Since the election, I’ve been consuming a lot of history. It’s oddly comforting to realize that the issues we’re wrestling with in 2016 are the same ones they were wrestling with a hundred years ago. The cast of characters continually changes but the ideological battle lines have remained substantially the same. There is an ebb and flow that plays out over generations and each one of us can only do his or her part and then pass the baton. (If you don’t believe me, check out Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit or Oliver Stone’s outstanding The Untold History of the United States which is currently available on Netflix.)
It seems to me, though, that the real issues we need to confront are not political or ideological. The conversation we really need to have is about values: What values do we embrace and how do we manifest those values in the world? If we get that conversation right, the politics and policies will (theoretically) happen much more easily. But, for the most part, we never seem to have that conversation. Our failure to do so explains why progress in other areas is so difficult to achieve or maintain.
To make the nature of the problem a little clearer, here are a couple of articles that crossed my desktop recently. The first is George Monbiot’s takedown of celebrity culture, “Celebrity isn’t just harmless fun – it’s the smiling face of the corporate machine.” The title says it all. As a culture, we’re awash in various flavors of Kim Kardashian. That doesn’t happen by accident and it’s important to understand how we got here. (Along the same lines, there’s an old question that’s well worth asking: “Cui bono?”)
The second one is an exploration of The Frankfurt School, a collection of philosophers, cultural critics, and sociologists that coalesced in 1938. They believed that mass culture, in all its forms, was a prop for totalitarian capitalism. The ideas were challenging and controversial but they fell out of favor during the generations long somnambulance that followed World War II. The ascendance of Donald Trump, however, has given them a whole new credence and relevance. (Believe me, this is more interesting reading than I make it sound.)
These articles do not, by themselves, represent the conversation about values that we so desperately need to have. They go a long way, though, towards explaining why we never seem to have it. I’d be interesting in hearing what you think.