DENVER – Shortly after John Roberts, the conservative United States Supreme Court Chief Justice, sided with the Court’s four liberal justices to uphold President Barack Obama’s major health-care reform, he joked that he was leaving the country for the “impregnable island fortress” of Malta. Roberts was referring not so much to the mainstream media’s speculation about the reasons for his surprise vote, but rather to the fury and thirst for retribution among conservative bloggers and pundits.
Indeed, “traitor” was one of their common epithets, as were “coward” and “sellout.” Real-estate mogul Donald Trump, with his customary charm, thought it appropriate to refer to the brilliant and scholarly Roberts as a “dummy.”
The apoplectic rage that followed the Supreme Court’s decision on Obama’s health-care legislation is becoming routine in America’s public discourse, and it is a bipartisan malady. Though it may have started on the left – in response to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush – it has become increasingly a right-wing phenomenon. Radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (who recently signed a $100 million deal to spew more hatred on the airwaves) dwarf liberal commentators in audience size. The age of information and communications has given way to an age of anger.
Of course, this is not the first time that anger and fear have ruled US public discourse: Father Charles Coughlin’s toxic radio broadcasts in the 1930’s paved the way for today’s stars, who would feel similarly at home during the Red Scare of the 1920’s or the McCarthy era in the early 1950’s. But this contemporary ugly mood, unlike those times, seems to be independent of the real threats that America faces in the world: a weak global economy, terrorism, failed states, and protracted wars, to name a few. Americans have been angry for some time now, and their ire shows no sign of abating.
This sentiment is perhaps most obvious – and damaging – in foreign policy, where the choices facing officials are seldom obvious or risk-free. For example, the bloody conflict in Syria is fraught with challenges and unforeseen consequences. But such realities are lost on bloggers who blithely hold forth on what they claim are patently obvious solutions – and on the stupidity, cynicism, or insanity of leaders who fail to implement them.
Officials have an obligation to look beyond the current news cycle, and especially to understand that policy aimed at Syria, for example, engages policy toward Russia, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel. As a result, it is profoundly difficult to develop policies that enjoy support at every excruciating phase of their implementation. Wise policy is not always popular (a cliché that happens to be true).
Instant access to information does not mean instant access to knowledge, much less wisdom. One aspect of knowledge, as we know from nineteenth-century philosophy (and who studies that anymore?), reflects the integration of information with experience. Today, information is integrated with emotion – and with suspicion, sometimes bordering on paranoia, about the underlying motives of the leadership classes.
Compare this behavior to that of people who have truly suffered at the hands of political leaders – for example, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, or Poland’s Adam Michnik – and who managed to conduct respectful dialogue with their tormentors. Their tolerance, one suspects, would not have been diminished had they had access to the Internet during their incarceration.
Nevertheless, technology does seem to be playing a central role in facilitating anger. Establishing a blog, downloading photos, and creating catchy, sarcasm-drenched captions is not a particularly challenging activity. (Fortunately, making a living from it is another matter!) Mainstream media (whatever that expression means anymore) woo viewers by enabling them to “sound off” at the press of a button. As anyone who has read a thoughtful article or news story can attest, bitter, vituperative responses usually follow. Have these unhappy legions somehow always been there, waiting only for a button to push to register their views?
Clearly, there is something more going on than just an increase in clickable menu options. One fundamental issue seems to be dwindling respect for established institutions, many of which are drowning in the noise of opinion. The editorial of the local newspaper used to carry weight. Now it is just another view among many (and, worse, it relies on a platform whose business model is in trouble).
Digital technology has played another important role in fostering this atmosphere of bad manners, vicious personal attacks, intolerance, disrespect, and general rudeness. Sitting in one’s basement in pajamas, spewing out venom on a keyboard like a Batman movie villain who was poorly treated in a past life, one is at a safe distance from one’s target. Bullying has gone virtual.
Indeed, perhaps the most damaging aspect of all of our wonderful technology is that it enables us to live blissfully apart from those with whom we disagree. Our access to news can be tailored to our preconceived opinions. Even where people live seems to be having an effect. The proliferation of gated communities across America has increased the odds that people will live only with those who vote the same way.
The age of anger will end when Americans decide that they have had enough. For starters, they could make a mid-summer resolution to buck the trend. They might, for example, resist the Internet algorithm that suggests which book to buy or film to rent, based on what they read or watched previously. And they might begin to re-learn the useful democratic art of respectful debate with those who happen to hold views different from their own.