have direct democracy, so that anyone can criticize anyone at any time, and they do.
I challenge people who say, ‘Oh this is just a stage that we’re going through.’ I’ve seen so many great nations and cultures rise and fall. The Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Egyptians, the Italians, the Greeks. Again and again, societies rise and societies fall. There’s nothing permanent. And there’s always something that’s been introduced into that system that undermines and eventually destroys that system. Something that comes from outside. If you study history, it’s like it’s a disease that comes in and there’s no cure for it.
For us, that disease is social media. Because it actually rewards not just negativity, but there’s no differentiation between fact and fiction. There’s no differentiation between those who know what they’re saying and those who are just making it up. And because it is instantaneous, you can’t fix it when you’re wrong. And so we now live by the latest tweet. The president shows that. More people get their information from Donald Trump’s tweets than the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, and Wall Street Journal COMBINED. We have a responsibility to understand that kids are reading it, not just adults. That first-generation immigrants are reading it, not just those who’ve been here for 300 years.
But we don’t, and there’s no control over it, we have no self-censorship anymore. The politicians create the poison but social media is the system by which it is delivered. And make no mistake – it is in all of us now. And it’s wrecking us, it really is.
Our children are being taught to be judgmental at a time when we should be more open than we’ve ever been.
The interviewee quoted here is longtime Republican pollster and languaging guru Frank Luntz, whom I once deemed to be one of the most evil persons in this country.
In the early 2000s, in a strategy memo to Congressional Republicans entitled “Winning the Global Warming Debate,” Luntz wrote:
“The scientific debate is closing but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community. Therefore, the most important principle of any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science.”
So Luntz was instructing Republican politicians to employ the phrase “sound science” when they defended inaction on climate change. Subsequently, President George W. Bush, in rejecting the Kyoto Protocols on global warming emissions, declared, “When we make decisions, we want to make sure we do so on sound science.”
Luntz built his career on deceptive language. It made him rich. Above is but one example. (I could be mistaken, but I believe it was also Luntz who dubbed the Bush-era legislation that would have eased restrictions on industrial mercury emissions (it did not become law) the Clear Skies Act.)
I would love to ask Mr. Luntz this: “”Can you, sir, now look the camera in the eye and admit you made a terrible moral error? Or can there be any justification for, among other things, your memo on ‘Winning the Global Warming Debate’? If you have another point of view about this, PLEASE explain because I truly want to understand. I have seen your interview and cannot help but like you, and I can no longer believe you are entirely cynical.”
Luntz talks in the interview about how everyone today wants to be heard and no one wants to really listen. I would listen to him answer my question with an open mind. I just saw his interview and I’m shell-shocked by its emotional impact.
My new answer to the Higher Thought question mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter is … amity. Respect and amity, both within the halls of power, and in the zeitgeist of our American culture. Amity, from which all else flows. That’s my new answer. That’s the political trend I would like to see reactivated.
Listening, of course, is key to this. So here’s to listening to each other. Here’s to evergreen curiosity and REALLY listening. Even to Frank Luntz, who wrote that infamous memo.
Fascinating guy; wish I could meet him. I defy anyone to watch the video of his interview and disbelieve in his sincerity.
Here’s to all the mystery of our miraculous little existence, so little of which I truly understand.