When did America Jump the Shark?
As Tocqueville (may have) quipped: as long as America remains good, she shall remain great.
Smart Alec was referring to a strict adherence to Christianity, which, alas, bumps into 1st Amendment problems (curse you Jefferson!). While we're not sure we follow the logic, the cynical among us - bless their black little hearts - would argue that America stopped being good quite awhile ago.
Once upon a time, we ended the divine right of kings. Broke the sound barrier. Beat polio. We went the the moon for Cat's sake.
Now look at us.
Long running on autopilot, an eerie hush has fallen over the cabin as the great turbofans of democracy swallow their last drops of freedom Jet-A and flame out. If they could be bothered to look up from texting, the passengers might catch a glimpse out the front of the aircraft though the impenetrable fortress of the cockpit door someone forgot to close again only to see the pilots have already punched out. No one in control, the ground growing large in the windscreen.
Enjoy the rest of your flight. We suspect you're not going to enjoy the landing.
When Did America Jump the Shark?
Yes indeedy, get the good China out 'cause America is going away. We'll take our place in that exhausted hall, next to unholy Rome, not so Great Britain, the kaputnik USSR, and the reclining Ottomans. The way of the world is to bloom and flower and to die but in the affairs of America there is no waning and the noon of her expression signals the onset of night. Her spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement.
But our question is: when did this happen? What was the signpost of its demise? Was there a signpost of its demise?
Or, to put it another way, when did America jump the shark?
Here we list a few defining moments in American history (or herstory, as it were). Two forks that diverged in the road. You, like Walden, will have to decide whether it has made all the difference.
Birds do it. Bees do it. Economically, intellectually, morally bankrupt empires do it.
C'mon baby, let's jump the shark.
Marbury v. Madison
The big red, white, and blue ox stumbled right out of the gate.
The details of the case are unimportant - the significance of Marbury v. Madison was the not decision but rather the effect on the court itself (metajurisprudence, if you will). Still, here goes: Outgoing president John Adams appoints John Marbury as a district court judge in a sleazy 11th hour deal as Adams is being shown the door of the White House. The appointment gets lost in the mail, and by the time Marbury notices, Thomas Jefferson is president and the new Secretary of State James Madison refuses to honor Marbury's appointment. Marbury takes Madison to court (ergo section title). Marbury loses - and here's the important part - the justice leading the charge against Marbury is one John Marshall, himself appointed to the bench by Adams in a sleazy 11th hour deal.
At least that's our understanding of it. If lawyers would just express themselves using differential equations like grown-ups, it would make our life a lot easier. Anyhoo, the effect was two-fold.
First, the case established that the pesky Supreme Court would indeed assert its Article III role, the court's decisions taking precedence over the other two branches of the federal government (the Executive, in this case ). That whole ...I don't need tough guys, I need lawyers Godfather III thing? This is where it started.
Second, in making fellow Adams appointee Marbury fall on his sword, Marshall established himself as a squeaky-clean paragon of jurisprudence. He flogged this reputation for the remainder of his tenure, shaping the nation from behind the bench as he saw fit for the next three decades. In effect, Marbury v. Madison created the activist judge, a monster that many claim roams the republic despoiling women and children to this very day (the definition of which being "a judge who does not decide the way you wanted them to decide").
Booth v. Lincoln
Right wingers will argue that the free market would have sorted out that whole slavery thing peaceably (heck, right wingers have argued that the free market would have sorted out that whole slavery thing peaceably - see Schweikart and Allen). This conveniently ignores that in every other country doing so, ending the practice required significant government intervention (not to mention that the free market was certainly taking its sweet time, which is less an issue if you're an Iowa history professor and more of an issue if you're living under the yoke).
But outside it's America, and in America we settle our differences with violence. Whether you call it the Civil War, or the War Between the States, or The War of Northern Aggression or The War You People Thought was Such Great Fun That You Say You're Going to Do It All Over Again Because You Like Cheap Political Points More Than Fixing Problems, we're interested here in the aftermath and not the carnage. For those of you foggy on 19th century American history, the aftermath was called Reconstruction. It means what you think it means: restoring the defeated Confederate States - supplying them with food and blankets and whatnot - until they were generally functioning and ready to rejoin polite society.
