2013 — The Ugly, The Bad and The Good

It’s late morning of the last day of 2013 as I make my contribution to the year’s summary. I’m doing Sergio Leone’s iconic title backwards because I want to end on an up note.  Not an optimist by nature, I nevertheless understand our aversion to pessimistic assessments.

The Ugly

Has to be the roll-out of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the PPACA, “Obamacare”.  Whether you consider Obamacare to be a Good thing, as I do, or a Bad thing, as apparently almost all Republicans and most Americans do, it is difficult for any of us to assert with a straight face that its roll-out hasn’t been Ugly.  And we’re not talking John C. Reilly lovable-ugly.  We’re talking 1986-remake-of-The-Fly, late-stage-Brundlefly ugly.

This roll-out has been ugly in the truest sense of the term: a pastiche of mismatched elements, an agglomeration of discordant bits and pieces, a whole that is not merely less than the sum of its parts, but essentially different.  For those of us who see Obamacare as the bare minimum that a civilized nation ought to do for its people, the roll-out has been particularly ugly for its exacerbation of the already-ugly segment of our society.  It has empowered anti-care elements in Congress and elsewhere.  It has allowed anti-government factions to point and say, “See.  We told you government doesn’t work.”

I don’t have the expertise to understand why the roll-out was so ugly or how it could have, should have, been made less so, or even made beautiful.  But I do know that its likely visage should have anticipated the anti-government reaction.  Its midwives should have been more clearly aware of the world into which Obamacare would be born, a world in which people learn little and remember less.

Which brings us to . . .

The Bad

To my admittedly jaundiced eye, 2013 seems like a year during which we got dumber.  I use “dumber” here in an idiosyncratic sense:  more faith/feeling-based, less fact-based.  In retrospect, it seems that there was at least one well-publicized, powerfully fact-deprived “factual” statement made every day.  A typical example is the October 8 Fox News report that President Obama had “offered to pay out of his own pocket” to keep a Muslim museum open during the government shutdown.  This was merely one of the year’s spoof stories generated by a satirical website and then reported by Fox as “news” and it is a typical example because it derives from a pervasive, generalized ignorance in our culture and instantiates the divisive effect of the absence of any common ground of fact that we share as a society.

It almost doesn’t matter whether the Fox News producers believed the story and published it as apparent truth or were indifferent to its truth but attracted to its Obama-as-Other quality or knew it was false but knew also that their target audience will eagerly consume anything anti-Obama.  While only a few short years ago “My strong belief trumps your indisputable fact” was a cute, if snarky, punchline, in 2013 that statement is an unignorable cultural truth.  Assertions are no longer judged against any factual/logical standard, but by their source.  If the source of an assertion is apparently affiliated with your belief tribe, it will probably be received as true.  This probability increases markedly if the subject assertion disparages/denigrates/devalues an opposing belief tribe or any of its members.

This cultural condition is Bad because at a deep level it prevents effective beneficial collective action.  Representations about our shared world are believed or disbelieved according to this tribal assessment rather than upon any analysis of effect, either personal or national.  The existence and danger of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), for example, are accepted or rejected based upon tribal identification, not upon the burgeoning scientific evidence.  And a tribal rejection of ACC, being fact-independent, is also largely fact-impervious.  Thus, additional facts that challenge this rejection are either ignored or themselves rejected.

An obvious effect of this cultural condition is the difficulty it imposes on collective action for the benefit of the nation as a whole.  If you participate in a tribal rejection of ACC , you are unlikely to authorize any cost of responding to ACC.  If your tribe denies the benefits of a national healthcare scheme, you will likely oppose such a scheme without analyzing how that scheme would affect you personally.  If your tribe holds sexual orientation to be “a lifestyle choice” rather than an effect of brain organization, you may happily stigmatize those of homosexual orientation without confronting the essential anti-humanness of such a posture and the extent to which that posture toxifies the wider culture in which your tribe exists.

This continuing dumbing-down now appears to me to have a clear political component.  For our 2012 50th high school reunion, a classmate and I created and administered a rather comprehensive survey seeking, among other things, information on attitudes, beliefs and values held by class members.  An analysis of the results revealed that a classmate’s anti-science beliefs, which I interpret as a bias against the fact-based and toward the faith-based, correlated not with any level or variety of religiosity, but with a specific political party identification:  Republicanism.

This 2012 finding, from our small and self-selected sample, was supported in the spring of this year, 2013, by a Pew survey of adults in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Analysis of the Pew survey revealed that the percentage of Democrats who accept that humans have evolved over time, as opposed to believing that we’ve existed in our present form since the beginning of time, increased from 64% in 2009 to 67% in 2013, but the percentage of Republicans who accept the truth of that evolution decreased during that time from 54% to 43%.

It is bad enough that we seem to be growing more ignorant about the world.  It is worse, truly The Bad, when one of our two national political parties is increasingly identified with that ignorance, whether by enabling, validation or outright championing.

The Good

At the dinner event during that high school reunion, on Labor Day 2012, I gave a brief oral summary of parts of the survey results to the assembled classmates and their spouses. During that talk I railed against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and happily, perhaps even triumphantly, noted the extent to which the survey revealed that even in our “old” demographic, people who graduated high school 50 years earlier, there was substantial acceptance of non-standard gender expressions and relationships, including gay marriage. I closed that part of the talk with this conclusion:  “In technical terms, folks, the Queer Train has left the station.”

But even I am surprised by how prescient that comment was, how rapidly that Train accelerated during the following year, 2013:  among other stations on the Train’s route during this year, the Supreme Court found DOMA to be unconstitutional in June,  the number of marriage-equality U.S. states more than doubled and  the percentage of people living in states that recognize gay marriage increased from c. 14% to more than 38%. While the Train still has a long way to go to reach the LGBT Promised Land of Full Equality, and while there will undoubtedly be increasingly frantic attempts to block the Train and reverse its course, it now seems to me that its momentum is too great to disrupt.

So that’s my Good for 2013 — not my somewhat tortured metaphor, but the clear humanistic turn in this nation toward LGBT equality.  In my more hopeful moments, I see the Good in 2014 as a contagion of that humanism, a spreading of that sense of our human commonality, an emphasis on our similarities rather than our differences during these few brief years we share.

ARC – 12/31/2013

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