There’s a person in the U.S. who thinks abortion should be banned because fetuses masturbate. There was another one a few weeks ago who claimed that yoga was a gateway to Satanism. Are these the random ravings of a guy on a street corner with a cardboard sign proclaiming the imminent arrival of the apocalypse? No, they are statements made in seriousness by elected officials. People who have managed to convince a sizable number of other people to entrust them with a position of real power and influence. On last Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, one of the panelists, herself a Republican (oh yeah, the aforementioned remarks were both made by Republicans, as if you needed to guess) thought the “masturbating fetuses” comment represented a tipping point, and that sanity would begin to reassert itself on the right wing. What has become abundantly clear over the last decade where politics is concerned is that there is no such thing as a tipping point anymore. Every time we think we’ve reached the limit of the pendulum swing towards “the crazy,” someone else doubles down. And someone else doubles down again on that someone else. Forget tipping points – we’ve fallen off the cliff, and we’re competing to see who can scream loudest on the way down.
Last year’s comedy The Campaign was supposed to be an absurdist take on an escalating battle of nutbars for a congressional seat, and as star Zach Galifianakis observed, they found themselves out-absurded by real life. Birtherism, “You lie,” the 47%, “legitimate rape,” Sarah Palin, anchor baby terrorism, unborn self-pleasure and Downward Dog apparently now being a reference to Cerberus, absolutely none of this meme-ready dumbassery, enough to cost any one of us regular folks our jobs and our friends were we to utter them in public, has been able to persuade the general public that something is rotten in the state of our discourse. Rather, ideology has been entrenched in cement. In the past I compared it to how fans support sports teams with unfailing devotion, but that may have been inaccurate. Even the most dedicated fans will criticize their team from time to time, and the most zealous will go at their chosen squad with profane hatchets if they are dissatisfied with how the season is going. Not so in politics. Usually, an elected official who gets rightly excoriated for saying something inane and insulting will do the “I misspoke” non-apology apology routine and turn the incident into a fundraising plea by complaining that the big bad mainstream media is picking on them. The lemmings will duly empty their wallets in response, and the rest of the world will shake its head at the same old story playing out again and again.
Living in a democracy means that theoretically, any citizen should be able to step up into a position of leadership so long as they have been properly elected by a majority of voters. (The role of money puts the lie to this basic assumption, but let’s just go with it as a key principle for the sake of my argument here.) That does not mean, however, that everyone living in said democracy is capable of governing, just as the guy who sits on his bar stool bitching about the Leafs does not actually possess the skill set to coach them to a Stanley Cup victory. The canard that “the system is broken” is repeated ad nauseum to justify a cynical attitude toward public institutions. Even those in power rely on the “everybody does it” excuse – see the Canadian Conservatives trying to deflect justified public outrage at their Senators’ grotesque abuse of taxpayer-funded expense accounts by flinging blame back at the Liberals (who have been out of power for seven years). Justin Trudeau had it right when he said that the solution is not abolishing the institution, it’s choosing better people to populate it. I feel like I say this a lot, and yet, it bears repeating – why is the bar set so catastrophically low for what we expect from the people we choose to govern us? If our only qualification for electing someone is a suit, a flag pin and a series of poll-tested sound bites, why do we then act surprised when things go wrong? It’s government by the lowest common denominator, and it keeps rolling along with the inevitability of the seasons and the tides.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine going on a job interview – it doesn’t matter what the job is – and whatever question is asked, just pivot to how important family values, faith, low taxes and supporting the troops is to you. Which outcome is more likely – landing the corner office or never hearing from the interviewers again? Let’s delve deeper into this situation. What are you usually asked when you’re being interviewed? Questions about your experience as it pertains to this new role, ability to function as part of a team, aspirations for your potential future with the organization, your general character. When one considers the lofty esteem with which the private sector is regarded (as compared to the piss poor reputation of the public sector), why should its standards for hiring not apply equally to choosing from a slate of candidates for office? If you want the best government, should not those selected to take part in it boast the deepest, most relevant resumes, and a corresponding depth of character and empathy for one’s fellow human being? If governing is supposed to be serving the public, you would think that a general like of the public would be a critical qualifier for taking part in it, which seems rarely to be the case. We are inundated with angry elected faces spewing hateful rhetoric against everyone and everything that is wrong with this country, but of course, it’s the greatest country in the world and it’s perfect and infallible and hooray for freedom and support the troops.
Sorry to get off on a rant there for a moment, but I’ll bring it back to earth again. There has been a confluence between the world of reality TV, which bases its revenue model on attracting viewers with displays of stupidity, and the world of politics. The ensuing treatment of the stupid in our civilization, where it is better to make noise than speak substance, leads to tolerance, expectation, and finally glorification and celebration of stupidity. Will the “masturbating fetuses” congressman apologize, resign in disgrace and spend the rest of his life asking his customers if they want fries with that? Nope, he’ll be re-elected, handily, and continue to give the world the benefit of his inexperience and ineptitude. And people will suffer, directly or indirectly, because of it.
Unless, as the Lorax said.
Never before in our history have we been so equipped to take stupidity head-on and kick its drooling, mouth-breathing hindquarters to the metaphorical curb. We walk around with repositories of infinite knowledge clipped to our belts, packed with tools to root out willful ignorance. We don’t have to be spoon-fed with what the self-propagating media machine is serving us in the name of getting us to buy things – we can become active pursuers of truth, and exposers of the foolishness that left unchecked will lead our civilization the way of Rome. When we complain about congressional gridlock, or free-spending senators, we must accept the blame for gifting such unworthy persons with the responsibility to make decisions for us, and the resulting course of our country. We need to vet these people better before we decide to trust them, and to hold even the most noble of souls rigidly accountable once in office. And we have absolutely no excuse not to do it anymore. The resources are at our fingertips. It has never been easier. It takes only the will to use them. One click to start to make the world a better place. Is the status quo really preferable? Are we just morbidly fascinated to see what comes next, what new Caligula or Nero will dare present himself for our appraisal?
How well did that work out for the Romans?