Feelings, Faith and Facts: Casey Anthony and the Debt Ceiling Fracas

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The entire Casey Anthony drama pretty much escaped my attention until this past Tuesday (July 5).  Well, if you were trying to catch any cable news during the past few weeks, you couldn’t be completely oblivious to the fact that a Bad Girl was on trial for killing her young child – one channel appeared to be covering this trial 24/7 (and at some point I heard a media pundit describe trial coverage as “ratings gold”) – but I knew none of the details.  When all news outlets informed me that the case had gone to the jury, though, I realized I was interested in the popular reaction to the verdict, whatever it might be.  I was beginning to realize that I had been missing a pop cultural phenomenon and, as is often true of those, I didn’t get it.

The jury came back on Tuesday while I was en route to my fitness club.  By the time I turned on the TV on my stationary bike, almost every news channel was covering the aftermath of the verdict.  This was precisely what I was interested in:  what story would now coalesce; what position[s] would the channels take; how would the event be packaged?  The initial reaction was almost pure emotion.  Commentators and trial groupies alike were “shocked,” “stunned,” “outraged.”  It appeared that the twelve jurors – the verdict was unanimous – were about the only folks around who thought that the Bad Girl was Not Guilty of the charged felonies.  Indeed, hand-lettered signs among those gathered at the courthouse declared that the jurors themselves were “Guilty of Murder” and pleaded, “Arrest the Jury”.

While the reverberations continue even now, over the few days since the verdict some themes have emerged:  the prosecutors had “overcharged”; the jurors were beguiled by “the CSI Effect” [1]; the jurors didn’t understand the “reasonable” in “reasonable doubt”.  What was generally agreed, though, was that we had suffered “a miscarriage of justice” – a mom murdered her toddler, threw her in the swamp to rot and got off scot-free.

Sure, there were always a few commentators, often defense attorneys, who noted the presumption of innocence and opined that the verdict showed us that “the jury system worked”, but the prevailing and strongly-voiced opinion, in the punditocracy and among the lay interviewees, was that our legal system had given us a wrong result.  Many shudderingly recalled the O. J. Simpson verdict to calibrate their sense of betrayal and loss. [2]

Why would we feel like this?  We have this carefully crafted process – tested, tweaked, re-tested, modified, appealed, altered, endlessly examined – to divide the Guilty from the Not Guilty.  Why wasn’t the typical reaction a puzzled: “Huh? I really thought they’d at least find her guilty of manslaughter.”  Why the deeply emotional, deeply personal “outrage”?

The present Debt Ceiling Fracas presents a similar puzzle and I faced the same sort of bewilderment here.  Don’t all Responsible Adults (including those we elect to govern our nation) agree that it is always bad to default on one’s debts; that even bankruptcy, while it may be necessary, is at least distasteful and surely injurious to one’s status and reputation; that Upstanding Persons pay up even when it hurts?  Isn’t this the mercantile version of the Golden Rule?  Wouldn’t we expect “conservatives” to champion the honoring of debts and “liberals” to try to wiggle out of them to suit their own flexible moral codes and situational ethics, rather than the other way around?  Why then the apparent GOP willingness to put the nation in default?  And even if this is only an elaborate negotiating bluff, a game of chicken, don’t they know that sometimes the bluff is called, that sometimes nobody chickens out?

Both of these public events suggest something important about our people and our culture.  It is true for all of us that the subjective, internal world each of us inhabits is, in a powerful sense, more immediate, more real than the external, objective world in which we interact with each other.  My feelings can never be accurately and fully communicated to anyone else – even if I am the most brilliant of poets – yet they are more “me” than the aggregate of all the words I use, such as in this piece, to express all of my ideas.

In the face of this truth of human nature, there is a national need to sublimate these powerful subjective realities for the greater objective good.  Some things that feel wrong for me are right for all of us collectively.  Even if this particular verdict feels bad to me, it is important for all of us that I accept and validate the jury system and its results.  Even if some government spending just feels wrong to me personally, the debt ceiling should be raised so that the nation – all of us collectively – can honor its legitimate debts.

These priorities now seem to have shifted.  There does not seem to be any predominate consensus that public matters must be viewed from a public perspective, not a personal one.  Subjective reactions have moved from sideshows to center stage.

“How does that make you feel?” has gone from a punch line to a national obsession.  If your personal feelings are deep, they are now publicly important, perhaps of paramount importance.  Whether they are appropriate in any wider sense will not be questioned.  They will not be recalibrated.  Their rightness will be presumed and never challenged.  Feelings, and the beliefs that represent them, have achieved an almost sacred quality:  if we have deep ones, we are to be congratulated, venerated even.

Something in the culture has permitted this public primacy of personal feelings.  What is this something?  Round up the usual suspects – less “public” elementary and secondary education and less objective, scientific education of any variety; more and more media that conflate fact and opinion, empirical data and unsupported beliefs; the ongoing replacement of civic values and standards with tribal ones; widespread substitution of derision and mere rejection of opposing ideas for criticism and analysis of them; open and pervasive hostility to intellectual rigor as “elitist” and suspicious – the collective effect of which is a lowest-common-denominator emotional egalitarianism that says, “My opinion is as good as yours” or, more wittily, “My strongly held belief trumps your hard fact.”

One result of this cult of personal feeling is a narrower perspective, a confusion of public and private interests.  There no longer seems to be any space between personal beliefs and national values.  If it feels right to me, it must be right for the country.  It seems no longer possible to say, “I don’t particularly like you, but by golly, I see your point here.”  There is no “point” that is separate from my feelings.  If your stated beliefs suggest that your feelings are different from mine, then you are simply wrong.

So the more-or-less uninformed beliefs, the feelings, of onlookers at the Casey Anthony trial are at least equal to the decision of people laboriously selected to hear and see and evaluate all of the gathered evidence, itself constrained by carefully crafted rules.  And the feelings of a minority of our nationally elected representatives – whatever they are:  that welfare is immoral, that we shouldn’t have a Black Man in the White House, that taxation is theft, that the United States is supernaturally superior to all other nation-states and therefore immune to global economic effects – have the same validity as the informed opinions of those who are aware of and understand the economic facts and processes that govern outcomes.  And the previously unthinkable – default by the United States – becomes possible.

ARC – 7/11/11

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[1]  “Put simply, the CSI effect is short-hand for the enhanced expectations jurors have for forensic evidence — and corresponding disregard for circumstantial evidence — as a result of watching crime and punishment shows on television.” (“Casey Anthony and the ‘CSI Effect’”, by  David FrenchThe Corner, National Review Online, July 5, 2011.

[2]  Although to their credit, I never heard a pundit call the Bad Girl “Mama Juice,” or the paraphrase “Mama Juice is loose!”, so perhaps that’s progress.

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