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Works and Days

The Art of Appreciating America from Abroad

June 13th, 2011 - 5:37 am

Sense Out of Nonsense — a ten-step plan

I’ve been following the news the last two weeks — Weinergate, the dismal “unexpected” economic news, the new wars in Libya and Yemen — from Europe while leading about 60 on a military history tour of Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Even a brief hiatus abroad always gives one perspective and appreciation of the United States; reading various European papers accents the difference, and daily association, by chance and by design, with Europeans enriches the perspective. I offer some reflections this week on the American experience, and hope to be back on the farm in the U.S. by the time most read this. I note that the Mediterranean is a beautiful place, the study of which I have devoted much of my adult career; so my comments are not so much critiques of Sicilian or Roman life as much as thoughts on the U.S. through the benefit of both distance and connectivity with the 24/7 news.

1. We should not listen to journalists, politicians, or academics who lecture about overpopulation, looming environmental catastrophe, or general unsustainability — if they live in a house over 2,500 square feet and fly more than once a month. Unfortunately that covers most of our alarmists. Otherwise these megaphones simply are medieval grandees seeking indulgences and penances through loud lectures against what they enjoy in the flesh.

2. When listening to national network or cable news, please assume that during the half-hour show one of the talking heads — anchor, correspondent, interviewer — is either married to or dating another like talking head at another station or paper, or a D.C. politician, and that most of what we shall subsequently hear is predicated on that fact. The nexuses are usually sex, money, power, or a shared quest for celebrity, and they lead to a warped view of contemporary America — the deranged hatred for the upstart and independent Sarah Palin a prime example.

3. Likewise we should assume that most of our news, our popular entertainment, our movies and TV shows, and our supposed conventional wisdom that winds up in magazines reflect the anxieties, fears, and prejudices of about 1-2 million elites that live between either New York and Washington or San Francisco and Los Angeles — apprehensions that are largely irrelevant to 9 of 10 other Americans. Apparently living in an urban, coastal, and largely segregated upscale neighborhood and associating with such a thin slice of like-minded America create such insularity and serial foolishness.

4. There are two perceived worlds in America. The Orwellian and censored one is presented to us as refined and packaged through traditional media, while its raw antipode turns up on the blogs, YouTube, posted comments on op-eds rather than the op-eds themselves, and in mass email mailings. The former is supposedly adjudicated by sophisticated and sensitive people and is usually in aggregate a lie; the latter is often episodic, sensational, and inflammatory, and designed either to enrage or titillate — and in these Dark Ages is unfortunately closer to the truth. So, for example, we are often reduced to believing a National Enquirer story about John Edwards more  than a counterpart in the L.A. Times, or to trusting more that a YouTube video reflects the landscape of the inner cities better than assurances from a senator or anchorman.

5. It is wise to navigate through the news and elite wisdom through two landmarks: anything that Barack Obama says will be airbrushed, improved, or modified to fit facts post facto; anything Sarah Palin says or does will be contextualized in Neanderthal terms. Teams of Post and Times volunteers now sort through Sarah Palin’s email; not a reporter in the world is curious about what Barack Obama once said about Rashid Khalidi or the Columbia University GPA that won him entrance to Harvard Law School. Accept that asymmetry and almost everything not only makes sense about these two cultural guideposts, but can, by extension, explain the 1860-like division in American itself.

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