It’s no one thing, just the drip drip drip of inaccuracies and misrepresentations, the hatred of the poor and the darkly pigmented, the lust to punish people who can’t fight back.
This retro thinking and hateful speech pops up in surprising places—even, I can attest, at New York dinner parties—but it can most reliably be found on cable “news” shows, where the hosts seem to think what’s happening in this country is a sporting event and they’re Charles Barkley and the guests either have no clue what the facts are or don’t give a damn.
“One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet,” J.M. Coetzee has his protagonist say in Disgrace. Coetzee was writing about post-apartheid South Africa. But for tens of millions of Americans, that’s a fair description of how it is here right now.
How do you live with yourself when you click on a web site or read a pundit’s column or turn on a “news” show and find yourself exposed yet again to hatred and stupidity and raw prejudice delivered so slickly it almost sounds like reasonable opinion?
If you’re like me, you armor yourself by keeping very busy. And so my day is a long and satisfying sprint. Do. Accomplish. Facilitate. Help. Give.
Then, two rooms away, I hear the television on and my wife screaming, and I know she’s not watching a horror movie.
Screaming at the screen isn’t my style. Flight is. Memory of better times is. When I feel like I’m drowning in lies and distortions and the astonishing lack of compassion for those who missed the brass ring, I think back to a time when someone said words that cut through the fog.
Like Robert Kennedy, at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Kansas, on March 18, 1968.
Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.
Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them.
It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.
It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets.
It counts Whitman’s rifle [In 1966, Charles Whitman killed 16 people and wounded 32 in Austin, Texas] and Speck’s knife [In 1966, Richard Speck raped and killed 8 student nurses in Chicago], and the television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.
It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Why do those words thrill me?
Maybe because there’s no call to action here. Kennedy’s not advocating legislation. Or pointing a finger for political gain. He’s raising a concern. Sharing a thought. Asking a question.
Jesse Kornbluth is is a New York-based writer and editor of HeadButler.com, a cultural concierge site he launched in 2004. As a magazine journalist, he has been a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, New York and Architectural Digest. As an author, his books include Airborne: The Triumph and Struggle of Michael Jordan; Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken and Pre-Pop Warhol. As a screenwriter, he has written for Robert De Niro, Paul Newman and PBS. On the Web, he co-founded Bookreporter.com. From 1997 to 2002, he was Editorial Director of America Online.