Sunday, September 26, 2010

Living in an Artless World

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

That statement, attributed to H.L. Mencken, is as applicable today as it was in the first half of the 20th century when Mencken reigned as one of our premier journalists. The cultural definition of the comment is as follows: People can easily be persuaded to accept the most inferior ideas or useless products.

Consider American tap water vs. bottled water. Our tap water is about the best water to be found anywhere in the world, not only in taste but also in purity. Yet we spend billions of dollars each year, about $10 billion at wholesale prices, on bottled water, usually spring water. At least one brand, Coca-Cola’s Dasani, rakes in more than $1 billion selling us ordinary tap water it has processed through another purification treatment.

It would be smarter to just fill up a jug of tap water, but like the man said, you won’t go broke underestimating our intelligence.

Last Thursday we were treated to the delusional rantings of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a speech at the United Nations, the Iranian president presented a theory that “some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the (Sept. 11) attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grip on the Middle East in order to save the Zionist regime.”

It is not shocking he made that assertion, as many rank and file Muslims believe it to be true. Sadly, while 33 delegations, including those of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica and the 27 members of the European Union, walked out of his speech, apparently not one Arab or Muslim state, or any of our other supposed allies in South America, Asia or Africa, chose to express their rejection of this lunatic’s diatribe. We send billions of dollars in aid and our most precious resources—our young men and women in uniform—to defend and prop up Muslim countries. How is it that they do not automatically distance themselves from such statements? How is it that their leaders have not expressed abhorrence of these remarks?

Of course, we shouldn’t just look overseas for idiocy and revolting behavior, not when polls show 18% of the U.S. public believes President Obama is a Muslim (up from 11% in March 2009) and a discordant number believe he wasn’t born in the United States and therefore was not eligible to be elected president. Here’s how a Republican congressional candidate in Michigan (a former U.S. Representative seeking to win back his seat) handled the religion and citizenship questions during a radio talk show interview last Thursday: "I don't know, I really don't know," Tim Walberg said. "We don't have enough information about this president. He was never given a job interview that was complete. But that's not the issue now. He is president. Right now we need to make sure he doesn't remain as president, whether he's American, a Muslim, a Christian, you name it."

Seeking to oust a president and a Congress is acceptable. Undermining the legitimacy of our elected president is not. When our own countrymen play loose and goosy with the truth, why should we expect more from our enemies?

Tea Party candidates, and their siren leader Sarah Palin, are daffy. No need to go on a witch hunt to expose behaviors that would scare most thinking people away from their candidacies. But these are tough economic times and too often our electorate has shown a tendency to blame incumbents, even throw them out of office, in favor of demagogues and otherwise incompetent alternatives.

Lower taxes and fewer government programs are platform planks for the Tea Party and Republicans. We can have a serious debate on the wisdom of these ideas, but only if memory is included. Do people not remember that these ideas were part and parcel of the Bush years and that they resulted in huge deficits and the atmosphere of regulatory indifference that led to the banking and financial services fiascos that sucked the air out of the economy?

No doubt there’s a lot of waste, even abuses, within many if not all government programs. Heck, within the companies you work for there no doubt are inefficient, wasteful purchasing practices and people who fudge expense accounts. The ideal is to clean up these messes. But do we want to do away with government programs meant to protect us? Hasn’t the latest health scandal surrounding egg production shown us we need better coordinated consumer protection, not less?

It disturbs me that our political discourse has been reduced to sound bites. It disturbs me that too many voters pick candidates seemingly the same way a naïve bettor chooses a horse at the track, based on their name or the colors of their racing gear, rather than their track record. It disturbs me that we have entered an age of non-compromise. Politics used to be known as the art of compromise. Sadly, I believe we increasingly are living in an artless world.