Reconstruction was problematic at best. Many Yankees were against it, particularly those whose sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands returned from the battlefield missing arms, legs, faces, and genitals, or did not return at all. More than a few wished Lincoln had been a little less magnanimous and a little more Magnus Pompey, instructing the victorious Union army to put every surviving southern male to the sword, not to mention raze every last structure, burn every last possession, and salt every last acre below the Mason Dixon. Today, the South would appear in Google Earth as a ginormous dark swath labeled Sic semper Punica fides.
Still, if anyone could have pulled off Reconstruction it would have been the saintly Lincoln, steering the policies and negotiating the compromises and midwifing the whole thing such that the South might have returned to normalcy with an integrated population of black freemen. We shall never know. Lincoln's involvement with Reconstruction came to an end when John Wilkes Booth put a bullet in his brain. Thus was the South simultaneously avenged and cursed.
With Lincoln dead, reconstruction fell to Andrew Johnson and then to Ulysses S. Grant, neither of whom quite had Abe's vision. In fact, Grant's vision didn't much extend past the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
So did the South wind up half-reconstructed and half-not, the end result leaving exactly nobody happy, which is about the most succinct a metaphor for America as you are likely to find. The South was beaten but not cowered, and the negroes were neither slaves nor free. Since then there's been 150 more years of toxic race relations, with no end in sight. Every small step forward (the Tuskegee airmen, Civil Rights, the Cosby Show) being pushed many steps back (the Tuskegee experiment, Rodney King, the CIA invents rap).
As Riis reminds us: you cannot make men live like pigs and make them free men, it is not safe.
Hammer v. Dagenhart
We return to another of the Supreme's greatest hits, though probably not one you had to memorize in Civics class. This because its effects were a few times removed, like that woman who swallowed the cat to eat the spider and lost her shoe so the empire fell for want of a horse. A butterfly effect of jurisprudence, if you will.
Here's the gist: Dagenhart has two children working in a North Carolina cotton mill. Congress passes legislation prohibiting children from working in cotton mills, as well as just about anywhere else. The children lose their jerbs. Dagenhart wants his children to get their jerbs back. He asks the Supreme court to overturn the new law as unconstitutional. Dagenhart wins.
So? you ask. Well put.
The backdrop of the case was an America beginning to rebel against the Gilded Age - the nascent awakening of a social conscious. The decision was the latest in a long line of victories the court had handed the robber barons. This was starting to chafe the hoi polloi, many of whom were struggling to keep their arms, legs, and children out of the wheels of progress down at the factory. Pollyannas emboldened by the photoessays of Lewis Hine and the writing of Studs Terkel started to wonder if maybe Oskar Schindler and Andrew Carnegie shouldn't be using children to polish the inside of artillery shells. Some even dared speak the blasphemy that capitalism was nothing more than de facto slave labor, saying it was high time the gubmint step in and establish ground rules on how Scrooge McDuck and Monty Burns can treat the workers.
America wanted a middle class. How cute. You just know that once it's not a puppy anymore, the rest of us are going to be the ones cleaning up after it.
Meanwhile over on Pennsylvania Avenue, the wiley FDR and his incorruptible band of untouchables were looking to pass sweeping social legislation called "The New Deal." In addition to addressing labor safety, the New Deal included a massive federal jobs program and the establishment of a safety net we would recognize today as Social Security. This was probably not so bad of an idea for a country that was at the time mostly unemployed and dying in the gutter.
Even though the Great Depression had already scared the bejeezus out of everyone with any sense, the Supreme Court still presented a problem as it could overturn New Deal legislation passed by Congress. Correctly sensing that the peasant voters were primed to turn on their social betters, FDR used the blowback from Hammer v. Dagenhart and cases like it to manhandle the Senate and pack the Supreme Court with justices friendly to his way of thinking. Thus The New Deal was made all but immune to legal challenges.
So? you ask. Again, well put.
The New Deal was the beginning of the creeping socialism that has led us to our current welfare state teetering on collapse. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. All hopelessly entrenched. All soon to be bankrupt. No contemporary politician with either the vision or the courage to fix it. And when the safety net collapses, it will make The Road Warrior look like It's a Beautiful Life.
