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Thomas Adcock: Crackpots, Cretins & Crooks

Crackpots, Cretins & Crooks

The New American Élite

‘Principiis obsta’ … ‘Finem respice’

by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2021 – Thomas Adcock

NEW YORK CITY, near America

Mine is not the only country where huge chunks of the population are irreversibly obtuse. But in the bleakest hours of life in the United States, on days when the proudly witless say and do things more witless than usual, it seems that way, causing me to ask: How on Earth must the rest of the world regard America as anything more than a continent full of crackpots and cretins, and the crooks and con artists who profit from imbecility?

That I find company in moments of misery is cold comfort.

“I fear our great nation is careening toward [a] descent into lip-blubbering, self-destructive idiocy,” wrote Eugene Robinson a few weeks ago in his column for the Washington Post. “How did we become, in such alarming measure, so dumb? When did so many of our fellow citizens become full-blown nihilists who deny even the concept of objective reality?”

We know of a classic warning against stupidity from decades ago that echoes today—sound advice from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Prussia-born theologian and influential anti-Nazi activist who was hanged in 1945 at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. Among the last of his writings over the course of his thirty-nine years of life—

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion, in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease.

“Against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplishes anything here; reason falls on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed. In such moments, the stupid person…becomes critical, [pushing aside facts] as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this, the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.

“…[G]reater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again [must] we try to persuade the stupid person with reason, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

Add to this wisdom the notions of Charles Pierce, a Boston-based political blogger, wry newspaper essayist, and author of “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.”

In his book, Mr. Pierce lambastes social media, so-called, the muck from which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk reap billions of dollars annually by providing internet platforms for cranks and criminals, merchants of division and delusion, and nincompoop agents of disinformation. According to the Boston blogger—

“In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. [But] if everybody is an expert, then nobody is. And the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

“Never has a nation so dedicated itself to the proposition that not only should people hold nutty ideas, but they should cultivate them, treasure them, shine them up, and put them right up there on the mantelpiece. This is still the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy. In fact, it’s the only country to enshrine that right in its founding documents.”

Social media is likewise Timothy Snyder’s bête noire. The internationally renowned professor of history at Yale University, author of “On Tyranny,” and recipient of the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding looks unkindly upon Facebook et al., and suggests a modest prescriptive for what ails us—

“The profits that social media make from polarizing us and making us stupid should be turned towards a project to recreate local news in the United States. We need local news, news about people’s lives, to provide a cushion between everyday life and the global.

“[If] people have no idea what is actually happening in their daily lives, then their politics immediately jump to the national or the international or the conspiratorial…even [to] the entirely fictional. That is where we are in America right now.

“We’ve just raised a whole generation of Americans who lack local newspapers. Most of America is now a news desert. You cannot deny people factuality and then blame them for how they act and vote. We need to resuscitate factuality, as a value [and] also as part of daily life.”

Luckily, there are oases in the desert: they are called local newspapers. Here lies hope that springs eternal, for the curious still dwell among us and demand to actually know. Which is to say, Americans of active mind who prefer facts laid out plain, black and white on paper. As opposed to slack-jawed multitudes staring passively at hair-helmeted hosts of TV news “shows” (an honest replacement for what once were “programs”) and multitudes more listening to the inane snarls and rants of talk radio blowhards and taking them seriously.   

Timothy Snyder joins me, I am sure, in celebration of local newspapers still available for illumination rather than obfuscation. Ah, the glorious and punchy and sometimes provocative press! Hurrah for newspapers that stimulate the mind’s eye, even as they smudge the fingers with the honesty of ink!

Hereby, four of my favorites—

The Vineyard Gazette of Edgartown, Massachusetts. Since 1846, the paper’s focus is a string of quaint villages constituting the coastal island of Martha’s Vineyard, which in the modern era has been the summertime playground of the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Obamas, and other stellar folk from afar. (Years ago, I spotted the late Princess Diana emerge from the Chilmark General Store.)

In 1968, the Gazette was purchased as an investment by New York Times star columnist James “Scotty” Reston (1909-1995). Three years later, Mr. Reston embarrassed his employer by threatening to publish what the mighty Times balked at releasing: top-secret documents revealing outrageous government lies pertaining to the Vietnam War, lies that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Scotty Reston threatened further to publish a sidebar detailing the spineless hesitations of his New York editors—which forced the Times, with far greater journalistic resources than the Gazette, to go full-bore on a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé of shameful governmental conduct.

Thus did a local newspaper shake the world.

