Friday, July 02, 2004

Lost in Space

OK, so I saw the movie last week. What movie? THE movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. As usual, Michael Moore manages to force viewers to look at a picture we often don't want to see, a truth much larger than the superficial p.r. that we get from the "news" agencies. There were few surprises: Bush is an example of the privileged Peter Principle, the war in Iraq was entered into under subterfuge and has proven destructive, and the working poor of America are footing the bill with their taxes and the lives of their children. What Moore managed to bring out well was the irony of the poverty draft, the working poor who have no other economic options but the service, and their often strong support for the very people who have denied them opportunity to begin with and thereafter used them as cannon fodder.

None of this is particularly news. At least not to anyone who has paid even a modicum of attention to national and world events over the past 10 years. So why is it that when I open my MSNBC home page yesterday, the headline reads "Bush down but not out?"
Why is it that Kerry and Bush are virtually tied in this election? How can 43-48% of the American population continue to support Bush in the face of the disaster in Iraq, the revelations of deceit in its inception, the destructive economic impact his policies have had on the working poor, the wholesale assault on the environment, the fundamentalist religion he has imposed on the American public and the creeping fascism his security state represents? How can so many people be fooled? Worse yet, how could so many people think these policies are somehow good things?

I remember what one of my last term students said about the election. This was a nice young man, a football player and, surprisingly, a good student who ended the semester with an A. Polite, handsome, good hearted, this young man came from a family of Republicans in suburban Tampa and I believe he was involved in one of the campus "ministries" in the vein of Young Life or Campus Crusade, judging by some of his comments. When the subject of the election came up one day, he simply pronounced, "I don't like Kerry." When pressed as to why, he simply insisted he just didn't like him and wouldn't vote for him. When confronted by classmates with the deceptiveness of George Bush and the destructiveness of his policies, he demurred, saying simply "I just don't like Kerry" as if that sentiment alone was sufficient to justify his vote for Bush. He's not alone. My office mate at the community college where I taught prior to the university made a similar comment in 2000: "I just don't like that Al Gore" as if there needed be no more reason to cast one's vote for the nation's highest office than mere whim. This from a graduate educated college instructor.

It's times like these that I begin to feel a sense of despair for democracy. I sometimes wonder if Plato wasn't right in his distrust of democracy and his insistence that only philosopher-kings - educated and trained to think critically and to see the big picture - are fit to rule. I have been a populist all my life, believing in "the people." But in this age of complete distraction (cell phones) and diversion (game boys, computers, mindless programming like "survival" shows) and a news media that seems either incapable or unwilling to present critically considered news, I wonder if democracy CAN work. It's not that the people are unfit to govern themselves. They always have the capacity to do the right thing for the common good. The problem is they are demonstrating more and more consistently that they are unwilling to do so. Ronald Reagan posed the question "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" in 1980 and the American people have taken it to heart.

Two thoughts occurred to me as I did my daily (you wish!) constitutional along Lake Underhill's shores. First, the seeming intransigence of the blue and red state showdown suggests something that Leon Festinger spoke of in his work on cognitive dissonance. What makes it difficult for people to change their minds, even in the face of the fact their answers no longer can resolve the questions with which they are faced, is the role of public investment in one's position. Festinger found that in cases like the groups which became the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, it wasn't so much getting the date of the end of the world/second coming wrong that was problematic. It was the fact the members had sold their goods and gathered on a mountain in plain sight of the rest of the world which went on about its daily business as if nothing had occurred when the end failed to materialize. Might it be that the 43-48% red state contingent feel they cannot back down from their former support of Bush because they have too much public face invested in it? Might it be that winning could be seen as vindication of their position, even when it means returning a failed regime to power? I thought to myself, if Bush loses, those of us here in Florida who have never stopped nursing our wounds from the victory stolen from us in 2000 by the U.S. Supreme Court could gleefully point out that Bush was the only president to have held office without winning and without succeeding another president? And yet, is it not precisely that kind of shame that red voters seek to avoid given their public position?

Cognitive dissonance led to another thought on this. Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning posits that movement upward in developmental stages often only occurs as a result of severe cognitive dissonance, sometimes related to tragedies or catastrophic changes. The United States evidences behavior that is often described as juvenile, stage 3. The honor/shame approach to foreign policy (G-d, how long must we reassure ourselves of our masculinity after Vietnam? And how many peoples must play the sacrificial lamb for that project?) and the strong fundamentalist religious tradition of many red state conservatives all evince at best a stage three, conventional pattern of moral reasoning.

I have often wondered aloud how Canada and Europe seem so able to transcend these lower levels of moral reasoning and why the US has appeared almost developmentally disabled in that process. The conclusion I have come to is that post-conventional thought in Europe did not begin to appear until after the devastating Second World War. In that light a frightening thought occurred to me. Perhaps it will take a major disaster to shake the US and its red state supporters into a higher level of moral functioning. I shudder to think what that might look like. If history is any guide, the truth of the need for a major shakeup to prompt growth and maturity would appear obvious. It took a world war and a resulting depression to shake up the US in the early 20th CE to begin any kind of holistic understanding of itself as a country with duties to all of its citizens. It took the failure of banks to institute regulatory agencies. It took the ecological and agricultural disasters of the Dust Bowl to institute USDA agencies to assist farmers and to protect the environment. It took the near starvation of so many elderly people to institute social security.

Since the Reagan regime, those programs and others like them have been steadily dismantled while America has sought to reassure itself of its imperial virility over and over in essentially defenseless places with names like Grenada, Panama and now Iraq. The focus of our people seems to have increasingly shrunk smaller and smaller arriving at the atomized consumer who asks simply "What's in it for me?" Our roads full of killer machine SUVs and oversized trucks driven by distracted drivers talking on cell phones enroute testify to that. Unaware of and unconcerned about the rest of the world or even the underclasses of America, most Americans could care less about the Saudi businessmen, lies leading to war and working poor grunts with stumps where legs - and lives full of expectations - once existed that Michael Moore so desperately wants us all to see.

Will it take a catastrophe to awake America from its slumber, to force red state conservatives to admit they are not only wrong but dead wrong? Will it really make much difference if John Kerry is elected this fall? Is it possible that even with a Kerry victory, most Americans will remain Lost in Space?


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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