The good news? The rest of us will finally get a chance to see what life is like inside those immaculately-groomed gated communities.
Once we overpower the rent-a-cops and go looking for food and revenge.
The Red Scare
How ironic that the net effect of the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s was to convince the country that there was no systematic Soviet infiltration of the American government. Which is simply untrue, as we know the Soviets obtained a veritable mountain of documents describing in detail some of the most sensitive military and civilian facilities that existed in America at the time.
How do we know? Because we gave it to them.
It was called Lend-Lease, and it wasn't just boats for England. For half a decade, Soviet representatives (we hesitate to use the word "agents," but there it is) were permitted access to factories and other facilities of their choosing within the United States so they could obtain technologies and manufacturing processes that might assist their war effort against the Nazis. As Richard Rhodes recounts in Dark Sun, there were regular flights of C-47s from Great Falls Montana, headed over the pole to Moscow chocked full of briefcases chocked full of blueprints and patents, a gushing virtual pipeline of American technology flowing to the communists in the 1940s, much like Walmart is a gushing virtual pipeline of American capital flowing to Beijing today.
The cynic might claim Lend-Lease allowed America to stay out of World War II with clean hands and a clear conscious, trading the blood of millions of Soviet opolcheniye for a few synthonol patents and a blimp or two. No doubt Stalin saw it that way. Even when America eventually put skin in the game, Allied casualties still paled in comparison to those suffered by the Red Army.
So did WW-II leave the Soviet Union with a paranoid and ruthless leader facing an American technological and manufacturing juggernaught starting to crow about exceptionalism and global free markets. There was no way things weren't headed for trouble.
Thus began a half-century-long pissing contest from which the world is still trying to extricate itself. The Cold War poisoned every economic, government, and social institution on the planet. It only ended when the Soviets went bankrupt, and it's looking like the United States will suffer the same fate. Now that "deep cuts" are needed to return to fiscal responsibility, politicians are targeting discretionary domestic spending - things like medical research - that barely makes up 12% of the budget. The 40% consumed by the military isn't even mentioned. Such is the legacy of the military/industrial complex created during the Cold war that frightened even Eisenhower.
And crippling debt is only the more pleasant lingering aftereffect of the cold war. The U.S. teaspooned with some rather unsavory characters over the last 50 years in the name of fighting communism. With the bear now gone and light breaking through yonder window, we're hoping to quietly grab a cab without waking last night's slumbering conquest, a maneuver LabKitty knows all too well having often woken hungover and eerily alone only to discover the disembodied arm of a comely lass gnawed off at the shoulder and tucked under our neck like an in-flight pillow, still smelling of Jagermeister and Jello shots and fouling the bed like the forelock of some human thoroughbred left by the mob as a warning of our transgression.
To put it another way, it's hard to convince the locals we're the good guys when their kids keep getting killed by Armalites and helicopters stamped with MADE PROUDLY IN THE U.S.A.
The only bright spot in the whole mess was Mikial Gorbachev, who managed to talk Soviet hard-liners off the ledge without bringing the whole thing down around them in glorious proletariat nuclear death. Wonder if it bugs Mr. Gorbachev to hear the American version of events, a fact-resistant fairy tale that Ronald Reagan single-handedly spent the USSR into bankruptcy using nothing but his folksy charm and American Express card. Documents obtained post mortem have shown that what actually pushed the USSR into a death spiral of military spending was the humiliation of being bested by JFK in 1962. The evil empire was already well on its way to collapse by the 80's.
It turns out Ronald Reagan had about as much to do with the Berlin wall coming down as Jesus Jones. His true legacy in battling the Soviets was four trillion dollars unnecessarily added to the national debt. Oh, and a well-armed Afghan home-team known as the Taliban. Oops.
The Nixon/Kennedy Debates
Dust off your copy of Postman and follow along at home (you do have a copy of Postman, yes? If not, scroll down and click the Amazon link below. Choose "overnight shipping," and come back tomorrow).
