In the land of the blind

Appearing in Australian Spectator magazine, February 2021

Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage

By Dan Crenshaw

Twelve, $41, 256 pages, ISBN 9781538733301

Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another 

By Matt Taibbi

Tantor, $12 (e-book), 304 pages, ISBN 9781682192122

Somehow, American culture has got itself into a terrible mess of division and acrimony: elites against mainstream, progressives against conservatives, blue states against red states. They have always been an argumentative bunch, our American cousins, but the level of conflict has reached such heights that the whole system is starting to totter. How did this happen, and what can be done about it?

These two books, in their own ways, supply some answers. Crenshaw, for one, cuts a distinctive figure. A former Navy SEAL officer, after a close encounter with an IED in Afghanistan he now wears an eyepatch and carries some scars. As a Republican congressman for a Texas district, he has been marked as an up-and-comer. Fortitude shows that he is not just another partisan hack but a well-read person who thinks carefully and looks to his military training as a source of strength. With one eye he sees more clearly than many people can with two.

He depicts the outrage culture of the left as a critical threat to American society (although he also has pointed things to say about right-wing cable television demagogues). The kids of the snowflake generation were raised to believe that they were special and entitled, and that their feelings were definitively important. Crenshaw takes particular issue with those who equate comments they do not like with physical attacks. Merely silly, says the man who knows a few things about real violence.

A central problem is social media. Immediate and anonymous, it has become an echo chamber for vitriol and craziness. Doing some research about an issue and listening to the other side is seen as a sign of weakness. If you look hard enough for insults, says Crenshaw (quoting Barack Obama), you will surely find them. Politics becomes a matter of hunting heretics rather than seeking converts.

The extension of this is a culture of victimhood, with extra points for those who can claim membership of the largest number of oppressed groups. This would be amusing if it were not so dangerous, especially when it turns into a belief that your ends are so noble that any means – any means – are justified. There are no reasonable opponents, only enemies so evil they must be destroyed.

Where did outrage culture and victimology come from? Yes, it is certainly fuelled by social media but Facebook did not create it, and neither did Trump. Crenshaw admits that he is not sure where the circle started but speculates that ‘helicopter’ parenting had something to do with it. Over-protectiveness led to a generation without the mental toughness to move outside the little world that they know. Crenshaw, himself a parent, recognises the desire to keep one’s children safe but emphasises that coddling them is not the answer. Let them be kids, he says, even though that will include some skinned knees and bruising mistakes. Don’t be forever telling them that the world is a dangerous place and they live in a toxic culture, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This leads Crenshaw to advice for escaping the outrage trap. His solution is for people to look within themselves, to develop their inner resources of resilience, courage and tolerance. Before you start shouting about something find out the background and the details. Context, consideration and clarity are the antidotes to permanent anger. Be willing to agree to disagree, rather than automatically attribute the worst of motives to the other side. And do not instantly look to government for the solution to every problem. Maybe an answer is in your own backyard.

Does this make him one of the marines of morality, wanting everyone to shape up and march in lockstep? By no means. America’s long history of social innovation and progress is built on dissent, debate and a willingness to question the status quo. But, says Crenshaw, to do so with respect and compromise.

The idea of seeking out differing views brings us to Matt Taibbi and Hate Inc., a book of essays that started out as online articles. Taibbi, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine, sits firmly on the left but he has considerable common ground with Crenshaw. He is likewise deeply concerned with the fractures within American society but his focus is on cable television. He notes that his colleagues wanted the book to be a hatchet-job on Fox and were horrified when he extended his criticism to the far-left MSNBC and its most famous talking head, Rachel Maddow (in fact, the cover features equivalent pics of her and right-winger Sean Hannity).

Taibbi has fun recounting some of Maddow’s more ludicrous anti-Trump conspiracy theories but he has a deeper point to make. In particular, he notes that there is now no professional penalty for getting things utterly, hilariously wrong. Even though all of Maddow’s theories have been thoroughly debunked she has never admitted to error, and her paycheques keep getting larger.

Taibbi attributes this to the corporations that run the cable networks, who have found that polarisation is good for profits. Maybe, but it does not explain why there is an appetite for extreme views in the first place. Taibbi assumes that companies can create demand but this is by no means clear. Nevertheless, he has interesting things to say about the interaction of media and politics, and he has a sense of humour usually missing from the cultural warriors of the left. His solution? Turn off the  television and do something useful instead.

Regrettably, American-style extremism is now infecting Australia. Fortitude and Hate Inc. offer important insights, so perhaps that awful road can be avoided. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

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