Our Age of Disbelief
We live in an age of disbelief, in which citizens increasingly do not believe what their government says or, for that matter, what is accepted as true by popular culture.
The Ministries of Truth
Do you believe any more that some of our Secret Service agents — once the most esteemed of all professionals — on presidential assignment will not get drunk and womanize in their evening spare time? Do you believe that the grandees at the GSA — once the stern penny-pinchers that frowned when bureaucrats wanted a new bookcase — won’t flaunt the waste that they incur? Do you believe that the government will never sell assault rifles to drug lords? Or do you believe what the president, the secretary of state, and the director of national intelligence will say to us when the next embassy is hit? And do you believe that there were “shovel-ready jobs” and “millions of green jobs” that arose from the “stimulus”? And what is a “stimulus” anyway, but borrowed money, in the manner likewise of “investments”? Did any of you believe that Solyndra was the wave of the future?
We don’t even believe that a commission on presidential debates will ensure us unbiased moderators, or that the candidates will have equal time in speaking, or that the supposedly quiet crowd won’t boo or clap to affect the tempo of the exchange. From now on, will debate moderators bring preselected transcripts to the forum, wait for a key moment, interrupt one of the speakers, and then wave a piece of paper to proffer authority to contradict him — eliciting applause from the supposedly neutral and silent audience, and affirmation from the president? Do you believe First Lady Michelle Obama — of “never been proud/downright mean country” infamy — when she accuses Republicans on talking down the country?
Do you believe that the Department of Labor always assesses its data and offers disinterested conclusions? I don’t. I suspect partisan grandees, perhaps in California, will massage the data on the principle of the ends justifying the means. The same is true of Libya: the noble idea of a reset Middle East, appreciative of the unique heritage and ideology of Barack Obama and his bold attempt to reformulate America, was simply too precious to be imperiled by al-Qaedist thugs who hate us as much as ever and will kill until stopped.
Our suspicions are not confined to what government of this era says and does. The disbelief is far greater still. There is a nihilism about that terrifies me. The Obama administration, trumping what George Bush did in four years, cares not a whit about how its $5 trillion in new debt will be paid back, other than a vague notion that those “who don’t pay their fair share” will come up with the revenue, or some clever clerk can offer a plan to inflate our way out of what we have borrowed from others. Each time Obama talks of a new student loan program, a new jobs training program, a new entitlement, I wonder whether any other Americans ask, “How can we borrow more when we cannot payback what we’ve already borrowed?” He reminds me of the farmers I knew in the early 1980s who in extremis kept talking of new equipment to be purchased, new trees and vines to be planted, new pick-ups to be had — even as their debts soared and the deadline when the bank cut them off and called in their loans neared. Have we become Greece or Argentina?
Challenger Obama/Incumbent Romney?
When I heard the president in the last debate, I thought I was in Cloud Cuckoo Land: he seemed to be running for office as a fresh challenger — with the same future tenses and subjunctive moods of “I will” and “I would” as he long ago used against Bobby Rush, Alan Keyes, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, when he was the perennial potential office-holder. In other words, the president sounded as if he does not have a record to run on, only a speculative one about which to offer hypotheses. Note how Obama slept through four years and only comes alive in a campaign where he loves his own speeches, likes to accuse and belittle, and feeds off the frenzy of crowds — in comparison to all that, intelligence briefings and debate prep are a “drag.”
So what he said in these two debates was all a sort of lie, as if Mitt Romney has been president for four years or George Bush is now in his third term. The Greeks called such a busybody, non-stop talker a “polypragmôn,” someone who jumps from here to there, always talking, persuading, speechifying, but never really accomplishing anything. The more Obama promised, the more I thought I had amnesia: did he not have two years of a Democratic Senate and House, and in the beginning with a supermajority that was filibuster-proof?
The Way of the Sophist
I had a lot of Obamas in class. They sat in the front of the room, posed long eloquent questions, mellifluously interrupted the lectures with clever refinements and qualifications, often self-referenced all that they had read and done — and then pow!: you grade their first test and there is simply nothing there: a D or F. It was quite stunning: how could a student be so confident in his rhetoric and so dismal in his performance?
Surely I thought this test must be some terrible mistake (did his mother just die? Had she came down with mononucleosis? Is this a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime bad day?). And then he takes the midterm and then the final and then turns in the paper — each effort proves more pathetic than the last. Yet in class the next day, there he is again, raising his hand, pouring out clever phraseology and eloquent exempla, as if he has not just flunked his test and is getting an F.
Each time you encounter such a Starbuck the Rainmaker or The Music Man, the experience still is discomforting, given the vast abyss between the eloquent grandstanding rhetoric and actual achievement — and the deliberate way in which you, the instructor, were to be conned. And if such students are athletic, dapper, charismatic, and sharply dressed (and for some reason they so often are), the disconnect becomes ever more arresting. Sometimes the debacle even worsens when they come to office hours after the first bad grade, “shocked” that the professor might underappreciate their rhetorical gymnastics. Similar is the gulf between Obama’s teleprompted verbiage and his actual performance of governing since 2009.