Neil Postman made a career of shouting into the wind, warning of the danger television posed to public mental health until his death in 2003. Everyone from The McLaughlin Group to The 700 Club has ranted about the garbage on television, usually using phrases like "the garbage on television." But Postman argued that television is dangerous not when it is garbage, but when it pretends to be anything but garbage. Counterintuitive though it may be, it's not fluff trash like American Idol, Jerry Springer, Jersey Shore, Married with Children, South Park, Two and a Half Men, or Glee that's the problem. It's the nightly news, political advertisements, and (much as it pains us to say) PBS and their ilk.
Postman recognized that technology changes the nature of information dissemination. Specifically, he examined the effects of the relatively recent transition from print media to the now-dominant imaged-based format of television. And while an image-based format may be superb for entertainment, it does not lend itself to the presentation of complex information. Therefore, any information it does present necessarily gets dumbed down. The danger is that eventually information and entertainment become indistinguishable. The danger is that eventually entertainment becomes treated as information.
His thesis is not necessarily obvious - Postman requires a couple hundred pages to plead his case - but a simple observation lends it credence: compare National Geographic magazine to the National Geographic channel. One is a collection of photoessays presenting complex global issues often infused with political, cultural, and scientific insights. The other has become a half hour of sensationalist eye candy, with episode titles that are often variants of the memes When X attacks or World's Most Extreme X.
It is important to note: this is not National Geographic's fault. The difference between print NatGeo and televised NatGeo is not the result of laziness or a failure of creativity or skill. It is simply the nature of the beast. And you cannot change the beast. No one can. The beast changes you.
Which brings us to politics.
It's sobering to recall that some of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates were seven hours long. Apart from sleep and the Super Bowl, there's nothing that commands the attention of the average American these days for seven hours. Moreover, the rules were minimal: the candidates addressed each other directly, no topic was verboten, and nobody was given a list of questions in advance for approval.
More unusual was that this wasn't unusual. Public office was a big f-ing deal, to borrow a phrase, then as it is now. Before entrusting anyone with the responsibilities of office - quite literally the power life and death over us all - the public felt it had a right to inspect candidates, to test their mettle, understand their positions, probe their strengths and weaknesses. Short of knowing a candidate personally, public debate was the next best thing, a tradition that extends back to the ancients. Unscripted challenge and response is a superb device to gauge the content and character of a mind; it's why there's tests in school.
Something approximating presidential debate survives today. But now there's strict time limits and a demon's list of bizarre rules that seem to be designed to guarantee each candidate is provided an equal distribution of benign sound bites. Candidates cannot address each other directly. Candidates are given the questions in advance. Candidates cannot wear stovepipe hats. Pundants claim such rules protect the participants from cheap shots and "gotcha" journalism. To which we say: if your puzzler can be kerflulffled by the steely cross-examination of the likes of Katie Coric, you don't belong anywhere near the launch codes.
Closer to the truth is that the debate rules evolved to suit the format of television. In short, the primary goal of presidential debates has become to put on a good show. The incubus of this mutation was born in 1960, in the first televised presidential debate between then vice-president Richard Nixon and democratic challenger John Kennedy. The farce was still in its primordial stage, but already some claimed voters were swayed by the physical appearance of the candidates.
Not honesty. Not eloquence. Not a demonstrated clarity in thinking. Not smarts or foreign policy experience. Appearance. Let's put JFK back in front of the cameras with leg braces or wooden teeth and see how the 1960 election turns out.
It was the prototype victory of style over substance that political scientists would learn to separate, purify, and perfect. In presidential debates. In political ads. In the nightly news. Fast forward 50 years and substance has all but vanished from American public life. It's not coming back. Restoring rational discourse would require rational discourse. And television does to rational discourse what AIDS does to the body: both attack the very thing required to fight back. Both kill the self-righting mechanism. That is why both are so disproportionately dangerous compared to other threats. It becomes impossible to undo the damage of style over substance when style over substance becomes what is expected.
Our disease was contracted September 26, 1960. When the black and white Magnavox in the family room came back from hocking hoola-hoops and Marlboughs to greet us with the flickering visage of Nixon and Kennedy poised at their podiums, that was the moment America died. We just didn't know it at the time.
