The Stupid Decade, and how it happened

Well, I just used up my last free read on The Atlantic — if I were to take out one more subscription, it might be that one, but I’ve really been overdoing it, so I’m holding myself back — and the piece was worth it.

One of y’all — was it Barry? — brought it to my attention the other day, and I just got around to reading the rest of it. The headline is, “WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID.”

Which they have, as we all know. Or at least, all of us who were adults long enough before the last 10 years that we can tell the difference. If we were around that long, and really, truly paying attention, we know that a lot of really crazy stuff went down before the past 10 years, as a sort of a warmup, but we can tell that these last few have truly been stupid and yes, uniquely so.

Here’s a key bit that sort of sets up the piece. I include the subhed because always like to pat people on the back for citing Yeats. That poem has been profound since it was written, but more and more now the human race is living like we’re determined to act it out fully:

Things Fall Apart

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009….

Yep, you see where it’s headed, right? We’re getting back to the Rabbit Hole.

And each time someone explores the Hole more thoroughly, I nod a little more, as it becomes clearer that this explains so much of what had been puzzling me since 2016.

You know that book I keep talking about, Sapiens? This piece makes similar observations, such as the fact that before all this stupidity, human history could be largely summed up by saying, “there is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales.” Yep, there was. But this piece is about how things suddenly — extremely suddenly — went wrong.

I was rereading Sapiens a bit more today, and suddenly realized that Harari didn’t realize that this megatrend had hit a major snag. That’s because his book was written in 2011 (and came out in English in 2014). So the unique stupidity hadn’t kicked in yet. In fact, Jonathan Haidt, the author of this piece in The Atlantic, considers 2011 sort of the arguable “high point of techno-democratic optimism.” Then things fell apart.

Anyway, if you’re already with me on the whole Rabbit Hole thing, you don’t need to read all of this to be convinced — although you might enjoy it.

But I know some of you aren’t convinced yet, so I urge you to read the whole thing. Yeah, it’s more than 8,000 words, but as newsroom wags used to say about an overly long piece, it reads like 7,000….

31 thoughts on “The Stupid Decade, and how it happened

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    See how I told you about something complicated and kept it short?

    I’m trying to do that, so I’ll write more often. Stop myself from getting carried away.

    Like with the subscriptions. I’d like to subscribe to The Atlantic, but I’m already subscribing to:
    The State
    The Washington Post
    The New York Times
    The Wall Street Journal
    The New Yorker
    America
    and… I think that’s all for print at the moment. Never mind other media, such as:
    Netflix
    Prime
    BritBox
    Apple +
    Disney +
    and so forth.

    I just realized. If I stopped all this subscribing, maybe I could stop working…

    Reply
  2. Ken

    Read it about the time it appeared. Found some bits interesting, but overall didn’t find it very revelatory. So I wasn’t persuaded that the author had put his finger on the core of our problem. Societies have faced breakdowns in the past without the “rabbit hole” playing any part in it. Social media serve, at most, as a catalyst. They are a means, not the cause. The underlying cause they mobilize and militarize lies elsewhere.

    Reply
    1. bud

      Exactly. As long as we have 10s of millions of people willing to accept that a man and his sons built a huge boat and float around on flood water with thousands of animals on board for half a year then you have a willing population who can be convinced of pretty much anything. I think the Rush Limbaugh talk radio phenomenon tapped into this gullibility long before social media was a thing. It took several decades to bring it to a head. Fox News also aided this movement. But fundamentalist church goers have already been brainwashed into a willingness to accept someone like Trump. Social media only played a minor roll.

      But even if Brad is right, that begs the question of what to do about it? Brad are you suggesting some type of legislative solution? Or perhaps a public service campaign to educate folks? Not exactly sure what actions we can really take that aren’t worse than the so called “problem”.

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The solution is for us to pay attention to the positions people take and evaluate them on their merits. Not according to whether they call themselves “Christians” or “democratic socialists” or whatever. If we could just get the labels out of the way and talk policy without the distraction, the world would be a better place.