The Carmel Pine Cone of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. During his two-year term as mayor of Carmel, the paper was movie star Clint Eastwood’s soap box for salty commentary on civic matters. He objected, for instance, to the zoning board’s “Gestapo approach” to curbing auxiliary kitchens in private homes. Mayor Eastwood was a perfect fit for the ethos of Carmel, which sports a perpetual, evenly matched tug-of-war between permit seekers and permit keepers. Thus the boast of current Pine Cone publisher Paul Miller: “The paper never wants for muck to rake.”

The East Hampton Star of East Hampton, New York. In what was then a hardscrabble whaling village at the far end of skinny Long Island, more than a hundred miles (161 km) from Manhattan, the local newspaper debuted at the worst possible time—the day after Christmas 1885. As future publisher Everett Rattray noted, it was a “rock bottom date for newspapering, [wherein] the crustiest of curmudgeons find it difficult to pen a letter to the editor, and advertisers are exhausted after the holiday sprint.”

Yet the Star still shines today, per its motto.

Current editor David Rattray curates the local lore. When asked about the flavor of his town, editor Rattray fondly recalls his great-grandfather’s memory of an East Hampton boyhood: “Everybody was fishy. Wasn’t a boy I knew wouldn’t rather be a whaleman than president of the United States.”

The Jackson Hole Daily of Jackson, Wyoming. A newcomer to my personal pantheon of community journalism, the Daily added to the rich history of competitive regional newspapering in the West with its inaugural edition in 1979.

Vivid prose is the forté, prose that gives readers a near tangible sense of Jackson’s place among the towering Grand Teton mountains.

The headlines are snappy, too, appealing to my own alliterative aesthetic. Read the opening paragraphs of an article titled “Lion Lunch Lures Lookers,” by reporter Mike Koshmrl, then curse me for cutting you short—

   Jason Wilmot was one of the lucky few posted up at Maverik Station
Wednesday afternoon who wasn’t having his first brush with a
mountain lion.
As a Bridger-Teton National Forest staff biologist and outdoorsman
…he has encountered a handful of big cats on foot over the years.
“I probably spend too much time in the trees,” Wilmot said.
Moments later, a cougar that had been lounging under a juniper tree
on the hill across the street perked up…Even the binocular-wielding
biologist who had seen this show before was excited.
„Here it comes, here it comes!” Wilmot said. It’s moving.
Onlookers were stoked…

Local newspapers of audacity and blood-on-the-page style draw their readers into fraternity, a useful foundation for confidence and individual purpose. Staffers commit errors now and then; they are only human. But more often than not, they carry out the two noblest tenets of journalism: fairness by way of well-sourced and tested facts; a promise to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

People who read local papers are not easily deceived by the larger world or persuaded by the puerile at home and from afar. They know where they’re from, a useful grounding for steps along the path to where they’re going.

Meanwhile, as we are warned by Herr Bonhoeffer and others of our own time, The Stupid remain in place as an unreading force especially dangerous as America creeps further toward fascism.

They are easily boiled to rage, the dim folks. Encouraged to sneer at intelligent folks, they are easily bamboozled by charlatans, easily swayed by racism, easily driven to conspiracies peddled as palliatives for the confusion not really knowing—or caring to know.

In November 2016, dim folks were easily convinced that a charismatic flimflammer would vindicate their personal grievances, never mind that he picked their pockets. From that mistake forward, they were easily recruited by the swindling strongman and his adjutants to sign up for duty in the ignorant armies of ersatz patriotism and un-Christian Christianity.

Thus, a new American élite—the “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton rightly noted. Cranks and cretins and crooks marching to the tune of the oddly coiffed Lord Donald J. Trump, a man with the stubborn courage of his limitations; a man who believes that if he shouts a lie loudly enough it must, therefore, be true.

Many among the Cult of Trump believe their man is a Heaven-sent blessing on America, many believe that his middle initial stands for Jesus. I devoutly wish I was engaging in hyperbole here, or at least sarcasm. But alas, in reporting these sorry facts I understate a madness that grips my country.

The madness was launched in New York on an otherwise pleasant afternoon in June when the homegrown Donald Trump, a boy from the déclassé borough of Queens with a grudge against the Manhattan mandarins who shun him to this day, declared himself a candidate for president in the election of 2016. All sentient New Yorkers dismissed the announcement as merely another of The Donald’s all-too-familiar stunts to gain media attention; after all, the gala announcement featured an audience of paid actors to applaud his every word. Or perhaps it was simply another grift since running for America’s highest office can be lucrative if one plays one’s crooked cards right; in this way, the lying lout from Queens is an accomplished card sharp.   

On announcement day, Mr. Trump, a veteran of racial bigotry, presented himself as the scourge of “rapists” and “criminals,” a/k/a Spanish-speakers people from south of the U.S. border – brown people in mortal danger seeking refuge in los Estados Unidos, which touts itself as a proud nation of (white) immigrants. The eventual Trump White House did not improve on the tone.

