The Real Problem: America’s Catastrophic Crisis of Values

Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for The Guardian, calmly approached Greg Gianforte, a wealthy Montana businessman who — as is now common practice in our corporate democracy — was also a Republican congressional candidate running in an election that would be held the very next day. The interaction started innocuously enough, with Jacobs questioning Gianforte about the Republicans’ proposed healthcare plan: a shamefully barbaric and proudly capitalist bill that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates will leave 23 million more Americans uninsured by 2026, at a time when medical costs bankrupt an unconscionable two million hard-working people every year in this nation, not including the uncountable thousands who die because they lack health insurance. In response to Jacobs’ measured and reasonable inquiries, Gianforte physically assaulted the reporter, body slamming him to the ground. On the following day, Gianforte won the election, handily.

It hurts me to see my country failing, because I used to love this place. I loved our ideals of freedom and liberty, even if they were perhaps the most stunningly hypocritical propositions in history given our track record on slavery and civil rights. I loved our promises to uplift the downtrodden and the underprivileged around the world, even if we often only did so to satisfy our own geopolitical objectives, and even though American-sponsored dictators were sometimes the reason why they found themselves in such misery to begin with. Most of all, I loved the citizens of these United States, even if they had voted for George W. Bush, twice. In spite of these major hiccups, we were ultimately the good guys, I told myself, severely flawed but always improving, profoundly confused but fundamentally principled. But writing today, I’m not sure if I love my homeland anymore, and that’s quite a sad state of affairs. No, it’s not because of Donald Trump or Greg Gianforte, though I certainly don’t love them, to say the least. Rather, it’s because of the people who voted for these out-and-out thugs. It’s because — in the words of the legendary George Carlin — the public sucks.

The election of monsters like Donald Trump signals the demise of values that I once thought we all agreed were vital to public life: kindness, truth, respect for differences, diversity, intelligence, humility, chivalry, level-headedness, and a disposition not to sexually assault women, to name just a few. And look, I didn’t like Hillary either, but if you couldn’t see that Donald “Grab ‘Em By The Pussy,” “Take Out Their Families,” “Mexicans Are Rapists” Trump posed a greater threat to the survival of the human species than Hillary “Too Cozy With Wall Street” Clinton, I’m not sure what planet you were living on, but I’d appreciate help getting there before this one implodes. Moreover, for all the talk about specific issues — and frankly there isn’t nearly enough discussion of the issues for my taste — what really matters, when you get to the bottom of it, is values. If you believe that your own religious views about homosexuality should not prevent your homosexual neighbors from living their lives in ways that don’t affect you, then gay marriage is a no-brainer; if you think that science is the best guide we have for understanding the nature of the universe, then adopting policies to address climate change becomes common sense. Debates about issues, therefore, are in fact debates about values, and there are some values on which we simply cannot compromise.

Unlike the values I mentioned above — the separation of church and state and the acceptance of science — the truly foundational values that are presently under assault, the ones whose prolonged absence would precipitate the total breakdown of our society, are innately nonpartisan and historically non-controversial. Take, for instance, what could be termed “impossible lying”: telling a lie when the truth is obvious. Of course, we all know that politicians lie, but this is a different breed of dishonesty, this is reality denial, and Donald Trump may do it more than anyone who has ever been democratically elected. He claims that he didn’t tweet statements that he matter-of-factly did tweet, he brags about holding positions in the past despite being on tape espousing the exact opposite stance, and he invents implausible facts that are refuted by plentiful evidence. Particularly egregious in an age when information is available to everyone instantly, the decision to empower such a pathological liar with the most powerful military anywhere was nothing short of insane, regardless of one’s views about Hillary or gun control or really anything. Another too-ridiculous-to-be-happening, but-oh-God-it-is-happening example of this phenomenon is the Flat-Earther movement. To assert that the Earth is flat in 2017 — as NBA star Kyrie Irving, rapper B.o.B., and others have unironically done — is to conceptualize oneself as literally living on a different planet, which, again, seems like an increasingly good idea. But on a serious note, we’re not talking about a failure to accept science here, we’re talking about the denial of a reality that millionaires like Kyrie and B.o.B. can themselves verify by, say, circumnavigating the globe, or by looking out at the horizon, or by searching for the nonexistent edges of the paper-thin fairy tale realm on which they apparently reside.

While it may be easy to dismiss the Flat-Earthers as a fringe group, support for anti-intellectualism today is quantifiably enormous and perpetually on the rise. Trump himself speaks incoherently and at a third-grade level — as opposed to Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison, who all spoke at graduate school levels — but the overarching shift from electing the smartest among us to electing the guy you’d want to have a beer with extends well past the current leader of the free world. Qualities like expertise, experience, and composure have grown passé, usurped by an affinity for a dangerous combination of extreme confidence and startling ignorance. This confident ignorance is potentially more disastrous than anti-intellectualism by itself, since it undermines any efforts to change course once it becomes clear that such change is necessary. Indeed, it is no longer universally considered a virtue in America to entertain opinions contrary to one’s own, to concede a point when one is overtly wrong, or even to be civil to one’s political rivals: Trump won after threatening to jail Hillary and contending that she cofounded ISIS. Even barefaced bullying and assault, like that committed by Gianforte, is not automatically disqualifying when running for office nowadays. Debating individual issues, without these values, strikes me as irrelevant.

At the risk of sounding like a Pat Robertson-type, I am convinced that this erosion of civility is causing us to lose sight of the sense of common purpose and mutual solidarity upon which we have always depended, a loss that is manifesting itself in the new healthcare bill. And at the very real risk of getting body slammed by Greg Gianforte, I will submit that while determining the best method of caring for the sick certainly merits debate, that we should care for the sick in some way is a value that should go without saying. As Jimmy Kimmel recently implored in an emotional speech about his own son’s heart condition, we cannot let kids die because their parents can’t afford the necessary medical expenses — not in the richest nation in history. Yet such villainy is precisely what this healthcare bill would allow, disregarding how to care for the sick and instead asserting that it isn’t our collective responsibility to do so at all. Who are the people who want this, and how many of their kids have died because they couldn’t afford to treat them? Furthermore, should merely asking these questions justify getting assaulted by a congressman?

I fully understand that Americans are angry with a government that hasn’t responded to their concerns in decades, and with an economy that systematically prevents them from achieving their dreams. Believe me, I’m angry too. Despite these inadequacies of the establishment, however, the correct path forward just cannot be the one we seem to be taking. I want to love this country again, but before that happens I need us to agree on the values that have gotten us this far as a species: basic empathy, willingness to listen to those with differing opinions, respect for actual facts, selecting non-body slamming leaders, and the list goes on. Because beyond any contentious issue or any divisive politician, if we don’t come together on those things, well, we’re fucked.

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