        Reply
        1. Ken

          Labels aren’t a distraction. You, for instance, label yourself a defender of the “vital center” of American politics. On the other hand, this site hosts a Caskey for the State House banner – apparently an endorsement. Yet, during this most recent legislative session alone, Caskey has not only voted for but sponsored

          – the Second Amendment Protection Act to exclude all firearms, accessories and ammo from federal regulation
          – an open carry bill
          – a so-called “Constitutional Carry” bill
          – a bill calling for the convening of a Constitutional convention to impose balanced budget requirements
          – a bill expanding stand-your-ground protections
          – a bill redirecting public funds to religious or private schools
          – a bill prohibiting requiring first responders to be vaccinated for Covid
          – the anti-trans “Save Women’s Sports Act”

          And he has voted for, among other things,
          – H. 3126, a ban on vaccine mandates
          – H. 5183, restricting the teaching of history; mandating the view that nobody is actually responsible for anything in history (Section D)
          – further restriction on public health’s capacity to counter future epidemics and pandemics by declaring church services essential services that cannot be curtailed
          None of these positions could be described as part of a “vital center” in American politics.

          So you may want to describe (i.e. label) yourself differently. Or else admit that what you advocate and what you endorse do not jibe.

          Reply
          1. Doug Ross

            Today, Micah Caskey cast a vote to kill the medical marijuana bill that should have passed.

            Brad – you are taking money from a guy who doesn’t care about the health and well being of many people in pain in this state. He’s another gutless wonder in the state legislature.

            Reply
            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Sometimes Micah does things I wouldn’t do. You know why? Because he’s not me.

              But I’m not at all sure the vote Doug mentions is one of them. I’m not sure how I would have voted on that. I haven’t even read the bill, much less engaged in debate over it. So I don’t know. That’s an issue that’s very important to Doug. It never has been to me — although I’m glad it helped Doug decide to support us in 2018. (James and Mandy believed in medical cannabis. As I’ve said many times, I’m not entirely convinced.)

              Reply
              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                By the way, as we all know, that’s Tom Davis’ bill.

                I like Tom. I have great respect for Tom (and if I’d had the duty to vote on that bill, I’d have had a long conversation with him before deciding).

                I also like and respect Micah. But again, it doesn’t mean I always agree with him.

                However, I probably agree with him more often than I do with Tom. He and I part ways on a LOT of things…

                Reply
                1. Barry

                  The bill is a no brainer and shouldn’t be watered down as much as it is.

                  No one needs to talk to Tom Davis. Anyone paying attention to this issue knows he’s answered 5000 questions about this bill numerous times. If someone needs to talk to him more, they aren’t paying any attention to the issue at all.

                  I pray, I really do- you or one of your loved ones never finds themselves in a situation where they are in awful pain 24 hours a day and need something that has excellent ability to help ease their suffering.

                  People, like you Brad, support all sorts of awful medications that are fully legal, that don’t help, and are deadly addictive while ignoring something that has a high capacity to help- that isn’t nearly as dangerous as the things being used already.

                  It’s illogical.

                  We know folks like Micah don’t care. He’s proven it. I won’t describe my thoughts on him because it will cause me to get kicked off.

                  Reply
                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    “I pray, I really do- you or one of your loved ones never finds themselves in a situation where they are in awful pain 24 hours a day and need something that has excellent ability to help ease their suffering.”

                    Wow, that’s so kind of you.

                    Perhaps it will please you that we have had suffering in my family. Including mourning for one family member who was destroyed by drugs — legal ones, illegal ones, addictive ones, “nonaddictive” ones… So I, personally, take a very deliberate approach to legalizing additional drugs.

                    I hear a lot of people — like my friend James Smith — who are convinced that cannabis has helped friends of theirs when other things didn’t help. I’m impressed with that, although it’s rather anecdotal.

                    I just haven’t seen enough convincing evidence that it really is an essential thing that needs to be added to the legal pharmacopoeia.

                    I’m not against it. I’m just not for it. If I were an elected representative voting on such a bill, I would, as I said, go to Tom and ask me to help him see it his way. Maybe I’d come to agree with him; maybe I wouldn’t. I don’t know until I have that experience.

                    In the meantime, since I don’t have that responsibility, I don’t have a black-and-white view on the matter. And I’m not obliged to automatically adopt your view, just to keep you from despising me and wishing horrible suffering upon my loved ones…

                    Reply
              2. Doug Ross

                He voted on a procedural issue to kill it after months of committee work, debate, etc. A last minute rigging by the “leaders”.

                He got in line like a good little Republican party lemming. They played the politics game like the soulless ghouls that they are.

                Enjoy the beers you can buy with his funding. Your intoxicants are fine.

                Reply
                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  The “rigging” being the requirement — in the state constitution, I believe — that bills that raise taxes have to start in the House. I think that’s what you’re referring to.

