Two quite different 21st-century Americas are emerging. The nation is not so much divided by “wars” between the rich and poor, men and women, or white and non-white. Instead, there is the world of reality versus that of triviality.
In the vast plains of the Dakotas and the American West, thousands of men and women of all classes and colors are fracking oil and gas to create new energy for millions of homeowners and commuters — while giving America a second chance at strategic energy independence.
As we sleep, 7,000 miles away there are still thousands of American soldiers of all races, ages, classes, and genders in godforsaken conditions fighting the Taliban to allow millions in Afghanistan the chance for an alternative to medieval theocracy and to deter terrorists.
Meanwhile, back home, the nation is focused not on such existential struggles but is transfixed by racial melodramas.
At the end of two years of near-record drought in California, the fate of hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated farmlands, which feed millions of Americans and earn billions of dollars in critical foreign exchange, hinges on a snow-filled winter in the Sierra Nevada. You might never know of that razor’s edge from the state legislature. Rather than discussing new dams and canals, it debated whether transgendered youth in public schools could use the bathrooms of their choice and whether residents should need a permit to buy ammunition.
The historic role of government is changing before our eyes. President Obama is making the argument that the executive branch by presidential fiat can pick and choose which laws should and should not be faithfully executed — whether Obamacare, immigration amnesties, or No Child Left Behind statutes.
The fate of the entire concept of voluntary tax compliance is currently endangered by the politicization of the Internal Revenue Service. Whether the government can monitor the communications of either reporters or average citizens depends on getting to the bottom of the National Security Agency and Justice Department/Associated Press scandals.
Instead, the media seem more interested in whether Obama is playing golf on Martha’s Vineyard.
Why is the country consumed by the trivial while snoozing through the essential? We have become a nation of instant electronic communications — Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, and the Internet — even as reading and math scores plummet in our schools, and newspapers and magazines go broke. We can communicate information at the speed of light but have trouble finding anything meaningful to send back and forth.
In prior times, writers, directors, and actors endeavored to present television drama characterized by good acting and engaging scripts. Now, it is more profitable and apparently more entertaining just to film pseudo-celebrities talking, eating, and agonizing over the day’s banalities, as with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Yet sometimes we get vicarious pleasure from watching oddballs do what most of us won’t or can’t do. Nineteenth-century-style men who cut timber, mine gold, drive big rigs, and catch fish on the high seas are now the subject of big reality-television hits. Apparently, those who did not go to Ivy League schools or make a pile on Wall Street appear as more genuine Americans — at least in our dreams and fantasies.
Yet part of America’s confusion about what is important and petty begins at the top.
Reggie Love, the erstwhile presidential assistant and “body man” to President Obama, recently reported on the critical moments of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The president apparently was not glued to live video feeds, as the photos from his reelection campaign suggested.
“Most people were like down in the Situation Room,” Love said, “and [the president] was like, ‘I’m not going to be down there, I can’t watch this entire thing.’ So he, myself, Pete Souza, the White House photographer, Marvin [Nicholson], we must have played 15 games of spades.”
The commander-in-chief was playing cards while Navy SEALs risked their lives to kill America’s No. 1 enemy — only later to use photos of himself watching live feeds for his reelection sloganeering: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!”
That pretense sums up the growing void between real and trivial America.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, The Savior Generals, is just out from Bloomsbury Books. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc