We Laugh Because It is True (But Perhaps We Should Be Crying Too)

Once again, The Onion proves that it deserves the title ‘America’s most intelligent newspaper‘ :
The Onion. May 19, 2010.

WASHINGTON—At a time when widespread polling data suggests that a majority of the U.S. populace no longer trusts the federal government, a Pew Research Center report has found that the vast majority of the federal government doesn’t trust the U.S. populace all that much either.

According to the poll—which surveyed members of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches—9 out of 10 government officials reported feeling “disillusioned” by the populace and claimed to have “completely lost confidence” in the citizenry’s ability to act in the nation’s best interests.

“All the vitriol and partisan bickering in Congress has caused most Americans to form negative opinions of the U.S. government,” Pew researcher Amy Ratner said. “However, over the same time period, the government has likewise grown wary of U.S. citizens, largely due to their utter lack of foresight, laziness, and overall incompetence.”


“This is the same American populace that failed to prevent us from deregulating the banks that almost caused a complete economic meltdown last year,” Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) said. “Year after year, they elect terrible officials who make terrible decisions on their behalf. The fact that I, Jim Bunning, am a two-term U.S. senator really shows you just how far Americans have gone off the rails.”

“I wouldn’t trust anyone who voted me into office,” he added.

Government skepticism is not confined to legislators, though. A cross-sampling of the U.S. Supreme Court found that only 1 in 9 justices believe the general populace to be ethical. Their confidence that the American people can resist consuming the newest Burger King sandwich just because it’s there or at least keep it to one a week has also fallen to a 10-year low.

“They can’t even fill out their census forms, for crying out loud,” Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho said. “It’s only 10 questions long. We’re not talking about taking the SATs here. Jesus Christ, don’t get me started on the SATs.”

One typical respondent, President Barack Obama, said he found it hard to trust the judgment of U.S. citizens after recent events, including their decision to elect a president who promised health care reform and then come out against health care reform.

“How can I have hope for a nation that regularly protests tax cuts that directly benefit them?” Obama said. “Look, I’m not always perfect at my job, either, but I think I could make a halfway coherent comment on a YouTube video if I had to. Isn’t that basically all they do?

Added Obama, “At this point, the only positive thing I can say about the American people is that I’m pretty sure they’ve never rigged an election in their favor.

A few weeks ago an an anonymous commentator left a rather angry tirade on one of the Stage’s more popular posts. Anonymous was upset with one of the post’s central conclusions: Across the board, Americans are woefully ill informed in the fields of science, civics, and history. Our friend had trouble accepting this claim, despite the volumes of empirical data that support it. Those who propagate it, said he, “had bought into the narrative.” They are tools of “the Leftist/tranzi elite” who possess a “contempt for America.”
I found this exchange disquieting. This was not because the comment itself was particularly well argued. To the contrary, the critique was of little substance and its criticisms were met with no difficulty. I fear, however, that the words of Anonymous are symptomatic of a much larger problem facing American society.
Those on the left wax poetic when called to decry the evils of the industrial-military complex or the ways in which energy companies manipulate public opinion on matters of environmental stability. The right matches these harangue for harangue, though their chosen target is more oft the network of liberal educators, newsmen, and politicians who preside over the nation’s largest and most important public institutions.
On the face of things these narratives could not be more different. Their essence, however, is the same. In lockstep both forgo responsibility for our current state of affairs. The woes of America are no fault of ours, but theirs.  It is them and their manipulations that have caused this time of troubles. Evil is a consequence of The Other.
In saying this I do not mean to deny the existence of a rentier class, manipulative newsmen, corrupt executives, or the many fingers of the military industrial complex. These are all real and present dangers whose existence is noxious to our Republic. But it is essential that Americans realize this truth: the presence of these ills was not imposed from the outside. These are not creations of the other. The demons are our own.
I have heard some say that they are lucky to live in a country free as this. To them I say: luck has had nothing to do with it. Greatness is made, not given. Freedom is not placed well prepared on a silver platter; it is fought for. Neither liberty nor equality are the default settings of the human condition, and what we have of them are the fruits of generations worth of labor. If we too do not labor, we will lose them.
Our elected officials are held to account by the people of this nation. Our businessmen have no profit save that what they can obtain through the investments, consumption, and production of this people. They are made by us. If politicians deal in punditry and prattle, it is because the people of this nation cannot tell the difference between propaganda and principle. If the government can strip away our rights liberty by liberty it is because we do not value them. If statesmen, executives, and pressmen treat Americans like sheep it is because that is what we have become.
As said the poet:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves”

Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene ii, 140-141)

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While I think to some extent entrenched powers do manipulate the system for their own gain, at its core, the challenges of America are within the people writ large. Freedom is not free, however, it takes much more than sacrifice on the battlefield to maintain that freedom.

It requires a certain degree of "virtue." Without virtue, a society, or more precisely various elements within an overarching society, look to their own parochial self interests and often disregard the general public good.

As always, it is difficult to exactly describe "virtue" or even a truly "public good", both phrases can have rather elastic meanings, but the core notion that something exists beyond self interest and that this is the necessity for a nation to thrive over the long-term, I believe is unassailable.

The challenge is to collectively enlighten the people at large as to the momentousness of the challenges we face and to the fact that there are no silver bullet solutions that offer a quick fix and no pain. However, for everly seemingly cowardly politician that is easy to criticize for only seeking the direction that the contemporary political winds blow, there is a multitude of people unwilling to listen to the harshness of the truth.

Those that pay attention and desire to forestall the trainwreck ahead must become educators first and then constantly push the envelope so that the people can no longer shirk their responsibilities.

I fear, that while there are no doubt many who see this the same way, the majority does not. This raises fundamental questions about how a Republic can maintain itself, especially in an era where the challenges confronting it are significant, but diffuse.

Agreed. There will always be power-hungry, greed-driven, and manipulative men. Only a people jealous of their liberties and knowledgeable in matters of business and state will prevent such people from attaining and maintaining power.

The idea of virtue, and the need for Americans to have it, is an old one. Wrote John Adams to Mercy Otis:

Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty: and this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions and Interests, nay, their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they stand in Competition with the Rights of Society.

Individualism has its limits. A people that sees itself not as a community whose fates and fortunes are bound together – and are not glad because of it – will never be able to hold onto the autonomy and freedom they so cherish.

On this last count I have little more optimism than you. Self governance is difficult. Americans like easy. I do not know what kind of shock will be needed to jolt Americans into action. I fear that it will only happen with the truly catastrophic – lesser shocks has America seen in the last decade, and the result was always consolidation, imposed centralized control, and bureaucratic enlargement.

Well said! I have been saying much the same for years: the left and the right are mirror images of each other, and as such they possess a fearful symmetry. And if the diagnosis of the problem is symmetrical, the proposed solutions to today's problems are equally symmetrical (and equally wrong-headed). Interestingly, both sides, left and right, are calling for the citizenry to practice greater virtue, though each side is selective in the virtues recommended for public practice. For my part, I think we would benefit more from Machiavellian Virtu than any utopian fantasy of public morality that inevitably in the practice of it turns dystopian.

Best wishes,