Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Our ancestors were smarter than we are

Above: A WPA poster urging Americans to learn more about the world. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dr. Sophia McClennen of Pennsylvania State University recently wrote the following about the current presidential race: "Never in our history have we had such a low bar for falsehoods as part of the everyday business of politics. But here’s the real problem. Its not just that we don’t have our facts straight. It’s that we have collectively lost our ability to process information and make good judgments. To be truly stupid, you need to have poor reasoning skills. So our problem isn’t just that we have lies substituted for facts; it is that we don’t even know how to process information anymore... We are going to have to start asking ourselves if we want a nation of extremist thinkers incapable of critical reflection or we want to start recovering our collective brainpower" ("I'm With Stupid: The Entire 2016 Election Has Been an Insult to Our Intelligence," Alternet, November 1, 2016, emphasis added; perhaps the title should have read "a Reflection of Our Intelligence"). 

In 2015, when Dr. Richard Wolff of the University of Massachusetts interviewed fellow academics Dr. Richard Walker and Dr. Gray Brechin (from the Living New Deal project), he asked: "Would you agree to this or not: In the 1930s Americans were able, in a bad economic situation, to recognize that an active interventionist government was a major thing for them to hope for, and to place their confidence in. Whereas today, whatever the causes of it are, we have a population that just doesn't believe that, and therefore doesn't know quite what to do. Clearly the banks are playing with us, being as polite about it as we can, but no one knows where to go, because the notion of empowering the government to fix this thing is a nonstarter, at least so far" (Walker and Brechin agreed, and gave their take on this phenomenon).

I believe that our ancestors, specifically those who lived during the 1930s, were smarter than we are. Let me explain... 

When the American economy began to unravel in 1929, Americans were scared. When they learned of the financial greed, fraud, and incompetence that caused it (thanks to Ferdinand Pecora's investigation) they got mad. So, they elected Franklin Roosevelt to be president, and welcomed the financial reforms that New Deal policymakers ushered in, for example, Glass-Steagall, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). In other words, they understood the problems and fixed them with common sense repairs. There were, of course, some right-wing zealots who believed that there should be no regulation on the financial industry, and that the "job creators" should be able to do whatever they felt like, no matter how disastrous the results. But, by and large, the American people knew what had to be done.

And the reforms worked. People no longer lost their life savings when banks failed; the number of bank failures dropped dramatically; the SEC policed fraud; and so on.

But then television came along, and Americans got a little stupider. Fortunately, New Deal reforms were firmly in place, so the threat was minimal. But, as the decades passed and television slowly pacified the citizenry, the wealthy and the political right saw an opportunity to slowly chip away at the programs & policies of the New Deal - weakening the rules, de-funding & de-regulating, casting the government (i.e., "we the people") as "the problem not the solution," and so on. 

And then Fox News came along, as well as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc., all advancing an Ayn Rand ideology, and all furthering the downward spiral of our collective intelligence. They've been successful in convincing tens of millions of people that government is bad and billionaires are good; and that the former should be shut down, while the latter should be permitted to pursue whatever scams & frauds they're arrogant, selfish little minds can conjure up. Only this way, they proclaim, will America be great. "Cut taxes on the job creators! Get rid of meddlesome regulations!!" they proclaim in ignorant (or perhaps, paid) irritation.

And so Dr. McClennen is correct, "we have collectively lost our ability to process information and make good judgments." Thanks to television, celebrity worship, right-wing propaganda, and other distractions from reality, we just can't do it anymore. We're hooked on the narcotic of letting loud-mouths, blowhards, cranks, crackpots, charlatans, fraudsters and plutocrats make our opinions for us. That's why so many millions believe that Hillary Clinton, a Wall Street darling, will hold Wall Street accountable; and why so many millions of others believe that Donald Trump, a man born into wealth, understands the problems of the working class. We are a nation that has tripped and fallen into a state of lunacy.

Above: A WPA poster promoting free education courses, as a way to correct ignorance. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Nomi Prins, Senior Fellow at Demos, October 27, 2016:

"At the heart of American political consciousness right now lies a soul-crushing reality for millions of distraught Americans: the choices for president couldn’t be feebler or more disappointing. On the one hand, we have a petulant, vocabulary-challenged man-boar of a billionaire, who hasn’t paid his taxes, has regularly left those supporting him holding the bag, and seems like a ludicrous composite of every bad trait in every bad date any woman has ever had. On the other hand, we’re offered a walking photo-op for, and well-paid speechmaker to, Wall-Street CEOs, a one-woman money-raising machine from the 1% of the 1%, who, despite a folksiness that couldn’t look more rehearsed, has methodically outplayed her opponent." 

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