For Christmas, Paul Krugman wrote, Tidings of Comfort. He felt that people were kind of glum this holiday season. And the reason is that the media have painted a picture of the world that has indeed been very bleak. There was Ebola that was going to kill us all. Then there was Vladimir Putin and ISIS and North Korea who were going to destroy us because, you know, a democracy could never meet the threat of authoritarians except minor things like World War II that are easy enough to forget about. But perhaps you are like Paul Krugman and you’ve noticed that all of these things are imaginary.
I don’t think any of this is unusual. As a nation, we are always freaking out. We don’t have much in terms of cultural cohesion to hang onto. So we manage our lives by moving from crisis to crisis. We are like adrenaline junkies: we get excited and then we calm down. Wash, rinse, repeat — for the rest of our lives. I don’t much care in a certain way. My interest is in the way that such behavior stops us from dealing with real problems. And I think that our hair-trigger concern that we are, for example, all going to die from Ebola explains why we have the highest levels of teen pregnancy, illiteracy, and income inequality among the advanced economies.
It is hard not to think back to another great American who jumped from freak out to freak out: Ronald Reagan. Remember when he told us, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”? What exactly did he mean by that? I was never really clear what that one problem was. But I feel certain that what he meant was that individuals and the private sector was the solution to our problem. But it is three and a half decades later and it is more clear than ever that individuals don’t have the power to solve that one great problem (largely because of policies Reagan himself enacted) and that the private sector has become, if anything, a far greater problem than the original one great problem.
I’ve written a few articles this last week about Darrell Issa. And the main thing that I’ve had to say is that Issa has won in all of his fake scandal mongering. It doesn’t matter in the least that nothing came of those scandals — that there was literally nothing untoward going on. What matters is that he was allowed to go to media outlets all over the nation and push the idea that something was amiss. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” So he got people to think exactly the opposite of what was true and what was in their best interests, “The government is bad; the government can’t be trusted; the government is out to get you.” Imagine that you tell someone a hundred times that the White House is targeting its enemies. And then on the 101st time, you say, “Oops! I was wrong; the White House didn’t do anything wrong.” What are they going to remember? Or more to the point: what are they going to remember when the media don’t even cover that 101st statement?
I have little use for wimps on the left that don’t seem to stand for anything other than maybe technocratic competence. I have no use for the demagogues on the right who will do anything to keep themselves in power and enrich their friends. But there is a very special level of hell that I reserve for our media system that allows disinformation to be reported as fact in the name of balance. It can be very hard to get to the truth of any matter. But our media have given up on it. It’s hard, so they just report what the two powerful sides of the debate claim. And usually, the truth is far from both.