Bai on the lack of shared experience
Thanks to Ian Donnis’ “Tip Sheet” (a daily read for me), I read Matt Bai’s latest column discussing “the fractiousness of our modern society” and how, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, it’s “impossible now for any one moment to transform the national debate.” This is because, according to Bai:
There is very little shared experience in the nation now; there are only competing versions of the experience, consumed in such a way as to confirm whatever preconceptions you already have, rather than to make you reflect on them.
I wholeheartedly agree, and Bai proves his point, though in a way I don’t think he intended. For nearly all of Bai’s examples of past “transformational moments” seem to have resulted in an outcome that can be seen as empathetic with the mores and ideology of the left side of the political spectrum (see examples in extended entry).
Bai makes the point that our fractious society has different ways of interpreting the same event. It’s nothing new to say that this is largely due to our multi-track method of information consumption, whether it be news, TV shows, music, or whatever. American Culture is no longer as monolithic as it once was (though it never was as monolithic as we think)–more choices mean less cultural common ground. Perhaps sports teams are one of the few remaining cross-cultural tribe builders left, but those are only regional, not national “uniters” (with the exception of Red Sox nation, of course!). Regardless, part of Bai’s agida can be chalked up to the lessening import of what we scurrilous bloggers call the MSM and its ability to define the culture as much as it once did.
Here are Bai’s examples.
…the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building by union activists in 1910, which provoked a national debate on workers’ rights. In the aftermath, President William Howard Taft created a national commission to investigate tensions in the workplace, and many of its reforms, including the eight-hour workday, were eventually adopted.
Union terrorists (that’s what it would be called today) essentially help their cause. Violence is successful…and transformative!
Senator Joseph McCarthy testified before a Senate subcommittee in what came to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.
The interrogation of McCarthy by Joseph Welch, an Army lawyer — “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” — resonated throughout a country that was just then discovering the nascent power of television. Years of ruinous disagreement over the threat of internal Communism seemed to dissipate almost overnight.
Anti-communist witch hunts end. Never mind that it turns out there were actually internal communist threats.
There was a brief time, after 168 people were killed in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, when it seemed that all the extremism on the right had been deflated. But the impact of the blast receded so quickly from memory that Michael Kazin, a Georgetown historian, says a lot of his students today had never heard of it.
Bill Clinton tried to blame Rush Limbaugh et al. The country didn’t buy it (a la Tucson). Bai doesn’t really specify what he would consider “extremism on the right.” Is it just extremist, criminal bombers or does he follow the Clinton line from 1995?
The collapse of the World Trade Center towers had immediate and significant consequences for the nation’s foreign policy, but any sense of common purpose had more or less vanished by the next year’s elections, when Republicans slammed their Democratic opponents —including Max Cleland, a man who lost three of his limbs fighting in Vietnam — as insufficiently patriotic.
Now it’s getting too obvious. Yes, some Republicans did go too far re:Cleland. But that surely isn’t the only example. Though inexcusable, the egregious attack on Cleland was in response to his own rank partisanship over Bush’s foreign policy. Bai is leaving out all of the Democrats who flip-flopped, claimed “Bush lied” and played politics when it came to the wars in the aftermath of 9/11. It wasn’t a one way street.
As I said, I don’t think Bai intended for the majority of his examples to skew one way. But they did and that proves his point.