                  By the way, I haven’t had a beer or any other drink of alcohol since 2020. No big deal or anything I want to brag about. I just thought I’d set you straight on that, if on nothing else…

                  Reply
                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Oh, wait! To be perfectly accurate…

                    When I went to the dinner after the Bernardin lecture on Feb. 28, wine was offered and I decided to have a glass. I took a sip and started coughing… probably my long-COVID thing. A little while later, I took another sip, and started coughing again. Also, I wasn’t crazy about the taste of it. So I didn’t drink any more of it.

                    It’s not that I’ve sworn off or anything. I just haven’t been drinking…

                    Reply
                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I haven’t had to be sure. I haven’t had to vote on it. I haven’t tried to write about it — it just tends to come up when some of y’all mention it.

                  This world is full of things that a lot of people think we HAVE TO have fully-formed opinions about. I don’t always agree.

                  I could have a fully-formed opinion on this one if I spent a LOT of time on it. Perhaps I will sometime. In the meantime, I’m not a bad guy for being honest with you and telling you I just don’t know for sure…

                  Reply
                  1. Doug Ross

                    What a cop-out. You have no general knowledge of the issues related to medical marijuana? You can’t hear doctors and patients say it helps and then say “well, I need to understand the whole issue first”. Are you completely unaware that marijuana i(not just medical) is legal in many states already and civilization hasn’t collapsed?

                    The case against approving medical marijuana should require more than some law enforcement agencies who benefit from it being illegal via asset forfeiture saying they don’t want it and moralists who think its the path to destruction. If you don’t want to use it, don’t.

                    There is PLENTY of evidence that supports legalization… South Carolina politicians are just sticking to their typical “we don’t care how y’all do it up north” idiocy.

                    Reply
                    1. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Actually, Doug, a cop-out would be to tell myself, “Damn, I’d better get on board with this thing so everybody stops yelling at me about it.”

                      But that wouldn’t be honest.

                      I know that you have a very, VERY strong view on this. And I’ve never given you a hard time about it. Perhaps you can try really hard to return the favor.

                      I lack your libertarian fervor. I always will, I assure you. It’s probably the main difference between us. But you know, it takes all kinds to make a world…

      2. Fritz

        I don’t see any solutions offered by your comments, just projection, and the argument of exclusion of “The Other”. I don’t think there is anyone more gullible then someone who still believes that Communism is a viable socioeconomic system, or even worse that the Chinese Communist Party regime is anything to admire, yet there are people whom believe both. There are also those that believe in the infallibility of an elite of government technocrats, regardless of how inept, or corrupt, they actually are in practice.

        Reply
        1. Barry

          “There are also those that believe in the infallibility of an elite of government technocrats, regardless of how inept, or corrupt, they actually are in practice.”

          Are you talking about the Chinese or American government?

          Please clarify because it was in no way clear with your description.

          Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        “Nobody who matters cares about 1/6 any more.”

        Well, then, we’re doomed.

        I find myself reacting that way to a number of things I’ve seen written on the blog the last couple of days…

        Reply
      2. Barry

        I notice you ignored that the GOP nominee makes a habit of posting hate speech on white nationalists sites.

        I don’t blame you since there is no excuse.

        At least we have Doug’s ok for democrats to break into the capitol and injure police officers since it’s no big deal to him.

        I hope he is as kind when it happens again to someone he doesn’t like.

        Reply
  3. Doug Ross

    We all still cheering the Biden economy? I recall some real high praise about the stock market and 401ks not too long ago. Just a minor blip this week as interest rates keep ratcheting upward… right? This reminds me of 2008 when John McCain kept saying the economy was fine during the debates with Obama.

    Democrats can only use the Roe v Wade smokescreen for awhile before they’ll have to address the economy before the midterms. We’re heading toward a huge reversal of the Senate and House majorities in less than six months. Too bad Joe didn’t try and do any of the big things he said he would…

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I am absolutely cheering the Biden economy, to the extent that I ever cheer an economy, with or without a president’s name attached to it. I am cheering it now exactly as much as I was cheering it last year. Which of course means not at all.

      But I’m definitely cheering for Joe Biden. I wish he’d shut up on the abortion thing, but he’s my boy. No doubt about it.

      Reply
    2. Barry

      I am tickled that I am buying investments much cheaper than I was a year ago. Reducing my dollar cost averaging price point is nothing to feel bad about.

      Reply

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