Trivial Discourse

Has American social and political discourse become progressively lower in quality? If a group of people are gradually going insane, how likely are they to notice?

Humanity is in a world of trouble, but what are people thinking about? Let’s consider a couple groups. One might be termed the intelligentsia, loosely defined as the sort of people who read the New Yorker and the New York Times, educated and literate people who are relatively in touch with what’s happening in the world, politically and otherwise. However vague the boundary, they can be distinguished from another group, people like those related to a flurry of talk about a poll showing a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map.

In the 2007 Miss Teen USA contest, the following question was posed to Miss South Carolina:

Recent polls have shown that a fifth of Americans can’t locate the US on a world map. Why do you think this is?

Before getting to her answer, we should note that the question had a false premise. It appears there was no such poll finding. The contest organizers didn’t care about the truth, or were misinformed. A major survey bearing on the issue, the 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy, found 6% of young Americans (18 to 24 years old) could not find the U.S. on a world map. Bad as that is, it’s a lot less than 20%. On the other hand, the same survey found over a fifth of young Americans could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a world map.

If the extent of geographical ignorance, and the carelessness of whoever came up with the question, are not sufficiently dismaying, consider Miss South Carolina’s answer:

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because uh some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and uh I believe that our ed- education like such as in South Africa and uh the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should uh our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or- or- should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for our children.

Some may say it’s OK a sizable fraction of Americans don’t know where on the planet their country is located, for these ignorant citizens are unlikely to vote and don’t need such knowledge in their daily lives. Miss South Carolina (who despite her poor answer placed fourth in the competition) planned a career designing special effects for movies and television. If some fraction of the population whose lives revolve around fantasies are out of touch with reality, does it really matter?

Let’s turn now to the so-called intelligentsia. What are they up to? Here the problem is less ignorance than gross failure to pay suitable attention to what is important.

A story in today’s New York Times (4/1/2014) provides a good illustration. It concerns the resupply of a rusty Philippine warship that was grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea back in 1999. For the 15 years since then it has been manned by a rotating Philippine crew. Today’s news is that the latest resupply effort evaded a blockade by Chinese ships. This drama results from disagreement between China and the Philippines about who owns the otherwise uninhabited shoal.

With humanity confronted with enormous problems such as global warming and the advance of antibiotic resistant bacteria, China and the Philippines and readers of the New York Times are focusing attention on a dispute about ownership of a tiny uninhabited island. Meanwhile, America and its European allies are talking with the Russians, but the subject is merely disagreement about whether the Crimea is part of Ukraine or of Russia. There is perennial discussion about control of the West Bank, occupied for many years by Israel but inhabited mainly by Palestinians. Compared to the enormous challenges facing humanity, these are relatively small issues, but they are big distractions.

Other news topics of the day include a Chinese military graft case, U.S. health plan signups, discussion of whether an Israeli spy long imprisoned in the U.S. should be released, an 8th grader who fired his gun at another teenager but missed and killed a 39 year old man, problems with a Chevrolet car called the Cobalt that caused it to be termed a lemon, and online attacks and harassing phone calls in response to an attempt by Pete Matsko to ban concealed weapons from his beer and burger bar in the college town of Clemson, South Carolina. That’s what’s covered on the front page of today’s New York Times (print edition).

What else does the Times consider fit to print? There are half a dozen articles on sports. The Mets baseball team lost a game, the Stanford basketball team is having success with the triangle offense, Thibaud Lhenry won a bicycle race, the University of Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart missed her first seven shots in a basketball game against Brigham Young, Minnesota basketball coach Richard Pitino will take his team to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden, and baseball’s new replay review system was used for the first time with no complaints. Such information related to games, ritualized substitutes for warfare that tend to avoid death but in some cases result in permanent brain injury, are considered sufficiently interesting to merit their own regular section of the paper.

To be sure, the Times did mention global warming today, in a page 3 article on a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change saying that as the planet warms the planet’s poorest people will suffer most. The issuance of such a report is a news event that warrants mention in a newspaper. Absent such a news event, global warming creeps forward largely ignored by the news media because, however important it is, steady progress toward climate catastrophe is not news.

Turning to the current New Yorker (3/30/2014), we find an article about the following tweet from the official Twitter account for The Colbert Report, which “committed the comedic sin of delivering a punch line without its setup”:

“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

We’re informed that on Twitter this “sparked a firestorm of outrage, which quickly escalated into a campaign demanding the show’s cancellation. The hashtag #CancelColbert became one of Twitter’s trending topics across the United States….”

The article’s author, Jay Kang, comments that

Every debate on Twitter gets put through the platform’s peculiar distortion effect. The form’s inherent limitations—the hundred-and-forty-character limit and a fleeting shelflife—reward volume, frequency, and fervor rather than nuance, complexity, and persuasion. This might feel unseemly to those who value a more refined conversation, but there is no denying the viral power of hashtag activists who capitalize on the speed at which a single tweet can multiply into something that resembles a protest rally. A new Twitter outrage seems to detonate every week…. If an activist hashtag becomes a trend, has a broad, important conversation taken place?

A 2012 Pew Research Center Study found only 54% of the public knew the Republican Party was in control of the House of Representatives, and when asked to say which of Germany, France, the International Monetary Fund, and NATO is led by Angela Merkel, only 22% answered correctly. Regarding the type of news Americans pay most attention to, the study found the winner was weather, with 53% saying they follow it “very closely”; the runners up were sports (35%) and crime (32%).

Returning to our original question, is American social and political discourse declining in quality? Certainly the quality of the national discussion is poor. Whether it is getting worse, or has always been so bad, is harder to determine. Similarly, if we ask to what extent Americans are sane, or how well they are functioning mentally, examples like Miss South Carolina’s answer above, and Sarah Palin’s answering the question of what newspapers and magazines she read regularly with “All of them”, and Rick Perry’s not being able to remember which federal agencies he wanted to eliminate, make it appear there is considerable mental dysfunction. But again, it is not easy to determine whether Americans are becoming more mentally deficient, or whether they were always so incompetent.

At any rate, the complexity and seriousness of modern problems such as global warming is so great that their solution calls for more intelligence and more attention than is evident in modern America. The rest of the planet, if not yet quite so mindless, seems not much better.