I also never believed in a “war on the women” simply because mostly upper-class, liberal, highly educated white women seemed to be angry that Catholic institutions d0 not wish to include free abortion and contraceptive pills among their generous benefits packages. Did I miss something? Who were supposed to be oppressed, and how and why? Could Ms. Fluke — who addressed an audience of ten in Nevada this weekend — and her partner not split the cost of a pack of ten-dollar prophylactics? Are not more women graduating with BAs than are men? To the degree there is a gender crisis, I think it may be more young working-class men without college degrees who simply cannot find jobs in the muscular industries and for whom society apparently has little need. Is the “war on women” what the long road from suffrage to equal pay has come down to — a psychodrama of the most privileged generation in civilization’s history? So I simply do not believe that there is a war on anyone, much less women. To the degree there is a war, it is on fiscal responsibility, a war on paying bills and keeping solvent — something lost last week in more of binders, Big Bird, the war “in Iran,” Joe Biden’s continued gesticulations, and “Romnesia.”
When we hear of all the future brain surgeons and chemists who will emerge due to the amnesty offered by the Dream Act, I am not automatically skeptical. I have seen genius, discipline, and earnestness in young illegal aliens after teaching them classics for 21 years. But I no longer believe that for every future Einstein whom we pardon, the government will then deport those who broke the law to become gang-banging felons, copper-wire thieves, and drug runners; or those who were convicted of DUIs; or those who have never been off public assistance. Do we ever talk of the non-Dream Act? You see, if you pass a law that discriminates between the worthy and not worthy, and claims thereby that it both can make such distinctions and reward those who pass muster, then by needs the administration must likewise punish through deportation those it has determined are not to be pardoned. But I simply do not believe that will happen anymore.
Sometimes our disbelief intensifies from psychological projection. When a senator rails about the one percent and the need for higher taxes, we just assume that he made a fortune in office, or married into it, or dodged the taxes on his yacht. We assume when Barack and Michelle talk about “folks” and “paying their fair share,” they prefer the tony resort and golf links to what the rest of us frequent. When I hear of “campaign financing reform” and “no more revolving door” and “no more lobbyists,” I assume that the speaker believes that such declarations provide him with Medieval exemption, and that by voicing his disgust he can be indulge without consequence.
Why Don’t We Believe?
What are the sources of our disbelief these past four years? We have certainly had presidents who did not tell the truth — Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton most notably. But what is different this time is the attitude of the media. It is quite good at hounding right-wing fakers and dissimulators — and there are many — and so-so in going after centrists like Clinton. But once it invested in the present untruth, then our government understands that they have rolled over. The theme of this presidency is not just that the media is on its side and invested in its redistributionist vision, but that the administration is so certain of that fact that it need not worry even about the most blatant evidence of dissimulation and untruth.
When Plenty of Stuff Means Not Enough
Besides the media, the sheer affluence offered by high technology, mass production, and generous entitlements makes the old notion of poverty almost obsolete. And that fact makes us not believe almost anything that the present administration says. Why do flash mobs target sneaker or electronics stores rather than Costco’s food bins? How can it be that almost everyone we see using an EBD card has both a cell phone and a nice enough car? I don’t begrudge them, but I don’t believe that this is 1933 and we need a new FDR to keep us alive one more day. Obesity not malnutrition is the scourge of the poor. When I visit local health clinics, the plague among the patients is diabetes brought on by obesity and a diet of sweets and starches, not vitamin deficiencies or insufficient calories. There is little scurvy or rickets in my hometown, but an epidemic of high blood pressure. Federal rhetoric does not resemble reality: I drive with the radio on and hear Obama blasting the fat cats who have shorted the poor; I pull into the local parking lot, and watch the full bus head up to the foothill gaming casino; I then enter the food market and see most with EBD cards, and note that lotto tickets sell like hotcakes. Again, I accept the welfare state, but not the lies about it. Perhaps that is why I quit believing.
Utopia within Our Grasp
There is a third contributor to our increasing disbelief. Socialism is scary because it envisions heaven on earth if we are just willing to employ the necessary means to obtain it. To question those means is to question why someone should not have as much as someone else. In theory, the advocates of socialism should not be Hollywood stars, Washington grandees, trust-fund beneficiaries, and high-paid professors and lawyers, inasmuch as their largess must, in such zero-sum thinking, have come from someone else. In fact, promoting socialism has become a therapeutic exercise for the better off: it offers psychosocial comfort for those who have a lot, with the assurance that they have so much that their own redistributive plans would not make that much difference to themselves. The resulting disconnect is that capitalists par excellence promote redistribution, and feel no word or act is out of bounds to achieve that noble goal — and the rest of us believe almost nothing they say.
If Barack Obama loses the election — despite incumbency, despite the media, despite the October surprises to come, despite his mellifluous teleprompted rhetoric — it is because a growing number simply do not believe anymore what they hear. It is all bottled piety without truth.