Pretend you have just landed in the United States from another planet. You look around you at the various institutions you encounter. What conclusions would you draw about the inhabitants of this society?
With a few notable exceptions, you find newspapers and electronic news outlets focused on the trivial and sensational. When you ask those who produce them, they tell you that they are giving people what they want—and in the era of the Internet, they can count the clicks. You conclude that sports and sex are very important to these earthlings.
After some investigation, you also conclude that the majority of Americans view their governing institutions as just another kind of sport. They choose a team, and support the members of that team, who tell them what they want to hear—that the other team is cheating, that inconvenient facts aren’t true and that simple slogans hold the answers to complex problems.
Surely, you think, religion will be different. Religion, after all, was the way humans first tried to grapple with the serious questions: why are we here? What do we owe the others with whom we share this planet? What does it mean to be a good person? What, for that matter, is good, and what is evil? Although you do find many thoughtful religious figures grappling with those existential themes, you find many more whose message is exclusionary, authoritarian and small-minded—who insist that their Truth is superior, and even those who disagree must be forced to live by it.
I could stretch this exercise further. Our alien visitor could examine the behavior of the financial institutions that caused the Great Recession, and consider what that behavior suggests about the culture in which they operate. Or the visitor could look at Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and speculate about the audiences they serve.
But here’s the point: We the People are that culture and that audience.
We are the ones following the celebrity scandal while ignoring reports on our government and society. We are the ones electing the buffoons who scorn science and evidence and elevate partisanship over both. We are the ones using religion as an excuse to demean and disadvantage our fellow-citizens. We are the ones conferring elevated status on “successful” operators who make a lot of money by buying lawmakers and fleecing the gullible.
My make-believe alien visitors would be entirely justified in concluding that we are being poorly served by our media, our government, and significant segments of our religious and business communities. But they would also be right to conclude that we are getting the institutions we deserve.
Pogo was right: We have met the enemy and he is us.