When there are no Walter Cronkites left

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reports that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reports that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Watching Bill Maher last night was both frustrating, and consoling. Frustrating because David Frum’s consistent attempts to get an important point across to Maher seemed to fall on deaf ears. And consoling because it’s often cathartic to hear someone articulating an important truth that you believe needs saying. And last night, that someone was Frum.

They could hack the voting machines. I wouldn’t put it past them,” said Maher, as he passionately made the case that Donald Trump is something different, something un-American, something authoritarian, something dangerous, a something we haven’t seen before. A something that past Republicans like George W Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain shouldn’t be compared to. A notion that, given Trump’s own behavior and words, is hard to disagree with.

Frum tried reminding Maher, in a way that may have been too polite, that such rhetoric, ‘the system is fucked’ populist theme song, is in part, exactly why Trump has risen to become the nominee.

Turn on right wing talk radio or look up some far left websites, and the message is clear. It’s the same plot line on the Alt Right as it is the Social Justice Left. It’s the same memorandum contained in just about every movement that was known as ‘populist’. It’s the core belief shared by the most militant Jill Stein supporter, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Though I’m sure neither would want to acknowledge their kinship to the other. It’s the message that is delivered up in various packages by every cheap, and they’re all cheap, demagogue to ever walk the planet. What distinguishes the left from the right within the populist movements is never the reasoning or uniformed pessimism; all that ever differentiates them, are the scapegoats they choose.

The system is rigged. The whole thing is corrupt. They’re all just as bad. They’re keeping us down. They like us uniformed. Corporate media is in on it. Every one of them is rotten. The establishment is against us. Burn it all down.

We’ve heard it all so many times before.

But is it really true?

Does corruption exist? Of course it does. That’s not an interesting, or even, intelligent question. The more relevant question is, is it any worse than it’s been in time’s past? That’s a question that no serious person can pretend to know the answer to based on their own anecdotal experience, or as gleaned from the bits of information they allow themselves to take in from their hand picked news sources, which offer cherry picked, ideologically conforming, narrative building, easy to digest, bite sized story lines.

Let’s take a step back for a minute and look at the planet as whole, and our Nation, the United States, over the past century. Let’s begin by going back just 50 years in the USA:

Since the 1960’s, life expectancy has grown by almost a third.

Median income per person has risen 167%, and that’s adjusting for inflation and purchasing power.

The average length of education time per student has seen 115% increase.

Americans in 2016 compared to Americans in 1966, on average, live 30% longer, make more than twice as much money, and have double the years of schooling.

How about worldwide? How’s everyone else doing?

Pollution is less than half of what it was just 25 years ago, even with the growing economies of the East.

Within the last 30 years extreme poverty has been cut in half. Predications state that by 2030, such poverty will be non-existent.

Homicide, due to violent crime, war, and human atrocities, has been decreasing steadily, and is at an all time low. Even with the two World Wars of the 20th century, and the never-ending fertilizer factory that is the Middle East.

The list of amazing achievements and real progress, goes on and on. From hunger, to education, to quality of life, to safety, the long-term trends are clear – everything has been, and is, improving. There are of course, looming issues that need addressing. Nuclear proliferation and global climate change being two such examples. But taken as a whole, over time, life has been getting better for just about everyone – factually speaking. The old cliché is true, there are two things you can always count on. First, most things are getting better. Second, most people, most of the time, think most things are getting worse.

This reality should give us pause. Just how informed can those who rant hysterically about everything falling apart, really be? And second, what is it exactly that’s been driving this success story of human advancement?

Let me address the second question first. What has been driving this progress?

That answer admits to multiple factors, two of the largest being free market economics, and our long-standing institutions. And it is those institutions that Frum was speaking to on Maher’s show.

What was it about a tiny Island of English speaking people, which allowed them to become a dominant world power? What was it about the British Empire that made them so successful? If I were forced to sum it up in two words, the answer I would give is – their institutions. Their legal system, beginning with the Magna Carta. Their economic system, which was captured on paper by Adam Smith. Their system of government. Their military system, most especially, their Navy. Their education system, which, at its most elite levels, still remains premier. Institutions – organized structures that built upon the work of previous generations to advance the field. That is in large part, what made England great.

Those institutions gather together qualified individuals for a common purpose. Those professionals then reach consensus with the professionals of other fields, a process that is rarely pretty, and progress, slow as it may seem in a given moment, but impressive as it always is in its aggregate, is made.

That requires people devoted to law. Yes, we need attorneys. It also requires people devoted to trade, banking, education, science, agriculture, engineering, medicine, law enforcement, national security, journalism, and even, regulation. Yes, we need bureaucracies. Just as we need entrepreneurs.