And it's not about left versus right or conservative versus liberal, it's about democracy turning into a freak show. So whether you think the media is a bunch of left wing moonbats who worship at the alter of socialism, or a bunch of neocon corporate mouthpieces beholden to monied interests, the real loser is you.
CNN v. John Stewart
John Stewart has from time to time - unwittingly or not - taken up Postman's mantle. Here's a semi-notorious segment of him taking CNN's Crossfire to task for their "news" coverage. What Stewart fails to recognize is that by blurring the line between show business and politics, he's part of the problem.
The Beatles play Ed Sullivan
Listen - do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?
Prior to the 1960s, pop culture functioned in American society as the icing and not the cake.
Folks were all above average back then. Doctors made house calls. The teller at your bank knew you by name, and when you called a business you talked to a human and not a Turing test. Stores had complaint departments and gas stations had attendants. Kids took apples to class for the teacher, and even though they walked uphill both ways to school, in neither direction did they have to pass through a metal detector. Nogoodniks were called out as such, and shunned and feared by society. The hammer of justice fell swift and sure and often. You could smoke on airplanes, and they served martinis.
It was morning in America, and for a few shining years the average Ph.D. had less of a chance of dying penniless in the gutter than the average musician. We're going to the moon! We're going to Mars. We're going to the stars.
Then came the Beatles.
Curs'ed foppish dandies from the exotic island nation of Great Britain. Cornwallis' revenge.
It was a perfect storm of cultural revolution: the most prodigious musical talent since Bach, a stagnant entertainment landscape dominated by the likes of Perry Como and Eddie Crane, a massive privileged baby boomer generation entering puberty, and an emerging new mass-media technology known as television.
So was the country primed as John, Pete, Dingus, and the other one took to the airwaves on that fateful Sunday in 1964. Their musical seed found immediate purchase in the fertile mind-soil of our youth, and it changed not only music but the role of music in society. Music became an instrument (no pun intended) of self-identification. Almost overnight, adolescent rebellion morphed from the simple growing pains parents had been dealing with since antiquity (and was probably evolutionarily ingrained to discourage inbreeding) into a political force demanding rights, representation, and rectification.
In a few short years, teenagers would refuse to cut their hair or do their patriotic duty and go die in Vietnam for their social betters. Drug use switched from Scotch and Lucky Stripes to marijuana and LSD. "Moonbeam" became an acceptable job description. Divorce rates began to skyrocket as stay-at-home moms and hoop skirts became a thing of the past. America came unglued. Charles Manson. Watergate. Jimmy Carter. Iranian Hostages. The Challenger explosion. Saturday Night Live.
Once the dogs of self-restraint had been slipped, there was no turning back. The Beatles begat Foghat begat Deth Metal begat Ice Milk begat Madam Gupta. And it wasn't just music. Foxy boxing. Bratz dolls. NAMBLA. Ren and Stimpy. Howard Stern. Andrew Dice Clay. Human Centipede. American culture became designed by and for teenage boys. There was even a breast shown during the Super Bowl. A breast shown during the Super Bowl!. That's literally like strangling your grandmother with the Constitution.
The notion of freedom without responsibility marked the founding of a disastrous new American School of Thought: the rules don't apply to you. Keith Moon. Hawkeye Pierce. Oliver North. Michael Vick. Bernie Madoff. Poster children of the new American century. When this attitude spread to the average man on the street, behind the desk, and answering the phone, the machine broke down. Newlyweds bringing their infant to the 10 PM showing of Planet of The Vixen Stewardess Massacre. Amateur stockbrokers attempting a hostile takeover of McHugeCorp at a drive-thru ATM while 20 cars line up behind them. Whackadoodles trying to parallel park while watching porn on a TV duct-taped to the dashboard. Just trying to get on a plane or off a mailing list tuned into an episode of I Love Lucy. As Robert Barnes observed, when the machine breaks down, we break down.
Want to know how crazy this gets us? It gets us so crazy we actually agree with something Robert Bork had to say:
Unless there is vigorous counterattack, which must, I think, resort to legal as well as moral sanctions, the prospects are for a chaotic and unhappy society, followed, perhaps, by an authoritarian and unhappy society.
