Easy Outrage

Let’s stop moralizing with each other. There are no rules anymore. Kathy Griffin did an outrageous thing. I don’t care. Every day since November has been full of outrageous things. Just this week I have woken up to news reports about a Congressman elected to office the day after publicly assaulting a news reporter and a Texas state legislator who threatened to shoot his colleague in the head as his solution to a peaceful but inconvenient demonstration in the state chamber.

Meanwhile, our country is preparing to abdicate responsibility to my daughter’s generation by stepping out of the Paris Climate treaty. New health care laws are coming that no one actually wants or understands. We are staring down a budget that systemically underfunds education, science, and welfare assistance. Nine years after the Great Recession, we are already deregulating the very industries that recently crippled our economy with unbridled greed and excess. Across the country, state legislators pontificate about limiting the role of government in our personal lives while blithely extending the reach of government into the vagina of every woman of childbearing age. Shameful.

Kathy Griffin doesn’t matter. She can disappear. Like all celebrities, she only gets to have the power we lend her with our attention. Our tweeting, celebrity president understands this very well. His rise as candidate was fueled by mendacious assertions that the sitting president was not a United States citizen. Our civic discourse has been downhill ever since.

This isn’t democracy. This is celebrity culture run amok. These people aren’t serious people. They don’t even pretend to address the needs of our time. They hook our attention with sensational acts, inflammatory tweets. We feed them in turn with our easy outrage.

Don’t be fooled. Easy outrage is a trap to keep us constantly dispirited and deeply distracted. Easy outrage keeps us fighting against each other rather than making common cause to fix our dangerously broken system.

Today it was Kathy Griffin. Tomorrow it will be someone else. It doesn’t matter. Keep your seat. Try to stay focused. Save your powder. You are going to need it.

History > Biography

Here in America, we make a big deal about “We the People.” We’re always going on about the “will of the people”, the “voice of the people” and such. Veneration of The People is a core aspect of how we describe and discuss ourselves. And yet, an awkward tension exists in our democratic lives. While we espouse a deep, sacred reverence for The People, the stories we most often tell about ourselves are dominated by a few strong, individual heroes.

Think about the version of American history you were given in school. It probably goes something like this:

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered America. Soon after, European explorers like Cortes and De Soto came in search of gold. After them came John Winthrop and John Smith to colonize the North American wilds. The colonies grew until they could no longer tolerate the abuses of King George. And so, General George Washington crossed the Delaware River with his crew and defeated the Red Coats. A group of smart men led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Constitution and then elected George Washington as our first president because he was very honest about cutting down that cherry tree. Over time, the States disagreed about slavery and how to organize their individual economies. Grant and Lee fought a Civil War. Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln was there to make the Civil War turn out right.

You get the idea. The stories we tell ourselves about our own past do not belong to us. They focus exclusively on the acts of powerful, privileged few. There is no doubt that powerful individuals often make bold, sometimes courageous decisions that impact their times and future generations. But, too often, we mistake their biographies as our entire history. History is bigger than biography.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is an antidote for the usual biographical mode of telling history. Reading Zinn’s book is a strange, unsettling experience. There are dangerous ideas hiding inside. Ideas about war and voting as methods of domestic subjugation and social control. Buried accounts of civil disobedience, social action and unrest that resulted in lasting improvements in the lives of working people across the country.

Zinn’s history is full of surprises and surprising takes on a once familiar history. But the thing that makes Zinn’s prose most powerful is the lack of a biographical narrative. The usual heroes are absent from the center stage. When they appear, it is in reaction to the collective acts of organized masses — organized in their shared need, anger and frustration.

Zinn offers an account of American history focused entirely on the accumulating success of collective actions rather than the biographical quirks of a selective, impressive few. That the book succeeds in telling our shared story without making it the province of a few powerful players makes it a useful touchstone for understanding what America is and what America might become. 688 pages that give your country back to you. Highly recommended.

Kirk Cameron gets schooled on the First Amendment

One of my major pet peeves: people who claim their first amendment rights are being denied when they get criticized for saying stupid things in public. What a joy to read John Scalzi’s open reply to Kirk Cameron who recently complained about the negative public outcry when he shared his ideas on the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality.

This post isn’t about homosexuality. It isn’t about naturalness or unnaturalness. It isn’t even really about Kirk Cameron. It is about the quality of public discourse.

To be fair, Cameron complains about his treatment in the media but does not directly claim that his first amendment rights have been denied. That would be silly for someone who just had the rather unnatural opportunity to speak on the Piers Morgan CNN talk show. If anything, Cameron has been afforded an abundance of opportunity to speak.

And that’s what I love about Scalzi’s post. He reminds us that the First Amendment wasn’t intended to prevent people from getting offended. Quite the opposite. Some people, maybe most people, need to be offended.

We are forgetting our Enlightenment heritage. America’s genius is that we are a laboratory for ideas. America is a place where people from all walks of life rub up against each other, influence each other and challenge each other to make something new. We are strong when strong ideas are born. Strong ideas are born through opposition to lesser, weaker ideas. It is a kind of survival of the fittest. Don’t be afraid to put your opinion out there but be ready to get crushed by the force of other opinions.

Scalzi says it best: “If you want people to respect your ideas, get better ideas.”