Earlier in the show when Maher interviewed the President, he tried asking a slightly classier version of his ‘aren’t a lot of Americans just dumb’ hypothesis. The President’s answer was that most Americans are just busy working at their jobs, taking care of their families, and paying their bills. They don’t have time to get into the minutia on a subject like Syria, or the latest international Trade bill. And he’s right. That’s why, David Frum explained, we have to be able to trust our institutions. Institutions, which, for the most part, are filled with dedicated specialists who are authorities within their own field. When those institutions themselves are no longer respected, there is nowhere for that active and employed average American, who is busy dropping off the kids at football practice, paying the electric bill, and taking care of grandma, to turn to for counsel. And demagogues of all flavors, swoop in.

My attitude on a lot of things related to public policy softened quite a few years ago when I realized that the easiest thing in the world to do is criticize longstanding institutions you are unqualified to participate in. Problems that have been with us for extended periods, are problems that are by definition, hard to solve. Those kinds of problems don’t admit to simplistic answers. Even if we find such answers comforting. They require study, focus, compromise, and time. They require scholars and veterans from within the field. Men and women who are willing to devote their careers to that particular sub-set of human endeavor. And those men and women require a certain authority, and deserve a certain amount of respect. That authority and respect, afforded to them by the population at large, let’s them get on with their work. The work that’s made all of our lives better – the reason we live longer, safer, healthier, wealthier lives.

When Jill Stein, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Naomi Wolf, Mark Levin, Donald Trump, the cashier at WholeFoods, and the former hippie and now neo-Marxist professor at your local community college start talking about “rigged systems” and the pernicious nature of the “establishment”, what they certainly don’t recognize is that the real threat to human progress isn’t the perpetually out of focus, like every photo of bigfoot you’ve ever seen, caricature of the thing labeled frequently as ‘Them’ – big-media, big-business, big-agriculture, big-pharma, and the rotary club; what’s truly dangerous is their attitude. An attitude that says rather than buckling down and learning, rather than doing the hard work required to pursue a real education in the field, rather than rendering myself qualified to become a peer within this subject and then entering into the arena and engaging in the conversation in a meaningful and important way – I’m going to declare the whole thing corrupt, and lobby to burn it all down to the ground. And while I disagree with Bill Maher on many things, I think he’s better than that.

I don’t ever want to see someone like Alex Jones sitting across the stage from someone like David Brooks. It is beneath Brooks, and it is beneath us – us being every thoughtful American. The tin foil hat crowd doesn’t get a seat at the adult table because they’re unqualified to offer anything that’s not impoverished by comparison with those educated in the topic. They dumb down the discourse. They confuse the already uninformed. They slow progress. They self-righteously lower the tone of the entire conversation, and in the process perform a great disservice to those people who lack the time to gain expertise in a subject because they’re busy taking care of their own lives and making this Nation run. I don’t ever want to see a man like Donald J Trump sitting behind the desk a man like George Herbert Walker Bush once occupied, for the same reason I don’t want to see a witchdoctor in my hospital room alongside my neurologist after I’ve had a stroke. And if you think I’m exaggerating the disparity in maturity and expertise between the two men with such a comparison, you don’t understand the complexity or gravity of that office.

We need to hold the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the major network newscasts, our mainstream columnists and journalists, and our academic experts and scholars, to high standards. And we need to hold our politicians to the same scrutiny of character that we do our doctors, judges, teachers, and engineers. But, we also need to recognize that we would be fools to believe that having professionals who serve in these fields, who belong to bar associations, who mingle with each other at gatherings, and who’ve devoted their lives and careers to a complicated and nuanced specialties, yes, including the specialty known as politics – is anything other than good.

The massive improvements we human beings have made within the last several centuries hasn’t come about as a result of our purchasing callow utopian policies sprung forth from the mind of idealistic thinkers incapable of distinguishing the perfect from the better. We don’t live longer and have more because every few generations we set fire to our establishment and begin from scratch. Abject poverty and ignorance are our natural state – and we must never forget that it is the very institutions, so derided by the low-priced thinkers on both sides, that helped us climb out of it.

As to the questions I began this essay with – is it true that things have become more corrupt than before, that our system is failing us, that the Nation is in decline?

No, not by any measurable standard.

We lost 620,000 Americans in the civil war. We defeated the global threat of fascism. We faced down what was rightly called the Evil Empire in a cold war, and we survived a constitutional crises brought about by President Nixon. There will always be problems. And lots of people will always believe their generation has been dealt a worse hand than the one that came before. And they will, as they’ve always been, be wrong.

When America has lost all confidence in its longstanding institutions, when the professional establishments, which have produced the progress, are no longer afforded respect, when there are no Walter Cronkites left – that’s when we need to worry. But given the fact that the type of people, of every generation, who profit in conspiracy theories, pessimism, cynicism, anti-intellectualism, utopian idealism, black and white thinking, and uninformed opinion – rarely have the maturity, work ethic, or IQ required to reach positions of responsibility within relevant institutions – I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it.

Let’s hope next Tuesday, November 8th, I’m not proven wrong.