So when the day comes that y'all have pissed off the conservatives enough, and just the right charismatic demagogue appears, and the pendulum starts to swing back at last, and the guitars get unplugged, and the radio gets censored, and Sunday school becomes mandatory, and the books get burned, and the universities get closed, and the hospitals return to leeches and bloodletting, and contraception is outlawed, and the women all get assigned handmaidens, and members of the American Dignity Battalion are going though your sock drawer...
Well, sir, y'all can just thank the Beatles.
Corporations are Peoples
It's understandable why politicians love corporations: they wear fancy suits and drive nice cars and have timeshares in exotic vacation-friendly locales. They own lots of cool toys, like corporate jets that are full to bursting with good things to eat and drink and inhale, not to mention lithe and compliant non-union stewardesses. And, once you get into international airspace, the pilot will let you come up front and steer with your feet.
The other reason is that corporations can pretty much shower politicians with money from now 'till election day and it's all perfectly legal. That dump truck full of bullion that just drove up to their house? That solid gold AK-47 someone left with their secretary? Money sacks with dollar signs on them? That's totally not bribery, it's free speech!
Still, one's corporate buddies often get into a pickle. Considering the complexities of polytetrafluoroethylene synthesis or solid rocket booster assembly or the derivatives trading biz, it's a miracle we don't have catastrophe raining down from the sky or bubbling up through the water table every damn day of the week. And if a freight train pulling 100 tanks of sulfuric acid leaves Sante Fe at 9:00 AM traveling east at 90 mph, and derails in Circle Pines at 4:00 PM, who among us can say that the previous denizens of Circle Pines would not have died that day from some other cause, mass ritual suicide for example, and why shouldn't we expect Dow Chemical's limited liability shield to protect them? There's a fine line between prosecution and persecution.
The solution to keeping corporations from being held to a higher standard than the average sad sack was the 1886 Supreme Court decision to grant corporations "personhood," a more grotesque perversion of the Queen's English and Magna Carta you would be hard-pressed to find. Yes, General Electric, to cite an example, in addition to bringing Good Things to Life™ is technically a people, just like you and LabKitty.™ That means, say, should the odd CF-6 tear loose from a passing 747 and come crashing through the roof of the local orphanage and squash a bunch of Annies, GE is entitled to the same due process of law and presumption of innocence as the rest of us.
Yet, personhood also means that GE and their ilk can do other things that people do, like contribute to political campaigns, Here things get sticky. You or us could put a "George Bailey" sign in our front yard to support George Bailey's bid for office. If that's not an option (curse you, condominium association Nazis! Drunk with power you are!) you could instead write a check to support George. On the best of LabKitty's days, this check might be $50. On the worst day of Goldmann Sacs or Citigroup or BP, this check could be half a gazillion dollars, and that might be going to George's opponent. You must admit, half a gazillion buys a lot of yard signs.
In 2010, the Supreme Court, recognizing the threat such disparity between private and corporate campaign contributions posed to the very bedrock of democracy, sprung into action.
They voted to eliminate the existing limits on corporate political contributions.
Trust us, American jurisprudence makes more sense once you throw common sense to the wind. We may as well have our congress people festooned with sponsor stickers like NASCAR drivers.
So the next time ConHugeCo is caught mining senior citizens for trace metals, or NationalPizzaDots is found to be using shrunken baby heads in the pepperoni, or an explosion at the local Phenols R' Us plant gives your kids hair cancer, and you turn your lonely eyes to your elected representative to represent you... well, it's possible the scales of justice aren't going to be a little skedastic when it's you on one side and the island corporate interests bought your congressman on the other.
But the smart money is on the smart money.
Seal of the Supreme Court is in the public domain as it was created by a federal employee in the course of his or her official duties. Portrait of John Wilkes Booth is in the public domain as its copyright has expired. Come unto me, ye opprest originally appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal and is in the public domain as its copyright has expired. Image of the Nixon/Kennedy debate is in the public domain under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. Image of the Beatles is in the public domain in the United States as it was published between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice. Image of The Simpsons copyright Fox Broadcasting Company and is claimed here as fair use as it is a low resolution image and it is unlikely that this image or another substantially similar one will be released under a free license,
All other weirdness (c) 2011-14 LabKitty Design