Come this year, madness reached an apogee (I hope) on January 6, when Lord Trump’s colossal ego could no longer tolerate the fact that Joe Biden handily crushed his reëlection bid on November 3, 2020. With only weeks to go in the White House, and unable to rid the clang of “President Biden” banging in his head, the Ousted One launched the Big Lie: the election was “rigged.”

At a raucous outdoor gathering in Washington, Mr. Trump shouted his Big Lie over and over, louder and louder. As the second of his impeachments concluded, Donald Trump incited thousands of his street-brawling admirers clad in body armor to commence violent insurrection at the citadel of U.S. democracy, the Capitol building. The purpose: invade the halls of Congress, where elected members were meeting that day to certify President Biden’s election and overturn the 2020 vote with the fascist force of clubs and fists.

The attempted coup d’état—during which Mr. Trump’s Sturmtruppen threatened to murder Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi—resulted in five deaths, one hundred forty hospitalized police officers, and more than $30 million (€25.77 million) in property damage and extra security expense, according to a congressional assessment.

More than seven hundred Trump thugsarrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their crimes of January 6 await disposition before the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, charged with felonies that could see some of them imprisoned for decades.

The lying loser is undeterred. The “real insurrection happened on Election Day [2020],” he declared a few days ago. The attempted coup d’état of January 6, he added, was “a day of protesting the fake election results.”

Professor Snyder is worried. “A failed coup,” he has been saying for a while now, “is a trial run for a successful coup.”

A nation in the throes of “lip-blubbering, self-destructive idiocy,” as Eugene Robinson pegs us—a polity that would believe Donald Trump, let alone vote for him—is well prepared for preposterous politics.

Since the first of the year, politicians in state and federal office who count themselves as Mr. Trump’s most ardent loyalists have flooded internet websites with stupidity that has won the fierce faith of an unholy number of their constituents. A favorite topic is Covid-19, and vaccines prevent agonizing deaths. Or do they, ask The Stupid and the self-ordained experts, and these holders of public trust (among all too many others)—  

Ken Weyler, chairman of the New Hampshire State Legislature Finance Committee, is principal author of the “Vaccine Death Report.” Within its breathless fifty-two pages, the report stated that “unnamed, octopus-like creatures are being injected into millions of children worldwide.”

Dr. Ryan Cole, a pathologist in Boise, Idaho, was appointed in September to the state’s Central District Board of Health. A popular speaker on the rightwing media circuit, Dr. Cole calls the injection of Covid-19 vaccines “needle rape.” He advocates an alternative treatment: ivermectin, the paste used by veterinarians to kill worms that crawl into the anuses of horses and pigs.

Michael Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former national security advisor to Mr. Trump, claims that covid vaccines are being secretly injected into commercial salad dressings as a hush-hush method of inoculating the masses.

• Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, along with Congressman Andy Biggs of Arizona are in discussions about launching a new commercial airline that will not require passengers to wear facemasks proven to ameliorate covid’s spread.

Lora Reinbold, an anti-vaccine/anti-mask legislator from Alaska has been struck with covid. She issued this bit of cheerful bravery from her hospital bed: “It’s my turn to battle covid…Game on!” Eschewing her doctors’ advice, Ms. Reinbold holds to a self-treatment of raw garlic, Vick’s cough syrup, a vibrator lain across her chest to loosen phlegm, and fruit popsicles.

We may be entertained by The Stupid. But clownish as they are, we must be mindful of where their foolery has led us. We must not forget what happened to us in January 2021. We must give serious thought to the prospect of destruction ahead should the Cult of Trump mount another presidential campaign in 2024, as most all pundits predict.

We must cultivate intelligence, unsafe though it is in benighted times, and fact. We must read and heed the history of another great nation infected by fascism, a nation whose people once laughed at stiff-armed, oddly coiffed martinet—at first.

The American journalist Milton Sanford Mayer (1908-1986) wrote principally for The Progressive magazine, begun as a local news magazine in Wisconsin with a leftist perspective. Later, Mr. Mayer authored the seminal wartime history “They Thought They Were Free: the Germans, 1933-45.” Included in his book is the author’s interview with a German university professor whom he bluntly asked, “How could you guys have let this happen?”

The professor’s response—

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had the occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day, it is over his head.”

More than a half-century has passed since my schoolboy Latin class days. I was struck at the time in learning of two great maxims, which somehow I knew to hold as important memory: Principiis obsta and Finem respice—“Resist the beginnings” and “Consider the end.”

Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag

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